Amélie Oksenberg Rorty (1932-2020)

Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, a philosopher known for her work in moral psychology and ethics, has died.

Professor Rorty wrote about a range of issues in moral philosophy, including character, identity, the emotions, self-knowledge and self-deception, and weakness of will, as well as on many figures in the history of philosophy, such as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Spinoza, Rousseau, and others. Some of her essays are collected in the volume, Mind in Action. You can learn more about her work here.

Professor Rorty taught at many institutions over the course of her career, including Harvard University, Boston University, Rutgers University, Brandeis University, Yale University, Mt. Holyoke College, and Wheaton College. She earned her Ph.D. from Yale and was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago.

An appreciation of the complexity of the human condition was a hallmark of her work. Consider the following, from her 1994 essay, “User-Friendly Self-Deception“:

We cannot avoid self-deception. Even open-eyed ambivalence is subject to the self-deceived conviction that although we are conflicted, the appropriate attitude will emerge in the right way at the right time. But we should not wish to do without the active, self-induced illusions that sustain us. Nor can we do without second order denials that they are illusions, the second order and regressive strategies that we self-deceptively believe rationalize our various self-deceptive activities. The question is: how can we sustain the illusions essential to ordinary life, without becoming self-damaging idiots?…

In evaluating the self-deception of our friends and enemies, in retrospectively gauging our own, we are directed by judgments about the merits of the ends it serves, as well as judgments about whether those ends could have been better served by other means. In making such evaluations, we need to think laterally as well as linearly, systematically as well as episodically. We need to consider the global effects of all our epistemic and psychological activities—their addictive qualities as well as their immediate benefits. When they are successful, psychological and intellectual activities typically tend to become rapidly entrenched, ramified and generalized.

But we have very little latitude in monitoring our psychological activities, and still less in forming them. Our epistemological strategies become habitual before we are aware of their patterns and consequences. As philosophers, the best thing we can do about self-deception is what we should do about our other psychological and intellectual activities: engage ourselves in the task of understanding the minute details of its operations. Since we are highly susceptible to socially induced self-deception, the wisest practical course is to be very careful about the company we keep. But it is no easy task to determine where our best protection lies. On the one hand, prudence counsels avoiding the company of charismatic rhetoricians who might mislead us. On the other hand, it is not easy to identify epistemic seducers, particularly when we benefit from hospitality to a wide range of opinions, each with a distinctive critical perspective on our favourite illusions.

Unfortunately self-deception is just the thing that prevents us from seeking its best therapy: it does not know when to expand, and when to limit its epistemological company. Fortunately, we have many other kinds of reasons for being astute about the company we keep. With luck, a canny self-deceiver’s other psychological and intellectual habits—a taste for astringency and a distrust of hypocrisy, for instance—can prevent the wild imperialistic tendencies of self-deception from becoming entrenched and ramified.

But that is a matter of luck; and as we know, ambivalence is the best attitude towards luck.

She died on September 18th.

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