Thursday, May 19, 2005

Kagan and History as Moral Teacher

After reading Phillip Kennicott's pretty derogatory remarks regarding Donald Kagan's "In Defense of History" (the 34th Annual Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities), I got the impression that Kennicott was being unnecessarily critical and rather hyperbolic in his criticism. This was primarily because there was no access to the text of the speech and, as such, I only could read the snippett's quoted by Kennicott. I also wondered what others would have to say. Well, the wait is over. The speech is now available (see above link) and others (George Will and Suzanne Fields, for instance) have weighed in. Now I realize why Kennicott was so critical. I won't parrot Will or Fields, you can read them yourself, but in essence Kagan championed History as a method by which morality can be taught through its own chronicled examples. This has actually caused a debate among the conservatives at The National Review's "The Corner" blog. Ramesh Ponurru has taken umbrage with George Will's characterization of Kagan's downplaying of religion's role in being a moral guidpost while Johah Goldberg asks Ponurru
But what exactly is your problem with the Will column? I didn't love it, but it seems to me one can derive some moral lessons from the history of humanity. I don't think history will ever convince a large number of atheists that God exists -- or vice versa -- but surely your inner Hayek or Burke sees some use for history in moral argumentation?
To this, Ponurru responded
Well, sure, I see some use for history. But I wouldn't argue, as Will does, for history at the expense of philosophy, religion, and poetry. You need to bring philosophy to bear on history to generate moral conclusions. Nor would I argue for history over philosophy, as Will does, on the basis of philosophy's capacity to generate disagreement.
I think what Ponurru is not willing to concede that Kagan and Will already believe is that there are some philosophical truths that have been mutually arrived at that are (seemingly) incontrovertably juxtaposed. As a result, Kagan and Will have turned to the "practicallity" of history instead of the idealistic realm of philosophy that, as Kagan put it, "inevitably leads to metaphysics, the investigation of first principles and the problem of ultimate reality, which over the millennia has led to massive disagreement, no progress, cynicism and rejection." Will and Kagan fail to see anything that can be taken out of the "black box" of modern day philosophy that can be applied pragmatically. Ponurru thinks that they mean that philosophy is not as practical because it doesn't generate disagreement. I think it would be better to say that the disagreement's generated by philosophy are particularly tough to resolve.

But back to the original point. It must be accepted that not all Americans will adhere to a religious basis for their morality. Lacking that, only tradition informed by history can perform a similar function. Thus, to me, it is important to ensure that the ideals held by those that came before us not be characterized as without value because of misplaced revisionism based on the "hypocrisy" of the dead white guys. Inherent in this is that we don't downplay or forget from whence these individuals derived their morality. (Please, no comments on the benefits of revision. I agree, I'm only talking about revsion in the sense that it is overplayed for political or polemical reasons).

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