Justice and Metaphysics.


Nick comments on the last thread: 

If I have a commitment to a certain conception of justice, is this practically any different from someone who has an elaborate metaphysical system that tries to justify this same principle?

I think this is a somewhat different conversation, I hope, at least that’s how I would see it, yet it is related to our whole conversation about realism because, if anyone remembers, it started with a simple of question of the nature of normativity – to simplify it significantly, I think I was asking a question not unlike this one: If a realist is someone who thinks that is a knowable world out there and all our philosophical efforts should be directed at getting to know it better, then this attitude seems to lack a dimension of “ought” and is found primarily in the dimension of “is” which is to say, it does not seem to be concerned with the way the world should be but only with a way the world is. Many objections were raised, the discussion veered off into Kantian ethics and so on, but still I thought that the only way “ought” would enter a realist world view is through a kind of fiat: there are ideas of justice and peaceful coexistence, we don’t know where they are coming from, but we have them now so there.

Of course, knowing that we have ideas of justice and not knowing where they are coming from is precisely the problem. Levi proposed that all of these ideas come from evolutionary development, biology and so on and so forth, a kind of reductionist reading that I sure some find to be comforting, but that I find to be more or less relativistic, not to sound like a fundamentalist Christian here, but my point is this: if the idea of justice come from nature, then saying it is a result of evolution is really not saying much – walking upright also comes from evolution, but it does not explain why people also put scates on their feet and play hockey. In this sense, a simple reference to biology does not give much to work with either philosophicall or politically, because it still does not explain the “ought” just the “is” I think. 

My overall point here is this: commitment to a certain conception of justice is a commitment to a conception, therefore, without an ability to demonstrate what that conception is or how we come up with that conception might work just fine on the level of pedestrian politics, mass movements, populist ideologies, but it is ultimately empty without at least some philosophical justification. Even “good” conceptions like “human rights” are in need of justification: I was a symposium some months back and one of the speaker’s questions to another speaker, a philosopher, concerning his reflections on the nature of human rights was something like this: “Human right discourse has established itself today to be a prevalent discourse in international studies, why do you philosophers have to go and question it potentially giving the enemies of human rights weapons in their fight against the concept?” To which philosopher responded, perhaps naively, but correctly, I think: “Since when did the hegemonic status of a discourse also somehow demonstrated its truth, since when do we think that just because a particular conception is prevalent and useful, we must accept its truth and stop questioning it?”  Can we imagine a smooth functioning of the human rights movement without much conceptualization? Sure, but not before it became a household term and only until someone challenges the idea and we will have to justify its prevalent use. 

Politics without an elaborate metaphysical system, I think, has a tendency toward pure instrumentality, a kind of managerial support – and by “metaphysical system” here I mean a simple idea of what the world is like and what it should be and how we know that it is the case. Well, at least I’ll say that to see if there’s any interest in this sort of conversation…

Advertisements

42 thoughts on “Justice and Metaphysics.

  1. Mikhail,

    I guess for me the question is that of what alternative we have. That is, if dualism is largely defeated as defensible philosophical position, if a transcendentalist approach to mind is no longer sustainable due to its implicit dualistic commitments and its conflicts with cognitive science and brain science, and if naturalistic approaches to the nature of mind are the most likely hypothesis, then what other alternative are you proposing? As you sometimes like to say “wishing does not make it so.” We can’t just wish that our minds are a particular way or wish away that naturalistic grounds of our cognition and nature. This entails that any normative theory must be situated in the context of this basic framework.

    It also seems to me that you are attacking a strawman, and again confusing quid juris issues with quid facti issues. Both Kant and the realist are agreed with the quid facti point that people posit values. In fact, Kant explicitly states in The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals that his moral philosophy is not teaching us anything that we didn’t already know. Quid facti it is entirely appropriate for the realist to point out that people posit values and to express perplexity at the idea that somehow this disappears if naturalism is true. The quid juris or philosophical question is that of how these values are grounded. The realist argues that any theory of values must be situated within a naturalistic framework as this framework is what we know to be true. The question then is how to account for these values within that framework.

  2. Levi, I appreciate your late fascination with neuroscience and all things brain-related, but let me assure you the issues of brain-consciousness relation are far from being solved. But regardless of that issue, I don’t think “transcendental approach to mind” can be easily equated with “dualism” at all.

    We can’t just wish that our minds are a particular way or wish away that naturalistic grounds of our cognition and nature. This entails that any normative theory must be situated in the context of this basic framework.

    For you, yes, because you clearly think that brain sciences tell us all we need to know about mind, i.e. your reductionist stand that brain=mind forces any of your normative theories into this framework. Again, the equation brain=mind is hotly debated in the neuroscience and philosophy, as far as I can tell, maybe there was a meeting where the issue was resolved and I missed it. So you are stuck with:

    The realist argues that any theory of values must be situated within a naturalistic framework as this framework is what we know to be true.

    It’s funny how we jump from a long and tiresome discussion of whether realism is a true philosophical position to already accepting that it is, or do you mean something else by “naturalistic framework” here? I appreciate your educating me about the meaning of quid facti and quid juri here but how exactly does “naturalistic framework” ground our values and give them any sort of “ought”? If your naturalist stance is “I am the way I am and I cannot change the way my mind is and wishing it so will not make a difference” then you are describing “is” and not “ought” – how do you get from your one-dimensional naturalism to any yes dualist perspective on “is”/”ought”?

    In fact, Kant explicitly states in The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals that his moral philosophy is not teaching us anything that we didn’t already know.

    I am sure that by “explicitly” here you mean something like “in my interpretation” – where exactly does Kant say that he is not giving us a moral philosophy that we didn’t already know? I mean my book here states the opposite:

    “Let it not be thought however that what is here called for already exists [reference to Wolff]… and that we do not therefore have to break into an entirely new field .” [4:390] The whole purpose of the Preface to Groundwork is to inform the readers about Kant’s own take on the matter and why previous attempts at “metaphysics of morals” fail to take into account certain aspects of normativity.

    I wish we’d stay away from interpretation of Kant though, clearly you have some sort of a method that allows you to read Kant in some cases in the exact opposite manner to the intention he explicitly states – let’s just agree to disagree here and talk about the subject matter at hand. Notice, I did not cite Kant in my post, not did I cite any other thinker there, just issues – isn’t that what you always wanted to do and why you think Continental tradition is so rotten with its exegetics and “book reports”?

  3. To co-opt a tired expression, Levi, whereas Mikhail is talking about apples, you’re talking about typewriters. Your concerns aren’t the same as his. So the criticism here seems to miss the point.

    Besides, a physicalist account of, say, mind, doesn’t invalidate a transcendental account, although the former may disprove a particular version of the latter. I mean, really, Transcendental philosophy simply says “x, y, and z are the conditions of possibility for experience” and then the naturalist comes along as says, “x, y, and z are functions of the brains, which are the products of natural selection.” Where’s the contradiction?

    More simply put, Mikhail isn’t talking about any kind of dualism. He’s talking about normativity — the quid iuris you keep bringing up — instead of the quid facti of physicalist explanation.

    As a sidenote, I think you’re sorta skewing the distinction between quid iuris and quid facti. That people have evaluative notions is only the beginning of a quaestio facti. One still needs to identify which notions are in play, and what their structure is. (quid-facti = metaphysical deduction, which has two parts: a metaphysical explication, and a metaphysical deduction; quid iuris = transcendental explication and transcendental deduction, which require an antecedent medtaphysical deduction to provide the appropriate material for discussion).

  4. Ah, and another round of ruthless fighting commences – these should be called Ultimate Philosophical Fights, you know? A cage, not rules, all that stuff – although just like in its real fighting equivalent (UFC), it’ll probably end up in a lot of headlocks and awkward rolling around on the ground…

  5. Mikhail,

    I guess that, despite the fact that we haven’t yet solved the problem of consciousness– that we don’t have the nuts and bolts explaining how brain produces consciousness –we have ample evidence that the brain does produce consciousness through various forms of brain damage and the way they affect consciousness. There really just isn’t a credible debate on this issue, and taking a dualistic position is a bit like trying to defend Aristotlean concepts of motion and the prime mover after Newton. This issue isn’t hotly debated in neuroscience, though it is in philosophy.

    When you ask me how the naturalistic framework grounds normativity, that’s precisely the question. There is one of two choices here. Either it thoroughly undermines normativity, in which case this discussion is entirely moot (as we already know that dualism is mistaken and therefore there wouldn’t be an alternative), or there is an account of normativity consistent with naturalism. The latter option would be the happy option. Should you just reject naturalism altogether, then being an evidence based thinker myself and going with those conclusions that are most likely based on available evidence, I’ll smile privately to myself and leave you to your pet mythologies.

  6. Levi,

    I don’t mean it in a disrespectful way, but you are hardly an authority on the nature of the debates in neuroscience, although I am sure you are well read in that area, but I’ve read some books myself – to suggest that “brain produces consciousness” is well-accepted and well-established fact is to misrepresent the situation. For those who never distinguished between the two, like you seem to be arguing, there’s no debate, of course – but even if brain=mind was entirely non-controversial and established view, as Alexei pointed out, transcendental level is not equal to the level of the mind, so even if neuroscience clearly established that this or that particular process “produces consciousness” it would be nothing threatening to the transcendental level. I’m not going to repeat Alexei’s comment here.

    Should you just reject naturalism altogether, then being an evidence based thinker myself and going with those conclusions that are most likely based on available evidence, I’ll smile privately to myself and leave you to your pet mythologies.

    I have been rejecting your version of reductionist naturalism for months now, your evidence-based approach is great and all, yet you got extremely mad when I suggested that it leads nowhere as there are as many various realisms as one is willing to imagine – yet only one of them could be true, because it is evidence-based and evidence is, as you seem to imply, self-evident, right? I think that instead of insulting my intelligence here and my pet mythologies, you should just go ahead and proceed with your “private smiling” which, considering the arrogance of your scientism and self-assured realism without any visible notion of normativity, is probably the only choice you have anyway.

    When you ask me how the naturalistic framework grounds normativity, that’s precisely the question.

    I know, that’s why I asked the question, i.e. because it is precisely the question.

    There is one of two choices here. Either it thoroughly undermines normativity…

    Ok, this is what I was saying all along, i.e. there’s no normativity in naturalism. You are repeating my point.

    …or there is an account of normativity consistent with naturalism.

    Which you don’t provide either because it is not possible, or because you don’t know what it would be. In any case, I take your answer to be that there’s no normativity in naturalism, since all is material (no dualism) and all is just the way it is and there’s no sense of asking a simple normative question of how things “should be” – fine, I am satisfied with your answer.

  7. Not to get things off the track here, but wasn’t Meillassoux proposing we return to Descartes? He was a dualist, wasn’t he? He was a dualist before it was cool, I believe. I don’t understand how Levi’s enthusiasm for Meillassoux coexists with his enthusiasm for the most reductionist versions of scientism? Does it all just depend on the day of the week?

    And if all is matter (brain, biology, cells, what have you, I’m no scientist here), do we not end up with a kind of worst kind of nihilist position? I know wishing it is not making it so, but by God I really don’t feel like living in a world like that – maybe that’s why religion is so successful through the ages, it’s not religious opium that keeps the folks in, it’s the kind of tell-it-like-it-is and tough-luck scientists like Levi that are scaring them shitless into mythologies of, I don’t know, universal justice and love of neighbor?

    Oh wait, Levi is not a scientist, he is a philosopher – I’m sure this recent turn of events will now force him to quit his job and get back to school in order to become a scientist – I’d like to know how that goes – no, really, I do.

  8. Lou, I don’t think it’s fair to ask Levi to abandon his job as a philosopher, I’m sure there’s plenty he can do with it as a philosopher, including the somewhat self-hating diatribes about how philosophy is and have always been a parasite vis-a-vis other types of knowledge – my only concern is that all that “private smiling” can eventually make its way into the classroom and students will think he is strange always quietly smiling to himself as he is talking about Plato’s Forms or Descartes’ example of the wax.

  9. No offense, but this debate about normativity is like a meeting of the Politburo where they’re discussing whether someone should be shot for being a bourgeois lackey or an SR revisionist. It’s a parody of philosophical reasoning. You haven’t arrived at normativity after a long deductive trek from first principles; you simply assume that it’s there and try to come up with explanations that seem kinda convincing, like you’re proving something to yourself. Isn’t it more intellectually honest to start from the premise that everything is permitted, that there really isn’t any baleful universal eye making sure you don’t cross some arbitrary moral threshold? Why shouldn’t we just admit that our maxims are the product of habitus and education, not abstract rational principles? I’m not trying to strike a Raskolnikov pose here; I don’t think these premises make evading morality any easier or more honorable

  10. . Nonetheless, if you really believe in Kantian morality, how do you disentangle your upbringing from your rational maxims? Do you ever have moments when you stop and realize that a fundamental moral belief you had been educated in is wrong by Kant’s lights and should therefore be discarded?

  11. Isn’t it more intellectually honest to start from the premise that everything is permitted…?

    This premise is as arbitrary as starting from a premise that everything is forbidden – I’m sure if we were to start with “life” and “how things are” we could come up with a combination of things permitted and things forbidden – the problem with starting with experience is that a) it’s extremely particular and subjective (I could have a life of pleasure and see the world where everything is permitted, you could have a life of strict Prussian duty and see the world as full of prohibitions), b) at least Kant would argue that you cannot deduce prescription from description.

    The center of Kantian moral theory (there’s no Kantian morality, I am afraid, there’s just morality) is human autonomy (stemming from freedom) – only those laws that I give to myself are truly moral and binding, habits and education are all great resources, but they have nothing to do with morality because they are not freely given to oneself.

    Just to clarify, and I’ve said this many times, I happen to defend Kant on many occasions because I often encounter horribly disfigured presentations of what he was trying to say, I never claimed to “believe in Kantian morality” myself, I just happen to think that in comparison with some celebrated “virtue ethics” (that mostly happen to work when things are peaceful and uninterrupted by, I don’t know, globalization), Kant’s moral theory has more bite.

  12. Wow all this makes my head spin.

    Mikhail, you paraphrased a philosopher saying “since when do we think that just because a particular conception is (…) useful, we must accept its truth and stop questioning it?”

    I think that’s an interesting question. What I find particularly interesting is the implication here that questioning under all circumstances short of fully being convinced by an argument is always appropriate. Is there a responsibility on the part of philosophers for the potential uses of their questioning? I’m thinking of the person who your philosopher was responding to, who implied that undermining the idea of human rights might well help opponents of human rights who have no commitment to either truth or justice.

  13. Nate,

    I think the cited conversation (the general topic was the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe) was in itself a great example of how often philosophers and, in this case, international human rights scholars often speak different languages. The point of the human rights person was, as you are correct, that our irresponsible questioning of the idea of “human right” might assist those who are trying to undermine it, the point of the philosopher was, as far as I could tell, that it is one thing to suggest that something is useful (because hegemonic) and another that it is for that reason true – the response was a long discussion of how “truth” is not always the most useful concept in international politics and so on. I saw that there were donuts and coffee on the other side of the auditorium and, while trying to quietly make my way across the room, I missed the last part of the exchange.

  14. Slaw: ” Nonetheless, if you really believe in Kantian morality, how do you disentangle your upbringing from your rational maxims? Do you ever have moments when you stop and realize that a fundamental moral belief you had been educated in is wrong by Kant’s lights and should therefore be discarded?”

    Kvond: I like this framing very much.

  15. “a) it’s extremely particular and subjective (I could have a life of pleasure and see the world where everything is permitted, you could have a life of strict Prussian duty and see the world as full of prohibitions)”

    What’s wrong with being particular and subjective? Why is universal morality better than particular morality? To a large extent we exist in a landlocked, self-justifying, subjectivistic moral universe anyway, whether or not we admit it, so presumably it would be more pragmatically useful to accommodate our moral theories to that.

    “b) at least Kant would argue that you cannot deduce prescription from description.”

    Certainly not, but what I’m saying is that the words “normative” and “prescriptive” have no meaning except as subjectively experienced on a particular occasion. Even if I agree with Kant that he has correctly constructed his categorical imperative, the prescriptive quality of that imperative just does not exist in my subjective universe. Now, we can make the distinction between “absolute prescriptive” and “prescriptive for-us,” but the point is that the former term is irrelevant to any discussion of morality. Even if I’ve drawn a line in the sand for myself and declared “this is my maxim,” my day-to-day employment of morality is likely to be orthogonal to any theorizing I do about it.

    (Actually, I’m not interested in Kant here so much as the notion of normativity or the possibility of moral judgments in general.)

    I also don’t think the globalization issue is all that much of a problem (for Westerners). The Peter Singer tactic of calculating how much moral weight we should assign to actions that impact the Third World is a dead end–it relies on the illusion that we have life-and-death moral decisions to make on a regular basis and that our moral theory should account for that. That’s just not true. Very rarely do we get to make a decision (killing or letting die?) that’s of any interest to most moral philosophers, and when we do our course of action is guided by impulse and chance rather than reason or calculation.

  16. What’s wrong with being particular and subjective? Why is universal morality better than particular morality?

    There’s nothing wrong with subjective and particular, but, if I understand it, having a particular morality is like having a private language. I think by “particular morality” you simply mean something like “local traditions” and it’s just not what I would consider “morality” in a sense that I think morality should be, i.e. universalizable (but not necessarily universal). Particular and universal should work fine together, according to Kant, particular is the situation of decision-making, universal is the principle.

    Even if I agree with Kant that he has correctly constructed his categorical imperative, the prescriptive quality of that imperative just does not exist in my subjective universe.

    It does, that’s the whole point, I think. Categorical imperative as an imperative of action is as valid, for Kant, as, say, logical syllogisms or mathematical procedures. In short, to be human is to be rational (in addition to other characteristics, of course), to be rational is to be able to formulate maxims (noncontradictory maxims that is) for one’s particular decisions, to act on one’s maxim is to act morally.

    Very rarely do we get to make a decision (killing or letting die?) that’s of any interest to most moral philosophers, and when we do our course of action is guided by impulse and chance rather than reason or calculation.

    That’s an assumption that you have, I am not sure how you can demonstrate it to be the case – you can use examples, but it seems to me that, let’s leave Kant alone, any serious notion of normativity, any serious “ought” should be at least rationally defendable and justifiable, no?

    If I can say one more things about Kant, I think many people are uncomfortable with his formalism – what about the real life I am living? – but I think Kant’s approach is minimal enough where we can actually stop thinking about morality in terms of “good” and “evil” deeds which is where most particular and traditional “values” are located. One reason I find Kant interesting is that formalism/minimalism allows for some sort of a global system of values like “human rights” or “equality” without getting us bogged down in the substantive debate on what exactly those things are.

    That is if I can be very very general.

  17. M.E.: “let’s leave Kant alone, any serious notion of normativity, any serious “ought” should be at least rationally defendable and justifiable, no?”

    Kvond: One wonders if Abraham had a serious notion of “ought” when he went to sacrifice his Isaac.

  18. One wonders if Abraham had a serious notion of “ought” when he went to sacrifice his Isaac.

    Hegel’s early theological pieces (which have been sewn together to form “The Spirit of Christianity and it’s fate”) argue that Abraham doesn’t in fact have an ‘ought.’ At best he has Law. Although not exactly a Kantian argument for ‘morality,’ (one might say that Kant = Abraham for Hegel — or at least in this piece) it is a neat bit of reasoning.

  19. I sense that you are right about Kant = Abraham for Hegel, but if so, then perhaps for Kant Abraham = ought (if so, then Kierkegaard’s take on Abraham becomes instructive)

    Hegel of course had a problem with Antigone, she fell out of the female role in the State. I wonder, does, does Antigone have an serious notion of “ought”?

    And I thought we were putting away Kant, and simply talking only about “serious notions” of ought. I wonder, if the figures of Abraham and/or Antigone don’t have serious notions of ought, then “serious notion” is something that would be worth explicating.

  20. Mikhail,

    “My overall point here is this: commitment to a certain conception of justice is a commitment to a conception, therefore, without an ability to demonstrate what that conception is or how we come up with that conception might work just fine on the level of pedestrian politics, mass movements, populist ideologies, but it is ultimately empty without at least some philosophical justification. Even “good” conceptions like “human rights” are in need of justification”

    I don’t think giving rational reasons for one’s political commitments is at all at odds with any form of non-normative realism. I argued this point in the other post as well, but I don’t see any difference between a commitment that has some elaborate (but clearly not definitive) metaphysical system behind it, and a commitment that admits it can never ground itself in anything. The latter position, if anything,seems to avoid the worst excesses of the former by being pragmatic, and admitting its ultimate groundlessness. (Although the pragmatic position has its own excesses as you note – the tendency to managerialism.)

    So I’m curious to hear what people think the difference might be, if both normative positions are ultimately unjustified in any definitive sense…

  21. The ‘Antigone analysis’ in the Phenomenology is a fair bit more complicated than ‘she fell out of her role.’ Fact is, Antigone was quite consistent with her duties. The substantive issue issue is that duties (private and public) can come into conflict with one another (Antigone’s duty to bury her Brother and Creon’s duty to enforce that the public law [Traitors are not be respected/buried] — all of which is complicated by the fact that everyone is related to one another either by incestuous brithright or by marriage; everyone is in effect right in a world that can’t be), and thereby shatter the putatively harmonious structure of ethical life (which German classicism kept attributing to it). Hence why Antigone is a tragedy, and also why it’s instructive.

    All this to say then, that there is a very serious notion of ‘ought’ involved in Antigone — there are in fact a number of serious notion at play, but in order for Catharsis to have any purchase, the various notions have to come into conflict and annul one another. Antigone, then, represents something of a limit case (hence Hegel’s discussion).

    Maybe you could explain what you mean by ‘Kierkegaard’s analysis becoming instructive.’ I’m not sure what you’re getting at.

  22. Nick, you write,

    I don’t think giving rational reasons for one’s political commitments is at all at odds with any form of non-normative realism.

    But that’s surely a contradiction! Or maybe I don’t understand (another case of apples and typewriters, maybe; in which case, sorry for missing the point — could you please explain). What would it mean to be able to give reasons (i.e. to employ the normative, evaluative structures of argument and justification, which are only intelligible if those arguing tacitly hold such a common framework), if ‘giving reasons’ weren’t normative — i.e. rationally compelling or binding?

    Furthermore, talking about a non-normative realism sounds an awful lot like talking about ‘facts of the matter.’ One of the things Mikhail and I have been trying to point out is that the very idea of a fact/value distinction is fraught with normative preconditions. (and not just us! Kuhn has been mentioned already, but we could also invoke Putnam’s work [Realism with a human face, Ethics without Ontology, the Collapse of the fact/value distinction and other essays, The many faces of Realism, etc], Habermas’ too [Theory of communicative action, justification and Application, truth and justification, Brandom, McDowell, and the list grows] as prominent examples.). It just happens to be the case that there is a huge — with a capital ‘H’ to attest to the forests we’ve cut down to supply printers with paper — literature on this subject, and we’re not making up the standard view. IN point of fact, neither Mikhail nor myself have been very original.

    The idea of a ‘fact,’ of a non-normative realism, still functions within a normative space as a reason — something used to justify something else. To use one of Brandom’s collocations, we are concept mongers. And we can’t step out of our own skin to see hat a non-normative fact would even be, let alone what a thing in itself would look like

  23. Alexei: “The ‘Antigone analysis’ in the Phenomenology is a fair bit more complicated than ’she fell out of her role.”

    Kvond: Well, then we disagree, for Hegel makes a slight of hand in his argument, ultimately turning Antigone’s act into a generalized “perversion”, the perversion that marks “womankind” as a class (he is so tricky in his moves from the particular to the general):

    “Womankind…changes by intrigue the universal end of the government into a private end, transforms its universal activity into the work of some particular individual, and perverts the universal property of the state into a possession and ornament for the family”

    Hence, Hegel turns Antigone’s act into a perverting generalization, a deviation of the role of producing sons that may die in war protecting the state.

    As for whether “the fact is” that Antigone is consistent with her duties, this is not really a fact at all, but an open question of the play, as Kreon argues that her duty is to honor her brother whom Polyneices slew, and Ismene argues that it is her duty to preserve herself so as to maintain the family, with the implication that there are other mechanisms of power at play, other ways to achieve the wanted ends. Antigone certainly feels sure that she is consistent with her duties, but I can’t qualify this as a fact.

    As for Kierkegaard, I’m not “getting at” anything (I have no agenda). I am only suggesting rather obviously that if indeed Abraham exemplifies the “ought” for Kant, then Kierkegaard’s reading of Abraham it seems would come into play, something of how Badiou creates his Kantian like imperatives.

  24. Kevin, I think you’re taking that quotation out of context. As a general rule, you can’t just quote something from Hegel, because he’ll usually reverse that statement later on.

    The distribution of duties is indeed along a private/public axis, which is ‘naturally’ modeled by the difference between the sexes. The problem, of course, is that the very division leads to a contradiction, which shatters the very shape of the world!

  25. Alexei,

    I’ll fully admit up front that ethics is not my specialty at all. I know frighteningly little about the established literature on it, so I do enjoy you pointing out relevant works. That’s also to say that my own thoughts on it are far from clear or determined.

    I should clarify what I mean by a non-normative realism, which is essentially the idea that any true realism must be devoid of any guiding principles for us to live by. If the real (whatever it may be) is radically indifferent to life, let alone to humans or society, then it’s essentially impossible to read off any normative prescriptions from it. At this point in time, that’s as much an assertion as an argument, but I do think it’s a consequence of a realist ontology.

    Now I think non-normative realism, as I construe it, avoids invoking any ‘facts’ because the consequence I just cited refrains from making any claims about what that realism would be. In a sense, it’s more a structural argument than one about content.

    What I tried to point out with my question about the difference between the two positions, is whether a metaphysical system is necessary for ethical or political action. To take Mikhail’s example, the philosopher criticizing human rights is doing so from the perspective of a certain philosophical system. That philosopher provides extensive reasons for why we should be critical of human rights discourse. But that’s exactly what the human rights practitioner does as well. They provide the reasons for why they think Zimbabwe is in desperate need of human rights. And since the philosopher can never ultimately justify their position (otherwise we’d already have a universally agreed upon morality), in the end there seems to be no fundamental difference between the two positions.

  26. Alexei: “Kevin, I think you’re taking that quotation out of context. As a general rule, you can’t just quote something from Hegel, because he’ll usually reverse that statement later on.”

    Kvond: Hmmmm. I’m not sure how some later reversal then would justify this slight-of-hand generalization of Antigone. (It makes an odd kind of defense of Hegel.) I don’t really read Hegel according to general rules, but rather look specifically at the text, critically. In text Hegel performs an effacing movement from Antigone the person, her particular act, to “womankind” in generalization, which he suitably reads as a perversion and an ornamentation. Yes, Antigone was in Hegel’s view acting according to her duties, but as such she was simply acting “like a typical woman” (if I can put it that way), perversely ornamenting the family over the State.” The choices of words here, at least in my view, is highly instructive.

    In moving from the particular of Antigone, to women in general, Hegel is reducing her act in a destructive way. Antigone is quite specific, her act is not meant for other women. She makes no appeal at all the to the universal of her kind, or any other kind. Her eros attachments to her brother even violate basic kinship models. In my view Hegel simply invents his Antigone, refusing to take her on her own declared terms, and uses her as a launch pad for a generalization of his own. In my view, no matter the theoretical grain he makes from his grist of Antigone, it is an abusive reading of her declared position, and therefore a very poor interpretation of the ethicality of her action.

    In any case, if you run into the later reversal that then justifies how Antigone performs the mere womankind ornamenting perversion, let me know. I would certainly be interested.

  27. To draw upon a Monty Python skit, kevin: amongst Hegel’s conclusions about Antigone, we discover that no one can act appropriately, precisely because the specific form of life cannot cope with the situation developing within it. Sophocle’s Antigone represents a contradiction. That is, from within the confines of this shape of the world, Antigone can justify her actions and remonstrate Creon by appeal to the divine law. But Creon can do the same by appeal to the ‘universal’ law of man. Now as phenomenological observers, we’re supposed to feel torn between these two equally inadequate responses. The fact that ethical substance generates contrary justifications/reproaches is a contradiction, which sunders ethical substance, andpropels spirit forward.

    Now, you’ve only quoted the ‘Creon’ response — which isn’t identical to Hegel’s own position/view — without looking at the ‘Antigone’ response, and without looking at how these two responses arise from the situation at hand.

    But anyway, this isn’t a conversation about Hegel — so this particular issue is a red herring. If you want to discuss it, write something up and if it motivates me, I’ll respond.

  28. If the real (whatever it may be) is radically indifferent to life, let alone to humans or society, then it’s essentially impossible to read off any normative prescriptions from it.

    Nick, I think this is precisely what I was trying to say to Levi, but you did it in a much better concise way. I’m running around a bit today, would like to get into it with you fellows (probably will tomorrow or the next day), but simply wanted to point out that I agree with this formulation.

    Alexei is correct, my position was not only not original but also very much a crude simplification of the matter, my growing frustration therefore came primarily from my inability to explain something I thought was at least somewhat known…

  29. Alexei: “That is, from within the confines of this shape of the world, Antigone can justify her actions and remonstrate Creon by appeal to the divine law.”

    Kvond: Its been a year since I read the play (actually translated it), but I seem to recall very little remonstration of Creon on Antigone’s part. In fact, there is nothing really universal about Antigone’s appeal. She even claims that if her husband or child would have died there would not have been such a “duty”. So, I highly disagree with “this shape of the world” analysis.

    Alexei: “But Creon can do the same by appeal to the ‘universal’ law of man. Now as phenomenological observers, we’re supposed to feel torn between these two equally inadequate responses.”

    Kvond: Forgive me if I don’t accept your balanced Hegel-like prescription for how I am supposed to feel when I read, or see this play. I don’t at all agree that these two claims form a matching pair. In fact in my reading this is not at all the tragedy of Antigone (who owns her fate, and acts at times as if a supernatural force), but rather the tragedy of Creon who fullfills the classic tragic role.

    Alexei: “The fact that ethical substance generates contrary justifications/reproaches is a contradiction, which sunders ethical substance, andpropels spirit forward.”

    Kvond: Unfortunately this is not a fact, but rather Hegel’s invention, which, as I said, is based upon a Procrustean distortion of Antigone’s claim, shoehorned into this theory, (not unlike how history is shoehorned).

    Alexei: “Now, you’ve only quoted the ‘Creon’ response — which isn’t identical to Hegel’s own position/view — without looking at the ‘Antigone’ response, and without looking at how these two responses arise from the situation at hand. ”

    Kvond: You misrepresent/forget why I referred to Creon’s claim. It was simply to point out that it is not a “fact” that Antigone is doing her “duty”. Her duty is very much a question of the play.

    Alexei: “But anyway, this isn’t a conversation about Hegel — so this particular issue is a red herring.”

    Kvond: Actually, it isn’t a red herring at all (what on earth would I be trying to distract you and others from?). Antigone was originally brought up by me to test out the idea of what a “serious notion of ought” was, a phrase that Mikhail introduced as pivotal to the point he was making. It was you who thought that this was time to try to exercise some thoughts you may have had on Antigone and Hegel in the past. It has been an interesting enough discussion, though you seem not to be able to do much more than restate some positions of Hegel.

    Alexei: “If you want to discuss it, write something up and if it motivates me, I’ll respond.”

    Kvond: Thanks for the offer. I’ll be working day and night trying to come up with something that will elicit some more Hegelian summations, something that might motivate you. :).

  30. Thanks for the clarifications Nick — they help a great deal. Let me see if I understand you correctly, though. As I understand what you’ve said, you’ve made three basics claims:

    (1) whatever exists at the most fundamental stratum is indifferent to human existence.
    (2) whatever is ontologically basic does not supply any kind of reason/justification for intersubjective behaviour.
    (3) non-normative realism refrains from trading in facts (i.e. proposing them, invoking them, using them in justifications)

    Is that a fair characterization? if so, a couple things seem to follow. First, ‘non-normative realism’ (NNR) stands in opposition with Levi’s recently adopted naturalist position (maybe that’s a good thing). Second, it seems to be perfectly consistent with a Kantian thing in-itself.

    The basic problem, however, remains: it’s not clear what kind of metaphysics NNR really is, or on what basis one could justify it (i.e. render it intelligible, rationally compelling). Simply put, what would be the conditions under which someone could say, “This version of NNR is true”? (this is a version of Mikhail question concerning the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, I think).

    Moreover, if NNR doesn’t supplement our knowledge — and knowledge is normative — and if NNR doesn’t produce some kind of guide for normatively governed action, then why would anyone really propose it?

    Now I know that everyone is going to rush and respond with something like, “because it’s the true picture of the universe,” or “Because it’s more accurate.” Or something along those lines. But again, ‘truth’ and ‘accuracy’ are being used here in a normative, justificatory manner. So the upshot of these and similar responses has to be something like this: truth/accuracy/correct description (whatever) is intrinsically good. But that means that NNR is question begging. Why is NNR to be preferred over anti-realism? Because it provides a true(r), (more) accurate description of the world. Why should these concerns affect our decision? Because truth/accuracy is intrinsically good. But ‘instrinsicness’ seems to be an ontological — primary — quality.

    See the problem?

  31. Unfortunately this is not a fact, but rather Hegel’s invention, which, as I said, is based upon a Procrustean distortion of Antigone’s claim, shoehorned into this theory, (not unlike how history is shoehorned)

    YEs of course. Who said otherwise? I never claimed that Hegel was being fair to Sophocles’ text; in fact he strategically misquotes it. I thought we were discussing Hegel after all. But you’re right. I mistook the context of reference. And in any event, I don’t have much past an accurate portrayal of Hegel’s text to offer. But that’s still no kick in the teeth by any stretch of the imagination.

  32. …and knowledge is normative…

    sorry to tear it out of a sentence like that, but I wonder if this initial insight is worth expending on? i recall that you and Mikhail had a sort of an interesting exchange some time back from which all of this talk of normativity came?

  33. Alexei: “But you’re right. I mistook the context of reference. And in any event, I don’t have much past an accurate portrayal of Hegel’s text to offer. But that’s still no kick in the teeth by any stretch of the imagination.”

    Kvond: I guess we’ve come a long way from you nicely letting me know how “complex” Hegel’s interpretation is, or, maybe we haven’t.

    As I still claim, he reduces her act to a generalization which finds its place in failing to fullfill her role in the State, which is a perversion that womenkind is noted for. What is more important/interesting is not Hegel’s reading of the Antigone, but rather Antigone herself when put up against the idea of a “serious notion of ought”. Does she have a serious notion of ought despite the fact that she makes no universal appeal to the justness of her deed (that is, she does not imply the requirement that others should act like her, nor even that she should act similiarly on other occasions.

    Certainly she is serious in that she acts powerfully and takes on all risk and responsibility. And she certainly has a notion of her duty. The question is, I suppose, as she regards her own act, is her act ethical under the “serious notion” thinking Mikhail suggests?

    Lacan, as I recall, deems her act as exemplary of the ethical.

  34. Alexei,

    I’d hold back from agreeing to proposition (3) that you outline. I think realism does propose facts and use them in justifications, but my point at this stage was that the non-normative consequences stem from realism even without referring to any specific content.

    As you and Mihkail note, my position does differ from Levi’s. I think neurology can offer some interesting insights into morality, but I don’t think it can ground it in any meaningful sense. It’s like my problem with recent attempts at ‘experiment philosophy’ – understanding how people make moral claims and studying the types of claims they make, doesn’t make any of this ‘right’ (in a normative sense, not a truthful sense).

    “But again, ‘truth’ and ‘accuracy’ are being used here in a normative, justificatory manner. So the upshot of these and similar responses has to be something like this: truth/accuracy/correct description (whatever) is intrinsically good.”

    I can see this point, but in a very real sense, truth isn’t (or at least, need not be) necessarily ‘good’. Assuming the extension of current trends in neuroscience, then it will likely eventually prove things that are contrary to any sense of morality (e.g. a lack of free will). That’s clearly not ‘good’ in any sense, it just is. So I don’t think truth has to be a normative ideal; in fact, I think one can argue that it might entail the subtraction of all normative ideals.

    (And as an aside, I think part of the disagreement between realist and anti-realists on the issue of neuroscience is in part because realists are looking ahead of the curve, to where neuroscience is leading – and not necessarily where we are at now. Certainly there are numerous conceptual and physical problems with reducing the mind to the brain, but the history of neuroscience has only been a progressive diminishing of any space for an independent mind. The interesting question becomes, what does this mean for philosophy?)

    But I think the issue of knowledge and normativity is secondary to my other question: what is the difference between a metaphysically-supported commitment and a pragmatic commitment? I think the other question is secondary, for now, because this question only relies on taking realism as a hypothesis. (I’m not saying I take it as a hypothesis, only that if we all take it as a hypothesis, we can look at its potential consequences.) So if we have the sort of NNR I outlined, does this solely entail active nihilism? But even if it does, what distinguishes active nihilism from a metaphysically-supported commitment? To me, it’s all just reason-giving. (As an aside, the sociologists Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thevenot are great on ‘economies of justification’. It seems to me that some sort of NNR-consistent morality could be created from their work…)

  35. Much clearer now, Nick — thanks. I found your last paragraph especially helpful. I don’t know the work of Boltanski and Thevenot, so I’ll have to take a peak at them.

    I think this is an especially good response:

    I think the issue of knowledge and normativity is secondary to my other question: what is the difference between a metaphysically-supported commitment and a pragmatic commitment?

    My reflex is to say that there’s no difference between them, really. They simply give different reasons for commitment (Hence my emphasis on knowledge and normativity). Whereas the former justifies a commitment by appeal to the structure of the Universe (or some such), the other makes a more modest appeal to some contingent feature that purports to warrant a specific kind of action. The tricky question is figuring out how a metaphysical structure or contingent feature can serve as a warrant.

    Now, Mikhail’s point, if I understand him, is that what counts as a reason (or warrant for action) is at least partly a metaphysical issue, because it concerns how conceptual activity is possible, and what role it plays. Rephrased, a distinction presupposes the ability to draw it, and being able to draw a distinction means being able to explain it. Here Mikhail seems to have a knock down argument, albeit a totally negative one: at the level of explanation, metaphysics presupposes the ability to use concepts. Hence, any metaphysics that excises this aspect is self-defeating (performative contradiction).

    This doesn’t rule out a NNR altogether; it just means that NNR won’t give us the whole story (i.e. we’ve ruled out eliminative realisms, like Levi’s; his amounts to the old motto, “get your syntax right, get your semantics for free!” Problem is that one would need an indefinitely complicated syntax…).

    Now, about the whole truth thing. It may be the case that I’m stumbling over the difference between what is necessary and what is rationally compelling, or normatively binding. I’ll think about this some more.

    But as things stands, my impulse is to say that although the results of scientific research may not lead to good results in the sense of something morally laudable, or instrumentally beneficial, or whatever, this doesn’t mean that they don’t treat truth as an intrinsic good. To call something ‘intrinsically good’ is to say that it is an end in itself, not a means. It has value in virtue of what it is, not because of what it can be used for. My point here was simply to say that justifications of realisms tend to be forced into the paradox of saying that what exists is an end in itself, and hence has value — i.e. what exists does not simply exist; it has meaning, value, and normative weight built in.

    Of course, a universe of bare particulars and one-off interactions simply exists. My argument, as always, has been geared towards a meta-level: the articulation of such a universe requires concepts and norms in order to be articulated, and therefore any articulation that renders norms etc. unintelligible or parasistic is self-defeating.

  36. I’m pretty much in agreement with what you say; although the problems you cite with realism I personally take to be surmountable problems.

    “this doesn’t mean that they don’t treat truth as an intrinsic good. To call something ‘intrinsically good’ is to say that it is an end in itself, not a means. It has value in virtue of what it is, not because of what it can be used for.”

    I think it’s significant to distinguish here between the individual level – the scientist who may be searching for ‘truth’, and taking it as a value – and the results. I don’t think the individual’s passion for truth has to necessarily defile the non-normativity of the real. So in that way, truth can be both a value for the individual, and a non-normative result.

    “My argument, as always, has been geared towards a meta-level: the articulation of such a universe requires concepts and norms in order to be articulated, and therefore any articulation that renders norms etc. unintelligible or parasistic is self-defeating.”

    I completely agree, and I think this is sort of the main paradox of neuroscience. Metzinger, in his book Being No One outlines it well when he notes that there is no way we could ever experience or imagine literally ‘being no one’. We are always someone, and even when we try to imagine being no one, we are always someone-imagining. That being said, that paradox doesn’t mean that ‘being no one’ is impossible, and some forms of neurological disorders even appear to closely approximate what it would be like (cf. Cotard delusion). So, for me, I see the paradox as a surmountable problem – it is possible to conceptualize a realist system that incorporates it’s own possibility of conceptualization, and to do so without paradox. The big question, is just how precisely!

  37. I’m pretty much in agreement with what you say; although the problems you cite with realism I personally take to be surmountable problems.

    Fair enough, Nick. It’s entirely possible that what I called the knock-down argument against NNR is still indexed to a historical moment, and hence is totally contingent.

    I’m less convinced, though, by the appeal to Cotard’s syndrome, since the “What’s it like to be x” kind of question doesn’t quite fit. Thomas Nagel has an old paper (from the 70s I think), called “What’s it like to be a bat?” in which he argues (as Metzinger also points out) that this kind of question pertains to the subjective character of an experience (qualia); the problem is that there’s no humanly experienceable qualia for being a bat, hence there’s nothing remotely like ‘being a bat for humans.’ We can’t know what it’s like to be a bat.

    The problem, moreover, generalizes: the only way for two humans to compare subjective states is to treat them functionally (either in terms of symbolic/conceptual efficacy or straightforward behaviourism). But again, the very move towards comparison strips out the qualia. We can’t know what its like to be someone else (we can surely speculate, analogize, etc, but that doesn’t amount to knowledge).

    Anyway, the reason I’m bringing this up is because I tend to think that asking “what’s it like to be a bat?” is identical in kind to asking ‘what non-normatively exists?” The question isn’t malformed, it’s just not answerable.

  38. What about the normativity that is required just to do science? Norms concerning correct reasoning, how to assess evidence, how to compare theories (involves aesthetic properties pretty essentially), how to treat one another in research groups (involves moral properties pretty essentially), etc.

    I’m not making the tired social constructivist claim that science is B.S. because it involves such norms. This should instead be turned on it’s head. Rather since I’m a realist about science I better be a realist about such norms. But then I can’t get out of Mikhail’s questions.

    In the context of Kant this all works out particularly well. The Groundwork argues that our primary ethical norms follow from the very kind of reason-normativity that one must use when doing science. It’s not that difficult either. Willfully doing certain kinds of action require willing that others support a certain rule for themselves that does not apply to you. O.K. Now give me a reason that the rule should not apply to you. You can’t do it, so don’t be an a-hole.

    Again, you still need an account of the norms involved in basic reasoning, and there is an is/ought distinction here. Mikhail has insisted that this requires robust notions of possibility, which brings in a whole lot of metaphysics. I don’t Levi’s stuff well enough yet to know how he accommodates modality, but I think again scientific realism must (Mark Wilson has a great argument about this somewhere).

    Anyhow, I’d be really interested in Levi’s thoughts about the above.

  39. Pingback: To Resume Again– Normativity and Naturalism « Larval Subjects .

  40. I’ve been out of town for some days and I think all the comments are extremely interesting but I don’t know if there’s still any steam in this thread. Plus, it seems that Levi and Alexei continued this exchange on Larval Subjects and I need to catch up on that conversation as well – see you all there, I suppose.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s