Memorandum from the Devil

I couldn’t help but totally enjoy this book review by Allen Leff. Here are probably to many clips, but it is worth reading the whole thing.

BOOK REVIEW

Memorandum

Arthur Allen Leff*

KNOWLEDGE AND POLITICS. By Roberto Mangabeira Unger.

New York: The Free Press. 1975. ix + 336 pages. $12.95.

TO: Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Professor of Law, etc.

FROM: The Devil, etc.

RE: Your Knowledge and Politics

Yes, yes, I know your book ends “Speak,
God,” and that I, therefore,

am the very antithesis of Him whose reply you so
sincerely sought. But

after all, a good part of the book is written, if not
to me, at least against me.

And Knowledge and Politics, despite the
meagreness of mortal or divine

response thus far, is a very important book, certainly
meriting a little

diabolical commentary. So hear me, pending Him.

 

The problem that lies at the heart of your Knowledge
and Politics,
and

must lie at the heart of any book on human action
deserving more than

cursory attention, is this: How does one tell, and
tell about, the difference

between right and wrong? Why ought one-a person or a
society-do any

particular thing rather than any other? How can one
ground any statement

in the form “It is right to do X” in
anything firmer than the quicksand of

bare reiterated assertion? As intellectual puzzles go,
this one is a lulu, and

it is thoroughly to your credit that you do not fudge
it with some “let us

assume” or “who could doubt.” Indeed,
it is not much to your discredit

that your efforts to deal with it so spectacularly
abort, for no one else has

come up with a satisfactory solution, from the
beginning of the world to

the date hereof.

 

Well, what else is there around in the way of ethical
argument these

days? Naturally there is, as there has always been,
that greatest of all

favorites, “It is right to doX because it is
right to do X.” When (as I often

do) I press
people discussing ethics, I eventually get that response from

almost
everyone.
This frequency is, I think,
a partial function of the fact

that the reply can mean several different things. On
the surface, of course,

it is merely an explicit definitional move,
translatable, perhaps, as “Let us

take it that it is right to do X and go on from
there.” That’s fair enough,

but it hardly insulates anX against questioning. After
all, “It is right to do

X because it is right to do X” allows one to
justify anything, merely by

mentioning it twice in the
same sentence.

 

There may

be, as we shall see, inexorable universal laws
governing the conduct of the

world and mankind, but’neither necessity nor
universality amounts to

anything else; what must be, even if it must be
for everyone, is “good” only if

some evaluator so sets things up by defining “the
good” to be “that which

must be for everyone.”

 

To your enormous credit, then, you make even this
critical first move

with limpid clarity, again avoiding all the grotesque
shiftiness of so many

other writers, with their “who could doubt”
and “would it not be absurd to

propose” and similar evasions. But having opted
for “mankind is the

good,” you just couldn’t stand it. It is not hard
to see why. For if human

nature were to be the good, then there was nothing for
you or anyone else to do to change it in any way. Indeed, even as a matter of
scientific curiosity,

there wouldn’t be much call to find out what human
nature was, for

whatever it turned out to be would be what it ought to
be. Now that is a

loathsome idea. Under its reign, a man like you,
rightly appalled at the

world, would, have no role at all.

That was too dreadful a possibility. So you made an
obvious next move,

which was pretty clearly prefigured in those central
affirmations that I

quoted above. The good was not what people were now
but what they were

becoming or could become “ever more
perfectly,” 6 “ever more fully. 7 But

that is obviously not going
to do the trick either.

 

There is no social (or ecological)

setting for human nature a priori more
“natural,” more “authentic,” more

conducive to discovery of “essential”
humanity, than any other. A man in

love is no more or less “genuinely” what he
is than in hate, or in slavery, or

in some more pallid bureaucratic relationship-unless
you so declare it.

And you know it too, don’t you? Or at any rate I found
almost moving

that moment in your book when, realizing where you
were, you recoiled:

Shared values carry weight only in the measure to which
they are not simply products

of dominance. Yet domination and autonomy have no
self-evident meaning. To be

dominated by another is to be subject to his
unjustified power. Thus, to define

domination one must be able to distinguish the
justified and the unjustified forms of

power, and to trace the true limits of autonomy. This
requires judgments that have to

rely to a greater or lesser extent on our established
moral intuitions and practices. 17

That does kind of blow it, doesn’t it? If you are
going to have intuitions

about what kind of power is “justified,” why
not just skip this whole

in-aid-of-epistemology charade and just have
intuitions about what

“good” human nature, or goodness itself,
might be? After all, that is what

you end up doing anyway.

 

Well, well, let me not be cruel. I know at least as
well as you what total

separation from Him can lead to in the way of
self-deception and bad lines.

I tried to replace God with myself, and you tried, as
He appeared unwilling

to come again, to put your faith in some laughable
Second Coming of Man.

No hope. As long as you wanted simultaneously to make
something in the

world-mankind-into the good and still reserve the
right to judge its

goodness, you were doomed. You were trapped in what,
to save time, I

mi1ght call a Godel problem: how to validate the
premises of a system from within itself. “Good,” “right”
and words like that are evaluations. For

evaluations you need an evaluator. Either whatever the
evaluator says is

good is good, or you must find some superior
place to stand to evaluate the

evaluator. But there is no such place in the world to
stand. From the world,

only a man can evaluate a man, and unless some
arbitrary standards are

slipped into the game, all
men, at this, are equal.

 

Or to put it another way, one more congenial, I think,
to both of us, by

dispensing with God we did more than just free
ourselves of some intellectual

anachronism. We also dispensed with the only
intellectually respectable

answer to the ultimate “Why is it right to
doX?” It was not so very long

ago that most people (and I, too) could and did
answer: “It is right to do X

because God says so.” That answer was at least
intelligible, the only one

that did not depend upon mere sublunary assertion, the
only one that even

if it too involved the transformation of fact into
value, was not for that

reason insufficient. For assuming that God existed,
and had commands, it

was He who was evaluating our actions.
He was not part of our evaluation

system, nor were his evaluations subject, or even
amenable, to our evaluations

of them.

 

There are, Professor Unger, not very many
possibilities. In fact, there

are, I think, just two. The first is that mankind is a
species that doesn’t

mean anything
at all, except to itself. There is no evaluator out there. If the

species is or becomes one thing or another, or ceases
to exist altogether,

nothing else cares-except perhaps some other species
which, mostly with

joy, might register the ecological impact of man’s
extinction. You are what

you are, and will become what you will become, and the
goodness or

badness of that being and becoming is for you, and you
alone, to define and

declare. No state of being is more authentic than any
other or, just because

it exists, any better. Oh, it’s not so awful. If being
isn’t meaning, and it

isn’t, meaninglessness isn’t nonbeing either. You and
the species get to

live. It’s just that you have to shape your living,
and its meaning, all alone.

The second possibility is that God exists, and still
cares. My own

opinion is that the Hand that holds you suspended over
my fiery pit doesn’t

abhor you, but has forgotten completely that It has
anything in It. But God may still care, and, if that is so, you have but one
epistemological

problem, to learn the will of God. If there is no God,
everything is

permitted; if there is a God, it’s even more
terrifying, because then some

things are not permitted, and men have got to find out
which are which.

Since He has the right and power to evaluate you, but
no duty to do so, you

are bravely right: you must pray.

But while you try to live as best you can until His revelation, perhaps

you will accept some practical advice from me. Look
around you at your

species, throughout time and all over the world, and
see what men seem to

be like. Okay? Now take this hint from what you have
seen: If He exists,

Me too.

 

 

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About hansston

Pastor a church in Sparta.
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