The critics of Archimedes

Kwame Anthony Appiah, toward the end of The Ethics of Identity, asks how we (us run-of-the-mill westerners, I suppose) are to think about “illiberal practices that are grounded in local traditions” (p. 248)—practices that we find abhorrent but that are (or are presented as) integral parts of some tradition foreign to our own. He asks this specifically in the context of wondering how we might think about the case of male and female circumcision, taking as a starting point the assumption that male circumcision is, though strange, not inherently illiberal, whereas female circumcision is a paradigm illiberal practice. Considered in isolation, that is, there is no great problem justifying tolerance of male circumcision. But, if we tolerate male circumcision, must we not also tolerate its female counterpart? I do not here care whether Appiah’s assumption is fair. Even if the problem does not arise in this case, it arises in others.

Appiah considers two reasons why one might liberal tolerance of the illiberal practice of female circumcision. One, the “ironism” of Richard Rorty, will not concern me here. What I am interested in is a kind of isolationism about traditions that Appiah considers, according to which our liberal political tradition is “just our local framework; Confucianism and many African traditional religions provide others, each of which is, as they say, ‘equally valid’” (p. 248). On this view, we secure tolerance of what our liberal tradition approves by localizing all critique to within a framework. One framework cannot criticize another. Sometimes this view is defended as the upshot of a larger critique of the very idea of an Archimedean point from which judgment rains down—a point naturally assumed to be occupied by our own, liberal tradition.

Appiah’s criticism of this isolationist move is quite interesting:

It will be no surprise, by now, that I have very little sympathy with this line of approach. It requires us to define hermetically sealed worlds, closed off from one another, within which everyone is trapped into a moral consensus, inaccessible to arguments from outside. It abjures moral universalism from the very Archimedean point it repudiates. And it deals poorly with the reality of internal dissent: what are we to say of the African women who are opposed to infibulation? (p. 248)

There are two complaints here. The first turns the tables on the critic of Archimedes: the isolationist preserves local traditions only by decreeing their mutual incommensurability. And where is this judgment supposed to come from? Where else but an Archimedean point—or at least a point internal to neither framework. After all, from within our liberal tradition it seems perfectly reasonable to criticize traditions that involve female circumcision precisely because such practices are illiberal. And—turnabout is fair play—I suspect that those traditions equally contain the internal resources to criticize us liberals. So this repudiation of external critique is not going to emerge from within either tradition.

The second complaint concerns internal dissent: whatever a local tradition is, it is not the sort of thing that always or ever receives the assent of all those who live within it. Just as it receives criticism from external traditions, so also it suffers criticism from within. It is safe neither from its competitors nor from itself. It is safe only from the supposed critic of Archimedes, and is so precisely because this so-called “critic” is nothing of the sort.

What underlies Appiah’s criticism is recognition that there is no way to cut off conversation between traditions, no way to “hermetically seal” any moral framework. When two frameworks enter into such conversation, the Archimedean point serves as a useful ideal. We do not seek justifications internal to our own framework, but something more general, something beyond our locally inherited values—something that can be recognized as a justification to all parties to the dispute. To assume that we occupy this point already is hubris (and in this regard a dose of Rorty’s—or is it Montaigne’s?—ironism may be beneficial), but to strive for it is just to converse. To reject that any actual framework occupies the Archimedean point is to accept that all are open to criticism from everywhere, from every point actually occupied. The true critic of Archimedes works to open up space for mutual criticism, not to shut it down.


And Appiah, in his discussion of Rorty’s ironism that ensues, goes on to make a similar point to that I arrived at in my reflections above:

Here is a point, in fact, where our philosopher’s disagreement about rationalism makes a difference: for “rationalistic rhetoric” claims that in all encounters human beings are struggling with similar mental apparatus to understand a single world. Not only do I believe, unlike Rorty, that this is just how things are; I believe, despite Rorty, that thinking this way helps in disagreements with others, whether those others are down the street today or across oceans or centuries from ourselves. Rorty supposes that the rationalist is bound to think that “we” are right and “they” are wrong: but if there is one world only, then it is also possible that they might be right. We can learn from each other’s stories only if we share both human capacities and a single world: relativism about either is a reason not to converse but to fall silent. (p. 257)

I should note that following Appiah in abjuring relativism, and doing so for the very reasons he has given, need not commit one to moral realism (it is unclear to me, at least so far, whether Appiah is himself a moral realist). We do not need “right answers” to moral questions (as sanctioned by… the universe??) to debate them fruitfully. (The same is true, perhaps more obviously so, for debates about aesthetic taste.)



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