The Status of Ethics

For a long time, I mostly reduced ethics to empathy and an endlessly open Socratic quest for truth. The way to be ethical was just to seek the fullest possible understanding, in things small as well as large. Truth about how things really are seemed to me to be the decisive factor. Thinking about politics and history in terms of abstractly considered, putatively free choices by individuals seemed like a massive source of confusion, failing to take real-world contexts and constraints into account.

Under the influences of recent discourse about normativity, I now consider a sort of meta-ethics to be a good candidate for first philosophy. Logic, epistemology, and ontology can all be seen as depending on normative considerations.

It took some time for me to become comfortable with normativity talk. I was suspicious that in the background there must inevitably be some sleight-of-hand grant of deontological status to empirical “norms”, which would give the whole thing an inherently conservative slant. But this need not be the case. Normativity is just a fancy word recent philosophers use for value.

I still prefer to translate deontological vocabulary to something more hermeneutic. The only unconditionally binding imperatives are purely formal, and thus cannot provide unconditional guidance for action. This does not mean anything goes. There are meaningful differences and gradients everywhere. All differences are relative by definition, yet they are still differences.

The Platonic dialogues posit the Good as the first principle of all, prior to any matters of fact, beyond being and beyond knowledge. Aristotle developed a rich account of normativity internal to nature. Each thing has its own internal good, which for an animal for instance is a way of life. Modern mathematical natural science explains many new facts without reference to normativity, but nothing about this invalidates normative discourse. Kant and Hegel argue in effect that normative, “practical” reason about what to do is superior to (and actually informs) theoretical reason about what is.

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