Suspicion: A Dialogue

Antonio: Behold, this is an interesting work of philosophy entitled Foundationalism and the Foundations of Ethics, by one Irfan A. Khawaja. I have been reading this work carefully; it issues a formidable challenge to certain dominant assumptions in contemporary analytic philosophy and offers an intriguing meta-ethical view of its own; I have numerous objections to its positive view, and I believe that its critique of several of the prominent alternatives is unsuccessful at points, but I also think that its criticisms can be strengthened and at least certain elements of its positive view more fully defended. I would like to discuss this work with you fine gentlemen.

Bartolo: Ahh, yes, I have studied this work of which you speak. ‘Tis merely an effort to legitimate an especially noxious breed of selfishness and individualism. Its teems with a neurotic desire for certainty, with a fear of contingency and a childish longing for an external validation for our beliefs and particularly our values, and with adolescent fantasies of independence. It aims to join the comforting belief in moral absolutes eternally grounded in and guaranteed by nature with the narcissistic flatteries of self-indulgence and the belief that one controls one’s own destiny. Most of all it panders to the delusion that morality and self-interest conveniently coincide, that the most moral thing of all is, after all, to pursue one’s ‘true’ self-interest, and that this will work out marvelously for everyone. It is a horrible work, but not without interest; few manage, after all, to combine these ideological fictions in quite the way Khawaja has done.

Antonio: Uh-huh. Have you actually read it?

Bartolo: Of course. I have spent the last year reading hundreds of philosophy dissertations submitted at American Catholic universities between the years 1989 and 2009. I am writing a psycho-ethnography on the subject.

Antonio: Ah, I see. It’s just that, well, none of what you say actually responds to Khawaja’s arguments or even really gets at his theses in a precise way; in fact I’m not even sure it gets many of the theses right. It just categorizes the theses in a pretty general way and then attempts to discredit them by telling a vague psychological story that associates them with things that you dislike.

Charlemagne: I quite agree, good fellows, that Bartolo’s fascination with the psychological is most decidedly out of place in this context. I too have studied Khawaja’s work. The only way to understand it is politically. You have both, I take it, noticed that Khawaja openly associates his work with the pseudo-philosophy of Ayn Rand? Well, consider the ideological purposes of Rand’s work: the glorification of capitalism and the legitimation of an economic, social, and political system that will make the rich richer while depriving the laboring masses of any legal, moral, religious, or artistic means whereby they might assert themselves against this oppressive minority. Khawaja’s work is quite explicitly designed to defend an ethics of the Randian sort; the whole theory serves to buttress the edifice of mystification whereby Rand and her followers would bring about the apotheosis of the most inhumane tendencies of advanced capitalism while eradicating all that is of any redeeming value in it. This has nothing to do with psychology, you see; Khawaja may believe anything he likes, and I’ve no reason to suppose that he is anything but a delightful young chap; though those Randians do tend to be ever so grating. Nor does Rand’s psychology, or the psychology of any of her disciples, make much difference here; we might discover something of interest were we to learn what psychological features make a young person susceptible to Randian propaganda, but it is at any rate abundantly clear that Randians do not understand the real nature of their doctrine. After all, most Randians would wind up as slaves in a Randian paradise, and if they were not themselves mystified by the doctrines and instead saw their true nature, they would not believe them. Individual beliefs have little to do with it; ideology conceals itself. But make no mistake, Khawaja’s philosophical work is poisonous, a cloak of sophistication for Rand’s pernicious ideas. Ah, hello there young lady!

Randi: You guys are all a bunch of idiots. Khawaja’s dissertation is awesome. He sometimes seems not to understand Objectivism properly, but it’s mostly great. You guys are all just a bunch of anti-conceptual second-handers enslaved to altruism by guilt and a weak sense of self.

Antonio: Wow, this is getting out of hand quickly.

Charlemagne: Quite. Who let that filthy Objectivist in?

Bartolo: I did. I wanted to see your reaction.

Antonio: Uhh, well, I don’t think we’re really getting anywhere. I can appreciate that psychology plays little or no essential role in the story you want to tell, Big Chuck, but to be honest I’m not convinced that you really read Khawaja’s dissertation either. You don’t have any more to say about his arguments than Bart did, and your characterization of his theses is even more vague; in fact, you didn’t really say much about his theses at all, you just associated with them Ayn Rand and then talked about how terrible Rand’s ideas are. Even if I take your word for it and believe that you’ve both actually read this dissertation, I don’t think you’ve read it philosophically.

Bartolo: You mean superficially and naively, I think.

Charlemagne: Quite.

Randi: Well, Tony, you didn’t understand it, either.

Antonio: What do you mean?

Randi: You said you have serious objections to it. That’s stupid.

Antonio: Oh, well, I guess we could discuss those…

Randi: No, just tell me what you disagree with and I’ll point you to the relevant pages of OPAR.

Charlemagne: I’m sorry if it will disappoint you, but I’m afraid I haven’t got time for intra-Randian disputes.

Bartolo: Neither do I.

Antonio: Oh, forget about that then. I’m still not satisfied with what either of you have to say about this dissertation. You’re not even engaging with it at all. You read it in a way that precludes the very possibility that it could change your mind about epistemology or meta-ethics, let alone about normative ethics. My complaint certainly isn’t that you disagree with it —

Randi: Mine is!

Antonio: — but that you don’t offer anything in the way of reasons to disagree with it.

Charlemagne: Well, if you want reasons to believe that capitalism is a terrible thing and that only the triumph of true socialism will liberate human beings to cultivate their authentic freedom, I can offer you a reading list. There are books that I have read that contain reasons to believe these things, and Khawaja’s dissertation is totally incompatible with these things. There’s no point in pretending to be neutral and rehearsing all the arguments against Khawaja; that’s a waste of time when ideology critique offers to do so much more to advance the cause of liberation.

Bartolo: Oh, you’re one of those

Antonio: You don’t think that you would do more to advance the cause of liberation by actually showing that Khawaja is wrong because this or that argument makes this or that mistake, or that this or that thesis has such-and-such unacceptable consequence?

Charlemagne: It’s already clear that the consequences are unacceptable, so no.

Bartolo: I would say the same thing, though our reasons for thinking so seem to be somewhat different…

Antonio: Hold up, I don’t want the two of you to get into a contest to see who can more plausibly unmask the other.

Randi: I would win!

Antonio: You might, actually. But I’m not interested in that sort of thing. I don’t care what Khawaja’s motives are, or anything else about his psychology. I also don’t care whether or not he happens to agree with Ayn Rand, and I don’t think that the effects that his views might have if they were widely adopted are much of a guide to their truth or justifiability. I’ll grant you that if Khawaja’s views justified inhumanely oppressive social practices, that would count against his views —

Randi: I wouldn’t! I knew you were an altruist, Tony. I wondered how long it would take you to invoke Kantian universalizability or some other nonsense.

Antonio: — but you haven’t actually shown that they do any such thing, or even tried to show that they do any such thing.

Charlemagne: There are books for that, too. I cite them in my footnotes.

Diane: Excuse me, pardon the interruption, but I couldn’t help but overhear that you’re discussing Irfan Khawaja. I am currently in the midst of a fully researched biography of Professor Khawaja. I can assure you, Antonio, that neither of these gentlemen can offer any insight into Khawaja’s work that they cannot offer into almost anyone’s work, or into the cultural poetics of the designs on coffee cups. They appeal to grand psychological, cultural, or political theories, but they know virtually nothing about the concrete facts of the man’s life and his work. I have spent countless hours engaged in meticulous research, and I dare say that I know more about Khawaja than anyone alive, perhaps including himself. When I finish my book about his life and character, I’m sure it will help you understand the psychological, cultural, and political influences on his work far more than the theoretical drivel that these two have to offer.

Antonio: I don’t doubt it, and I’m sure it would be an interesting book, since he seems like an interesting guy. But I don’t think it would make a whole lot of difference to my understanding of what he says in Foundationalism and the Foundations of Ethics. It might be cool if he has some additional things to say about those topics or even about the work itself, but the stuff about his life and character and the social and political context in which he’s worked won’t help me understand what his objections to the method of reflective equilibrium in ethics are, for example, and certainly won’t help me determine whether they’re good objections. I keep thinking they’re not decisive objections, but I’m not so sure. That was the kind of thing I was hoping to talk about, but instead these guys went in for reducing Khawaja’s work to psychology or politics.

Bartolo: Ha, reflective equilibrium! Just a device whereby sophisticated intellectuals rationalize their prejudices.

Charlemagne: I was thinking just the same thing just now!

Antonio: Funny, that’s not all that different from what Khawaja says about it.

Charlemagne: Well, you know, broken clocks and all that.

Antonio: But what about his arguments against it? What do you think in particular about the claim that it is incompatible with moral realism?

Bartolo: Moral realism! Ha!

Charlemagne: I’m afraid I really don’t go in for this sort of hairsplitting minutiae. I’ll be off.

Bartolo: Yes, by the time we’ve started discussing moral realism, if there’s not a great deal of alcohol involved, it’s really past time for departure.

Antonio: Oh well. I guess I’ll have to find somebody else who has read FFE to talk to about it. I suppose if I believed the stuff that you two believe, I might not find your approach to it so objectionable. But then, I might. It seems dangerous to reach such a point of conviction in some theory or other that you just explain its rivals away in terms of that theory rather than engaging with them. I mean, anybody can do that; the tricks you guys learned from Nietzsche and Marx are really just variations on a maneuver that certain sorts of Christians have made and still make, and I doubt they invented it. It’s just that when Christians read works of philosophy and try to discredit them by talking about the sinful character of their authors and the anti-Christian aims of the work, hardly anybody takes them seriously, whereas the same strategy with an edgy Marxist or Nietzschean veneer can get your book published with Oxford University Press.

Charlemagne: Oh, don’t get me started about OUP.

Bartolo: Why not? I intend to publish with OUP.

Randi: Yeah, Chuck, you should consider OUP, I bet they’d be happy to purvey your socialist trash.

Charlemagne: Ha! They are capitalists of the most shameless sort.

Bartolo: I think we’d better stop this conversation before it begins.

Diane: It’s far too familiar, yes.

Charlemagne: Ok, fine. I’m going.

Bartolo: I’m already gone!

Antonio: Well, that was pretty pointless. I shouldn’t have even bothered; I’d have done better to just sit here and read Khawaja’s arguments against reflective equilibrium again.

Diane: They are quite interesting, I admit. Not as interesting as Khawaja’s childhood, however.

Randi: Wait, Diane, have you read Atlas Shrugged?

7 thoughts on “Suspicion: A Dialogue

  1. Three reactions: (a) well done and quite funny, (b) perhaps you have too much time on your hands, (c) I’ve read F&FE (probably commented on draft portions of it) and would gladly discuss Irfan’s arguments against the method of reflective equilibrium (etc.) with you, David, here on the blog or via email…


    • Oh, I don’t have too much time on my hands; I just spend the time I have inefficiently. As you can see, however, I didn’t spend that much time on this. I don’t, unfortunately, have a lot of time to discuss reflective equilibrium (and especially not Irfan’s views about it, since those are tied up with his own alternative, which I haven’t studied carefully enough, which would take more time, which…). I do, however, have time to caricature the sorts of interpretive approaches that I regard as wastes of time. Why I don’t regard it as a waste of time to caricature them, I’m not sure. I should stop wasting my time.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s