È l’universalismo rispettoso delle differenze culturali raggiungibile? (Ing.&Fr.)

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Is universalism respectful of cultural differences attainable? It does not seem possible to ignore the need for normative justification (thus, moral theory) when we venture into the social and political critics arena. By their very nature, arguments that we must inevitably use in the moral sphere must be included in a wider theoretical framework in order to demonstrate that criticisms do not merely depend on circumstances, nor satisfy suspect ideological goals.

The article examines the thesis of “cultural relativism” (in both its descriptive and normative version) in an effort to ascertain and impeach more perspicuously the reasons for the strong appeal it continues to exert today in a globalizing/glocalising world –and this, despite the fact that it has been shown repeatedly to be inconsistent, self-defeating and misguided.  Taking the lead from Williams’ insightful analysis and recommendation, we see that though cultural relativism conjures up a general moral problem, it is in reality either too early or too late, and in our case, at this juncture of history, it is rather late. Only a movement away from cultural relativism and towards something like a “pluralistic, historically enlightened ethical universalism” can help us address the moral questions that we all face together in a globalizing/ glocalising world, and in which we now form a new moral and conversational community confronted with urgent problems and new challenges.

I believe that Williams is correct when he notes that, though cultural relativism conjures up a general moral problem, it is in reality either too early or too late. Different cultural communities are either in contact or not. If, on the one hand, two communities and their outlooks have not encountered each other, then it is too early for any question to arise about their relations to one another and the judgments they form. Relativism is then not a very interesting or substantive thesis because there is nothing at stake between them. This allows for a sense in which cultural relativism is true. There can be in other words relativism at a distance between two historically distinct cultures. But if, on the other hand, two communities are already in contact with one another, then it is too late for cultural relativism. By virtue of being in contact, the communities have to some degree become interconnected. It is too late for cultural relativism in the sense that it can provide no answers to the question of how individuals and groups with different moral outlooks and judgments are to treat each other. Together they now form a new moral and conversational community, which must confront the morally basic questions of how its members ought live and relate to one another (Benhabib, 2002). This is obviously the situation in which we are today, and which arguably involves (almost) the whole world. It seems then that only a departure from cultural relativism towards something like a “pluralistic, historically enlightened ethical universalism” can help us address the moral questions that we all face together in a ‘globalized’ world, and in which we now form a new community confronted with urgent moral questions. Such a universalism must be one that remains however sufficiently respectful of cultural differences, while at the same time being constrained normatively by what is right and therefore good for each and all human beings, regardless of which culture or cultural complex they (claim to) belong to. As I pointed out at the outset, such a view is also that of a number of contemporary philosophers who are eager to clear the ground for such a perspective and defend it each in their own distinctive way from their respective philosophical and political standpoint. For this purpose, I intend in a forthcoming section to focus on, and discuss in some detail Nussbaum’s bold, substantial, and timely proposal. First however, I turn next to Williams’ case against ‘ethical theory,’ and his defense of ‘reflection’ as an alternative in an effort to ascertain if he offers us a viable option.

Though Williams’ writings –subtle, imaginative and insightful as they are, have for the most part defined themselves over the years in opposition to one or another of the dominant ethical theories in contemporary moral theory, they have not however put forward an alternative theory. This is not of course to say that Williams’ contributions have been primarily negative or critical, but it means that “his positive contributions have not taken the form of theory construction”. For Williams, traditional ethical theories have failed to orient themselves convincingly in relation to conspicuous features of ethical phenomena as actually experienced by situated human beings. They have overlooked or neglected dimensions of ethical life, the complexity of human life, the non-rational and emotional aspects of human nature, including the fact that people find value, as he says (1972), in such things as trust, submission, regret, uncertainty, risk, even despair and suffering”. This has led him to challenge the dominant agenda of contemporary moral philosophy; to question and raise serious doubts, not just about the alternative and rival answers that moral philosophers have traditionally given to certain standard and traditional questions, but more importantly, about whether the standard and traditional questions themselves are really the right ones for moral philosophy to be addressing. He has thus indicted the so-called traditional “morality system” and its underlying assumptions. Moreover, he has recommended that we replace the “thin” concepts (e.g., good, bad, ought, right, wrong, etc) favored by the “morality system” and which are “general and abstract” and “do not display world-guidedness” by “thick” concepts (e.g., courage, shame, treachery, brutality, gratitude, promise, lying/truthfulness, etc) which are “world-guided and action-guiding” (Williams, 1985, p. 140-134 and 152). And on the basis of a distinction drawn between morality and ethics, he urged that philosophers return to the Greeks’ more inclusive and general starting point “How should one live?”. In his view, such a question obviously invites considerations of all salient aspects of human life, as well as confrontations of life’s tough questions, presumably in a piecemeal fashion, with close attention being paid to the arts, literature and psychology, and more generally to the humanities and the social sciences. In effect, one could say that, for Williams, the fundamental alternative confronting moral philosophers today is between an ethics based on theoretical, metaphysical criteria and  an ethics squarely and firmly anchored in the thick of human life and existence. In his famous 1985 work, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Williams extended his criticism with increasing vigor to the very idea of an ‘ethical theory’ itself. To put it briefly, he does not believe that there is any legitimate philosophical question that is best answered by elaborating the kind of normative structure that philosophers commonly refer to as an ‘ethical theory’. “There cannot be any very interesting, tidy or self-contained theory of what morality is…nor…can there be an ethical theory, in the sense of a philosophical structure which, together with some empirical fact, will yield a decision procedure for moral reasoning” (Williams, 1981, p. ix-x). It is in this context that we may understand his powerfully articulated and defended criticisms of Utilitarianism, Kantianism, and Aristotelianism. However, in their evaluations of Williams’ work, several critics, who are otherwise sympathetic to a number of his ideas (including myself) have expressed doubts and reservations about the wisdom of, or warrant for, his wholesale repudiation and rejection of the so-called “morality system” Thus, while Nussbaum, for example, agrees for the most part with his objections to Utilitarianism, she finds his critique and rejection of both Kantianism and Aristotelianism too sweeping and not nuanced or qualified enough. In fact, she believes that “there are many points of agreement between Williams’ approach to ethics and Aristotle” (Williams, 2003, p. 24). She also believes that “Kant’s idea that we should always treat humanity as an end and never as a mere means” is also helpful for criticizing many inclinations we have, in both personal and political life (ibid, p. 11). Another question that she also finds puzzling concerns the relationship between the ethical and the political in Williams’ work (ibid, p. 10). According to her, “Williams later maintained that his attack on ethical theory left intact the aspiration to constructpolitical theories, which might be valuable guides”. But she then asks, quite pertinently: “where does this leave those among the great Western political theorists such as Aristotle, Cicero, Rousseau, Kant, and John Rawls, who put a moral theory at the core of their political theories?” (ibid, p. 10). She goes on to note, also quite pertinently for my later discussion, that Williams has somehow singled out Rawls as an example of the criticized class of moral theories, and yet, his later statements to this effect seem to suggest that he might after all admit the usefulness of Rawls’ theory, given its political nature. In the end however, Nussbaum thinks quite rightly, I believe, that the source of the distinction between an acceptable aspiration to a theory of political justice and an unacceptable aspiration to a theory of individual morality is left obscure. Williams’ general failure to engage systematically with Rawls’ ideas about social and political justice leaves such important issues unresolved. In her mind, Williams never adequately confronted the question of a plausible account of the good in ethical theory. However, Williams has insisted that viable resources for moral and social criticism will remain available to us long after ethical theories have disappeared. He writes: “Nothing has been said should lead us to think that traditional distinctions are beyond criticism; practices that make distinctions between different groups of people may certainly demand justification, if we are not to be content with unreflective traditions which can provide paradigms of prejudice” (Williams, 1985, p. 115). Williams calls his alternative to ethical theory “réfection”, and he states unequivocally that the latter should go in a direction opposite to that encouraged by the former. ”Respect for freedom and social justice and a critique of oppressive and deceitful institutions may be no easier to achieve than they have been in the past, and may well be harder, but we need not suppose that we have no ideas to give them a basis. We should not concede to abstract ethical theory its claim to provide the only intellectual surroundings for such ideas” (ibid., p. 116 and 198). And he adds: “It is quite wrong to think that the only alternative to ethical theory is to refuse reflection and to remain in unreflective prejudice. Theory and prejudice are not the only possibilities for an intelligent agent, or for philosophy”.

There seems to be good sense behind Williams’ conviction that many of our moral practices are alas “human, all too human” (to use Nietzsche’s expression) and that they lose the only ground they have if we try to view them from a non human (external) perspective –something like a God’s eye perspective. But does it follow from this that such practices cannot be critically evaluated, or that they can somehow be criticized effectively without invoking moral norms and justifications of these norms? Granted, our justifications often turn out to be more meager than we had hoped they would be, but does this diminish their necessity and importance in our thinking? It is worth noting here that Williams uncharacteristically suggests that ‘justice’ may be one moral concept that “transcends the relativism of distance” (Williams, 1985, 166), thus allowing us to appraise societies as just or unjust that are temporally and spatially quite distant from us. If this is so, then on Williams’ view we can appraise some aspects of moral practices from a standpoint external to them. However, it is hard to see what the force of these “justice appraisals” could be. Since the concept of ‘justice’ is also a ‘thin’ concept –one that is not “world-guided” in Williams’ account, it follows then that such appraisals must accordingly and ultimately lack any objective basis. Critical reflection only attains its goal when agents are arguably able to defend or dismiss social practices on the basis of arguments. For Habermas, for example, the search for justificatory reasons is not an esoteric practice indulged in only by ethical theorists. It is somehow built into the structure of everyday communication. In everyday communication we are constantly making various sorts of claims, and the communication continues only when there is a background consensus that the claims could be justified. When this background consensus breaks down, then justificatory reasons must be provided or else the communication itself will break down. In other words, for Habermas, the capacity to provide justificatory reasons is also part of the “communicative competence” that defines us as members of a linguistic community. Contrary to what Williams says, showing that certain practices “are not what they are taken to be” is merely a first step. Defending or dismissing a social practice on the basis of arguments always involves an appeal to moral norms that one believes is rationally justifiable, and this, in turn, necessitates the resources of moral theory. Theorists will continue to debate the precise ways in which such norms can and cannot be rationally justified; but there is no getting around the necessity of normative justification (and hence, of moral theory) once one decides to venture into the arena of social and political criticism. This is, I believe, where the single most important challenge confronting moral and political philosophy today lies. The character of the arguments we are inevitably forced to use in the moral sphere need to find their place within a larger theoretical framework in order to show that our criticisms are neither ad hoc  nor self-serving for suspicious ideological purposes.

In the final analysis however, it remains that ethical theorizing may have to be done in a new way, perhaps even in a post-Williams’ way. I.e, a historicized way of doing ethics, anchored in the real, one that takes into account the variegated and complex phenomena of human life and existence, and whereby its ‘objectivity’ is established on radically new grounds, and arguably in a non-metaphysical way. Nader N. CHOKR

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L’article examine la thèse du « relativisme culturel » (dans sa version à la fois descriptive et normative) dans une tentative pour déterminer et mettre en doute plus clairement les raisons du fort attrait qu’il continue d’exercer aujourd’hui dans un monde se mondialisant/globalisant.  En reprenant l’instructive analyse et recommandation de Williams, on voit que bien que le relativisme culturel évoque un problème moral général, il est en réalité soit trop tôt soit trop tard, et dans notre cas à ce moment de l’histoire, il est plutôt tard. Seul un mouvement s’écartant du relativisme culturel vers quelque chose comme un « universalisme éthique historiquement éclairé et pluraliste » peut nous aider à poser les questions morales auxquelles nous faisons tous face, et dans lesquelles nous formons maintenant une nouvelle communauté morale et conversationnelle confrontée à des problèmes urgents et de nouveaux défis. 

Je crois que Williams a raison de noter, à propos du relativisme culturel que, bien qu’il mette en évidence un problème moral général, il se présente en réalité trop tôt ou trop tard. Soit différentes communautés culturelles sont en contact, soit elles ne le sont pas. Si, d’un côté, deux communautés et leurs manières de penser ne se sont pas encore rencontrées, il est trop tôt pour que des questions émergent en ce qui concerne leurs relations l’une par rapport à l’autre et les jugements qu’elles portent à ce sujet. Le relativisme n’est pas alors une thèse particulièrement intéressante ou riche parce que rien n’est en jeu entre elles. Cela permet que, dans un sens, le relativisme culturel soit vrai (1981). En d’autres termes, il peut y avoir du relativisme, à distance, entre deux cultures historiquement distinctes (1985). Mais si, d’un autre côté, deux communautés sont déjà en contact l’une avec l’autre, alors le relativisme culturel arrive trop tard. Du fait même qu’elles sont en contact, les communautés sont devenues dans une certaine mesure interconnectées. Le relativisme culturel arrive trop tard au sens où il ne peut fournir aucune réponse à la question de savoir comment des individus et des groupes aux manières différentes de penser et de juger moralement doivent se traiter réciproquement. Ensemble, ils forment désormais une nouvelle communauté morale et conversationnelle, qui doit se confronter à la question morale fondamentale de savoir comment ses membres devraient vivre et nouer des relations. C’est évidemment la situation dans laquelle nous nous trouvons aujourd’hui, et dont on peut affirmer qu’elle concerne (presque) la totalité du monde. Il semble donc que seul un changement de direction, du relativisme culturel vers quelque chose de l’ordre d’un « universalisme éthique pluraliste et éclairé par l’histoire », peut nous aider à aborder les questions morales auxquelles nous faisons face dans un monde « globalisé/glocalisé », et dans lequel nous formons désormais une nouvelle communauté qui doit répondre à des questions morales urgentes. Un tel universalisme doit cependant demeurer suffisamment respectueux des différences culturelles, tout en étant limité normativement par ce qui est juste et bon pour tous les êtres humains et chacun d’entre eux, indépendamment de la culture ou du « complexe culturel » auquel ils (affirment qu’ils) appartiennent. Comme je l’ai indiqué au début, un tel point de vue est aussi celui d’un certain nombre de philosophes désireux de déblayer le terrain pour une telle perspective et de la défendre, chacun à sa manière. À cette fin, j’ai l’intention, dans une section prochaine, de me concentrer sur la proposition audacieuse, solide et opportune de Nussbaum et de la discuter.

Mais tout d’abord, je vais brièvement examiner les arguments de Williams contre la théorie éthique et sa défense de la « réflexion » comme solution de remplacement afin d’établir s’il propose une option viable. Au fil des ans, Williams a contesté les priorités dominantes de la philosophie morale contemporaine, émis des doutes, non seulement au sujet des réponses concurrentes que les philosophes de la moralité ont apportées à certaines questions habituelles, mais aussi, de manière essentielle, au sujet de savoir si ces questions habituelles sont vraiment celles que la philosophie morale devrait aborder. Il a donc mis en cause le « système de moralité » traditionnel et les hypothèses sur lesquelles il repose, et nous a recommandé de remplacer les concepts « fins » (par exemple le bien, le devoir, le juste, le faux, la justice, etc.) pour lesquels penche le « système de moralité », qui sont « généraux et abstraits » et « ne sont pas ancrés dans le monde », par des concepts « épais » (par exemple le courage, la honte, la traîtrise, la brutalité, la promesse, etc.) qui sont « ancrés dans le monde et orientent l’action » (Williams, 1985, p. 152). Et sur la base d’une distinction entre moralité et éthique, il encourage les philosophes à retourner au point de départ plus ouvert et plus général des Grecs, « comment doit-on vivre ? » À partir de 1985, Williams a élargi sa critique, avec une vigueur croissante, à l’idée même d’une « théorie éthique ». En bref, il ne croit pas qu’il y ait de question philosophique légitime à laquelle la meilleure façon de répondre serait d’élaborer ce genre de structure normative que les philosophes appellent communément une « théorie éthique ».

Un examen plus attentif de son travail révèle cependant que cette distinction entre concepts épais et fins est en fait défectueuse, et est bien moins efficace contre la théorie éthique qu’il ne le pense. Ceci, dès lors, nous conduit à identifier une sérieuse instabilité dans sa position (Scheffler, 2002 ; Tappolet, 2004). On peut aussi douter de ce que l’élimination de la théorie éthique, étant donné son propre diagnostique du désir qui l’engendre irrésistiblement, lui laisserait suffisamment de ressources pour se lancer dans le type de critique sociale des pratiques et des institutions d’oppression dans lequel il veut de toute évidence se lancer (par exemple, des discussions sur le racisme, le sexisme, l’injustice sociale). Dans la mesure où « les possibilités offertes par l’objectivité éthique sont peut-être plus importantes que Williams ne veut bien l’admettre », ses arguments à l’encontre de la théorisation éthique se trouvent encore plus affaiblis (Scheffler, 2002, p. 199). On a donc de bonnes raisons de s’interroger sur la pertinence ou les justifications de sa répudiation et de son rejet systématique du soi-disant « système de moralité » et de la théorisation éthique en général. Cependant, Williams a insisté sur le fait que des ressources viables pour la critique sociale et morale nous seront toujours disponibles longtemps après que les théories éthiques ont disparu. Il nomme « réflexion » sa solution de remplacement à la théorie éthique, et affirme sans équivoque qu’elle « devrait aller fondamentalement dans une direction opposée à celle promue par (celle-là) […] Le respect pour la liberté et la justice sociale, et la critique des institutions d’oppression et de tromperie ne sont peut-être pas plus faciles à mettre en pratique que dans le passé, et sont peut-être même plus difficiles, mais il n’y a pas de raison d’imaginer que nous ne disposons d’aucune idée sur laquelle les fonder. Nous ne devrions pas concéder à la théorie éthique abstraite qu’elle fournit le seul terrain intellectuel pour de telles idées » (1985, p. 116, 198). Et Williams d’ajouter : « Il est particulièrement faux de penser que la seule solution de remplacement à la théorie éthique est de refuser la réflexion et de demeurer dans le préjugé non réflexif. La théorie et le préjugé ne sont pas les seules possibilités offertes à un agent intelligent, ou à la philosophie » (1985, p. 112). Mais, une fois de plus, une lecture critique plus attentive révèle que ce qu’il entend par « réflexion », d’une part, va à l’encontre de la façon dont les tenants de la Théorie critique (et en particulier Habermas, à qui il est redevable à cet égard) souhaitaient la voir comprise, et d’autre part, qu’elle est au mieux une première étape et qu’elle est au final vouée à l’échec (voir Chokr, 2007*, pour un traitement critique plus détaillé). Il n’en demeure pas moins qu’il est possible que la théorisation critique doive être faite de manière nouvelle, peut-être même post-Williams, c’est-à-dire qui prend en compte les phénomènes variés, complexes et souvent négligés de la vie humaine, et dont l’« objectivité » est établie de manière radicalement nouvelle, et l’on peut penser de manière non fondationnaliste et non métaphysique.

Les théoriciens continuent aujourd’hui de débattre des façons dont de telles fondations peuvent être établies ou pas, peuvent être justifiées rationnellement ou pas ; mais il ne semble pas possible de passer outre à la nécessité de la justification normative (et donc, de la théorie morale) dès lors que l’on s’aventure dans l’arène de la critique sociale et politique. C’est là qu’est, je crois, le plus important défi pour la philosophie morale et politique aujourd’hui. De par leur caractère, les arguments que nous devons inévitablement employer dans la sphère morale doivent trouver leur place dans un cadre théorique plus large afin de démontrer que nos critiques ne sont ni purement de circonstance, ni ne satisfont des objectifs idéologiques suspects. (summary and translation in French of the above article from Nader N. CHOKR / résumé et traduction de l’article ci-dessus en anglais de Nader N. CHOKR )




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