Over at Deontologistics Pete has written a massive post outlining his position on normative theory and deontological moral theory and responding to some of what he takes to be my position on these issues. Given the length of the post and the fact that I am currently drowning in grading, it is unlikely that I will be able to address it for some time. In our last discussion Pete criticized me for not addressing all of his posts. With posts this lengthy, however, it is difficult to respond completely in a reasonable fashion. Perhaps it would be better to divide such posts into series so specific points can be more readily responded to. This aside, I will make a couple of points.

First, in glancing over Pete’s posts and reflecting on other comments Pete’s made, I get these sense that we’re using the term “deontology” differently. Pete seems to use the term generically to refer to any discourse having to do with norms. I get the sense that this is what allows Pete to characterize my rejections of deontological norm based systems as a rejection of norms tout court. I, however, use the term “deontology” in a highly specific fashion. In my view– and hopefully I’ll be forgiven for putting it crudely as I’m currently on the fly –a deontological ethical system is any ethical system that 1) carefully distinguishes between hypothetical and categorical imperatives, 2) holds that norms must be a priori and universally binding for all times and places, and 3) holds that we must ignore any considerations pertaining to the pathological or being when engaging in normative deliberation. By the “pathological”, I am not referring to mental illness, but to the Greek sense of “pathos“, or anything pertaining to bodily passions, inclinations, preferences, or affects. For example, from a deontological perspective I take it that considerations of whether or not someone is your brother are irrelevant to questions of whether or not this person should be reported to the police for committing a crime. Any affection or family bonds (pathological considerations) I might have towards my brother are, from a deontological perspective, irrelevant to the course of action that ought to be taken in this situation. Nor am I necessarily in disagreement here. I only give this example to illustrate the idea of pathological motivations.

read on!

Now, given this crude three-fold characterization of deontological normative systems, I cannot but find myself perplexed when Pete makes remarks like the following:

Brandom would say that Truth is something that is not available wholesale, but can only be gotten retail, one bit at a time. I would add that the same is the case with the Good (what we should do, both in the sense of the goal of action and the means of achieving it). Ethics and politics aren’t wholesale matters.

While I enthusiastically agree with Pete’s thesis that the Good and the True are not available “wholesale”, I simply cannot see how someone who adopts a deontological normative approach can endorse the thesis that the Good is not available wholesale. In short, the whole point in holding that truth and the good can only be had “retail” (a very unfortunate analogy), is that truth and the good must be built and instituted, such that they don’t come for free. Yet this work is precisely what deontological approaches ignore. This has been a major point of contention I’ve had with deontological norm based forms of thought. My main issue with these approaches is not, as Pete characterizes it, of

…concern with transcendental normativity precludes the possibility of first analysing the real social conditions (and their causes) that underlie undesirable political states of affairs, and then acting upon these analyses in strategic ways to undermine these and potentially produce new and better social configurations.

First, I have nowhere made the claim that norms ought to be reduced to strategies. The claim that somehow object-oriented approaches reduce norms to strategies is the manner in which the deontologically driven thinkers (in this case Pete and Grundledung) have characterized these positions.

Second, while there is nothing that logically precludes both adopting a deontological approach and carefully examining real social conditions, the problem is that nonetheless discourses that heavily emphasize normativity have a strong tendency to ignore real social conditions. And this is so for a very simple reason. Because these positions emphasize the absolute status of norms, the manner in which they are completely independent of what is, and the manner in which they are binding independent of anything “pathological”, there is no reason to investigate how situations are actually structured. The “is” and the “ought”, as the deontologists never tire of reminding us, are allegedly entirely independent. This distinction, in my view, is a theological holdover in philosophy that strives to preserve some field “out of being” upon which to erect a folk-normativity. Just as certain actually existing theological forms obfuscated real social conditions by grounding the ethical order in God, deontological thought continues this tradition by other means, appealing to a realm beyond the world, beyond anything that could be assailed by appeals to the world, so as to render the core at the heart of neo-liberal ideology immune to criticism.

In this connection, Pete repeats the line of argument linking, through a rhetorical gesture whereby the properties of one thing are exchanged with that of another, object-oriented ontology with neo-liberalism:

I’ve upfront claimed that Levi doesn’t endorse neo-liberalism in any way, but that aspects of the Latourian position (that he seems o endorse) nonetheless commit him to something which is at the heart of neo-liberalism, which tends to undermine arguments against neo-liberalism (if not necessarily strategic political action against it).

I would argue that the situation is precisely the reverse. It is not non-deontological approaches that find themselves unable to respond to arguments at the heart of neo-liberalism, but rather deontological approaches. When we examine the social field, the rhetorics that actually populate this field, what do we find? Again and again we find that it is the deontological side of these debates that supports neo-liberalism. Remember that for deontological thought we are to ignore everything circumstantial, everything pathological, everything personal, and everything sociological. Why? Because the norms proposed by deontology are to be universally binding. Once we begin taking into account the circumstantial, sociological, conditional dimensions of existence, that universality is destroyed. Consequently, deontologically grounded ethics require a subject divorced from all circumstances, all reigning conditions, all considerations of the pathological. The subject of deontological norms is a purely abstract subject. But this just is the subject of neo-liberal ideology. If, for example, the neo-liberal ideologue can look at the person living in poverty and ignore the sociological dimension through which this poverty is produced, if the neo-liberal ideologue explains the poverty of this person based on moral vices (poor work ethic, laziness, etc), then this is because they begin with a deontological ethical system that requires them to ignore everything circumstantial, everything personal, everything “pathological”. In other words, it is those that adopt a deontological approach that have a hard time grounding why we should desire alternatives other than those of our reigning neo-liberal capitalist economies, not object-oriented approaches. Every and always we hear reactionary discourses appealing to abstract moral arguments that ignore all history and concrete social configurations. And again, why? Because what we have in deontological approaches are folk moral theories that ignore the manner in which norms are generated and linked to being.

Finally third, and most importantly, Pete contends that the object-oriented philosopher reduces everything to mere “strategies”. However, this is not the argument at all. For the object-oriented ontologist– at least this object-oriented ontologist –the point is that in order to account for norms in a non-folk-normative fashion we require a genetic account of normativity that shows how oughts arise from the is. Wherever an account appeals to a transcendental subjectivity independent of development and nature that account has fallen into occult or superstitious explanations, into folk-normativity, wanting its money for nothing, by appealing to something that simply is not possible according to the laws of nature. What is required here is an account of how norms come into being where before norms did not exist at all. Unless one is going to make the claim that somehow human beings differ fundamentally from all other species and are independent of the requirement of coming-to-be, then it is necessary to give a developmental account of norms.

Yet deontological ethics completely abandon this requirement, instead positing an a priori principle (the categorical imperative) or domain of norms to account for norms. The point here isn’t that “everything is strategies”– rhetorical point scoring if ever there were, which is fine given that I do my own fair share of rhetorical point scoring while also advancing arguments –but rather that we can’t appeal to skyhooks to ground our morality. Following Dennett, by “skyhooks” I mean hooks that hover about in the sky with no support of their own, engineering marvelous things without any work. Skyhooks swoop in to save the day, for example, when a movie plot goes awry, introducing something completely improbable and that violates the laws of the fictional universe. Thus, for example, in Matrix Reloaded, when Neo is able to use his powers outside the Matrix to defeat the Sentinals at the end of the movie, we encounter a skyhook. Had Neo not suddenly acquired this remarkable ability the story would be over as the robots would have certainly prevailed. An appeal to the supernatural was the only way to solve the plot.

Appeals to the categorical imperative and other a priori norms are, I take it, skyhooks. They want to ground normativity in an absolute fashion without doing the requisite engineering work to explain the existence or genesis of these norms. This is also why I have suggested that deontological normative approaches are effectively sophisticated ways of begging the question, as they begin with assumptions about what norms ought to be and then simply project them into the realm of the transcendental in much the same way that prior to Darwin we explained species by reference to Platonic forms or ideas in God’s mind. What is missing is the engineering work it takes to produce these things. And just as a good engineering account of the formation of species led to many surprising revisions in our understanding of life (for example that individual differences in organisms precede species differences), it is likely that a good engineering account of normativity will lead to a number of surprising results with respect to our folk-normative conceptions of norms.

At any rate, if I find myself surprised when Pete talks about norms not coming wholesale, but only retail, I find myself surprised as this strikes me as the exact opposite of deontological thinking. That is, where deontology wants its norms all there at once, universally binding and a priori– how else could everyone be held responsible for these norms? –Pete’s unfortunate neo-liberal analogy to the retail nature of norms suggests a way of understanding norms that is not deontological but rather that points to how norms are constructed or built out of the non-normative, piece by piece. In other words, here Pete would actually be close to what Latour is trying to get at. Perhaps he should therefore drop the language of “deontology” altogether. After all, the axiological and the deontological are not synonyms. Deontology is one theory of the axiological, and a particularly disastrous one at that. Nonetheless, as I said I have not been able to read the entire post yet so I might be significantly mischaracterizing Pete’s position. I still fail to see how one can simultaneously hold that the ought is completely independent of the is and hold that the ought requires us to carefully analyze situations. Pete says he’s not a Kantian. Fine. But this strikes me as something completely at odds with deontological approaches to ethics. Moreover, the deontologist can claim that they’re simply examining norms of rationality. Here the deontologist will find no disagreement from me that norms of rationality are important and wonderful things. However, accounts that appeal to a realm of transcendental norms to ground these norms of rationality are, in my view, superficial. They simply beg the question of the genesis of these norms, positing a ready-made answer that is no real answer at all but only an illusion of rigor and argument. Moreover, all too often this transcendental realm is simply a prejudice masquerading as a universal.