In response to my cri de coeur, Paul asks a complex and interesting question, which I shall try to address. Here is what he has to say:
"On several occasions you've mentioned that long work has led you to conclude that there is no neutral pou sto from which, by rational deliberation alone, we can decide the appropriate principles of distributive justice on which to base a social order. As a consequence, you maintain that the most fundamental decision each of us makes in life is our choice of comrades. My own theory of justice is a not very coherent kitchen table blend of Rawls, Lomasky and some luck egalitarianism. As I approach retirement I sometimes think that I should spend some time sharpening it up but suspect that my untutored efforts would not leave me with any great satisfaction. I'm interested in your reflections on choice of comrades. Can this sort of choice be usefully placed on a spectrum which might have a Kierkegaardian choice on one end and a Benthamite calculus on the other - or does that sort of characterization of the choice miss something important? Do you think that ultimately incomplete or unsatisfying theories of justice are important guides to or constraints on the choice?"
Each of us is born into an historical, social, economic, and cultural moment that shapes who we are and how we experience the world long before we are old enough to reflect on such things thoughtfully. As Erik Erikson writes, in a passage I am fond of quoting, "An individual life is the accidental coincidence of but one life cycle with but one segment of history." [Childhood and Society.] Had I been an eleventh century Frankish serf or a first century B. C. Roman senator or a Mayan priest or a Mongol horseman, or indeed a nineteenth century British MP, not only would my beliefs be quite different, so even would be the psychodynamic organization of my personality.
But though I am aware of the extent to which I am embedded in my "one life cycle," I am also aware that I have choices that will shape my moral and political commitments. I can choose to identify with the interests of my social and economic class, which in my case is the White educated upper middle class of late twentieth and early twenty-first century America, or I can choose to make common cause with working class American men and women of many races. Since the interests of these two groups of people are in important ways opposed, this choice of comrades, as I have called it, has implications for my politics.
There are times when the choices I have made place me in stark and immediate confrontation with those who have made different choices, as when I sat down in front of Memorial Hall in Cambridge, Mass. in an anti-apartheid demonstration and blocked some of my classmates from attending a fund-raising dinner during Harvard's 350th anniversary celebrations, or when I stood with students and faculty on the campus of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg confronting police who had come to the campus to disperse us.
I do not experience the choices I have made as guided by, or indeed even inspired by, philosophical texts I have read. I experience these as choices of people with whom I make common cause, not as choices of doctrines with which I have some sympathy. If I were to ask what has influenced my decision to be, as we say, a man of the left , I would be more likely to cite the inspiration of my grandfather, Barnet Wolff, who devoted his life to the Socialist Party of New York City, and [in a negative way] the example of his son, my father, who fell away from the socialism of his youth to become a loyal supporter of the Democratic Party of FDR.
As I have written, when I finally conceded defeat in my long effort to find in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant a persuasive argument for the universal validity of a fundamental moral principle on which to ground my actions, I experienced that failure as a liberation. Odd as it may seem, I felt free to choose my comrades, to take sides, and to act, confident that although there could be many arguments calling into question the particular ways in which I implemented my commitments, there could be no argument demonstrating that I had chosen the wrong side. That choice was a life choice, a decision as to whom I chose to be. Kant, Kierkegaard, Bentham, Kant, even Marx could not in effect make that choice for me.
As I look back on a long life, now eighty-two years in the unfolding, I am conscious of many, many ways in which I have fallen short, but I have no doubts at all about the choice of comrades I made early in my life. There shall be no chapter by me in an updated edition of The God That Failed.