Amelie Rorty

Vale Amelie Rorty

22 September, 2020

20 May 1932 – 18 September 2020

The Belgian-born American philosopher was known for her work in the philosophy of mind (in particular on the emotions[1]), history of philosophy (especially Aristotle,[2]Spinoza[3] and Descartes[4]), and moral philosophy.

From the tensions in the definition of the alienable properties of selves, and from the corruptions in societies of selves — the divergence of practice from ideological commitments — comes the invention of individuality. It begins with conscience and ends with consciousness.

Rorty believed that philosophy “is essentially a participant sport”, and so liked to teach small discussion/workshop seminars on the topic, much like Cranlana Centre.

In our Executive Colloquium we draw upon her article, ” How to Harden Your Heart: Six Easy Ways to Become Corrupt”, in which Rorty uses a relatively mundane and familiar story about office politics to illuminate how easy it is to fall below the ethical standards that we expect of ourselves. She shows how our ordinary psychological traits — like the tendency to focus on the present rather than think longer term, or the desire to fit in with the group — can easily lead us astray.

Rorty’s point is that moral failure is not usually a spectacular fall from grace, but rather the cumulative result of patterns of behaviour built up over time. We might make a small error of judgment, but hide it from others out of embarrassment, and tell ourselves it was a one-off. But then it happens again, and again. Rather than confront the problem or recognise the pattern, we keep making excuses for ourselves, in a compounding process of self-deception. What began as a single ethical lapse has now become a habit, entrenched in our character.

Rorty notes that this sort of moral failing does not result purely from our personal flaws and weaknesses, but is compounded by social and organisational influences. If advertising constantly encourages us to give into our desires, for example, then it is hardly surprising that we struggle to moderate our appetites. If our progress up the corporate ladder depends on maximising short term profits above all else, then it’s no wonder that we think more about securing sales and cutting costs than environmental impact. As Aristotle says, it’s no easy task to be good. Rorty reminds us that leading an ethical life requires not only individual effort to create good habits in ourselves, but collective work to build just social and organisational structures that encourage good habits in all of us.

Being an individual requires having a room of one’s own, not because it is one’s possession, but because only there, in solitude, away from the pressure of others, can one develop the features and styles that differentiate one’s own being from others. Integrity comes to be associated with difference; this idea, always implicit in individuality, of preserving one’s right against the encroachment of others within one’s own society, emerges as dominant… Conscientious consciousness is then the transparent eye that illuminates the substance of social life.

For more about Amelie Rorty’s work – Brain Pickings, Maria Popova, ‘What Makes a Person? The Seven Layers of Identity in Literature and Life’

Cranlana Centre for Ethical Leadership’s programs include the 2 day Executive Ethics, 6 day Executive Colloquium and year-long Vincent Fairfax Fellowship. We also deliver online and tailored corporate programs. Find the right program for you. They are all held under the Chatham House Rule to encourage genuine and open debate, and allow participants to candidly discuss sometimes sensitive issues in private while allowing the topic and nature of the debate to be made public, and contribute to a broader conversation. The alumni program offers ongoing leadership development support and a lifelong connection with Cranlana.

Photo by Mike Ko on Unsplash

  1. Boler, Megan (June 1997). “Disciplined Emotions: Philosophies of Educated Feelings”. Educational Theory47(2): 208. doi:10.1111/j.1741-5446.1997.00203.x.
  2. ^ Weller, Cass (17 June 2003). “Review of Martha C. Nussbaum and Amélie Oksenberg Rorty (eds.), Essays on Aristotle’s De Anima”Bryn Mawr Classical Review. Archived from the original on 11 August 2011. Retrieved 28 July 2013.
  3. ^ Sharp, Hasana (2010). “Oppositional Ideas, Not Dichotomous Thinking: Reply to Rorty”. Political Theory38(1): 142–147. doi:10.1177/0090591709348876.[permanent dead link]
  4. ^ Rorty, Amélie (1986). Essays on Descartes'” Meditations”. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0520055094.