Saddam Hussein Learned from Richard Rorty
Tibor R. Machan
In his very instructive book Natural Right and History the justly famous classical political scientist Leo Strauss—sometimes credited with (or blamed for) neo-conservatism—make the point that without firm standards of right versus wrong, all that can count in the determination of right and wrong is who is being earnest—whose is “a resolute or deadly serious decision.” Here is how he put the point:
If there is no standard higher than the ideal of our society, we are utterly unable to take a critical distance from that idea. But the mere fact that we can raise the question of the worth of the idea of our society shows that there is something in man that is not altogether in slavery to his society, and therefore that we are able, and hence obliged, to look for a standard with reference to which we can judge the ideals of our own as well as of any other society. That standard cannot be found in the needs of the various societies, for the societies and their parts have many needs that conflict with one another; the problem if priorities arises. This problem cannot be solved in a rational manner if we do not have a standard with reference to which we can distinguish between genuine needs and fancied needs and discern the hierarchy of the various types of genuine needs. The problem posed by the conflicting needs of society cannot be solved if we do not possess knowledge of natural right.
These lines by Strauss were written in the 1950s but they could easily have been addressed to the position advocated by Richard Rorty, who does believe that “there is no standard higher than the ideal of our society,” thus no way to compare the standards of one society to another. As Rorty put the point, “Non-meta-physicians [which by his account includes Rorty and all wise persons] cannot say that [e.g.,] democratic institutions reflect a moral reality and that tyrannical regimes do not reflect one, that tyrannies get something wrong that democratic societies get right.”
OK, now fast forward to the trial of Saddam Hussein going on in Iraq just now. The defendant has been charged with innumerable heinous crimes, including genocide, but he protests not that he is innocent but that those sitting on the bench do not have the authority to judge him. As he shouted the other day, "I will not return, I will not come to an unjust court! Go to Hell!"
Indeed, if there is no justice beyond what one’s own society views believes, Hussein has no reason to acknowledge that the court now embarking to stand in judgment of him can dispense justice. The only justice he will accept is the only justice our relativists philosophers accept, namely, the justice of one’s own society, of one’s own community. There is no higher justice.
This, in part, is the logical implication of the irrational tolerance that has been advocated by multicultural modern liberals, thinkers who do not acknowledge any common standard by which human beings and their conduct can be evaluated or judged. No, only relative standards exists, the standards or ideals of one’s society which, in practice, can mean simply one’s very own standards or ideals (needs, desires, wishes, hopes, fantasies). And by this very widely promulgated position—in many universities by major moral and political thinkers in our time—Saddam Hussein has no reason to accept any standard other than his own. Accordingly, he is justified in dismissing the court in which he is being tried, a court that is not of his own choosing.
Some people have the idea that philosophical opinions are but part of a clever game, of various sophistic verbal acrobatics. As the late David L. Norton put it in his unique, dissident book, Personal Destinies (1976), “philosophy bakes no bread.” They believe philosophy need not be taken seriously at all—we can fantasize about parallel universes, multicultural justice, logic without reality and reality without logic. All of this is fair game since in our imagination we can find some legitimate room for such speculations. And what else is there in the world but speculation? All of what we take to be true, such thinkers maintain, is but our own subjective truths with no claim to any universality, with no reference to some common reality, especially when it comes to matters of morality and politics.
Mr. Hussein has learned his contemporary philosophical lessons—at least those of some of our most prominent philosophers—very well. He would easily get his PhD in the field.