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  • Humanizing Dialogue, Accrediting Evil: Commending Buber to Rorty1
  • Julius Crump (bio)

Respectively, Martin Buber and Richard Rorty imaginatively account for the philosophy and publicity of dialogue. Rorty’s account imagines dialogue as if the secularization of public political culture is inevitable. Buber’s account imagines a philosophy of dialogue in which religious considerations are unproblematic. Rorty’s repudiation of religion’s political influence results in an unnecessary estimation of the American government’s role in redressing social evils, especially those evils that are the result of the collective action of affiliated agents whose individual intentional choices are not presumed blameworthy.2 Social evils obtain when choices accrue in associations and institutions that cause cruelty on a mass scale.3 The Roman Catholic Church or National Association of Evangelicals’s systemic cover-up of choices by affiliated actors is a social evil. These two agencies sanction social evil. Rorty’s comparative logic bolsters the democratic processes he associates with the American government. He equates the church’s hierarchical procedure with the American government’s egalitarian processes. He then evaluates the processes morally based on the cruelty each is more likely to perpetuate and can be held responsible for so doing. Rorty’s argument rests both on his predictive judgment and a moral consequence thereof. Because a) the moral consequence necessarily follows from the likelihood of the prediction obtaining and b) the hierarchical processes are responsible for the negative moral consequence, Rorty unnecessarily burdens the government with the near-exclusive function of administering justice to eradicate social evils. Hence, Rorty hesitates to offer carte blanche publicity conditions to the governing bodies of political religions. In so doing, he upholds the government as singularly redemptive, particularly of religious institutions that, in his estimation, apportion blame and perpetuate [End Page 46] cruelty. Such institutions sanction social evils if they fail to embrace the supposed inevitability of secularization.

If religious institutions adhere to secular publicity conditions, they agree to participate in public dialogue. From the perspective of religious institutions that consider public dialogue a common good, they would agree to privatize philosophical anthropologies that evaluate individual good and evil actions. Such anthropologies serve as reasons why such institutions publicize their accounts of humanity. Rorty loathes religious agencies and institutions that render judgments on humanity and individual human actions as either “good” or “evil.” Although Buber does not state as much, he would also question such categorical judgments. However, his philosophical anthropology humanizes participants in dialogue by accrediting evil—not just social evil—with an important public role. Buber’s account of good and evil splits the difference, so to speak, between merely blaming or judging humans and holding individuals responsible for the moral consequences of their choices. To redeem Rorty’s redemptive politics, one would need either to statistically validate his predictive judgment or explain cruelty differently. By focusing on the prospects of the latter, Rorty’s redemptive politics would benefit from an explanation of cruelty that complements rather than competes with an account of public dialogue that includes religious considerations. By commending Buber’s understanding of evil as a worthy substitute for Rorty’s description of cruelty and sadism, the contours of a public philosophy of dialogue emerge that is theologically imaginative and broadly interreligious. Such a public philosophy need neither to presume secularization and the moral superiority of the government nor rush to unconditional judgments about the cruel actions done by humans to humans.

I. Governing Redemption

In Achieving Our Country, Rorty claims that “the government of our nation-state will be, for the foreseeable future, the only agent capable of making any real difference in the amount of selfishness and sadism inflicted on Americans.”4 Here, Rorty advocates for a redemptive politics, the likes of which he denies—in name only—in the following claim:

Relativists like myself agree that the collapse of Marxism has helped us see why politics should not try to be redemptive. But that is not because there is another sort of redemption available. . . . It is because redemption [End Page 47] was a bad idea in the first place. Human beings need to be made happier, but they do not need to be redeemed. . . . Redemption is what...


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pp. 46-62
Launched on MUSE
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