Disambiguating “Power”

As Aristotle might remind us, “power” is said in many ways. Each of these is different.

There is the power that Plato suggests as a distinguishing mark of being in the Sophist. There is the greater power he attributes to the Good more ancient than being. There is Aristotelian potentiality, which I normally prefer to distinguish from “power” altogether, but is referred to by the same Greek word. There is the related notion of power as capacity, of the sort developed by Paul Ricoeur. There is efficient causality, itself said in many ways. There is physical force. There is legal or political authority. There are repressive apparatuses. There is the positive, distributed social power involved in the formation of selves, discussed by Michel Foucault. There is the artistic and inventive power with which Nietzsche was especially concerned. There are claims of supernatural power beyond possible human understanding.

I haven’t yet found where in her French text Gwenaëlle Aubry clarifies how her identification of Aristotle’s god with pure act — involving neither Aristotelian potentiality nor Platonic power — goes together with her identification of the efficacy of the pure act with a final causality realized through “potentiality as tendency toward the end”. I think this has to do with the pure act’s role as an end or attractor, so that the potentiality in question belongs to the things it attracts, rather than to Aristotle’s god. Aristotle’s god for Aubry is what might be called an “inspiring” or attracting cause rather than a ruler and a driving cause.

It seems to me that in order to even be intelligible, a power of any kind must be understood as having definite characteristics related to its efficacy. I therefore think “infinite power” is devoid of sense. Even the “omnipotent” God of Leibniz who selects the best of all possible worlds at the moment of creation only selects an inherent, coherently realizable possibility that is also in accordance with non-arbitrary criteria of goodness. He does not create arbitrarily.


At the stage we have currently reached in Hegel’s development, my “self” is to be identified with my concrete spiritual and cultural world. H. S. Harris in his commentary says “In its independent (or truth-knowing) aspect the rational self is not, as Descartes thought, a ‘thinking substance’; but neither is it simply the Aristotelian ‘soul’ — the form of one mortal living body” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 151). I think Aristotle himself — in contrast to very influential Latin medieval interpretations of his work — would have agreed with this.

“The essentially evanescent process of using a common language is Spirit as the universal Self” (ibid). “But the immediate truth of this consciousness is ambiguous. My community is a ‘universal’ for me, only when it particularizes itself” (ibid). “All of the previous shapes of consciousness are ‘abstractions’ from this ‘self-maintaining absolutely real essence'” (p. 153). “What is ‘uncovered’ but beyond speech in the Greek experience, is not deep but shallow. It is the aesthetic surface of truth and no more. But there is no need for anyone (except artists) to become ecstatic about the rediscovery of it” (p. 163). “Nothing could be less Hegelian than [an] aesthetically intuitive concept of ‘Truth'” (ibid).

Under the Roman empire’s dissolution of traditional culture and face-to-face community, “The formal universal unity is a spiritless community of atomic individuals, who are all equally persons…. The ethical substance was true spirit; but now it is supplanted by personal certainty” (p. 230). “We have entered the world of independent self-conscious wills. Everyone is a separate person with her own legal rights” (p. 231), “a legally rigid, abstract self not dissolved in the substance” (ibid). “The law defines what is mine, and what is yours” (p. 235). In the Roman Imperial world, “we were all in bondage, and obliged to recognize the absolute selfhood of an earthly Lord” (p. 247). We have moved from “Ethical Substance” to “the Condition of Right”.

Here Hegel takes up a positive aspect of the Unhappy Consciousness. As Harris recounts, “The Spirit must now embark on the great labor of self-making…. We are now invited to recognize ourselves in the ‘absolute otherness’… of a Spirit who is ‘not of this world’. In this present life we are estranged from our true selves in God’s kingdom” (ibid). “The ruin that seems to come upon the Empire from outside, really comes from the self-alienating activity of the spirit. The destruction is necessary, because self-alienation is the actualization of the Substance” (p. 248).

“Thus it was not the barbarians outside the Empire, but the revelation that the legal self-consciousness is itself barbaric, that made the decline and fall of the empire inevitable. This is what became clear when formal Reason sought to establish ‘mastery’ (a relation of unequal recognition) over the natural passions. The attempt was inevitably transformed into the tyranny of aggressive self-consciousness (the military) over finite life (the civil population)…. The whole system based upon the immediate recognition of ‘Personality’ is arbitrary. The Empire falls, because all selves must learn the lesson of self-estrangement, the lesson of submission to a command from above” (p. 250).

“In the world of True Spirit, the self simply forgot itself in the otherness of the objective custom. The Condition of Right was ‘spiritless’ because there was no absolute otherness, there was only an absolute but natural self. That absolute self has now been recognized as nothing but its own otherness — the unconscious and uncontrolled forces of natural life. This factual otherness must now regain selfhood from ‘Beyond'” (ibid).

“Antigone’s Zeus… has to yield to the ‘absolute otherness’ of Destiny. It is Destiny that becomes a Self for Unhappy Consciousness”…. “The whole actual world… is now inverted into the subordinate status of a mere moment in the divine plan for humanity…. In order to stabilize a social world in which authority is natural (and therefore arbitrary) we are forced to postulate that it is founded upon supernatural Reason.”

“This is an absurd postulate, because ‘absolute authority’ is contradictory” (p. 251). But “Reason can only coincide with Freedom; the absurd postulate of a rational divine Will… is just the first step in the emergence and evolution of this ‘identity’. Universal Christianity, as a social institution, justifies what is logically and ethically experienced and known to be absolutely unjustifiable: the acceptance of arbitrary authority. But without the projection of Reason into the Beyond, humanity could never become what it essentially is: a free self-making spiritual community, not a community of ‘natural Reason'” (p. 252).

“In order to follow Hegel’s argument, we have to employ certain concepts (notably those of ‘self’, ‘self-consciousness’ and ‘Universal’ in unfamiliar ways that seem paradoxical, because they violate our ordinary assumptions…. But if we make these logical adjustments, we can not only turn all the otherworldly talk of the world of culture into straight talk, but we can understand why the otherworldly talk was necessary….”

“[I]n due course, the division of the world of estranged spirit into the visible and the intelligible, the realm of actuality and the realm of faith, will collapse back into the categorical identity of the rational self; and as ‘pure insight’ this rational self will unmask the irrationality of the claim of faith that we can receive the truth of ‘pure consciousness’ by revelation” (p. 253). But “the Beyond of Faith is reborn almost at once as the necessary Beyond of Reason. Estrangement ends when Faith becomes Reason; but Reason is left to liquidate its own Beyond, the realm of ‘moral consciousness’ or ‘rational faith'” (p. 254).

“[H]istory and logic do not stay evenly in step in the story of the estranged world…. Faith in its stillness is not a mode of knowledge at all. It is the ‘devotion’ of the Unhappy Consciousness at the threshold of thought. In that strictly singular shape, it falls into contradiction whenever it seeks to realize itself in the world. Faith proper, has crossed the threshold into actual thought; and it does successfully transform the world. But as Pure Insight it will come back to the experience of contradiction” (p. 255). “Religion proper will be the overcoming of this whole conceptual pattern of estrangement…. With the dawning of ‘pure Culture’ we shall be equipped to deal with the ‘pure consciousness’ of Faith” (p. 257).

In Itself, For Itself

Robert Brandom’s Brentano lectures highlight key themes of his innovative reading of Hegel in A Spirit of Trust (2019). Despite a few disagreements on matters of historical interpretation, I think Brandom is probably the most important philosopher yet to write in English. In the first lecture, he explores the development of the notion of practical valuational doing and normative force from Kant to Hegel. He interprets Hegel’s abstract language about the “for itself” and the “in itself” in terms of the interplay between normative attitudes (the “for itself”) and normative statuses (the “in itself”) in concrete processes of valuation in human life.

Hegel thought that Kant almost got things right with his twin notions of ethical autonomy and respect for others. Brandom diagnoses two main flaws in Kant’s account from Hegel’s point of view. Both Kant and Hegel were working to reconcile the modern notion that normative statuses depend on normative attitudes with a genuine bindingness and objectivity of normativity. For Kant, respect for others was the counterweight to the individualist implications of autonomy, and Brandom traces its development into the Hegelian notion of mutual recognition. Kant’s notion of autonomy was a great contribution in the history of ethics, perhaps the most significant since Aristotle. (See also Autonomy, Normativity.) Nonetheless, the first flaw in Kant’s account has to do with autonomy.

“Kant’s construal of normativity in terms of autonomy is at base the idea that rational beings can make themselves responsible (institute a normative status) by taking themselves to be responsible (adopting an attitude)” (p. 7, emphasis in original throughout). While elsewhere showing great admiration for the broad thrust of this Kantian idea of normative “taking”, Brandom here goes on to ask more specifically, “What is it for an attitude of claiming or acknowledging responsibility to be constitutive of the status of responsibility it claims or acknowledges—that it immediately (that is, all by itself, apart from any other attitudes) institutes that status?” (p. 8). “For the idea of individual attitudes of attributing statuses that suffice, all by themselves, just in virtue of the kind of attitudes they are, to institute the statuses they attribute, is the idea of Mastery, or pure independence. (What it is purified of is all hint of dependence, that is, responsibility correlative with that authority.)” (p.10). Hegel will go on to reject the idea of Mastery in all its forms, even the seemingly benign Kantian one of attributing the autonomy characteristic of ethical reason directly to acts of individuals. (See also Hegel on Willing.)

“The idea that some attitudes can immediately institute the normative statuses that are their objects, that in their case, taking someone to be authoritative or responsible can by itself make them have that authority or responsibility, is, on Hegel’s view a characteristic deformation of the modern insight into the attitude-dependence of normative statuses. It is the idea allegorized as Mastery. Hegel sees modernity as shot through with this conception of the relations between normative attitudes and normative statuses, and it is precisely this aspect of modernity that he thinks eventually needs to be overcome. In the end, he thinks even Kant’s symmetric, reflexive, self*-directed version of the idea in the form of the autonomy model of normativity is a form of Mastery. In Hegel’s rationally reconstructed recollection of the tradition, which identifies and highlights an expressively progressive trajectory through it, Kant’s is the final, most enlightened modern form, the one that shows the way forward—but it is nonetheless a form of the structural misunderstanding of normativity in terms of Mastery” (p. 11).

Mastery understands itself as pure independence, “exercising authority unmixed and unmediated by any correlative responsibility…. The Master cannot acknowledge that moment of dependence-as-responsibility” (p. 12). Hegel considers this to be an incoherent conception, in that it is incompatible with the moment of responsibility necessarily involved in any and all commitment. Secondly, it cannot acknowledge the genuine insight that there is dependence of normative attitudes on normative statuses as well as vice versa. “[T]he Master must understand his attitudes as answering to (responsible to, dependent on) nothing” (p. 13). Finally, Brandom argues that no intelligible semantics — or account of conceptual content with any bite — could possibly be compatible with this kind of pragmatics. (See also Arbitrariness, Inflation.)

The second flaw diagnosed by Hegel is that Kant’s twin principles of autonomy and deservingness of respect on Kant’s account turn out to be exceptional kinds of normative status that are not instituted by a kind of taking. Instead, they are presented as a kind of ontological facts independent of any process of valuation. Brandom says Hegel thought Kant was on this meta-level still beholden to the traditional idea of pre-given normative statuses. Nonetheless, the Kantian criterion of respect already suggests that our normative takings take place in a mediating social context. With autonomy and respect, Kant “had all the crucial conceptual elements, just not arranged properly” (p. 17).

Through his account of mutual recognition, Hegel will go on to recover the values that are at stake in the Kantian notions of autonomy and respect, without treating them as pre-given. “Robust general recognition” of others is attributing to them “the authority to attribute authority (and responsibility)” (p. 19). Hegel wants to say that as individual rational beings we cannot ethically and cognitively lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps, but together we can and do.

As Brandom puts it, “recognitive statuses are not immediately instituted by recognitive attitudes, but they are instituted by suitably socially complemented recognitive attitudes” (p. 21).

He quotes Hegel saying, “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself, because and by virtue of its existing in and for itself for an other; which is to say, it exists only as recognized…. Each is for the other the middle term, through which each mediates itself with itself and unites with itself; and each is for itself, and for the other, an immediate being on its own account, which at the same time is such only through this mediation. They recognize themselves as mutually recognizing one another…. Thus the movement is simply the double movement of the two self-consciousnesses. Each sees the other do the same as it does; each does itself what it demands of the other, and therefore also does what it does only in so far as the other does the same. Action by one side only would be useless because what is to happen can only be brought about by both.” (pp. 22-23). This is the genesis of Hegelian Spirit.

We can only be responsible for what we acknowledge responsibility for, but every commitment to anything at all is implicit acknowledgement of a responsibility. Commitment is meaningless unless we also implicitly license someone to hold us responsible to it.

Brandom on Reason

In the introduction to Reason and Philosophy (2009), Brandom identifies with “a venerable tradition that distinguishes us as rational animals, and philosophy by its concern to understand, articulate, and explain the notion of reason….  Kant and Hegel showed us a way forward for a rationalism that is not objectionably Cartesian, intellectualist, or anti- (or super-) naturalist.  Nor need it treat the ‘light of reason’ as unacquired or innate” (pp. 1-2; emphasis in original throughout).

“Rational beings are ones that ought to have reasons for what they do, and ought to act as they have reason to” (p.3).

“Taking something to be subject to appraisals of its reasons, holding it rationally responsible, is treating it as someone: as one of us (rational beings).  This normative attitude toward others is recognition, in the sense of Hegel’s central notion of Anerrkennung” (p. 3).

The role of recognition makes things like authority and responsibility into social statuses.  These “are in principle unintelligible apart from consideration of the practical attitudes of those who hold each other responsible, acknowledge each other’s authority, attribute commitments and entitlements to each other” (pp. 3-4).

If we take meaning seriously, we cannot take it for granted.  Inferential articulation is involved not only in determining what is true, but also in the understanding of meanings.  What we mean and what we believe are actually interdependent.  He refers to Wilfrid Sellars’ thesis that no description can be understood apart from the “space of implications” in which the terminology used in the description is embedded.  “Discursive activity, applying concepts paradigmatically in describing how things are, is inseparable from the inferential activity of giving and asking for reasons” (p. 8).  

“[T]he acts or statuses that are givings of reasons and for which reasons are given – are judgings, claimings, assertings, or believings.  They are the undertakings or acknowledgements of commitments” (p. 9).  “[R]ationality is a normative concept.  The space of reasons is a normative space” (p. 12).  Philosophy should be concerned not just with pure logic and semantics, but with “the acknowledgement and attribution of… statuses such as responsibility and authority, commitment and entitlement” (p. 13).

Modernity, Voluntarism

A draft chapter on pre-Hegelian stages in the history of normativity that Brandom removed from the published Spirit of Trust is now separately available on the internet. Parts or aspects of this historical narrative are the main source of issues I’ve had with Brandom in recent times. I take his removal of the chapter as confirmation that this historical argument should be viewed as an independent, optional supplement to the main philosophical argument of this truly great work. But Brandom still implicitly relies on it in summarily characterizing what he calls the single most important transformation in history — having to do with the status of normativity in the Enlightenment — and I have issues with those statements as well.

He begins by recalling a number of core themes I would wholeheartedly endorse.  Hegel “fully appreciated, as many of Kant’s readers have not” that Kant fundamentally rethought notions of self, self-consciousness, apperception, and “consciousness in the sense of apperception” in normative terms.  This is a vitally important point.

“Judgment is the minimal form of apperceptive awareness because judgments are the smallest units one can commit oneself to, make oneself responsible for”.  The “I” in “I think” that Kant called the “emptiest of all representations” is a kind of formal mark of taking responsibility for the judging.  What is represented in the judgment is what one makes oneself responsible to, and the “I” in turn only acquires determinate reference from what we implicitly or explicitly take responsibility for.  What Brandom following popular usage still calls “conscious selves”, he glosses with precision as “apperceptively unified constellations of commitments”.

Concepts are “rules that determine what commitments are reasons for and against”, and as such govern the synthesis of apperceptive unities, but they should not be thought of as pre-existing.  “Judgeable contents take methodological pride of place because of their role in Kant’s normative account of judging”.  Concepts used in judgments acquire their content from the activity of judging, from what one does in applying them.  Brandom thinks Hegel sees Kant as a “semantic pragmatist” not just in the Fichtean sense of the primacy of practical philosophy over theoretical philosophy, but in the more radical sense that for Kant, a normative account of discursive activity has methodological explanatory authority over the determination of discursive content in both theoretical and practical philosophy.

Brandom identifies Hegel’s Geist or Spirit with discursive normativity, and says Hegel sees earlier moral theorists as offering important insights not just about morality, but about normativity as such.  Hegel himself starts from conceptual norms expressed in language, rather than from moral norms.  He says that “language is the Dasein [“being there”] of Geist”.  “In another (completely unprecedented) move, Hegel historicizes his social metaphysics of normativity”.  Normativity is for the first time explicitly recognized as having a history.  

“The traditional metaphysics of normativity that Hegel sees all subsequent forms of understanding as developing from the rejection of is the subordination-obedience model.”  On this model, obligation is instituted by the command of a superior.  Brandom notes that Hegel initially discussed it under the famous figure of the relation of Master and Servant.

Protestant natural-law theorists – including Grotius, Cumberland, Hobbes, Pufendorf, Thomasius, and Locke — secularized and naturalized the voluntarism of medieval Catholic theologians like Scotus and Occam, tracing the binding force of law from “the antecedent existence of a superior-subordinate relationship”.  For the theological voluntarists, Brandom says, such relations of subordination were not only matters of objective fact, but “in some sense the fundamental objective metaphysical structure of reality”, embodied in Arthur Lovejoy’s figure of a broadly neoplatonic “Great Chain of Being”.  The natural-law theorists explained relations of subordination among humans in terms of different theories of God’s dominion over humans.  Brandom notes that on the obedience model, the status of being a superior is itself a normatively significant status entailing a right to legislate and command, but having that status relative to other humans is reduced to a non-normative matter of presumed objective fact.  (We should not rely on presumption in such important matters, and all attempts to reduce normativity to something non-normative stand in opposition to the autonomy of ethical reason championed by Kant.)

Brandom says the natural-law theorists began to question the subordination-obedience model in two ways – first by attaching some normative criteria to the status of being a superior, and second by suggesting that the right of a human to command might depend on some kind of implicit consent or attitude of the affected subordinates.  I would emphasize that any such move is already a move away from voluntarism.  As Brandom says, the subordination-obedience model is incapable of being extended to explain a normative status of being entitled to command.  The invocation of the consent of subordinates, he says, is an “even more momentous” step forward.  It is distinctive of Brandomian modernity to take normative statuses to be instituted by attitudes of acknowledgement.  Ultimately, modernity for Brandom is thus related to the emergence of democratic politics.

Brandom says that for Hegel, the modern model of attitude-dependence of normative statuses expresses a genuine and important truth, but like the subordination-obedience model, it is ultimately one-sided.  Hegel’s own view will make room for both an objectivity and an attititude-dependence of norms and normative statuses, by deriving objectivity itself from a vast ensemble of processes of normative mutual recognition over time.  Brandom translates Hegel’s vocabulary of “independence” and “dependence” into authority and responsibility, and says that for Hegel, what self-conscious beings are “in themselves” depends on what they are “for themselves”, on what they take themselves to be, as well as on what others take them to be.  What is “in itself” or “for itself” is thus a matter of normative interpretation, rather than of metaphysics in the traditional sense.

All of this seems both fine and important.  Things begin to become much more problematic, however, when he briefly discusses the contrast between voluntarist and “intellectualist” views of the will in medieval Latin theology.  He ends up valorizing the voluntarism of Occam at the expense of the so-called intellectualism of Aquinas, on the ground that voluntarism can be taken as grounding normativity in attitudes attributed to God.  Even though he notes that Occam’s nominalism makes all universals – including normativity — the product of “brute arbitrariness”, while recognizing that for Aquinas normativity is always grounded in reasons, he is more impressed by the fact that in Aquinas, those reasons are traceable to objective statuses.  Brandom’s language suggests that any reliance whatseoever on attitudes — even if they are arbitrary and do not involve any kind of recognition of an other — is ethically preferable to reliance on objective statuses.  

I on the contrary much prefer Aquinas’ appeal to reasons – in spite of the fact that Aquinas ultimately relies on assumed objective statuses – to Occam’s appeal to arbitrariness, even though the latter can be argued to implicitly involve attitudes.  It is a rather common motif of shallow accounts of the prehistory of modern science to valorize Occam and nominalism generally as anticipating modern developments, while overlooking both the negative ethical consequences of voluntarism and the positive value of the ethically “intellectualist” emphasis on reason.

I want to put greater stress on the contrast between arbitrariness and reasons than on that between relying on assumed objective statuses and relying on attitudes.  Of course I agree that objective normative statuses should not be simply assumed.  But I see nothing at all progressive in arbitrariness glossed as the product of an arbitrary attitude.  The result is still arbitrariness.  So, I cannot at all agree that theological voluntarism is “the thin leading edge of the wedge of modernity”, if modernity is supposed to be anything good.  I think a transition to relying on attitudes for the constitution of normativity only becomes progressive when those attitudes are non-arbitrary.

The other odd thing in Brandom’s account is the complete absence of any mention of Plato and Aristotle.  Unlike most authors of the Enlightenment, Plato and Aristotle put no limits on the free use of reason.  They explicitly treated reason as bound up with normativity.  And even though they did not question existing distinctions of social status as much as we might, nothing in their ethics actually presupposes the subordination-obedience model.  Thus I locate the single greatest historical break with Plato and Aristotle’s invention of rational ethics, rather than with the Enlightenment’s appeal to attitudes.  

However one takes the ethical “intellectualism” of Aquinas, it combines Plato and Aristotle’s merger of normativity and reason with doctrinal concerns.  The assumptions about objective statuses that Brandom objects to belong to the doctrinal component of his synthesis rather than its Platonic-Aristotelian component.  If we are looking for historical antecedents of the ethically good aspects of modernity, we should look to Plato and Aristotle.

Voluntarism’s endorsement of arbitrariness over reasons is quite simply the short path to evil.  It is the bad attitude of the Master discussed by Hegel, raised to a sort of anti-philosophical principle.  Brandom is a great champion of the importance of reasons, and presents an exemplary reading of Mastery as an evolutionary dead end with no progressive role to play, so I think it would be more consistent for him to avoid any historical valorization of voluntarist positions.

Arbitrariness, Inflation

Arbitrariness in practice or in theory effectively devalues distinctions, reasons, and values all to zero. Insistence on arbitrary power, arbitrary rights, or arbitrary freedom utterly abnegates normativity and reason. (See also Desire of the Master; Tyranny.) Denial of the principle of noncontradiction opens the door for unprincipled sophistry that has the same nihilistic effect. The idea that something genuinely new can only come about through arbitrariness reflects a profoundly impoverished vision.

Theoretical assertions of arbitrary power or authority originated in bad theology (see Strong Omnipotence; Occasionalism), then found their way into modern political theory via one-sided notions like sovereignty. Modern individualism and subjectivism tend to make similarly one-sided, effectively nihilistic claims on behalf of individuals. Sartrean existentialism and Badiouian decisionism are particularly extreme examples. (See also “Hard” Kantianism?)

Rather than valorizing or justifying arbitrariness in actions, we ought to always aim at contextually appropriate applications of reasonableness and respect for others. (See also Practical Judgment; Freedom from False Freedom.)

Practical Reason

I think the introduction of rational ethics by Plato and Aristotle was the greatest single event in the history of talking animals on our planet, marking the threshold of a kind of historical cultural adulthood. Before that, there were traditional values; codifications of traditional values into law; and attempts by some people to impose their will on others; but there was no ethics as free and open inquiry into what is right.

Two millenia later, Kant took the next big step, and explicitly argued for the primacy of practical reason. This means that the kind of reasoning involved in rational ethics comes first in the order of explanation, before so-called theoretical reason. (See also Ricoeur on Practical Reason.)

Recently, Brandom’s highly original account of responsibility has closed any remaining gaps, making it possible to explain anything at all in terms that put ethical reasoning first. (See also Expansive Agency; Brandomian Forgiveness.) This also further refines Kant’s concept of the autonomy of reason, allowing for a stronger interpretation that eliminates the last vestiges of a dependency of ethical reasoning on anything external to it. It allows the primacy of practical reason to be fused with the autonomy of reason, resulting in a new kind of completeness of ethical reason. (See also Practice.)

Of course, any talk about a completeness of ethical reason presupposes a very broad construal of what ethical reasoning is (see also Reasonableness; What and Why; Context). It also requires that we be very careful to avoid taking its completeness in the wrong way. It presupposes a kind of epistemic modesty as a feature of rational inquiry.

Rational ethics stands in contrast to tradition, but as Hegel might remind us, much of the content of tradition turns out to be broadly rational after all, if we disregard its epistemic shortcuts.

The true antithesis of rational ethics is the subordination of values to a supposedly sovereign will — be it the will of God presumed as known; the expressed will of some individual; or a will attributed to an institution like the state, or to a social group. Such appeals to arbitrary will end the possibility of inquiry and dialogue. (See also Euthyphro; Authority, Reason.)


I believe there is an implicit suggestion in Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, and Hegel that sound theology must include extensive concern with a universally accessible common ground of ethics understood by means of reason with no appeal to external authority.

My own view is that the highest form of faith is intransitive. It could not have articles. It is not a belief in some propositions, but a pure affective attitude and way of being and doing. Anything else is just a way to get to that, if it is a way to anything at all. This would be somewhat akin to traditional negative theology. (See also Plotinus; God and the Soul; First Principles Come Last; Affirmation; Belief.)

Authority, Reason

[This post assumed what I still take to be the common or usual notion of “authority” as something that is supposed to be unconditionally binding under some circumstances. It does not apply to a notion of authority that would be always symmetrically balanced by reciprocal responsibility, and therefore always defeasible.]

Authority is a poor substitute for reason. It gives us ready-made conclusions that may be true, but are without justification. When we have reason and reasons, we have no need to be guided by authority.

Respectable authors have nonetheless talked about rational authority. The idea is that reasons should have something like a sort of authority over us. That is fine, as long as we recognize it as a metaphor or simile rather than a literal truth.

The difference is, precisely, that authority operates fundamentally in registers of will, compulsion, and obedience. Authority at its core does not answer to reasons. “Do it because I said so!” or just “Obey!” is its first and last move. Obedience to authority is characterized by heteronomy rather than autonomy, in Kant’s sense of those terms.

We may be freely “compelled” only by reasons, when we genuinely find them to be genuinely convincing. That is very different from someone compelling us, or from our having internalized an external compulsion. (See also Euthyphro; Necessity in Normativity; Binding; Deontic; Enlightenment.)