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A Moral Guideline for Rorty's Concept of Self-Creation:

Liberalism vs. the Hobbesian Theory of Human Nature
 

William Erwin Phillips, II

 

    The attempt to fuse the public and the private lies behind both Plato's attempt to answer the question "Why is it in one's interest to be just?" and Christianity's claim that perfect self-realization can be attained through service to others.  Such metaphysical or theological attempts to unite a striving for perfection with a sense of community require us to acknowledge a common human nature.  They ask us to believe that what is most important to each of us is what we have in common with others - that the springs of private fulfillment and of human solidarity are the same.

    CIS, xiii

This passage represents the Plato-Kant tradition to which Richard Rorty's book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity is opposed.  In his book Rorty presents a historicist philosophy in which he separates the public sphere of human life from the private sphere.  In the private sphere of our lives we should create ourselves, or more accurately, poetically redescribe ourselves.  But, as it is with all theories of self-creation, Rorty inherits the problem of developing a moral guideline that will prevent one individual's project of self-creation from harming an other's.  In an attempt to provide such a guideline Rorty introduces "liberalism."  He believes that an individual should conduct himself as a "liberal" in the public sphere.  Rorty defines a liberal as one "who believes that cruelty is the worst thing we do" (CIS, 146). A true liberal will feel an obligation not to be cruel to others and will try to increase his sphere of solidarity to encompass as many people as possible.  Rorty believes that a moral guideline will arise from his ironist interpretation of liberalism.  I contend that Rorty's ironist liberalism is incompatible with, and inhibits, his more important project of self-creation.  I intend to show that Rorty's liberalism is incoherent.  In light of this failure of ironist liberalism I will provide a new basis for a moral guideline for self-creation that arises from the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes.  Before I present an alternate "moral guideline" I will lay out Rorty's concept of self-creation and liberalism.

Rorty rejects traditional moral theory because of its reliance on a common human nature or essence.  He defines human essence as being that "something within each of us . . . which resonates to the presence of this same thing in other human beings" (CIS, 189).  Rorty rejects the concept of a common essence shared by all human beings regardless of historical or social context.  Because of his rejection of human nature Rorty argues against "attempts to unite a striving for perfection with a sense of community" because such a synthesis necessarily requires presupposing a common human nature.  That is to say, there is no single response that adequately answers both "How should I live my life?", and "How should I treat others?" that does not depend on metaphysical presuppositions.  In order to avoid such presuppositions, Rorty abandons all attempts to answer these two separate questions with a single answer, but deals with them individually.  He separates the two questions into questions about the public sphere and the private sphere.  The public sphere of one's life is the sphere in which his actions affect the lives of others.  The private sphere is concerned with one's personal desires, beliefs, goals, etc.  William Garland writes, "Rorty puts forth 'self-creation' as his private ideal and 'human solidarity' as his public ideal" (Garland, 1).  Rorty introduces the character of the "liberal ironist" as being the individual most capable of achieving these ideals.  Hollibert E. Phillips defines the liberal ironist as "liberal in virtue of its being a person who thinks that 'cruelty is the worst thing we do,' and ironist because, while accepting the groundlessness of its central beliefs and desires, such a person is sufficiently historicist and nominalist to have abandoned the idea that those beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance" (Phillips, 363).  Rorty believes that the liberal ironist will respond to the question "How should I live my life?" with the answer, "through self-creation."  At the same time he will attempt to find a moral guideline in his liberalism.  I believe, however, that any attempt to ground some moral guideline in the question "How should I treat others?" will inevitably fall back on some claim of a common human essence.  In light of this inevitability I contend that any moral limit to self-creation must appeal to the self-interest of that person who pursues such a project.  I will show that Hobbes's theory of human nature provides a moral limit to self-creation that appeals to the self-interest of the individual.  But let us first examine Rorty's philosophy.

Rorty presents his concept of self-creation by comparing and contrasting the views he attributes to Proust, Nietzsche, and Heidegger.  Rorty considers these philosophers to be ironists.  He claims that the ironist "is trying to get out from under inherited contingencies and make his own contingencies, get out from under an old final vocabulary and fashion one which will be all his own" (CIS, 97).  By "final vocabulary" Rorty means that vocabulary with which we justify our beliefs, projects, and lives.  He writes "if doubt is cast on the worth of these words, their user has no noncircular argumentative recourse" (CIS, 73).  That is to say, we cannot justify our belief in these words by falling back on some further vocabulary because one does not exist.  Our final vocabulary represents our most basic beliefs, those things we believe without justification and that make us who we are.  In fashioning one's own final vocabulary one is in a sense creating one's self.  In light of this, it seems that all ironists participate in self-creation.  Rorty writes, "All any ironist can measure success against is the past - not by living up to it, but by redescribing it in his terms, thereby becoming able to say, 'Thus I willed it'" (CIS, 97).  This is Rorty's understanding of self-creation, a redescription of past events and acquaintances so that they no longer have control over one's self.  The goal of the ironist is to achieve autonomy in his private life, and "private autonomy can be gained by redescribing one's past in a way which had not occurred to the past" (CIS, 101).

As stated above, the ironist wants to escape the power that past events have over him by redescribing those events.  Proust's "method of freeing himself from those people - of becoming autonomous - was to redescribe those people who had described him" (CIS, 102).  He described those people from a number of different perspectives and positions in time.  By doing so he realized that they had no "privileged perspective" from which they might have detected some truth within him of which he was unaware.  He realized that there was no "essence" within him that could not be redescribed, and that his life was simply composed of contingencies which he had the power to redescribe.  Rorty notes that "Proust became autonomous by explaining to himself why the others were not authorities, but simply fellow contingencies" (CIS, 102).  Others cannot be authorities on something that does not exist.  That something being some core self that is not a product of contingencies and cannot be redescribed.  Rorty continues to write that "[Proust] mastered contingency by recognizing it, and thus freed himself from the fear that the contingencies he had encountered were more than just contingencies" (CIS, 103).  Once Proust understood that those people he had encountered had no special authority but were simply fellow contingencies he redescribed them.  By redescribing those people who had intimidated him or humiliated him he could fit them into his life's story as he chose to describe it and escape the life that they had described for him.  In doing so he "succeeded in creating the taste by which he judged himself" (CIS, 103).  He no longer accepted other people's judgments of him as true, but he enabled himself to control rationally what affect those judgments would have on the life that he fashioned for himself.  This is the concept of self-creation that Richard Rorty takes on as his own.

In order to clarify his understanding of self-creation Rorty divides ironists into two groups, the ironist theorists and the ironist nominalists.  Rorty characterizes Nietzsche and Heidegger as ironist theorists, while Proust is an ironist nominalist.  An ironist theorist is looking for "a redescription of [the Plato-Kant] cannon which will cause it to lose its power over him - to break the spell cast by reading the books which make up that cannon" (CIS, 97).  The ironist theorist wants to redescribe the metaphysics that have had a strong grasp on the world to date.  By redescribing metaphysics it loses its power.  People will no longer be inclined to believe in things like objective truth or human essence.  Proust is concerned only with redescribing those experiences which have affected him personally.  Furthermore, Rorty writes:

    The ironist who is not a theorist will not be bothered by the thought that his own redescriptions of the past will be the grist for his successors' redescriptions; his attitude toward his successors is simply "good luck to them."  But the ironist theorist cannot imagine any successors, for he is the prophet of a new age, one in which no terms used in the past will have application.

    CIS, 101-2

This distinction leads to undesirable consequences for the ironist theorist which is why Rorty leans towards Proust's concept of self-creation.  Nietzsche and Heidegger are not content to simply redescribe themselves, but want to redescribe something "much bigger."  Ironist theorists "are not interested only in making themselves new.  They also want to make this big thing new; their own autonomy will be a spin-off from this larger newness" (CIS, 101).  Rorty believes that ironist theorists take the project of redescription too far.  Nietzsche does not want to redescribe just himself, but he wants that redescription to redescribe what he identifies as "Europe".  The ironist theorist wants "to get in touch with a power other than one's self" such as the Will to Power or Being (CIS, 107).  Rorty believes that Nietzsche and Heidegger betray their own philosophy by trying to get in touch with a power larger than themselves, a power that does not exist.  He writes:

    That was the temptation of thinking that once you have found a way to subsume your predecessors under a general idea you have thereby done something more than found a redescription of them - a redescription that has proved useful for your own purposes of self-creation.  If you go on to conclude that you have found a way to make yourself quite different from those predecessors, to do something quite different from what they did, then you are doing what Heidegger called "relapsing into metaphysics."  For now you are claiming that none of the descriptions that applied to them applies to you - that you are separated from them by an abyss.

    CIS, 107

Because of this Nietzsche and Heidegger were constantly worried about the question, "Who will redescribe me?"  They wanted to escape redescription, to be beyond it.  Their understanding of redescription fails in the end due to their expansion of their project and their hope in acquiring some "final" knowledge.

Proust is not bothered by the question "Who will redescribe me?"  Rorty writes, "his job was done once he had put the events of his own life in his own order, made a pattern out of the little things" (CIS, 105).  By little things Rorty means only those things that affected Proust personally, those things that had bearing on his description of his life.  Proust relinquished "the very idea of authority, and with it the idea that there is a privileged perspective from which he, or anyone else, is to be described" (CIS, 105).  Proust understood that he had no more authority over others' description of themselves than they did over him.  Nietzsche and Heidegger could not let go of the idea of a privileged perspective.  They believed that they could attain a kind of omni-perspective that would allow them to redescribe an entire continent or era for others.  Because Nietzsche and Heidegger tried to extend their project of self-creation beyond themselves Rorty does not carry his concept of self-creation as far as the ironist theorists.

Rorty does not provide a direct argument for why one should want to redescribe his past.  However, it is safe to infer that an individual should redescribe his past so that it does not have any undue effect on his future projects.  That is, if an individual had experienced pain or humiliation in her past she can rationally control the effect that that experience will have on her vision of herself or on her future endeavors.  For example, Tom was constantly humiliated by his home room teacher in elementary school.  The teacher told Tom repeatedly that he was slow, stupid, and would never amount to anything.  Tom, now a philosophy student at the University of Tennessee, realizes that his teacher did not have any kind of privileged perspective that allowed her to make a "truthful" judgment about his self.  By realizing that she had no privileged perspective, he enabled himself to redescribe her as an old lady who was simply jealous of Tom because he might one day be able to leave his small town.  By redescribing her in this way, he avoids accepting her judgments of him as being authoritative.  It is not difficult to see that if Tom had accepted her judgments as true, if he had accepted that he really was slow and stupid, he most likely would not have applied to college and eventually law school.  Through a redescription of his past he was able to see that her descriptions of him had no authority.  In so doing he did not allow a past experience to influence his future projects.  The individual who redescribes his past can constantly create himself anew by creating a new taste by which he judges himself. 

As mentioned above Rorty believes that the human being operates within two spheres, the private and the public.  I have already shown that Rorty holds self-creation to be his private ideal.  Rorty contends that when an individual is operating in the public sphere of his life he should act as a liberal.  Rorty borrows Judith Shklar's definition of a liberal as being one "who believes that cruelty is the worst thing we do" (CIS, 146).  Rorty posits this liberal ideal as a moral obligation we have to others:  "we have the obligation not to be cruel to others" (Garland, 7).  Rorty believes that an increased understanding and sympathy of the suffering that others experience provides the means with which we can increase our sphere of solidarity to encompass those who we would not normally feel solidarity with.  He writes that the goal of the liberal ironist is "to see more and more traditional differences (of tribe, religion, race, custom, and the like) as unimportant when compared with similarities with respect to pain and humiliation - the ability to think of people widely different from ourselves as included in the wide range of 'us'" (CIS, 192).  In other words the goal of the liberal ironist is to extend his sphere of solidarity as far as possible through an understanding of the suffering that others experience.  Even though Rorty takes great pains to separate completely the public and private spheres of human life I contend that his ironist liberal ideal is incompatible with, and inhibits, his concept of self-creation.  Before we can continue with this objection we must first examine what Rorty understands cruelty to be, and how this understanding affects solidarity.

Rorty's rejection of any common human essence is an important starting point in explaining his concept of liberalism just as it is in explaining his concept of self-creation.  He writes:

      [T]here is nothing deep inside each of us, no common human nature, no built-in human solidarity, to use as a moral reference point . . . Simply by being human we do not have a common bond.  For all we share with all other humans is the same thing we share with all other animals - the ability to feel pain.

      CIS, 177

Rorty acknowledges that one may respond to this point by claiming that any moral vocabulary we create must be extended to include animals as well.  This is a position that Rorty does not want to accept.  In order to avoid this position, Rorty attempts to discover a kind of pain unique to human beings, one that can be distinguished from animal pain.  Rorty writes, "There is nothing to people except what has been socialized into them - their ability to use language, and thereby to exchange beliefs and desires with other people" (CIS, 177).  Because we humans have been socialized - because we use a language and have beliefs - we are susceptible to a kind of pain that "brutes" are not, humiliation.  Rorty continues to write that humans "can all be humiliated by the forcible tearing down of the particular structures of language and belief in which they were socialized (or which they pride themselves on having formed for themselves)" (CIS, 177).  This psychic humiliation is the kind of cruelty to which Rorty is referring when he claims that cruelty is the worst thing we do.  He further explains his understanding of humiliation when he writes:

    [T]he worst thing you can do to somebody is not to make her scream in agony but to use that agony in such a way that even when the agony is over, she cannot reconstitute herself.  The idea is to get her to do or say things - and if possible, believe and desire things, think thoughts - which later she will be unable to cope with having done or thought.

    CIS, 177-8

Once an individual has experienced this kind of cruelty or humiliation he "becomes incapable of weaving a coherent web of belief and desire" (CIS, 178).  More simply put, humiliation, for Rorty, is the irreversible destruction of one's final vocabulary.  In destroying one's final vocabulary you tear down his most central beliefs, those beliefs that he associates as his self.

Rorty believes that with the help of literature we can gain an "imaginative acquaintance" with the final vocabularies of others, and through this acquaintance we can better understand the suffering that others experience (Garland, 8).  Rorty uses Nabokov's Lolita and Orwell's 1984 as examples of literary works that make us more aware of the suffering of others.  A more contemporary example of the literature that Rorty has in mind would be Anthony Hecht's poem "More Light!  More Light!".  The second part of the poem is set in Germany during World War II.  A Pole and two Jews, who have obviously been taken from a concentration camp, are instructed by a Nazi soldier to dig a hole.  Once the hole has been dug the two Jews are ordered to lie in it and the Pole is told to bury them alive.  The Pole refuses and he is ordered to change places with the Jews.  The two Jews do not hesitate to bury the pole alive, but when only his face remained uncovered the Jews were ordered to dig him out and to get back in.  The Pole, this time, did not hesitate to bury the Jews alive.  This poem clearly represents the kind of cruelty that Rorty has in mind.  The Pole, though not physically tortured, is mentally broken; his final vocabulary has been destroyed.  He has thought thoughts and committed actions that he would in no way be able to redescribe.  The Pole has been severed from what he holds as his "self" and he will never be able to return to it.  Hecht writes that there was "No light, no light in the blue Polish eye" (Hecht, ln.25).  This poem serves two purposes, it clearly shows what Rorty understands as cruelty, and it evokes sympathy in its reader.  The poem encourages us to feel solidarity with the Pole (as well as the Jews) because though an imaginative acquaintance we can understand the cruelty that he has suffered.  Rorty's goal is to expand this understanding and sympathy as far as possible so that we may feel solidarity with larger and larger groups.  Now that I have shown what Rorty understands cruelty to be we must examine what he means solidarity to be, and with whom we may feel solidarity.

Rorty begins Chapter 9 "Solidarity" by again analyzing the traditional Platonic and Kantian accounts of human solidarity, that is that all humans should feel solidarity with one another because they all share something in common, some essence.  Rorty uses a number of examples to explain this view from which I will use the Nazi guards at Auschwitz.  The guards at Auschwitz obviously felt no solidarity with the Jews that they tortured and murdered.  Our traditional way of understanding and explaining such cruelty was to claim that the guards were in some way inhuman.  That is "that they all lacked some component which is essential to a full-fledged human being" (CIS, 189).  Rorty must obviously deny this view because he does not believe that there is such a thing as an essential component that one must posses to be a human being.  He writes that ironists "insistence on contingency, and our consequent opposition to ideas like 'essence,' 'nature,' and 'foundation,' makes it impossible for us to retain the notion that some actions and attitudes are naturally 'inhuman'" (CIS, 189).  According to the tradition of moral thinking from Plato through Kant, we have tried to discover some premise that lies beyond historical and social contingencies by which we can justly and convincingly renounce instances of cruelty.  Rorty does not believe that such a premise exists.  Rorty still believes, however, "that a belief can still regulate action, can still be thought worth dying for, among people who are quite aware that this belief is caused by nothing deeper than contingent historical circumstances" (CIS, 189).  This is to say, an ironist can still hold a belief in his final vocabulary that regulates his actions as long as he understands that there is no further justification for that belief outside of the fact that he simply chooses to believe it.  Rorty is indirectly attempting to make room for a moral guideline to rise out of his belief in liberalism.

An individual's liberalism will enable him to increase his use of the phrase "one of us" to a broader and broader group of people.  In order to explain Rorty's notion of "one of us" I will use the following example:  Suppose that we learn of a boy being unjustly cained in a Thailand prison, we might very well feel a small amount of sympathy for the boy and wish that it had not happened.  Now suppose that the boy being unjustly cained was a American tourist, our reaction would be one of anger and our sympathy would be more intense, because the American boy is "one of us Americans."  Rorty claims that "our sense of solidarity is strongest when those with whom solidarity is expressed are thought of as 'one of us,' where 'us' means something smaller and more local than the human race" (CIS, 191).  He continues to explain, "My position entails that feelings of solidarity are necessarily a matter of which similarities and dissimilarities strike us as salient, and that such salience is a function of a historically contingent final vocabulary" (CIS, 192).  In other words we are more disposed to feel solidarity towards those with whom we share a similar final vocabulary, whose central beliefs are close to ours.

Rorty does not believe that a true liberal ironist will ever be content with the size of his sphere of solidarity.  On the contrary, a true liberal ironist will always strive to include those he considers as "them" into those he considers as "us," to increase his sphere of solidarity.  A liberal ironist does this by gaining an "imaginary acquaintance" with the suffering of others through literature as mentioned above.  By gaining an "imaginary acquaintance" with the pain and suffering experienced by others we can better relate with that pain and suffering and appreciate the fact that we can experience it as well.  Through this acquaintance we will enable ourselves to feel solidarity with those who we had previously thought of as "them."  Rorty writes, "We should try to notice our similarities with them.  The right way to construe the slogan is as urging to create a more expansive sense of solidarity than we presently have" (CIS, 196).  This is the goal of the liberal ironist in the public sphere of his life.  Now that Rorty's views concerning self-creation, cruelty, and solidarity have been presented we must examine the relationship between the public and private spheres.

Rorty intends to separate completely the public sphere of our lives from the private so that neither has priority over the other.  He writes that "our responsibilities to others constitutes only the public side of our lives, a side which competes with our private affections and our private attempts at self-creation, and which has no automatic priority over such private motives" (CIS, 194).  This is not to say that one always has priority over the other or that one never has priority.  Rorty continues, "Moral obligation is, in this view, to be thrown in with a lot of other considerations, rather than automatically trump them" (CIS, 194).  Rorty means that our private obligations to ourselves and our public obligations to others should be considered equally when deliberating a course of action.  Neither one automatically trumps the other in any given situation, but we must decide which one will have priority through an appeal to, what Rorty calls, our "classical first principles."  Our "classical first principles" must lie in the final vocabulary that we have fashioned for ourselves.  Since all of our final vocabularies are at least in some way different no single, objective rule can be provided for when which sphere should take precedence over which.  According to Rorty it appears that the liberal ironist would never allow his private project of self-creation to take precedence over his public obligation not to be cruel to others.  There are, however, a number of difficulties in this view.

It is obvious that Rorty's moral guideline, that we should not be cruel to others, appeals only to those who include "liberalism" in their final vocabulary.  Rorty provides no incentive to incorporate liberalism into our final vocabulary as he does with self-creation.  Individuals should create themselves in order to lead a life in which their future projects are not inhibited by past experiences.  But why should one become a liberal?  Why should I not be cruel to others?  Rorty admits this problem when he writes, "There is no neutral, noncircular way to defend the liberals claim that cruelty is the worst thing we do" (CIS, 197).  Here Rorty simply claims that liberalism seems "to cohere better with the institutions of a liberal democracy than the available alternatives do," and for this reason, we should accept it.  But the problems that Rorty's ironist interpretation of liberalism presents when incorporated into the rest of his philosophy are much more deep and fundamental than merely the lack of a defense for the ironist liberal moral guideline.

The following objections are taken primarily from Hollibert E. Phillips's well written and to-the-point article "The Ironist's Utopia:  Can Rorty's Liberal Turnip Bleed".  Though the ends of his article are different than my own his objections serve me equally well.  As noted above the basis of Rorty's moral guideline lies in his concept of solidarity.  He replaces the Plato-Kant use of human nature or essence with his own notion of "one of us."  That is to say, we are not morally obligated to all human beings because we all share some common essence, but we are morally obligated only to those encompassed in our sphere of solidarity, those that are "one of us."  Phillips asks, "But does this substitution succeed?  It seems that the notion which Rorty invokes as the sole basis for moral obligation is very akin to, indeed very much like, the familiar notion of common human nature writ small" (Phillips, 365).  In other words the notion "one of us" carries moral weight because it is something within me that I share with, or have in common with a certain group of people.  Examples of equivalent locutions would be "one of us Sewanee students," or "we seniors."  But what is the difference between one of these formulations and the one expressed as "one of us human beings?"  Rorty claims that the former example is contrastive in the fact that it contrasts an "us" with a "them."  Rorty holds that the "former, but not the latter, is constitutive of solidarity, and is the sole basis of moral obligation" (Phillips, 365).  For Rorty an individual's sphere of solidarity is composed of those with whom he can closely identify, those whose suffering he understands.  He believes that this identification does not include all human beings (though the liberal ironist should try to include them).  Phillips writes, "This line of reasoning, as I understand it, is intended to demonstrate that the notion 'one of us human beings,' contrary to what we are accustomed to think, as a matter of fact plays no part in determining one's moral obligations" (Phillips, 365).  In other words, Rorty is claiming that we feel morally obligated only to those in our small spheres of solidarity, and not to mankind as a whole.  Phillips points out that in light of this distinction one must have something different in mind when employing the exclusive notion of "one of us" than when employing the universally inclusive notion.  Rorty's position on solidarity suggests that only the exclusive notion induces a moral response.  That is to say, we feel moral obligation only when we use "one of us" as "one of us Sewanee students" or "we seniors."  This sense of moral obligation is different from what we feel when we express disgust at murder or rape in themselves because that feeling is universally inclusive.  Rorty's definition of a liberal, one who feels that cruelty is the worst thing we do, is, however, universally inclusive and does not appeal only to a specific group or sphere of solidarity.  Phillips writes, "In examples of the latter [universally inclusive] type, however, appeal is clearly made to something beyond kinship to the immediate tribe.  The "us" here is undeniably inclusive.  It makes no discrimination among persons" (Phillips, 365).  Because Rorty is using his definition of a liberal in the inclusive sense, that is, cruelty is the worst thing that any human being can do to any other human being regardless of time or tribe, a very serious problem arises.  Phillips notes:

    One thing, a crucial thing, which the term 'cruelty' ordinarily implies, is that something commonly shared has been violated.  That something seems curiously like that "something within each of us . . . which resonates to that same thing within other human beings," and which, for all I can tell, has failed to exorcise.

    Phillips, 367

What is that "something," that essence, that can be violated?  It is that which enables human beings to be humiliated.  If an individual were not susceptible to humiliation, then Rorty must admit that he lacked "some component which is essential to a full-fledged human being," for all humans can be humiliated (CIS, 189).  If Rorty maintains that all human beings can be humiliated, he must accept that there is some "core self" that can be humiliated.  It is now apparent that Rorty's liberal moral guideline necessarily falls back on some idea of a human essence.  Whether or not this essence is metaphysical is irrelevant.  Either way is capable of expanding his idea of moral obligation from "one of us" to "one of us human beings."  In light of the above it should be clear that Rorty's ironist interpretation of liberalism is incoherent.

Now that I have shown that Rorty's liberalism is incoherent I will attempt to discover a new basis for a moral limit to self-creation.  In order to do this I intend to present self-creation in the context of the Hobbesian contract.  Unlike Rorty, Hobbes posits a theory of human nature.  He believes that it is a human beings nature to be self-interested.  He writes that "of the voluntary acts of every man, the object is some good to himself" (Hobbes, 105).  I contend that Hobbes's account of human nature compliments Rorty's concept of self-creation.  Self-creation is obviously a project grounded in one's self-interest.  Therefore, an individual who participates in the project of self-creation will have an incentive to obey a moral guideline only if that guideline appeals to their self-interest.  Hobbes provides such a guideline within his theory of contracts.  That guideline is, act only in a way that preserves that contract which best allows me to safely and consistently pursue my project of self-creation.  Such a guideline appeals to the self-interest of an individual.  Before we continue to examine self-interest as a basis for a moral limit on self-creation, we must first briefly explain Hobbes's contract theory.

According to Hobbes man's natural state is something similar to anarchy or constant war.  In such a state the individual is not capable of safely or consistently pursuing his individual projects or goals.  This is because all men have an equal right to all things, and "the right to the end , containeth the right to the means" (Hobbes, 109).  Because men have such a natural right they will threaten and kill one another if that provides a means to their own personal ends.  However, no man, regardless of power or strength, can at any point feel a sense of security.  Hobbes writes, "as long as this natural right of every man to every thing endureth, there can be no security to any man, how strong or wise soever he may be, of living out the time, which nature ordinarily alloweth men to live" (Hobbes, 103).  In light of this constant threat men make contracts with one another in order to preserve their lives, and pursue their individual projects with a sense of security.  A contract for Hobbes consist of a group of people giving up certain natural rights so that they may create an environment in which they can participate in their other rights with a sense of security.  Hobbes writes of contracts "that a man be willing, when others are so to, as far-forth, as for peace, and defense of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself" (Hobbes, 104).  That is to say, I will give up a specific right in order to maintain what I consider to be more important liberties over other men though they maintain the same liberties over me.  In doing so I maintain a sense of security when acting on those liberties.  Let us now examine self-creation context of Hobbes's theory, and the moral guideline which that theory will provide.

In Hobbes's "state of nature" an individual could clearly pursue his project of self-creation, but not very effectively.  It should be fairly clear that a state of war does not provide the best environment for one to create himself.  In war one runs the likely risk of being killed or captured which would, in either case, bring an abrupt halt to his project of self-creation.  Furthermore, it would be difficult for an individual to concentrate on poetic redescription if he were constantly worried about being shot.  In light of this lack of security, an individual who truly desires to create himself in the best possible setting should enter into a contract with a group of people.  The individual is motivated to enter into a contract by his own self-interest.  He wants to maintain those liberties that he values most for himself, even though he has to grant others those same liberties.  A contract obviously creates a number of rules, or laws.  These rules prohibit one from acting on those liberties that he gave up.  Such rules are "do not kill another person (who is a party of the contract)," and "do not steal from another person."  One who breaks these rules breeches the contract.  If one breaks these rules he threatens the stability of the contract as a whole, for it encourages others to break them in order to protect themselves, or to stay on par with that individual who did.  For example, if one murders for the sake of his project of self-creation he threatens that very project.  He threatens it because if he breaches the contract, then others will be inclined to do so as well.  If the contract fails then he can no longer continue his project of self-creation with any sense of security.  From this Hobbesian concept we can derive a moral guideline that appeals to the self-interested nature of human beings, especially those who participate in self-creation.  The moral guideline that the Hobbesian theory enables us to accept is exactly that stated above: "Act only in a way that preserves that environment which best enables me to safely and consistently pursue my project of self-creation."  One who accepts this guideline will not be inclined to climb a bell tower and begin murdering people because he knows that will serve only to inhibit his project of self-creation instead of perpetuate it.  This moral rule encourages people not to be cruel to, or harm others, because it is against their own self-interest.

Grounding a moral limit to self-creation in mankind's self-interested human nature gives way to an obvious objection.  By accepting a human nature I admit that I have some core essence.  In so doing I enable an other to gain a privileged perspective and truthfully describe a certain part of me that I cannot redescribe.  In other words, I have enabled an other to see some unchangeable truth with in me of which I am unaware.  Therefore, a moral limit to self-creation cannot be grounded in our self-interested nature, because positing a theory of human nature is to admit that we cannot redescribe ourselves.  All that I have enabled others to do, however, is to describe me as being, at base, self-interested.  If I accept that I am, like all human beings, self-interested such a description poses no threat to my self-image or to my future projects.  I can still poetically redescribe all other aspects of my life.  I am still capable of changing and modifying my final vocabulary.  Let us take Tom again, just because he is self-interested by nature does not mean that he can no longer view other aspects of his life as being the product of contingencies.  When his teacher called him slow and stupid she was not describing a part of Tom that could not be redescribed.  Further more, her criticism of Tom was a result of certain contingencies, contingencies that enabled Tom to redescribe her how he saw fit.  In admitting that I have a certain nature I do not forfeit my ability to redescribe those contingencies that make up the majority of my life.  I am still perfectly capable of creating the taste by which I judge my life; of redescribing my past experiences so they do not unduly influence my future projects.  The objection, while true in one respect, fails to damage my position in any way.

The Hobbesian grounding of a moral limit to self-creation is superior to Rorty's ironist liberalism.  Self-creation in the context of Hobbes's contract theory demonstrates this.  Rorty's attempt to avoid positing a human nature fails.  Ironist liberalism does, in fact, depend on some idea of a human essence.  The contingent and historicist beliefs of the ironist are incompatible with Rorty's interpretation of liberalism.  In light of this, Rorty's ironist liberalism is incoherent.  By positing Hobbes's theory of human nature I avoid those problems that Rorty inevitably encounters.  Hobbes claimed that all human beings are self-interested by nature.  This self-interested nature encourages us to accept certain moral rules so that we may pursue our personal project of self-creation with a sense of security.  It is clear that self-creation in the context of certain aspects of Hobbes's philosophy provides a better explanation and incentive for the obeying of moral laws. 

 

Works Cited

Garland, William.  "Private Self-Creation and Public Solidarity:  A Critique of Rorty's Vision of Human Life"

Hecht, Anthony.  "More Light! More Light!"

Hobbes, Thomas.  Leviathan.  Macmillan Publishing Company, New York.  1962.

Phillips, Hollibert E.  "The Ironist Utopia:  Can Rorty's Liberal Turnip Bleed?"  International Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. XXXII, No. 3 Issue No. 127.  September 1992.

Rorty, Richard.  Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.  Cambridge University Press, New York.  1989.

 

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