I’m often asked how I account for norms within my framework and how I account for freedom, purposiveness, or normativity. The best I can say is that I’m working on it. I think these are among the most important questions, but also feel that they have to be answered in the right way. In my view, modern naturalism, coupled with the discoveries of ethnography, has so fundamentally transformed our conceptual space, that old solutions and answers just aren’t plausible anymore. My reticence to answer these questions arises from– I hope –humility and a recognition of just how difficult these questions are, not a rejection of their importance.
Let’s start with questions of normativity or those values that ought to govern our actions. Like anyone else, I have my normative commitments or beliefs about what is better and worse. The question is one of how we ground our normative commitments. What are the principles by which 1) we ought to regulate our activity and 2) how do we demonstrate that they’re true or right? Moreover, 3) are these principles universal such that they’re binding for all human beings, or are the particular or restricted to particular groups and cultures?
I suspect that all of our are more or less committed to a set of “oughts”. It’s point questions 2 and 3 that have become particularly difficult. Ethnography or cultural anthropology has fundamentally challenged our ability to propose universal ethical systems. Most of the ethical thought we’ve inherited comes from a Western tradition of philosophy and our contemporary ethical thought is still pervaded by the assumptions of this tradition. Take Kant and Mill. They’re still the giants of contemporary ethical thought. It is fairly easy for Kant to say that morality is universal, that we have a universal moral faculty, because he’s developing his moral philosophy in an ethnographic context where people more or less share the same ethical intuitions. It’s also fairly easy for Mill to suggest that when we apply the “greatest happiness principle” we’ll come to more or less the same conclusions for the same reason.
It seems to me that ethnography severely calls this into question. When you study cultural anthropology you discover just how varied human value systems are. If Kant were right, we would expect to find far less diversity in ethical principles throughout the world. After all, he claims that the categorical imperative is a fact of reason. We thus get a simple syllogism:
All humans are rational animals (or possess reason).
All rational animals are capable of formulating the categorical imperative.
All humans are capable of formulating the categorical imperative.
Either all the beings that ethnography studies are humans, or they are not humans. If they are humans in Kant’s sense, we would expect there to be far more global and historical consensus on value questions. Yet there is not. So we’re left with the unpalatable alternative of either claiming that these “others” are not humans as they don’t deploy the categorical imperative as we do, or that Kant is wrong in his account of human nature or human reason. We might respond that Kant is not talking about the way the world is, but to how it ought to be. Perhaps. But even if that’s true, wouldn’t we expect far more cross-cultural consensus as to what ought to be the case?
The case is the same with Mill. Mill’s utilitarianism is only able to get off the ground or do the work he wants to do on the premise of something like a universal human nature. It is the sameness in our nature that allows the greatest happiness principle to yield universal conclusions. Yet again, ethnography calls into question the universality of that nature (as does developmental biology and psychology).
Like anyone else I want to be able to say that the Nazi’s were wrong, human sacrifice is bad, that female foot bindings and female circumcision are terrible things, and all the rest. The question is how to ground all this. I don’t think that we can just wave ethnography away or pretend that it is irrelevant to our questions as philosophers and ethicists. We pose these questions as philosophers and ethicists with a certain theory of human nature and culture constantly operating in the back of our minds. We better be sure we do our best to present an accurate account of that nature when posing these questions.
Neurology complicates things even more. If I were a Kantian, I would want to say that conclusions following from the categorical imperative are universally binding. That is, I would hold that they obligate everyone. I would argue that this is just and moral because everyone has the capacity to formulate the categorical imperative, know their duties, and follow their duties because everyone has the capacity of reason (by contrast, it would be unjust to claim everyone was obligated to follow certain moral laws if they could only learn them from good parents, the Bible, etc., because not everyone encounters these things).
This all assumes a particular theory of mind that I believe has been severely called into question by contemporary biology, psychology, and neurology. Take the example of serial killer Ted Bundy. It’s likely that Bundy was a psychopath or a sociopath; someone incapable of experiencing empathy for others. Now it seems that Bundy was capable of knowing his duties or that what he was doing is wrong, because he took pains to hide his brutal crimes and lied to his victims to get them into situations where he could carry out his horrific rituals. In other words, he recognized that they were crimes. The question is whether or not he was capable of not committing these crimes. Was he “wired” in such a way that he could stop himself? It seems that unlike Ed Gein, he had the capacity to formulate the categorical imperative and know what follows from it, but the question is whether he could stop himself from nonetheless doing it.
A growing body of research shows a strong correlation between psychopathy and early childhood head trauma to the frontal cortex. The frontal cortex plays a key role in impulse control. Suppose this is true. Can we hold Bundy responsible for his actions? Kant said an ought implies a can. But was Bundy capable of acting otherwise? How do you run and execute the software when you don’t have the hardware required to do so? It’s all well and good to make a transcendental argument and say “x is the condition for the possibility of y”, but that style of argument needs to be consistent with what we know about the nature of mind.
Take another example. The Seven Deadly Sins were first formulated by Evagrius Ponticus in the 4th century. Among these sins was the sin of sloth. In characterizing sloth as a sin, it is implied that 1) it is a personal failing, and 2) a choice that a person makes. The slothful person is choosing to be disengaged, lazy, and indifferent. From what I understand– and perhaps some of the medievalists could speak up here –descriptions of sloth over the centuries sound very close to clinical depression. Clinical depression is not, I don’t think, something that a person chooses. Moreover, the person that has it suffers tremendously from it. The question again is whether the person suffering from clinical depression has any choice in the matter. We could go the way of the early work of Foucault up to The Order of Things, and say that the medievals understood sloth in terms of moral categories, whereas we understand sloth in terms of psychiatric categories, and there are no grounds we can provide for saying one is right and the other is wrong. I have a difficult time accepting this line of argument. I think the medievals were just wrong to understand things like clinical depression in these terms. Having worked with patients that suffered from very serious depression, I have a great deal of difficulty accepting the claim that they are morally responsible for their condition in the way that Kant seems to suggest when he claims that we have a duty to be happy. In suggesting such a thing he seems to be claiming that they have somehow chosen their state or condition. Having encountered the intractability of serious depression, coupled with the ardent desire these people often have to escape it, I just can’t see this.
It is likely this post will be misunderstood as claiming that there is no normativity, goal-directed action, or freedom. That is not what I’m claiming. I am saying that the findings of disciplines such as ethnography and neurology pose problems that need to be addressed and that so far have not adequately been addressed. Here are some responses I just don’t think work:
1) Transcendental arguments: These arguments claim that there are certain conditions for the possibility of things that we must presuppose in order for our various practices to be comprehensible. These conditions are not of the empirical order, but are of the transcendental order. Thus, for example, a person might claim that empirically everyone’s empirical mind is different and there are those that suffer from conditions such as Bundy or maladies such the clinically depressed person. But, they continue, when we’re talking about the moral order, we’re talking about a set of transcendental conditions that must be in place for norms to be possible. Among these norms would be a transcendental subject that everyone possesses, that is the same for all, and that represents our capacity to make free decisions independent of our empirical differences in neurology, temperament, experience, etc.
I think this is just a way of evading or ignoring the question. We can’t just wave away things like the condition of Bundy (if he had that condition), clinical depression, autism, Alzheimer’s and all the rest by evoking transcendental subjects and whatnot. I understand the motivation. We want a moral account of morality, or one where we can explain how it is possible for everyone to be bound by the moral law or responsible for certain duties. If we say that moral knowledge of our duties arises from our parents teaching us the right things or being exposed to the right sacred text like the Book of Mormon, we won’t be able to establish this because not everyone has encounters with these things. In other words, the grounds for morality cannot be a posteriori or empirical and yield moral universality because not everyone encounters these things. Nor can it be based on inclinations like empathy or biological dispositions, because not everyone has these inclinations nor these genetic dispositions. If these points are granted, all that is left is an a priori account of morality arising out of reason or a capacity that everyone has. The idea runs that even if you were raised by the most wicked and abusive people, even if you were isolated by these people from the broader world such that you never encountered any alternative, you would still be capable of knowing your moral duties because you have reason and the capacity to formulate the categorical imperative. This can only be true if there’s a transcendental subject that is independent of the mind’s empirical conditioning and biological individuality. The question is whether there’s any reason to believe this is true. How can a person deploy reason in this way if they just don’t have the wetware to do so?
2) A second line of argument just questions the science altogether. As someone recently argued in response to one of my talks, “why should we bother with science at all? It’s been wrong before and will be wrong again.” First, I absolutely think we need the sort of critical analysis we find in science and technology studies that investigates the role of power and discourse in the constitution of “knowledge”. I think this is especially important in the human sciences and the biological sciences. Is “restless leg syndrome” really a disorder, or is it just a syndrome invented by the pharmaceutical industry to sell more drugs? Was hysteria really a disorder during the 19th century, or was it just a way patriarchal and sexist men dismissed the just complaints of women? We need this sort of critical analysis and much more besides.
However, I feel it’s important that we avoid falling into what I call dogmatic skepticism. “Wait,” everyone responds, “isn’t skepticism the exact opposite of dogmatism?” Good skepticism is. However, skepticism becomes dogmatic when it believes that it can reject things a priori, without having to go through the careful labor of showing why we should be skeptical of these things. You encounter dogmatic skepticism when you hear someone reject a set of statistics they don’t like on the grounds that “you can do anything with statistics!” Such a person hasn’t gone to the trouble of showing how the way these particular statistics were arrived at are unsound. You encounter dogmatic skepticism when you hear someone reject evolutionary biology on the grounds that it is just a reflection of neoliberal ideology (neo-Lysenkoism anyone?). Such people don’t go to the trouble of showing what’s wrong with contemporary evolutionary theory.
In moments of despair I feel as if a great deal of American continental thought is just as bad as Christian fundamentalism and American conservativism. The Christian fundamentalists reject evolutionary theory out of hand as some sort of godless conspiracy (and in this I think they corrode the social bond or are profoundly anti-social by refusing standards of evidence). The conservatives regularly argue against climate change as a “religion” and a plot for scientists to land grant money. We see similar arguments in American Continental thought. The phenomenologists tend to have a reflexive tendency to reject anything in the sciences as “enframing”, a pursuit of “standing reserve”, or as the naivete of the natural attitude. Notice that we seldom see an attempt to grapple directly with this research as Merleau-Ponty did. Those working in the post-structuralist and Marxist tradition see power and conspiracy everywhere in these claims. In this they profoundly resemble American conservatives that reject anthropogenic climate change on the grounds that scientists are just pursuing grant money. It’s ugly and stupid.
But, above all, it’s unreasonable. There are left anti-science attitudes and right anti-science attitudes. I think of my friends who refuse to get their children vaccinated. Their arguments are always the same: vaccinations are just attempts for pharmaceutical companies to make money and there was some kid somewhere that they knew that got sick and developed autism when they died. Notice that this line of argument is formally identical to the arguments made by those in the 80s who denied the link between smoking, cancer, and other diseases. “My grandfather lived to 106, smoked three packs a day, and ate bacon and eggs for breakfast every morning!” They refuse the statistics and go with the anecdote. We need the careful critique of the sciences. The sciences need that careful critique. But we also need to go with the best available information we have at the time and avoid our urge to simply explain away that which we find troubling.