Rorty on Overcoming the Choice between Hubris or Humility, by Tom Spector

When working abroad within cultures that do not share our values or legal protections against, say, bribery, women’s participation, worker safety, environmental degradation, or theft of intellectual property many architects, as philosopher Michael Zimmerman ably described in his essay “Globalization, Multiculturalism and Architectural Ethics” in Graham Owen’s edited volume Architecture, Ethics and Globalization feel torn between the undesirable poles of ethnocentric hubris or a stifling multicultural relativism. Neither pole seems to provide the desired foundational certainty to establish firm ethical-political positions in the face of those in power in other countries where our dominant, Western, Enlightenment bourgeois views on justice, political enfranchisement, individuals’ rights, environmental responsibility and individual achievement are dismissed as inapplicable to their culture. Zimmerman’s architect is torn, not so much out of self-doubt, but because such constituent elements of our Western values system as the worth of the individual and a commitment to political pluralism lead us to refrain from overly asserting our values on others.


Richard Rorty, who spent much of his career taking up John Dewey’s cause of disabusing philosophers’ “quest for certainty” saw nothing but 200 years of failed attempts to provide an objective, cross-cultural basis for Western ethical commitments and saw no options in the face of the sorts of situations Zimmerman describes other than a defeatist relativism or frank ethnocentrism. He opts for an enlightened ethnocentrism—by which he means commitment to a set of practices born of hard-won experience but which may well be disputed by others who do not share enough political and cultural overlap with us. Rorty thought that, even though the hope of objectively proving to others the worth of Western ethical commitments was a doomed one, nevertheless we could hold to preferences for these commitments without apology to others who do not share them. This paper explores Rortian ethnocentrism as a viable point of view to help work through the dilemmas of globalized architectural practice in conflict with problematic local political practices and concludes that, despite some limitations and concerns, his approach has much to recommend itself to enable a Western architect to proceed with a semblance of his values intact.

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