Brandom’s third Brentano lecture offers a nice summary of his ethical vision of a Hegelian postmodernity, which has nothing to do with fashionable “postmodernism”, but did inspire the masthead here.
What might be called the traditional view of normativity treats normative statuses as just being what they are, and as simply given to us. According to this view, normative attitudes ought to simply respect pre-given values, and there is no place for inquiry into what is right. Actions are judged in a completely external way, with no regard for the actor’s intent. Hegel used the tragedies of Sophocles to illustrate this. Oedipus accepted full moral responsibility for consequences of which he was totally unaware. This is the stance of a tragic hero. Viewed charitably, it has the benefit of recognizing that everything is not up to us, and that values have a kind of objectivity.
The “modern” view — which I think appeared already among the Greek Sophists — is the polar opposite of the traditionalist view. In its pure form, it reduces all normative considerations to attitudes in the shallow sense, and denies any possible objectivity of values. The attitudes in question can be completely arbitrary. Depending on whether the attitudes that count are anyone’s or only those of the sovereign or of the privileged, the modern view can be anarchistic or authoritarian. But viewed charitably, it has the benefit of suggesting that intentions and personal conscience do matter, while avoiding reliance on a simple givenness of values.
These are both what Hegel called “one-sided” views, each asserting the complete independence of something. Neither statuses nor attitudes can really be completely independent of the other.
The “postmodern” view that Brandom develops out of Hegel recognizes that every thing has some dependence on other things, while also allowing for relative independence. In this view, everyone has both some responsibility and some authority, and responsibility for any given thing is ultimately shared by all of us. All normative statuses are instituted by normative attitudes, but only attitudes that have the structure of mutual recognition can institute genuine normative statuses. Hegel also spoke of confession and mutual forgiveness in this context.
“How can we both make the norms and be genuinely governed by them?”, Brandom asks (p. 76). We do both, but the same person does not do both with respect to the same thing at the same time. “The short answer, I think, is that our past attitudes institute norms that provide the normative standards of assessment for our current attitudes. Such a slogan conceals the rich fine-structure of [Hegel’s] account, however” (p. 77).
Norms are instituted through recollection of an expressively progressive trajectory, Brandom will say (see Hegelian Semantics). “It is in particular the recollective phase of diachronic recognitive processes that explains the attitude-transcendence of normative statuses, which provide standards for normative assessment of the correctness of attitudes” (p. 88).
At any given moment, we should aim “at acknowledging and attributing what we and others are really committed and entitled to, our actual responsibilities and authority” (p. 76). But what we are really committed to can only be seen retrospectively (see Hegel on Willing) and by taking into account the assessments of others. What we are really committed to may on this account be quite different from what we tell ourselves we are committed to.
“The challenge to the intelligibility of normative governance comes from the idea that the authority of norms over attitudes must be total in order to be genuine. It is a manifestation of the deformed conception of pure independence: the idea that authority (normative independence) is undercut by any sort of correlative responsibility to (dependence on) anything else. This is the practical normative conception Hegel criticizes allegorically under the rubric of ‘Mastery.'” (p. 93).
Just because something might be explained without reference to values does not mean that we should so explain it. That would be the cynical attitude that, e.g., people only do good in order to feel good about themselves. Where apparently virtuous actions also appear to have ulterior motives, it is not valid on that basis to assume that there is no genuine ethical motive in play.
“Taking recollective responsibility for another’s doing is practically acknowledging the obligation to tell and endorse a certain kind of retrospective story about that doing. That is the responsibility to rationally reconstruct it as norm-governed. The forgiving recollector must discern an implicit norm that governs the development of the deed.” (p. 98).
“Some things people have done (both ourselves and others), we want to say, are simply unforgivable. (The last century or so provides a host of notorious, alarmingly large-scale candidates.) In some cases, though we might try to mitigate the consequences of evil doings, we just have no idea at all how to go about discerning the emergence of a governing norm we could endorse ourselves. And this situation does not just arise in extraordinary or exceptional cases. Any actual recollective story will involve strains: elements, aspects, or descriptions of what is actually done, at every stage in the developing process, that cannot be smoothly, successfully, or convincingly given such a norm-responsive explanation” (p. 101).
“It might well be that one is in fact incapable of fulfilling that commitment, of carrying out that responsibility. If and insofar as that is so, it is a normative failure that the unsuccessful would-be forgiver should confess. To take proper recognitive recollective responsibility requires the forgiving agent to confess her own inadequacy to the recollective task. Your confession of a failure of your practical attitudes appropriately to acknowledge a norm is a petition for my recognition in the form of my forgiving taking of (co-)responsibility for your doing. My subsequent failure to adopt adequately forgiving recollective recognitive attitudes is something I am in turn responsible for confessing. That confession is itself an act of identification with you: ‘I am as you are.’ My attitudes, like yours, fail adequately to satisfy the norms that they nonetheless acknowledge as binding, as governing those attitudes” (p. 102).
“Paying one’s dues as a member of a recognitive community structured by trust is acknowledging that one is always already implicitly committed to forgiving, responsible for forgiving what one’s fellows do or have done” (ibid).
Referring to Hegel’s famous figure of the cynical valet, Brandom says “The Kammerdiener stands for a view that explains all attitudes in terms of other attitudes, without needing to appeal to governing norms or statuses that they are attitudes towards and acknowledgments of. Hegel does not deny that this sort of explanation in terms of attitudes alone can be done…. But we can ask: what sort of disagreement is it that divides the Kammerdiener and the ‘friend of the norms’ for whom some heroes really are heroes? Is it a cognitive, matter-of-factual disagreement about what there is in the objective world? After all, for Hegel, modernity was right that normative statuses are attitude-dependent. Hegel diagnoses the issue instead as a difference in meta-attitude. He denominates the norm-blind reductive naturalism of attitudes, for which the Kammerdiener stands, debasing: ‘niederträchtig’ (literally, something like “pulling down or under”). The contrasting, norm-sensitive, status-responsive, hero-acknowledging meta-attitude that takes some attitudes to be themselves genuinely norm-sensitive and norm-acknowledging he calls magnanimous: ‘edelmütig’ (literally: noble spirited)” (pp. 90-91).
“[T]he trusting conception is heroic, like the tragic conception, in that responsibility is total. Responsibility is taken for the whole deed. There is no aspect of intentional doings that overflows and falls outside the normative realm of responsibility—no specification of the deed for which no-one takes responsibility” (pp. 106-107).
“Agency as understood and practiced within the magnanimous recognitive structure of confession and forgiveness combines these two heroic aspects of the premodern conception: sittlich appreciation of the status-dependence of normative attitudes and acknowledging total responsibility for the deed as consequentially extended beyond the knowledge and control of the agent. It can maintain a heroic expanded conception of the deed for which responsibility is taken because it has an expanded conception of who is responsible for each doing” (p. 107).
“The neo-heroic postmodern form of practical normativity replaces fate with something we do. What happens is given the form of something done. Immediacy, contingency, particularity and their recalcitrance to conceptualization are not done away with. But they now take their proper place. For we appreciate the necessary role they play in the process of determining the contents of the norms we both institute by our recognitive attitudes and acknowledge as governing that experiential process. The burdens of tragic subjection to fate are replaced by the tasks of concrete magnanimous forgiveness. Where our normative conceptual digestion and domestication of immediacy, contingency, and particularity shows its limitations, when (as in each case, as the Kammerdiener reminds us, at some point they must) they outrun our recollective capacity to incorporate them into the mediated, normative conceptual form of governing universals, that failure of ours is properly acknowledged by confession, and trust in the forgiveness of that failure to fulfill our responsibilities, by more knowledgeable and capable future recollectors” (p. 108). (See also Brandomian Forgiveness; Rethinking Responsibility; Expansive Agency.)