Friday, May 18, 2018

Can A Nazi Be Rational?

Hilary Putnam has long argued that facts and values, or ends and means, cannot be neatly separated. In 1981 he proposed a thought experiment, I assume not to be of contemporary political relevance:

What troubled us earlier was that we did not see how to argue that the hypothetical 'perfectly rational Nazi' had irrational ends. Perhaps the problem is this: that we identified too simply the question of the rationality of the Nazi (as someone who has a world view or views) with the rationality of the Nazi's ends. If there is no end 'in' the Nazi to which we can appeal, then it does seem odd to diagnose the situation by saying 'Karl has irrational goals.' Even if this is part of what we conclude in the end, surely the first thing we to say is that Karl has monstrous goals, not that he has irrational ones.

But the question to look at, if we are going to discuss Karl's rationality at all, is the irrationality of his beliefs and arguments, not his goals.

Suppose, first, that Karl claims Nazi goals are morally right and good (as Nazis, if fact if not in philosophers' examples, generally did). Then, in fact, he will talk rubbish. He will assert all kinds of false 'factual' propositions, e.g., that the democracies are run by a 'Jewish conspiracy'; and he will advance propositions (e.g. that, if one is an 'Aryan', one has a duty to subjugate non-Aryan races to the 'master race') for which he has no good arguments. The notion of a 'good argument' I am appealing to is internal to ordinary moral discourse; but that is the appropriate notion, if the Nazi tries to justify himself within ordinary moral discourse.

Suppose, on the other hand, that the Nazi repudiates ordinary moral notions altogether... I argued that a culture which repudiated ordinary moral notions, or substituted notions derived from a different ideology and moral outlook for them, would lose the ability to describe ordinary interpersonal relations, social events and political events adequately and perspicuously by our present lights. Of course, if the different ideology and moral outlook are superior to our present moral system then this substitution may be good and wise; but if the different ideology and moral outlook are bad, especially if they are warped and monstrous, then the result will be simply an inadequate, unperspicuous, repulsive representation of interpersonal and social facts. Of course, 'inadequate, unperspicuous, repulsive' reflect value judgments; but I have argued that the choice of a conceptual scheme necessarily reflects value judgments, and the choice of a conceptual scheme is what cognitive rationality is all about.

Even if the individual Nazi does not lose the ability to use our present moral descriptive vocabulary, even if he retains the old notions somewhere in head (as some scholars, perhaps, still are familiar with and able to use the medieval notion of 'chivalry'), still these (our present moral descriptive notions such as 'considerate', 'compassionate', 'just', 'fair') will not be notions that he employs in living his life: they will not really figure in his construction of the world.

Again, I wish to emphasize that I am not saying that what is bad about being a Nazi is that it leads one to have warped and irrational beliefs. What is bad about being a Nazi is what it leads you to do. The Nazi is evil and he also has an irrational view of the world. These two facts about the Nazi are connected and interrelated; but that does not mean the Nazi is evil primarily because he has an irrational view of the world in the sense that the irrationality of his world view constitutes the evil. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which we may speak of goals being rational or irrational here, it seems to me: goals which are such that, if one accepts them and pursues them one will be either be led to offer crazy and false arguments for them (if one accepts the task of justifying them within our normal conceptual scheme), or else one will be led to adopt an alternative scheme for representing ordinary moral-descriptive facts (e.g. that someone is compassionate) which is irrational, have a right to be called 'irrational goals'. There is a connection, after all, between employing a rational conceptual scheme in describing and perceiving morally relevant facts and having certain general types of goals as opposed to others.

Hilary Putnam (1981). , Cambridge University Press, pp. 211-214.

But this a thought experiment that takes an obvious consensus for granted. Fascism is bad.

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