I confess that when it comes to discussions of normativity and ethics in philosophy I immediately find myself baffled and suspicious. Baffled because I’ve always had a difficult time understanding why people get interested in these issues. While I can certainly understand eudaimonistic ethics and ethics geared towards happiness, it is difficult for me to escape the impression that ethics and normatively driven political philosophy are ephemera that fail to get at the real root of the issues. If my knee-jerk reaction is to think of political philosophy driven primarily by normative theories as ephemera, then this is because I get the sense that ethical debates are generally about something else. For example, take debates about freedom and autonomy in the United States. These debates present themselves as being about the preservation of “rights”, but aren’t they instead generally about economic issues? That is, far from being rarefied debates about the preservation of freedoms, it instead seems that these debates are about preserving the hegemony of certain interests. The free market is presented as something that benefits everyone, that is available to everyone, when in fact it is instead something that benefits a select group and functions to reproduce a particular social organization. Discourses about freedom thus function as a sort of rhetoric that prevents discussion of the real set of issues or what is really at stake.

If I tend to be suspicious of discourses of normativity, then this suspicion arises for similar reasons. Those who speak loudest about issues of values and moral issues so often strike me, following Nietzsche, to be those who either a) secretly desire to exercise power over others by stacking the deck in their favor, or b) to be in the grips of excessive passions that they themselves are struggling against and projecting on to others. Again and again we see moralists guilty of the very things they claim to be denouncing in the public sphere. Moreover, it is difficult to escape the impression that the so-called “values” discourse in the United States is about maintaining class privilege over other groups and maintaining the sovereignity of men over women. This is something that I have experienced throughout my life from both moralists and ethical theorists. It is difficult for me to escape the impression, then, that these discussions are smokescreens or red herrings, diverting from the real struggle being engaged. Michael Foucault, Naomi Klein, Judith Butler, Marx, and Gloria Steinem do far more to produce just change, it seems to me, through their analysis of the dynamics of power and the interests involved than do the moralists. When did moralism ever prevent a single death? When did a normative theory ever present a holocaust? When did an ethical theory ever halt a single despotic government? If anything, it seems to me, we instead always see normative discourse on the side of the despots and sadists.

I suppose that I am writing this post because, after endless debates with the defenders of Kant who seem so concerned with these issues of normativity, I still find myself thoroughly perplexed by what, precisely, it is that they’re defending. I simply don’t understand their position or why they find it convincing. What is it I’m missing? What force do they find in normativity that I do not discern? I pose this question with all honesty and from a place of genuine befuddlement. Is not the normative theorist ultimately making a causal claim or a claim about what would be the case if only people assented to these things? And isn’t that ultimately an empirically testable hypothesis? What am I missing?