Rational Ethics

When Hegel said that Plato and Aristotle were the great educators of the human race, I think he had in mind not only their exemplary nondogmatism, but also their rational ethics. The advent of rational ethics was a world-historic advance. I even think it might be unequalled. (See also Reasons.)

This suggests a further clarification of my view on the vexed modernity debate. At a more elemental level, I had suggested that philosophy — understood as the recognition of genuine questions in normative matters — might almost be substituted for modernity, hypothetically understood typologically as any step away from the unquestioned governance of pre-given traditional norms. At issue then was philosophy as a whole, the content of which I believe is all at least indirectly normative. But a more specific argument could also be made about rational ethics, where the content is by definition normative.

Aristotle would remind us that if we speak of this flowering of expressive metaconcepts as an “event”, it is said in an extremely different way than a bare reference to an empirical event, the content of which is completely undetermined by the reference.

This suggests a clarification of something else that has been nagging at me in the modernity debate, and why I have been anxious to substitute an explicit typological criterion of modernity for references to what sounds like a chronological threshold. A chronological threshold is just an abstraction for some empirical events associated with it. The geistlich content we might attribute to empirical events is not made evident at all by reference to them, so there is a lack of determination in all simple, putatively empirical references to “modernity”.

Anyway, I’d like to suggest that the greatest watershed in the development of Geist was the advent of rational ethics. Then the next biggest thing after that could be said to be the making explicit of the mutual recognition model.

This also clarifies another perplexity I had about the relation between valuations of modernity and Brandomian postmodernity. Phase two of three in Brandom’s schema seems objectively to be mainly characterized by what really did turn out to be understood by him as negatively valued alienation, but in other passages he lauds phase two as the main event of progressive history. In that case, I would have expected the positively valued big event to be the phase three synthesis resolving the alienation, rather than the phase two alienation itself. But if we instead specify phase two as something like rational ethics and phase three as its enhancement by the mutual recognition model, then it does make more sense to assign the highest value to phase two. Since it restores to norms an emergent, synthetic objectivity — arising out of the mutual recognition process — the mutual recognition model can be understood as the (second) negation of the questioning (first negation) of the traditional putative simple, pre-given objectivity of norms from which rational ethics begins.

(As the above paragraph illustrates, it takes real interpretive work to identify something like a Hegelian triple and give it reasonable semantics.)