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David Wong’s Interview at 3AM: “The Pluralist”

David Wong is the Susan Fox Beischer and George D. Beischer Professor of Philosophy at Duke University.

the pluralist

Interview by Richard Marshall.

Click here for the whole interview!

I think that all moralities adequately serving the function of fostering social cooperation must contain a norm of reciprocity—a norm of returning good for good received. Such a norm is a necessity, I argue, because it helps relieve the strains on motivation of contributing to social cooperation when it comes into conflict with self-interest. I also identify a constraint I called “justifiability to the governed,” which implies that justifications for subordinating people’s interests must not rely on falsehoods such as the natural inferiority of racial or ethnic groups or the natural incapacities of women.

My version of relativism is pluralistic and attributes functions to morality that in combination with human nature place limits on what could count as a true morality. Unlike many other relativists, I do not hold that people are subject to a morality because they all belong to a certain group. That is, I don’t hold that being a member of a group makes one’s subject to some set of generally accepted norms. What is true is that others around us teach us morality and moral language, so they inevitably influence us. That is why there are moral traditions that share important values, shared interpretations of those values, and certain shared ways of prioritizing them. But even within those moral traditions there are disagreements that don’t bottom out in facts that decide the issues.

Zhuangzi is especially insightful about the human pretension to know. The Zhuangzi tells a story about a frog who lives in caved-in well. Because he is the lord of this little world of his, king of the pollywogs, he is very proud of himself. But he doesn’t know how small his world is until a turtle comes and tells him about the vastness of the sea. We human beings are like the frog, not realizing how little our worlds are.

The Chinese concept of rights arose, then, in a context of power. Western nations had become powerful enough, and imposed their will in nakedly aggressive fashion, so that they had to be addressed in their terms. Eventually rights in Chinese thought are attributed not just to nation states but also to individual people.

The Confucians paid a great deal attention to ritual, highlighting the ones that expressed the sorts of affective attitudes one wants to cultivate, engaging in them with keen awareness of their value for shaping and reshaping the self, and insisting on the need to be emotionally present to their significance for one’s relationship to others. If we Americans want to rebuild our capacities for a shared life, we would do well to pay attention to all this. I know it will be greeted with skepticism by those who think that these ideas will only work in a more homogeneous society, but China, even ancient China, is and was more pluralistic than we suppose, and it was Confucius who said that harmony is not the same as agreement.

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