Tag Archives: justice

Rorty on Threats vs. Offers

This passage from Richard Rorty’s Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism resonates with some of the posts I’ve written about orders vs. requests, consultation and non-coercive practices, and what we are doing (or what we should do) when we ask someone to do something. It seems even more relevant now than when the lectures included in this book were delivered (in the 1990s), especially that last paragraph.

…[T]he only notion of rationality we need, at least in moral and social philosophy, is that of a situation in which people do not say “your own current interests dictate that you agree to our proposal” but rather “your own central beliefs, the ones which are central to your own moral identity, suggest that you should agree to our proposal.” …To appeal to interests rather than beliefs is to urge a modus vivendi. Such an appeal is exemplified by the speech of the Athenian ambassadors to the unfortunate Melians, as reported by Thucydides. To appeal to your enduring beliefs as well as to your current interests is to suggest that what gives you your present moral identity—your thick and resonant complex of beliefs—may make it possible for you to develop a new, supplementary moral identity. It is to suggest that what makes you loyal to a smaller group may give you reason to cooperate in constructing a larger group, a group to which you may in time become equally loyal, or perhaps even more loyal. The difference between the absence and the presence of rationality, on this account, is the difference between a threat and an offer—the offer of a new moral identity and thus a new and larger loyalty, a loyalty to a group formed by an unforced agreement between smaller groups.

…any unforced agreement between individuals and groups about what to do creates a form of community, and will, with luck, be the initial stage in expanding the circles of those whom each party to the agreement had previously taken to be “people like ourselves.” The opposition between rational argument and fellow feeling thus begins to dissolve. For fellow feeling may, and often does, arise from the realization that the people whom one thought one might have to go to war with, use force on, are, in Rawls’s sense, “reasonable.” They are, it turns out, enough like us to see the point of compromising differences in order to live in peace, and of abiding by the agreement that has been hammered out. They are, to some degree at least, trustworthy….

If we cease to think of reason as a source of authority, and think of it simply as the process of reaching agreement by persuasion, then the standard Platonic and Kantian dichotomy of reason and feeling begins to fade away. That dichotomy can be replaced by a continuum of degrees of overlap of beliefs and desires. When people whose beliefs and desires do not overlap very much disagree, they tend to think of each other as crazy, or, more politely, as irrational. When there is considerable overlap, on the other hand, they may agree to differ, and regard each other as the sort of people one can live with—and eventually, perhaps, the sort one can be friends with, intermarry with, and so on. To advise people to be rational is, on the view I am offering, simply to suggest that somewhere among their shared beliefs and desires there may be enough resources to permit agreement on how to co-exist without violence. To conclude that somebody is irredeemably irrational is not to realize that she is not making proper use of her God-given faculties. It is rather to realize that she does not seem to share enough relevant beliefs and desires with us to make possible fruitful conversation about the issue in dispute. So, we reluctantly conclude, we have to give up on the attempt to get her to enlarge her moral identity, and settle for working out a modus vivendi—one which may involve the threat, or even the use, of force.

Moses Called The First Strike

Cross-posted from my blog at 1913 Massacre:

People from all parts of Europe made their way to Calumet at the end of the nineteenth and the start of the twentieth centuries. The copper-mining town attracted so many immigrants — Germans, Italians, Croatians, Slovenians, Cornish, Irish, Swedes, Norwegians — that it’s sometimes jokingly referred to as “the smelting pot.” Finns would eventually outnumber them all.

Many who came here from Finland to work in the mines and start a new life also brought with them, or quickly became versed in, dangerous ideas. In 1913, Finns were known as agitators, radicals, socialists. They organized in Keweenaw mining communities and in Hancock they published a newspaper called Tyomies, or The Workingman. Even their preachers espoused the social gospel, railing from the pulpit against the unfair treatment and indignities the miners endured, and advocating a more just ordering of society.

Most of the men, women and children killed at Italian Hall on Christmas Eve, 1913 were Finnish-Americans. They were not all agitators and strikers or strikers’ wives and children; in fact, we interviewed people whose families were firmly against the strike and wanted the Western Federation of Miners run out of town, but nevertheless lost children in the mayhem at the Hall. The tragedy cut across the divisions of the strike even as it deepened some of them and created new ones.

A wreath-laying ceremony in Calumet yesterday to honor the Italian Hall dead included a delegation from Finland. The ceremony was part of this year’s FinnFest, an annual celebration of Finnish-American heritage and culture. (1913 Massacre is screening twice at FinnFest.) The Turun Metsankavijat Wind Band played the Finnish and American national anthems along with other, solemn music.


Before the wreaths were laid by David Geisler, Calumet Village President, and Pertti Torstila, Finland’s Secretary of State in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Reverend Robert Langseth delivered an invocation.

Langseth began quietly. He acknowledged each official on stage, then talked about the Finnish preacher who had led his parish during the strike of 1913-1914. After a pause, he thundered out the words of a sermon delivered a century ago:

MOSES called the first strike! Against the Pharoah.

Then he began to elaborate on his social gospel theme. Langseth cited the book of Micah —

What does The Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God.

— and he spoke eloquently and passionately about justice and the need for reconciliation. It was beautiful. People in the crowd were visibly moved and weeping. The ceremony had invited us to mourn and honor the dead. Reverend Langseth was asking us to do even more: to respect and honor each other.