Passing Judgement on Public Reason

We live in a world dominated by the discourses of relativism.  This has been on the march since at least since the extremely important developments of modern feminism and the post-colonial perspective. The framing of the social milieu in these ways has been instrumental in putting a stop to senseless exploitation. Where is there a problem? Is there a problem? Aren’t the dialogues of patriarchy and imperialism essential to an egalitarian and peaceful world? They are. Yet problems do arise.

Nihilism is an idea most often attributed for Nietzsche as a consequence of the ‘death of god’, however one chooses to interpret that statement. If anything it is arguable that much of Nietzsche’s writing is not in defense of nihilism but rather seeks its prevention. I don’t have my copy of Beyond Good and Evil handy, but this rather straightforward compilation of Nietzsche’s philosophy (that is, compared to Zarathustra) systematically explains his views on the world and his optimism (or better put, the positive nature of his approach) is evident throughout. The Nietzsche I have come to know through his writing is much different, more cheerful, than the image I took from popular culture.

Fanatics are picturesque, mankind would rather see gestures than listen to reasons.

How does Nietzsche and his position on nihilism relate to relativism? Nihilism, as a complete lack of underlying or enduring truths, is a dangerous conclusion. While cultural relativism has been hugely important to correcting systematic discrimination and in understanding the endless diversity of human expression and experiences, when we take the relativistic argument to its natural conclusion we arguably end up nowhere. Not nowhere as in the same place from where we started, but rather a reference-less, indistinguishable mess of being that can go no where but in circles.

In the twentieth century re-invention of political philosophy, John Rawls, of the American analytic school of philosophy, generated over the course of his life the hierarchical concepts of Justice as Fairness, the Original Position, the Veil of Ignorance and Public Reason. I say hierarchical because we can organize his philosophy in a pyramid, with Justice as Fairness at the base and Public Reason at the top. Of course this sort of reduction downplays the complex dynamic between the concepts, but it is useful because, as I’ll explain soon, Public Reason is impossible without agreement on the underlying concepts.

Now I have obviously made these phrases into proper nouns for a reason, and that is because I am discussing them explicitly as John Rawls framed them. In trying to talk about the abstract, or the ephemeral, it is very easy to get hung up on meanings, on words and their diverse interpretations. For this reason many important philosophers have invented their own vocabularies, especially popular for the Germans, whose language lends itself to compounding and idiosyncratic meaning. So, I by no means pretend to give a complete treatment here of Rawls ideas and a lot more can be gained from the books A Theory of Justice, Political Liberalism and the essays The Idea of Public Reason Revisited and The Law of Peoples. Read on then, at thine own discretion.

When I talk about Public Reason I do wish to mark it as distinct from Rawls, because I take issue with his writings, especially in The Law of Peoples, as he explicitly states that the principles of justice that apply within a people (read:nation) do not apply between nations. In my view (one currently in its infancy and in search of objectivity) Rawls has made concessions to try and bring about lasting peace between nations. This isn’t surprising from a man who grew up in the depression and fought in the Pacific during World War Two.

I believe that Rawls may have been radicalized by the atomic bomb; his views were rather progressive for his era, and he was deeply concerned with matters of justice. I think the error he may have made was in not recognizing that the patriotism that helped end the war was also its primary cause. This is speculation, better left to a biographer.

I am trying here to develop a stance on John Rawls that is worthy of exploration, and also achievable at my undeveloped understanding of history and politics. What I wish to do is express conviction, and formulate it into justifiable concepts that could be reasonably agreed upon by all. This is a simplistic rendition of the exercise of Public Reason. I have yet to touch on the Veil of Ignorance or the Original Position, I believe I’ve touched on them briefly elsewhere in this forum, and they will definitely recieve their due in the argument that will grow from this humble beginning.

In words (though I can’t pretend to fully understand them) I want to unite Rawls complex and very appealing system of Public Reason with philosophical ‘strong’ Cosmopolitanism. What I hearken by this is my own Nietzschean death; that of nationalism. I don’t think this is an unimaginable demise for the tweeting, facebooking, texting (and of course, blogging) youth of today’s global media commons.

‘Strong’ Cosmopolitanism as I mean it can be expressed primarily of a refutation of Rawls double standard. It is the expectation that principles of justice, right and law can be determined that apply equally to all people, of any origin, in any place, and potentially even at any time. It raises the specters of hegemony, loss of culture and autonomy. It hearkens the possibility of global peace, and a world free of unequal distribution of freedoms or resources, and guided by reason.

The task I set for myself is to imagine and explain a cosmopolitan world safe from the threats of complete nihilism and founded on principles of unanimous acceptance. The biggest difficulties will be to construct it in a way that still preserves autonomy and diversity, and that isn’t simply an expression of bourgeoisie patriarchy.


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