Cover image for Moral Philosophy After 9/11 By Joseph Margolis

Moral Philosophy After 9/11

Joseph Margolis


$33.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02448-6

168 pages
6" × 9"

Moral Philosophy After 9/11

Joseph Margolis

“Margolis's book is a serious contribution to a new and valuable approach to moral philosophy. Rightly suspicious of approaches that attempt to ground morality in ultimate principles, Margolis seeks a way of understanding morality that heeds the data of the moral experience of individuals and groups of individuals. Focusing on intractable moral disputes, such as the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, Margolis provides a conceptual framework for a mode of moral reasoning that can move toward a modus vivendi, as opposed to a final moral judgment.”


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Were the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks courageous "freedom fighters" or despicable terrorist murderers? These opposing characterizations reveal in extreme form the incompatibility between different moral visions that underlie many conflicts in the world today, conflicts that challenge us to consider how moral disputes may be resolved. Eschewing the resort to universal moral principles favored by traditional Anglo-American analytic philosophy, Joseph Margolis sets out to sketch an alternative approach that accepts the lack of any neutral ground or privileged normative perspective for deciding moral disputes.This "second-best" morality nevertheless aspires to achieve an "objectively" valid resolution through a dialectical procedure of reasoning toward a modus vivendi, an accommodation of prudential interests that are rooted in the customs and practices of the societies in conflict.

In working out this approach, Margolis engages with a wide range of thinkers, from Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel through Nietzsche, Heidegger, Levinas, Rawls, Habermas, MacIntyre, Rorty, and Nussbaum, and his argument is enlivened by reference to many specific moral issues, such as abortion, the control of Kashmir, and the continuing struggle between the Muslim world and the West.

“Margolis's book is a serious contribution to a new and valuable approach to moral philosophy. Rightly suspicious of approaches that attempt to ground morality in ultimate principles, Margolis seeks a way of understanding morality that heeds the data of the moral experience of individuals and groups of individuals. Focusing on intractable moral disputes, such as the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, Margolis provides a conceptual framework for a mode of moral reasoning that can move toward a modus vivendi, as opposed to a final moral judgment.”
“This is a major contribution on many counts to the extant literature on morality and the ethical issues raised by globalization and the subsequent conflict of cultures. Although Margolis may be criticized for formulating a "second-best" morality that embraces values associated with the West's Enlightenment tradition, on his own account he has no alternative starting point. Those whose tradition provides them with a different starting point may balk, but Margolis counts on the fact that the desire to end conflict, violence, death, and destruction may prompt them to engage at least in dialectical discussion. Let us hope that this book will also be read by those most in need of it: those who hold positions of power, privilege, and influence in the West yet fail to see that their very own tradition commits them to the second-best morality that Margolis is formulating.”
“The few details of his account reconstructed here are extracted from a rather more diffuse and free-ranging discussion, which alludes to the success of the argument more often than specifying it. This is perhaps a feature of Margolis’s intention to preserve the freshness with which the argument initially came to him, as he remarks in his preface. Still, there is more genuine freshness here, philosophically speaking, than merely in the lack of labored explication, and for this, the book deserves a recommendation.”

Joseph Margolis is Laura H. Carnell Professor of Philosophy at Temple University. With Penn State Press he has also published What, After All, Is a Work of Art? (1999), Selves and Other Texts: The Case for Cultural Realism (2001), and the co-edited volume The Quarrel Between Invariance and Flux (2001).




1. A Reasonable Morality for Partisans and Ideologues

2. Second-Best Moralities

3. The Moral and the Legal

4. Human Selves and Moral Agents

5. Humanity and Moral Diversity




What follows is a thought-experiment dated, as nearly as I can make out, from the events of 9/11, the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City and the attack on the Pentagon. Those attacks were condemned at once, of course, as gratuitously evil. The whole world was stunned by their technical success; but very few paused to consider their significance philosophically—not so much in terms of what might justify Bin Laden's act (if, indeed, it was his), though the question was raised and instantly dismissed, but more in terms of legitimating our own values in the face of incompatible convictions embedded in an attack that undeniably claimed an entirely different source of validity, however much we might oppose it.

I don't intend to dwell on what would make a good brief for plaintiffs or defendants either way, as if a proper moral court might spring into play with every such confrontation, small or large, seeking an authoritative finding and a redress of grievances. That is indeed the standard—even canonical—response that spontaneous outrage asks us to articulate. But if we take the challenge seriously, we must ask ourselves the deeper question: What are the ultimate grounds for preferring our sources of validity and legitimation to theirs? The answer that I give takes two steps: first, that there are no ultimate or ulterior grounds on which the implied legitimative conflict can be resolved independently of the entrenched convictions of the opposing parties; and yet, second, that it remains entirely possible to move to a resolution—or one resolution among many possible resolutions—reasonably deemed.

I have no doubt that nearly anyone who thinks carefully about what I have just said will feel puzzled or cheated. But I suggest that we have reached a point in history at which the proliferation of contests of the 9/11 sort (just now identified) are so dangerous and destructive and so easy to match in a retaliatory way that the world cannot afford to neglect the chance to work out an answer that is at once coherent, pertinent, responsive, viable, reasonable, effective, practical, apt, possibly even non-standard in the way of tempering the pressure for further such confrontations.

I think my double question is almost never asked—certainly almost never answered in the terms it lays down. For example, if the first step of my argument be granted (to the effect that there are no grounds independent of conflicting practices and conflicting convictions by which to resolve such conflicts in normative terms), then it is futile to suppose that an appeal to universalistic principles could possibly be counted on successfully; and yet, a very large part of Western models of moral objectivity is based on the validity of universal, universalizable, or universalistic norms. Nevertheless, it is my conviction that no departure from my first step's simple constraint can satisfy us now. Furthermore, it comes as a surprise that such a spare postulate could possibly yield as rich a run of theorems as I mean to demonstrate. That would indeed be a useful showing; for, otherwise, moral philosophy can hardly fail to be transparently self-serving. In fact, 9/11 clearly challenges the usual frame of reference of moral/political thinking in an interesting and important way: legal provisions are already in place for its condemnation, of course; but if we view 9/11 at all sympathetically as a political act initially justified (by its champions) in an idiom opposed to the competence and adequacy of American, Western, even UN-oriented categories, it cannot fail to draw attention to the culturally restrictive classifications of every historically evolved system of normative appraisal. It begins to show something of the reasonableness of viewing all such categories as exclusionary in intent Not that that can be avoided, but that every such system may be politically vulnerable (and brittle) in ways that cannot always be anticipated. In fact, in the opinion of many, the American "response" to 9/11—in Afghanistan, Iraq, the entire Middle East, Western Europe, Asia, even in the United States—has actually strengthened the initial plausibility of admitting the original event as, at least in some measure, a form of political resistance against perceived aggression.

I offer two provisional bits of clarification here. For one, if, as I am suggesting, moral justification begins with the historically entrenched practices and convictions of reasonably well-demarcated peoples (without ever being settled there), then it is effectively impossible to suppose that legitimation must take a universalistic form or that it can actually do so in most seriously contested cases: that, according to my postulate, is just what 9/11 signifies. The second draws attention to the present danger of ignoring the small truth just mentioned, which is not itself a moral finding but the upshot of a philosophical assessment of different ways of going at the matter of moral justification. Quite a lot of time has elapsed since 9/11. The principal aggrieved party, the United States, which, on the evidence available, was and is still charged with being a source of grievance and great harm to the peoples championed by the perpetrators of the original attack, has now "retaliated"—by its own lights, justifiably—both in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet it has made no public effort to identify or appraise the possible grievances of the Muslim world that prompted the attack, and it admits it anticipates even more destructive attacks from the same or related sources. I leave the question of the actual validity of the American campaign against Afghanistan and Iraq to one side here, except to note that both must count as innovations in the theory of valid or just war and that the attacking parties have produced a new form of effective international conflict and validative presumption the characteristics of which are not yet entirely clear. We do see how close we are to chaos, however, just at the point of current worries about "terrorism" and "rogue states" and the accessibility of "weapons of mass destruction."

What follows, then, is a fairly ramified sketch of how best to construe moral or moral/political questions, and how to answer such questions within the constraints indicated. The idea is a provocative one, you must admit: I say there are no "independent" sources for resolving moral disputes or conflicts, but also that, nevertheless, the ordinary conceptual resources of the opposed partisans in any such conflict can be made to yield a reasonably "objective" resolution of that conflict. That is, admitting the actual practices and ideologies of such disputants and whatever their disagreement about normative matters may be, there will always be enough that they share, that is not already freighted in normative terms, that would enable us to improvise various pertinent resolutions that could be fairly judged to be objective under the circumstances!

I know of no sustained inquiry of this sort. Usually, engaged philosophical disputants retreat to some form of normative privilege or, by a skeptic's reaction to that extreme, deny that moral disputes are capable of being resolved in any way at all—in the sense of being demonstrably valid or objective in the privileged way. So the possibility I shall tender is meant to be a third way between two completely unacceptable alternatives. That is: simply to take 9/11, as perceived, as something of a new paradigm of sorts; I say it would be too dangerous to give up the effort to characterize the moral world (in which such conflicts arise) as intrinsically incapable of supporting any "objective" resolution at all; and it would be extravagant to abandon the prospect unless there were a demonstrably insuperable barrier against constructing one or another such rationale. Still, it would be preposterous—possibly more dangerous than abandoning the inquiry—to affirm, in the face of 9/11 and at this particular moment in history, that "we are right and they are wrong"! Not in the sense of mere ideological loyalties but in the sense that "right" is on our side, because we possess (and they do not) a proper grasp of the moral norms on which a proper verdict depends; or that it is impossible to defend, objectively, conflicting or incompatible judgments and rationales. In any case, to abandon normative privilege is to abandon the usual grounds on which exclusionary moral/political systems appear, in the eyes of their adherents, to be legitimated.

It takes a considerable wrenching of our speculative habits to call into doubt the established convictions of our world, particularly if one does not intend to deny flat-out (as I do not) that there is a reasonable basis for treating the resolution of moral disputes as entitled to some sort of objective standing. A good case can be made, but there is a price to pay. The kind of objectivity that may be salvaged (in the spirit of the two postulates I offer) will, ineluctably, be seen to be of a logically weak or diminished sort—not for that reason morally negligible but very possibly insufficient for the champions of moral privilege.

What we will find, I suggest, is that any moral objectivity that falls within the space of my third option (that is, between privilege and skepticism) will be logically weak or concessive in the following ways: (a) it will not be possible to defend anything like strict evidentiary parity between scientific and moral truth-claims, along (say) realist lines; (b) moral claims will be of an essentially practical nature, not theoretical; so that it will be acts and practices that are deemed objectively valid, in moral matters, rather than truth-claims and propositions—or truth-claims and propositions primarily; (c) we will have to admit that moral questions arise only under the conditions of the sui generis form of life that human selves exhibit and that, there, objectivity chiefly concerns the defensibility of supporting or reforming our <i>sittlich</i> practices; (d) accordingly, we will be obliged to concede, in conceding the diversity of the <i>Sitten</i> of different historical societies, that moral objectivity cannot be made to yield any uniquely valid resolution of a given moral problem; hence, (e) we will have to concede as well that the validity of moral claims will be unable to ensure the adequacy of a strict bivalent logic, will in fact be forced to admit the viability of objective norms formulated along constructivist, historicist, relativistic, and incommensurabilist lines; and (f) objective resolutions will not be derivable by means of the application of universal or universalized principles, since they will require reference to local <i>Sitten and particular histories and will presuppose that pertinent norms are themselves a feature, or a critical function, of such Sitten. Of course, my tally is much too dense a proposal to be judged on its first appearance: I collect its principal items here only for convenience of reference: I shall return to all of my distinctions in due course.

Nevertheless, the tally identifies the main lines of how I mean to defend the force of the first part of my explanation of what we should mean by "moral objectivity." The rest of the answer provides a whole raft of reasonable strategies for recovering the familiar issues of conventional moral debate, without the advantage (or disadvantage) of falling back to privileged norms of any kind. Surprising though it may be, we learn, for instance, that our speculative resources are hardly diminished in any substantive or logical way by adopting anything close to the tally just given; yet, admitting the nature of practical judgment and commitment, what may then count as morally objective is bound to be much more concessive toward opposed and incompatible resolutions than any standard objectivist or privileged or strictly bivalent treatment would allow.

Hence, if the argument goes through, it will signify the need for a considerable change in our conceptual (and practical) expectations regarding moral resolutions in real-world terms. If so, then moral theory need not be stalemated by the deeply divisive partisan conflicts I have in mind (which, as I say, oblige us to review 9/11 in a fresh way). But there can be no presumption against opposed convictions' playing a part in the objective resolution of moral disputes. To admit their eligibility, despite remaining contraries or incompatibles, would force us to scale back the would-be prescriptive or exclusionary force of moralities that plainly rely on privilege or are ideologies simply bent on extending their hegemony.

In the briefest terms, then, my answer to the first part of the question I've posed leads to the advocacy of a "second-best" morality (as opposed to privileged moralities of any sort); and the answer to the second features the idea that moral resolution is best thought of in terms of a modus vivendi within whose boundaries individual claims and commitments may be convincingly assessed. The result is a conceptual framework that respects (without distortion), actually presses into service, conflicting moral convictions that have undoubted sittlich standing. The resolutions that result possess, I claim, the objective validity of a "second-best" morality. The usual complaint is that, although that is indeed what is needed, it cannot be convincingly worked out. You will have to be the judge of that. But if you risk the speculation, bear in mind that our moral world has changed—or, we are on our way to viewing it in a very different light.

I begin, then, with some intuitions that I cannot and am unwilling to betray. One is bookish and naive: I have always admired the skill with which Plato's elenctic dialogues, including the first two books of the Republic, pursue the norms and virtues of the good life without pretending to know, in advance, how precisely to assess their work correctly. I mean to follow Plato's lead here. Another captures my sense of intellectual fair play: it has always seemed to me that nearly every society is persuaded that it has grasped the moral truth and that those who oppose its vision are benighted; hence, since it is impossible to show that every such society is right, the best conjectures under the circumstances must, somehow, tolerate moral incompatibles and must reject any fixed or merely exclusionary hierarchy of norms. I am wedded to enlarging that kind of tolerance as well. A third intuition I take to be plain common sense: I think we cannot survive (in our very dangerous world) without a widely accepted morality and that what we now need is a proposal, fitted to a globalized world, which tries to isolate those themes that are as close to being the least common (moral) denominators that we can imagine (completely without presumptions of cognitive privilege) and which we may fashion so as to be as tolerant of diverse, even conflicting, normative convictions as we can imagine and support. 9/11 gives this a radical meaning.

The sixteenth century witnessed the first deliberate effort in the West to supersede the doctrinal rivalries of the great religions and the intransigences of local privilege, in the interests of trade and science. The end of the eighteenth century witnessed the attempt to detach the powers of reason from the imprisoning horizons of habituated practice. And the new century (just begun) will, I venture to say, play host to efforts to abandon any universalized theory of normative practice, however locally entrenched, in order to find whatever viable forms of practical tolerance may help us avoid the worst imaginable disasters our technologies may otherwise inflict on us.

We hardly dare suppose we can succeed. Who can possibly say what the "world" will be willing to accept as a "reasonable" proposal for revising all the diverse moral visions that we live with—"in the interests of humanity"? Certainly, we cannot pretend to rely on any privileged faculty (Reason, say) to discern what is common or universal in the moral way; and, certainly, we cannot simply appeal to what "every" rational, humane, neutral, objective, or morally serious voice would "surely" endorse. These are the wrong questions to pursue, just as it is wrong to suppose that our inability to ensure the adoption of whatever we might recommend as "reasonable"—say, by the preponderant part of the human race&—is a sure sign of a merely arbitrary proposal. Under present circumstances, what we offer may be as good as we can get. What we must aim at is a frank invention (among possible inventions) that might, over time, attract sufficient adherents and, doing that, contribute to our sense of the continued relevance and viability of what we actually recommend. But what we advance as "reasonable" can only be shown to be such by dialectical means, within the terms of a second-best morality: it hardly requires or depends on the success with which we manage the educative or "social engineering" problem that moral intransigence forever threatens to stalemate. The replacement of the philosophical questions by the engineering question is not my primary concern, though, as you will see, I mean to reflect on the answer to the first under the cloud of the second.

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