Over at Perverse Egalitarianism there has been a heated, and I think important, debate over the nature of normativity. At one point the debate turned a bit sour and I temporarily walked away. I apologize to Mikhail for my ire and heated words, and hope the discussion can resume without any distracting ugliness. Like anyone else, my blood pressure rises on occasion and I lose my cool. Resuming the discussion from my end, I thought I’d take a few moments to outline how I understand the debate.

It is clear that for Mikhail normativity is a deeply important issue, if not the most important issue, for he seems to measure all other branches of philosophy and the world against this question. The discussion first began a few weeks ago in response to one of my posts (I don’t recall which) on realism. Mikhail asked me something along the lines of where normativity or the “ought” is in my realist metaphysics. Perplexed by the question, I responded hastily by observing that I didn’t think it was anywhere. Now, if I responded in this way, then this is because, where metaphysics is concerned, I don’t see what the atomic constitution of salt has to do with questions of ethics. That is, if we begin from the premise that metaphysics raises questions about what the real is, what existence is, it seems to me that these questions are independent of questions about ethics and justice. My remark, which should have been more well thought out, was simply pointing to different domains of questions. Metaphysics asks one set of questions, ethics asks another set of questions.

I take it that Mikhail took my response as excluding questions of ethics altogether, which simply isn’t the case at all. My point was simply that when I have my metaphysics hat on and am endeavoring to determine what the real might be, I do not have my ethics hat on. The question of the “ought” is elsewhere. In good Spinozist fashion, I begin from the premise that terms like “good”, “evil”, “just”, “unjust”, “beautiful”, “ugly”, etc., are not first-order predicates belonging to entities themselves, but rather relational predicates pertaining to the relationship between humans and the world around them. In order to see the difference between, say, an apple considered metaphysically and an apple considered normatively, consider the apple first in its independence from the body and second in relation to the body. I choose the example of apples because they are far less affectively charged as a matter of discussion than, say, questions of murder.

Considered metaphysically, the apple is value neutral. It just is what it is, much like Yahweh in the Bible. Metaphysically, if the apple is ripe this doesn’t make it “good”. Likewise, considered metaphysically, if the apple is rotten this doesn’t make it bad. The ripeness or rottenness of the apple is purely an outcome of physical cellular processes that are, in and of themselves, value-neutral. When we wish to understand or know the apple, these processes are what we are after. Nature, then, is in and of itself a kingdom without ends or purposes.

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The value of the apple only emerges in relation to bodies. If I say the apple is bad, I am not making a claim about a property of the apple as such, but a claim about how a property of the apple relates to me. The apple is bad because these properties produce a highly unpleasant set of sensations in my body when I eat it. In this respect, the “badness” of the apple is a secondary property of the apple. Were no one to exist, the apple simply wouldn’t have this property. This property is instead an emergent property of a particular sort of relationship between myself and the apple. In this connection, it would be quite right to say that I am a correlationist where values are concerned. Before I proceed, it should be noted that I am not suggesting that ethical value statements are identical to judgments of taste as in the case of the apple. I am committed to the thesis that both only exist in and through some sort of correlation, but they are distinct kinds or structures of correlation.

Now, I take it that everyone involved in this debate recognizes that we experience the world in terms of oughts. Quid facti, I experience the papers sitting there on my desk as something I ought to grade. I think Bush and the last administration ought to have done things differently. I think that they ought to be held responsible for their crimes. I think our society, in terms of its economic structures and distribution of wealth, ought to be different. There is thus, in my view, any debate as to whether we experience ourselves, our relations to others, and the world about us in terms of “oughts”.

Granting this, the philosophical question thus lies elsewhere. First, we can ask, are these oughts on the same level as the value relations pertaining to the apple? Presumably there is someone in this world, at some point in history, who just adored rotten apples. If no such person does or has ever existed, we can at least observe that bees seem to love apples rotting on the ground. Oughts, by contrast, seem to be structured differently. Where we readily recognize that, while we might find it peculiar, there’s no real disputing another person’s tastes, trying to turn another person into a zombie sex-slave as Dahmer did is not simply a matter of taste. So one question is that of what defines the scope of an ought claim. Second, we can ask what grounds ought claims. What are they founded upon? My liking or disliking of apples is grounded purely in the pleasure or displeasure they give me. Clearly this won’t work in the case of Dahmer as he certainly gets– we imagine –lots of pleasure from his zombie experiments, but we nonetheless say he ought not do this. So the ground in these correlational structures must lie elsewhere.

Rather than proceeding directly to the question of what grounds oughts, it seems better for a moment to pause and ask when ethical oughts arise. Just as Kant’s methodology moves from a metaphysical exposition to a transcendental deduction, where, for example, when discussing space he first outlines the properties of space and then determines their transcendental condition, similarly, such a move should be taken with respect to the ought or ethical judgments. This is merited because, once again, value judgments are correlationist and therefore susceptible to transcendental analysis. However, here the methodology should be phenomenological. That is, we should seek after a phenomenology of our value judgments or a descriptive analysis of these value judgments before seeking the grounds of these judgments.

Perhaps one helpful way of approaching such a phenomenology is in terms of a thought-experiment. Suppose, like Tom Hanks, we were stranded all alone on a desert island. Under these circumstances, in what way would I experience the ought? It is likely that I would experience the ought in terms of a number of practical matters. “I ought not eat only fruits and coconuts.” “I ought to set about reinforcing my shelter before the Spring monsoons come.” “I ought to make a hat to protect myself from the burning sun.” “I ought to gather food”, etc. On the other hand, it’s likely that other oughts would disappear entirely. I suspect that I wouldn’t worry over whether or not I should lie. I wouldn’t worry over whether or not it is wrong to steal. I wouldn’t worry over whether or not I should break a contract.

It this appears that we have two different oughts here. The first class of oughts pertains to the health and vitality of my body as it relates to my survival and well being. If I ought not eat only fruits and coconuts, then this is because such a diet will give you diarrhea, which, in turn will dehydrate you and possibly cause death. By contrast, the other oughts seem to disappear because they pertain specifically to social relations. That is, the reason that I might worry over whether or not to lie arises only on those occasions where it is a question of relating to other people.

This little thought experiment and its accompanying “thumbnail” phenomenology (a much more extensive phenomenological analysis), teaches us something very important, I think, about the ethical ought (as distinguished from judgments of taste and practical judgments). The ethical ought, it seems, only unfolds in the social dimension. Put otherwise, the ethical ought pertains to questions of how persons ought to relate to one another. Now I take it, that this question is two-fold. On the one hand, the ethical ought obviously asks the question “what should we do” or “how should we relate to one another”?

But perhaps more importantly, questions of ethics emerge most fundamentally in terms of problems pertaining to persuasion among communities or groups of people. That is, when we raise the question of ethics we are not just asking for some rule or ground for our action, but rather we are looking for means of persuasion with respect to others so as to form the collective actions we desire. This is one reason Kant, for example, is enamored with the idea of a principle of reason (the categorical imperative) as an ethical ground. Kantian “universality” should be taken in a two-fold sense. On the one hand, the categorical imperative purports to be universal for all times and places. The philosophical question thus becomes what must be the case for a moral principle to meet these criteria. Clearly the possibility of such a principle demands strict and rigorous separation from anything contextual, subjective, or pathological as these things do not hold for all times and places. On the other hand, universality signifies available to all people. That is, if the categorical imperative is an imperative or rule we all ought to obey, then it must be something available to all of us. To see this, we need only ask ourselves the question of whether a child raised by Neo-Nazis that only ever encountered Neo-Nazis would, according to Kant, be bound by the categorical imperative? Likewise, would the Aztec, about to sacrifice someone, be bound by the categorical imperative. Kant’s answer is a resounding Yes!. But if this is the case, then the categorical imperative cannot be the result of learning but must be a priori. For how else could such a child be bound by such a law (both in terms of being judgeable by this moral principle and being obligated to follow this moral principle) if they were not able to formulate it for themselves?

Kant’s categorical imperative seems to admirably solve the problem of universality in the second sense as “available to everyone”, however, with respect to our pragmatic ethical concerns where we worry over persuading others to adopt certain forms of action like, say, not keeping their airconditioning on year round due to global warming or not incarcerating other people without legal recourse in places like Gitmo or secret European prisons, it doesn’t seem to do a very good job. That is, presumably the reason we are interested in questions of ethics and justice at all is because we desire a better world. Yet how are we to account for a moral theory that posits a principle that is “available to everyone”, yet seems to have nil persuasive power and therefore no power to produce that world we desire?

If we look at our actual deliberations it seems that, by and large, there are broad things we can agree on. For the most part, we can agree that we desire harmony and peace among one another, an adequate standard of living, the ability to pursue our aims, to not have to live in fear, etc., etc., etc. Where we differ is on how to produce these things. From my point of view, consequentialist approaches seem far more productive in actually bringing about these things than Kantian deontological approaches. That is, if we can show that a certain proposed way of producing these things we collectively desire increases the likelihood of conflict rather than peace, decreases our standard of living (without other compensations such as greater happiness, more opportunity, a more sustainable environment, etc), or that we would end up living in greater fear, this line of argument is far more persuasive and conducive to what we are actually pursuing. Kant’s categorical imperative, in my view, seems to detach ethical deliberation from these real world results. Thus, for example, the categorical imperative will clearly prohibit abortion because were we to will abortion as a universal law which everyone should follow, we would fall into contradiction as the law would eventually become impossible to follow. So we get rid of abortion based on Kant’s deliberation. But doesn’t getting rid of abortion end up producing all sorts of negative collective consequences that undermine the peace and stability of our society by virtue of producing all sorts of unsupported children?

Perhaps I already employ the categorical imperative in my own ethical reasoning without thinking about it, but when I reflect on certain courses of action, I can’t discern a single consequentialist account that leads to consequences that would be abhorrent. One might say– citing the tired diatribes against “the means justify the ends” –that I might, after the fashion of the Stalinist Soviet Union, be led to advocate the total elimination of all political opponents. But how does this follow? Isn’t it evident that this course of action caused massive human suffering, a perpetual state of fear, and a massive drain on the Soviet Union as a result of “disappearing” the brains and skills of that country? I simply cannot see how Kant’s universal law adds anything from this sort of reasoning or promotes the creation of a more just society.