Over at Archive Fire, Michael has linked to an interesting interview with Brandom. What I find so interesting about this interview is the language, rhetoric, or metaphors he uses to articulate his positions. Throughout the discussion Brandom uses terms like binding, point keeping, responsibility, commitment, accountability, providing reasons and so on. Freud, Lacan, and Derrida have taught us to read for “texts within texts”. There is, on the one hand, the literal surface text which is not unlike the manifest content of a dream and then, on the other hand, the latent, infrastructural text which is like the latent dream thought. The metaphors, analogies, similes, examples, etc, one uses are not secondary to how a thought is structured, they are not mere ornamentations or rhetorical flourishes (sic.), but also reveal another logic at work within the thought that contributes to informing and structuring that thought. In Freudian term, these “parapraxes” are symptoms of unconscious desire or how things are unconsciously conceived.
In this regard, I find Brandom’s references to binding and point keeping particularly interesting. The first things that come to mind when I hear the term “binding” are the binding of Isaac, Chinese foot binding, and sado-masochistic rituals of bondage. The conceptualization of normatively in terms of binding suggests a model of the normative based on bondage, enchaining, or tying down. This seems further suggested by the emphasis on commitment and rule following. And, as I have tried to argue, it is already implied in the connotations of the term “normativety”. All of this fits very closely with Lacan’s analysis of Kant’s moral philosophy in “Kant avec Sade”, where Lacan argues that the categorical imperative or the moral law harbors a sadistic superegoic jouissance aimed at mastery that is the real truth behind the moral law. Just as Sade demanded absolute submission on the part of his victims, and just as their bodies could endure endless punishments and degradations without, apparently, losing any of their beauty or vitality (read the books), Kant’s moral law demands absolute submission, complete sacrifice of any pathological motivations (anything pertaining to preferences, pleasures, interests, etc), and enjoins us with an infinite task to which we can never live up. Thus, in the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant will argue that the moral law presupposes the immortality of the soul as a postulate of reason not because the categorical imperative only makes sense if we can imagine an eternal world, but because the moral law, according to Kant, demands an eternity of work from us. In other words, this particular conception of normatively places us in a position of infinite debt, of a debt that can never be paid back and from which we can never escape. And this seems to be the way of things with deontological conceptions of the normative. Reasons, we are told, are something we are obligated to give and the work of giving those reasons is never done.
The characterization of this concept of normativety as “point giving” is similarly perplexing. Here the normative is situated in the context of sports and economics. The normative becomes a sort of competition where there are winners and losers and where the aim is to assign praise and blame within a framework of correctness. Everything becomes a matter of judgment.
There are, of course, rules. But what perplexes me in deontological normative discourses is why, of all the things one might focus on with respect to the ethical, it is rules and judgment in particular that the deontologists focus on. Since Brandom brings in the sports metaphor, let’s work on that a little bit. To be sure, there are rules in sports. However, if we were to think of sports in ethical terms, if we were to ask ourselves “what constitutes the ethical dimension of sports”, would it occur to us to focus primarily on these rules? The rules are already there in the background of the game (and in this regard, Brandom is right to describe them as implicit). What is odd is the suggestion that normativety consists primarily in making these rules explicit or the focus. For the soccer player, by contrast, the ethical dimension of the game lies not in the rules of the game. The rules of the game are the least of it, the most superficial dimension of the game. Rather, for the soccer play, the normative dimension of the game consists in developing her skill, her facility with her body, her coordination with her fellow players, and so on. In other words, it lies in cultivating herself and her relationship with the other players.
In this connection, let’s shift back to Aristotle. One of the most striking features of the Nichomachean Ethics is that there is almost no discussion of promise keeping, not lying, murder, rape, theft, etc., etc., etc. Nor, for Aristotle, would a person who doesn’t tell lies, who keeps their promises, who doesn’t murder or steal, etc, necessarily be an ethical being. To be sure, it is good that the person does all these things, but these issues, as far as Aristotle is concerned, really aren’t all that central to ethics. They appear only as fleeting and tangental observations. Rather, for Aristotle the focus is on the cultivation of oneself, the actualization of oneself, and the development of ones character where character is not conceived primarily in terms of a person who keeps promises, but rather a person who has developed their talents, their intelligence, etc., etc., etc.
The case is similar with Lucretius and Epictetus. In both cases, we find little discussion of the sorts of issues that would be of crucial importance for the deontologist. These things are largely taken for granted. Rather, the question of ethics for them is one revolving around peace of mind and freedom from fear and anxiety. In part, the ethical person must overcome fear of death. In part, they must engage in a careful therapy of desire, discarding those desires that trouble the mind and fill life with misery and promoting those desires that produce joy and mastery. In part, the ethical project will consist in transforming society so circumstances will be created in which it becomes more possible for people to attain flourishing through the cultivation of their self. In part it will consist in forming deep and abiding friendships and relationships. These projects, for Lucretius and Epictetus are the ethical projects, not the project of binding one to reasons or giving reasons (though, indeed, for both the Epicureans and the Stoics, a life of reason with respect to the passions and the investigation of the world are crucial components of flourishing).
As I already remarked, for Kant we are supposed to exclude consideration of anything “pathological” in living according to the categorical imperative. This is because the categorical imperative must, according to Kant, be universal, whereas the pathological is always individual and idiosyncratic. When Kant refers to the pathological, he is referring to our affections for other people and compassion (these are irrelevant to the formulation of the moral law, says Kant, and its application), any bodily preferences we might have, any outcomes we might like or desire, and so on. No, we are to attend only to what follows from the moral law and nothing else. And indeed, one might defend Kant by pointing out that were the ethical to defend on sentiments like compassion or regard for our fellows (as Hume might put it), it would be impossible to establish the universality of the moral law for certainly plenty of people lack compassion for many of the others (both human and nonhuman) they encounter in the world around them. Therefore duty, Kant tells us, is a more secure foundation for ethics than sentiment or “the pathological”.
From the Epicurean, Stoic, and Aristotlean point of view, by contrast, this vision of the ethical and the vocation of the ethical is an absolute disaster. Although Kant tells us that the categorical imperative dictates that we have a duty to pursue happiness (and here any psychoanalyst will tell you that the possibility of enjoyment dries up when it is commanded, so Kant’s claim is rather hollow), obedience to the categorical imperative is supposed to be undertaken without any consideration of whether it will produce positive outcomes in the form of happiness, flourishing, compassionate social relations, etc. For Aristotle, the Epicureans, and the Stoics, by contrast, the whole point of ethics is to produce happiness, human flourishing, just social relations, and so on. An ethical doctrine that does not aim at this and that is not organized around this project is, at best, perverse, and at worst completely bizarre.
It is not Kant here that is mainly the issue. If Kant is a good point of reference in this connection, then this is solely because he provides us with a particularly clear formalization of ethical models focused on rules, rule following, judgment, discipline, and the sorting of praise and blame. He provides us with a particularly clear example of binding… A binding so perverse that it calls itself freedom. It is this fetishization of rules and judgment that is the issue. Rather than a focus on rules, judgment, commitment, and binding, the issue should instead be one of how we promote flourishing. Ethics should be for something, rather than a question of prohibitions.
The deontologist might respond that this is all well and good, but the fact remains that affects aren’t universal, that not everyone has the same affective responses to other human beings, to other living nonhumans, and to different aspects of the world. Therefore, the argument would run, we need an a priori universal rule that isn’t based on anything “pathological” to guarantee the universality of response. However, this argument is disingenuous to say the least, for it portrays affects as brute responses that are completely irresponsible and over which we have no control. Among the key claims of the Epicureans, the Stoics, Spinoza, and Hume is that our affective responses are based on judgments and beliefs. In this regard, anyone who says “I couldn’t help it, that’s just the way I felt” is in a state of bad faith, for they are treating affective response as a brute response to the world around them, rather than a response that emerges as a result of a number of unconscious beliefs, judgments, and desires that animate us.
These beliefs, judgments, and desires are subject to evaluation and rational scrutiny and can be changed. One person is filled with rage when they see the American flag burned, another with delight. One person perceives the refugees of Hurricane Katrina breaking into stores as looting and theft, another person with sympathy and compassion, filled with sadness for these people having to fend for themselves in such a way. One person encounters their cancer with despair, resentment, and anger, another with resolve and resolution. These different emotional and affective responses are a function of the judgments the person makes about others, themselves, and the world around them. Change those and you change the affective response.
This is why a therapy of desire is a vital component of eudaimonistic projects. The person reading Spinoza’s Ethics might be perplexed to find the first chapter discussing the nature of God/nature, the second knowledge, and the third giving an elaborate account of the structure of affects. “Why this elaborate discussion of the structure of affects in a book on ethics, isn’t that a matter for psychology?” Spinoza would respond by saying that no, it is not. We must understand how affects are structured how they arise, and what distortions they are subject to so we can free ourselves of those affects that cause us suffering and disturb our relations with others and promote those that fill us with joy. The ethical project here isn’t one of obeying a rule, but of engaging in a work of the self that transforms how we affectively encounter the world so that we might have better relations with ourselves, others, and the world around us. This is also one of the reasons that psychoanalysis, the psychoanalytic clinic, is an ethical space, not because patients are judged or taught normative rules, but because patients are engaged in an interrogation of their desire that both de-sutures desires that fill us with misery, and a formation of desires that promote joy. This is why Marx’s project is an ethical project, not because he deploys an abstract model of justice to judge society, but because he engages in a therapeutic or diagnostic work to uncover the manner in which society is organized such that it produces so much misery and horror so that these structures might be transformed allowing for new forms of life and collective relations to be possible. It is perhaps here that we encounter the central problem with deontological ethical approaches. In their focus on rules and rule giving, all of this, this psychology, this sociology, this medicine, etc., is thoroughly obscured such that it falls into the background. And in falling into the background in this way, we are further removed from that which we seek.