In Their Own Words: Glenn Greenwald, Armatya Sen, John Gray

by A. Jay Adler on January 3, 2012
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Glenn Greenwald, considering Christopher Hitchens and George Packer and aiming the gun at his own head.

Is it really “a sign of decency” to refuse to view any political ideas as not merely wrong in some abstract intellectual sense, but as a reflection of the person’s character? Obviously, there are many political disagreements — most — which can and should be conducted in perfectly good faith without the need for personal animus. Conversely, though, aren’t there some political views so repellent and sociopathic that “a sign of essential decency” is to make it personal, rather than refusing to do so?

Armatya Sen on David Hume - tell it to the relativists.

Great harm has been done to contemporary decision theory and the theory of rational choice by the presumption that reasoning can be given a role only if it is able to resolve every decisional problem. Indeed, understanding the incompleteness of our ordered information about the world, or stopping at incomplete—but articulate—orderings of alternative courses of action, is an integral part of human reasoning. The large subject of learning to rely on partial resolution, which is quite crucial in modern social choice theory, clearly has Humean antecedents. The usefulness of reasoning is not dependent on its being able to solve every problem at hand.

This understanding, which is still inadequately appreciated in decisional analysis, was championed already by Hume more than a quarter of a millennium ago. And I should add here that even the Hobbesian insistence on the need for a sovereign state for the possibility of saying anything coherent about justice, which allegedly makes any contemporary statements on “global justice” to be a “chimera,” closely relates to the assumption that no idea of justice can be viable unless it is able to resolve every putative claim of injustice. In this “all or nothing” view, we cannot seek an enhancement of justice through preventing famines, genocides, or gross subjugation of women in the world until a global sovereign state starts functioning and can meet all the institutional needs of a globally just world. This is indeed a far cry from Hume’s understanding of the gradual enlargement of “the boundaries of justice” in the world. And that understanding remains critically relevant as we try to remove patent injustices that plague our world.

John Gray vs. Francis Fukuyama: are we there yet? Probably.

The idea of progress and the idea of utopia may seem to be at odds. Progress is open-ended, many like to think, while utopia signifies a condition of static perfection. Actually both presuppose an end to conflict and change of any fundamental kind.

Utopias need not be fixed and immobile. Marx refused to speculate on the precise nature of a communist future. But never doubting that the basic causes of human conflict would be removed forever along with capitalism, he was still a utopian thinker.

Follies and delusions

While constantly urging the necessity for change, believers in gradual progress also assume that fundamental conflicts will wither away. Along with Marx, they imagine a radical alteration in human existence as a consequence of which the recurrent struggles that have shaped human life throughout the ages will be no more.

In different ways utopian thinkers and believers in gradual progress both look forward to an end to history as it has always been.

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For believers in progress it must be a dispiriting prospect. But if you can shake off this secular myth you will see there is no need to despair. The breakdown of a particular set of human arrangements is not after all the end of the world.

Surely we would be better off if we put an end to our obsession with endings. Humans are sturdy creatures built to withstand regular disruption. Conflict never ceases, but neither does human resourcefulness, adaptability or courage.

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Without the faith that the future can be better than the past, many people say they could not go on. But when we look to the future to give meaning to our lives, we lose the meaning we can make for ourselves here and now.

The task that faces us is no different from the one that has always faced human beings – renewing our lives in the face of recurring evils. Happily, the end never comes. Looking to an end-time is a way of failing to cherish the present – the only time that is truly our own.

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