Friday intellectual spot 5: 3 Quarks Daily and Dissent

06 Feb

On 3 Quarks Daily recently is an essay that fits neatly with my own strong leaning towards pluralism (not exactly the same as relativism): Being Liberal in a Plural World by Namit Arora. His conclusion:

… Three things come to mind: (1) I would do well to realize that when it comes to values (such as those that inform secularism, social ethics, or human rights), the quest for objectivity is chimerical—I am in the realm of metaphysics and have no recourse to scientific verities. Indeed, even the idea of ‘human dignity’—to which we widely subscribe and upon which is built every edifice of human rights—is nothing but a useful fiction. (2) I should understand that the source of my actions has to be my own liberalism, which includes my own subjective view of our common humanity, the values we share, and the ideas and policies that I think will make the world a better place. (3) I have to take seriously at least what I hold to be the core values of my liberalism, such as a commitment to try and understand others and to modify my opinions in light of new discoveries.

Indeed, the only path open to me as a pluralist and a liberal is to try to persuade others of my subjective values, and to put my weight behind ideas and policies that appeal to my liberalism. Like everyone else, I come into the world, inherit ideas and traditions, project myself in time, and die. Cultures and traditions are not given but made; social values are contingent and agonistic. My liberalism may come to see some things as universally true—for instance, that abuse of power and public trust are universally bad, or that the right to free and fair trials tap into a universal value for justice, and so worth supporting in all contexts. Even if I think a value is not universal today—say euthanasia, basic literacy, or tolerance for consensual adult sex before marriage—I may believe that with effort it can become universal, and the world would be better for it. On other issues like school prayer, labor laws, censorship, or social welfare, I may require a lot more local context before taking a stand. Some other values I may be indifferent to but might (or might not) recognize their importance to others. Imperfect, but that’s all we have: one language game vs. another, though with real human consequences.

Last but not least, I should try to persuade others without being self-righteous or hypocritical. Nor is pomposity, railing at others, or calling them irrational or stupid the best tactic. Better to seduce via exemplary action. Know thy interlocutor. Successful persuasion may require any combination of ordinary human techniques: pleading, arguing, requesting, reasoning, illustrating, cajoling, praising, challenging, respecting, appeasing, sharing facts, bargaining, dining together, and so on. Alongside, I must remain flexible to revise my belief in my values, given new findings. I must also accept that, at times, open confrontation is unavoidable. That’s all there is—my belief in values that I think will lead to a better world, and trying to get others to see it my way on issues I care enough about. A sense of humor always helps.

Brilliant essay!

Over on that fine leftish US magazine Dissent are so many things! Of interest to me especially is China: A Threat to or Threatened by Democracy? by Edward Friedman. 

How can one know whether China will or will not democratize? In general, as Karl Popper showed in The Poverty of Historicism, political futures in even the middle distance are unknowable because of the inherently uncertain and contingent dynamics of politics. Therefore, an analyst should focus on the multiple factors that make different futures more or less likely.

In The Black Swan, Nassim Haleb shows that in the post–Bretton Woods age of unregulated financial globalization, an extraordinary volatility is ever more likely. Thus, practical wisdom suggests a need to hedge against the unknowable and gargantuan risks of sudden booms and busts. Not even the hedge funds know how much to hedge. Unless one can create new international institutions to regulate the new monies created since the dollar floated in 1971 and since new instruments (non-bank banks) were invented in the middle 1980s, the global forces at work will produce unimaginable futures.

The almost impossible problem is how to imagine China’s democratization potential in relation to the out-of-control and unpredictable workings of the new global economy. Are there ways to conceive the issue that might be more fruitful than others?

Despite the conventional wisdom, China is not a market-Leninist system in which the economic imperatives of wealth expansion are in contradiction with the political imperatives of control-oriented, anti-market Leninist institutions. China has already evolved politically into a non-Stalinist authoritarianism. Somewhat similar transitions occurred in nineteenth-century Imperial Germany and Imperial Japan…

Again, a really good essay, informed by a sense of history – which helps a lot.

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Posted by on February 6, 2009 in Chinese and China, faith and philosophy, human rights, intellectual spot


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