Ethical Practice

In Kant, practical means ethical. This initially seemed counter-intuitive to me. Like many, I used to think of the “practical” in technical and utilitarian terms, as how we realize desired results. I also used to think considerations of value needed to be guided by considerations of truth, and that pursuing the truth far enough and sincerely enough would spontaneously provide sufficient answers to ethical questions. I would no longer put it that way. I now think that the pursuit of truth, taken far enough, shows things to be “normative all the way down”, in Brandom’s phrase. Even the most narrowly technical considerations ultimately involve questions of value. Conversely, inquiry into values is the one kind of inquiry that need not presuppose any other.

Ethics are not a spontaneous byproduct of inquiry into the truth. In order to sincerely inquire into the truth, we need to deliberately focus on all the questions of value that come up along the way and affect our judgments. As a result, I now think of ethical practice as subsuming every other kind of practice.

Ethical inquiry is concerned with what we should do, which includes the details of how we do it. Every kind of doing is subject to this kind of consideration.

Engineering, to take one non-obvious example, is not just about coming up with designs that “work”, but about coming up with good designs. Various kinds of arguments that are relatively “value free” can be made about criteria for good design in specific contexts, but ultimately what matters most is that the design be “good” or better than the alternatives, however that is to be understood in the particular case.

An ethics-first view of philosophy puts ethics or “axiology” (inquiry into values) before epistemology, ontology, or formal logic in the order of explanation.

All doing has ethical implications of one sort or another, and all inquiry (also a kind of doing) ultimately involves questions of value.

Actuality, Existence

I have been using the English “actuality”, following old standard translations of Aristotle. As with any Aristotelian technical term, in interpreting its meaning I try to rely on what the Aristotelian texts say about it, and to avoid importing connotations associated with other uses of the English word used to translate it. Aristotle’s Greek term is energeia, a word he apparently invented himself from existing Greek roots. Joe Sachs translates it as “being at work”, which I think is good provided “being” is taken in the ordinary sense that we transitively say something “is” at work, rather than taking “being” as a noun. The word is formed from the noun ergon, which in its root sense means “work”; the prefix en, which corresponds to the preposition “in”; and the suffix eia, which makes the whole thing into a noun, like English “-ness” or “-ity”. So, in the most literal sense, energeia means something like “in-work-ness”.

Even the literal sense is a bit misleading, because Aristotle is very clear that the primary reference of energeia is not to a present state or a factual state of affairs, but to a primitive or ultimate end, understood as a kind of fullness or achievable perfection after its kind.

We are not used to thinking seriously about achievable perfection, but Aristotle’s fundamental intention regarding “perfection” is that it not be out of reach of finite beings. The “perfection” Aristotle has in mind is not a godlike attribute of unqualified or infinite perfection, but rather something like what modern ecology calls a “climax state” of an ecosystem (like the exceedingly rich environment of a rain forest).

Ecological succession involves a series of states that lead to other states, whereas a climax state leads back to itself, as in Aristotle’s other related coined word entelechy, which Sachs renders “being at work staying itself”, and is literally something like “in-end-having”. An ecosystem in a climax state is maximally resilient to perturbation; it is more able to recover its health when something throws it out of balance.

When Aristotle speaks of “substances” persisting through change, it is not a simple persistence of given properties that he has in mind, but rather something more like a stable (i.e., highly resilient, not unchanging) ecosystem. Stability in ecosystems and populations comes from biodiversity, which is a modern scientific analogue of Aristotelian “perfection”. Diversity provides a richer set of capabilities. With respect to human individuals, the analogue would be something like a “well-rounded” character. In ethics, we could speak of a well-rounded pursuit of ends, in contrast with a narrow or selfish one.

Thus the concept of “actuality” in Aristotle has to do with a kind of immanent teleology or interpretation of things based on ends and values, which for Aristotle takes the place of what later writers called “ontology”, as a supposed fundamental account of what exists.

Some contemporary analytic philosophers have spoken of “actualism” as an alternative to the possible worlds interpretation of modal logic. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in this context “actuality” is simply equated with factual existence. Instead of making confusing claims about the reality of non-actual possible worlds, this approach locates alternate possibilities within the actual world instead of somehow alongside it. As far as it goes, I have some sympathy for this. But I want to resist some of the conclusions with which it is commonly associated, which follow from the very non-Aristotelian identification of actuality with mere factuality. (See also Redding on Morals and Modality.)

I said above that actuality in Aristotle’s sense refers to processes and states of actualization relative to ends and values, not just to present existence or the current factual state of affairs. Readers of Aristotle as diverse as Thomas Aquinas and GwenaĆ«lle Aubry are united in stressing the primacy of “in-act-ness” over mere factuality in the interpretation of “actuality”. Robert Pippin’s account of actuality in Hegel (see also here) in an ethical context spells out the consequences of this very nicely. I think Aristotle would endorse the views Pippin attributes to Hegel in this context.

Husserl on Normativity

Translator J. N. Findlay ranks Husserl (1859-1938) with Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel, and calls Husserl’s Logical Investigations (1899-1901) his greatest work. My previous acquaintance with Husserl has been limited to his later, explicitly “phenomenological” period.

In the first two chapters, Husserl surveys and criticizes the then-dominant views of Utilitarian John Stuart Mill and his followers on the nature of logic, objecting that they reduced it to a “technology dependent on psychology” (p. 56). Frege had already introduced mathematical logic, but the great flowering of the latter had not occurred yet. Husserl in these chapters is particularly concerned with the objectivity of knowledge, and with principles of validation.

I was initially confused by his polemic against the claim that logic is a “normative discipline”. To me, “normative” means “axiological”, i.e., concerned with value judgments. I take the Aristotelian view that judgment refers first of all to a process of evaluation, rather than a conclusion. In this sense, judgment and normativity inherently involve a Socratic dimension of genuinely open inquiry about what is good.

All versions of normativity involve a “should”. But it turns out that the view Husserl is polemicizing against treated a “normative discipline” as one that takes some particular and predetermined end for granted, and is only concerned with what we “should” do to realize that predetermined end. On this view, “normativity” is only concerned with necessary and/or sufficient conditions for achieving predetermined ends. Thus Husserl associates it with a sort of technology, rather than with something ultimately ethical. So, what he is doing here is rejecting a merely technological view of normativity.

There is also a theoretical-versus-practical axis to Husserl’s argument. Aristotle had contrasted the ability to successfully perform an operation with the ability to explain the principles governing it. One does not necessarily imply the other. Husserl notes how many activities in life are merely oriented toward operational success, and says that most of the practice of modern sciences — including mathematics — has a mainly operational character.

Elsewhere I have contrasted “tool-like” reason with what I like to call ethical reason, but I don’t think they are mutually exclusive, and my notion of “tool-like” reason has potentially rather more positive connotations than that toward which Husserl seems to be leading. I don’t take the fact that engineering tends to drive science to be inherently bad. I think engineering can drive science in a good way, involving an integral consideration of ends; a concern with good design guided by those ends and the best practices we can come up with; and a recognition that the real world doesn’t always cooperate with our intentions.

On the other hand, I also find that the best engineering relies more on fundamental theoretical insight and well-rounded judgment than on sheer technology. This is a perspective that is simultaneously “practical” and concerned with first principles. When Husserl argues for the priority of theoretical disciplines over practical ones, he is mainly arguing for the importance of a concern for first principles. While I generally prefer the Kantian/Brandomian primacy of practical reason, I find common ground with Husserl in the concern for principles.

Varieties of Ethics

Particularly in the analytic tradition, writers on ethics since the early 20th century have debated about the right high-level view of the subject. Aristotle is identified with what is now called “virtue ethics”. Kant is said to embody a conflicting approach based on deontology, or rules and duty. Others have advocated an alternative based on axiology, or a general theory of values that could also include aesthetics. These are sometimes presented as the three main competing views. Still other writers have stressed the importance of situations, which might be taken as a fourth alternative.

Worthwhile things have been said from all these perspectives, but I don’t like this sort of division and narrowing of discourses. What is actually most essential in ethics — and could be taken as a sort of common denominator to charitable readings of all four of the approaches mentioned above — is the role of reasonable interpretation and processes of judgment. (See also Choice, Deliberation; Reasonableness.)

Aristotle’s emphasis on what modern people might call emotional intelligence, acquired over time, as a basis for ethical skills (see also Ethos; Ethos, Hexis) always made a lot of sense to me, but I take those skills to be embodied in practical doings revolving around interpretive judgment and follow-through, and want to emphasize the details of the doing, rather some achieved state. For Aristotle, a person’s virtue can only be assessed in terms of a complete life. Virtue is certainly a goal, but applying it as a criterion requires conversion to a subjunctive form, as in what particular doings would be consistent with virtuous life. People after Aristotle have too often found it too easy to substitute a double presumption that whatever is done by people we presume to be virtuous is right. Aristotle himself avoids this, and does not use the subjunctive form, either. Instead, he suggests we should deliberate directly about what is the right thing to do.

The rules-and-duty approach, or deontology, I find generally unappealing because rules and duty are often taken in a dogmatic or traditionalist sense that seems to deny the need for interpretive work, and tacitly or overtly to substitute for it one-sided appeals to authority. But this need not be the case. Notably, Kant and Brandom emphasize higher-order rules that require interpretive judgment in the application of very abstract principles to concrete situations, and Kant sublimated duty for duty’s sake into a meta-commitment to unity of apperception.

Talk about values goes back to Plato and Aristotle. In the analytic tradition, this is associated with what is called axiology. Modern presentations of this have often had a subjectivist slant, reducing values to valuations, but there is nothing essential in this. Importantly, it seems to me that everything Brandom says about the objective but not pre-given status of norms can be easily applied to values. In discussing Brandom’s contributions, I sometimes prefer to substitute “values” for “norms”, because it seems to me the term “norms” often carries an unwanted connotation that we are talking about norms that empirically exist or that are in fact accepted, which is not what Brandom means. It also seems to me that higher-order rules function more like values than like first-order rules, so I think it is not inappropriate to translate Kant and Brandom’s talk about rules into talk about values. Serious engagement with values again involves a commitment to interpretive work.

Talk about the interpretation of situations also goes back to Aristotle. Some modern presentations have stressed a sort of common-sense or immediate assessment of situations that downplays the role of interpretation, but again there is nothing essential about this.

In any case, an open-ended work of reasonable interpretation and judgment (along with follow-through) seems to me like the most fundamental thing in ethics.