Normativity in Kant

Wikipedia actually has several decent articles on normativity (compare my own capsule account here). Under “Normative” it currently says “Normativity is the phenomenon in human societies of designating some actions or outcomes as good or desirable or permissible and others as bad or undesirable or impermissible. A norm in this normative sense means a standard for evaluating or making judgments about behavior or outcomes….  One of the major developments in analytic philosophy has seen the reach of normativity spread to virtually all corners of the field…. [I]t has become increasingly common to understand normative claims as claims about reasons“. “Normative ethics” is simply ethics as distinct from meta-ethics. Under “Norm (philosophy)” it says “Norms are concepts… of practical import, oriented to effecting an action, rather than conceptual abstractions that describe, explain, and express”.

Kant scholar Christine Korsgaard’s Tanner lectures were published as The Sources of Normativity (1996). Her first sentence says “It is the most striking fact about human life that we have values” (p. 1). She notes that “Plato and Aristotle came to believe that value was more real than experienced fact, indeed that the real world is, in a way, value itself”.

In Korsgaard’s account things begin to turn subtly in a modernist direction, broadly resembling the modernist sentiments in Brandom I occasionally have trouble with. “For Plato and Aristotle, being guided by value is a matter of being guided by the way things ultimately are…. The form of a thing is its perfection, but it is also what enables the thing to be what it is. So the endeavor to realize perfection is just the endeavor to be what you are — to be good at being what you are” (pp. 2-3).

While there is a big boulder of truth here, I think formulations of this sort carry the danger of greatly underestimating the extent to which — even though we grasp things well enough to act with practical confidence — the “way things ultimately are” becomes more problematic the more seriously we consider it, which I think Plato and Aristotle well recognized. Further, while talk about the singular form of a thing is not out of place in Plato, Aristotle’s versatile notion of form (especially in the Metaphysics and the biological works, and in sharp contrast to scholastic “substantial form”) overflows any such simple conception (see Form, Substance).

Korsgaard presents later emphasis on obligation as a “revolution” ultimately completed by Kant. This emphasis on obligation rather than value per se is what analytic philosophers call deontology, on which I’ve commented several times.

While I fully agree that normative force is real, for serious philosophical purposes it is an error to think it ever has completely univocal meaning. That is why Hegel thought every truth eventually has to make way for some further truth. I agree that Kantian obligation adds something to ethics and makes Kant the next great contributor to ethics after Aristotle, but I see it as a refinement or addition to a basically Aristotelian account along the the lines suggested by Paul Ricoeur, and not a revolution.

I’ve previously mentioned Nancy Sherman’s elaboration of implicit Aristotelian themes in Kantian ethics. Barbara Herman in The Practice of Moral Judgment (1993) argues forcefully against the highly contracted notion of judgment commonly attributed to Kant, and for a positive concept of values in Kant. I’ve referred several times to the outstanding book by Beatrice Longuenesse, Kant and the Capacity to Judge (French ed. 1993), which develops a very rich, multilayered concept of judgment out of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I think Brandom relates Kantian judgment to an entire unity of apperception and its ongoing repair of errors (see Autonomy, Normativity; Brandom on Postmodernity). Hannah Ginsborg in The Normativity of Nature (2015) finds a rich general concept of judgment in Kant’s Critique of Judgment, and concludes that “there is nothing intrinsically objectionable about regarding natural phenomena in normative terms” (p. 345; see Natural Ends; Kant’s Recovery of Ends).

Brandom comes close to identifying deontology with ethics tout court. Initially I found this very unattractive, but Brandom is no advocate of excessive univocity, as his favorable remarks about the “new” notion of determination in Hegel and truth as a process make clear. He uses the language of deontology and modality as a way of combating arbitrariness and indistinction.

In summary, though Kantian obligation is an undeniable contribution, I think a very strong case can be made that the most important element in normativity is really values and not obligation per se.

Incidentally, it is nice to see so many female philosophers at work in this area.

Ricoeur on Justice

Among Paul Ricoeur’s last publications were two small volumes of lectures on justice, The Just and Reflections on the Just. These apply the ethics he had formulated in Oneself As Another (see also Solicitude; Ricoeurian Ethics). As in Oneself As Another, he combines Aristotelian and Kantian elements (see also Aristotle and Kant).

Ricoeur notes that Plato and Aristotle often mentioned “the unjust and the just” in that order, and suggests that the initial impulse for justice is a sense of indignation against things like unequal shares, broken promises, and excessive retributions.

He identifies justice fundamentally with equity or fairness, as mediated through institutions and Kantian obligation by universals. In contrast with the I-Thou of friendship, it involves relations of distance with others conceived in the third person. “The other for friendship is the ‘you’; the other for justice is ‘anyone’…. In fact, we have already encountered this ‘anyone’ in those exemplary situations in which our youthful indignation lashes out against injustice: unequal shares, failure to keep one’s word as given, unfair retributions — all institutional circumstances, in the broadest sense of the term, where justice presents itself as a just distribution” (The Just, p. xiii). “An important equation, whereby the just begins to be distinguished from the unjust, presents itself here: the equation between justice and impartiality” (p. xi). It is “under the condition of impartiality that indignation can free itself of the desire for vengeance” (p. xvii; emphasis in original).

He will consider the interaction of two axes: a “horizontal” one of the “dialogical constitution of the self” (p. xii), and a “vertical” one with three levels — an initial Aristotelian one concerned with ends and the good life; an intermediate Kantian one concerned with formal elaborations of procedural justice and universality; and a final one concerned with Aristotelian practical wisdom that also draws on Kant’s Critique of Judgment. He suggests that the Critique of Judgment has more to tell us about justice than the Critique of Practical Reason. Procedural justice, Kantian universality, and deontological obligation here do not supersede or conflict with Aristotelian practical judgment about concrete particulars, but rather mediate its relations to ends. This seems like a very nice way of expressing a harmonization of Aristotelian and Kantian ethics.

Relating justice to Aristotelian ends, Ricoeur wants to defend “the primacy of the teleological approach in the determination of the idea of the just” (p.xvi). “Justice… is an integral part of the wish to live well” (p. xv). “It begins as a wish before it becomes an imperative” (ibid).

According to Ricoeur, the very import of the claim to universality ensures that procedural justice cannot entirely separate itself from a substantive idea of the good in terms of ends. Provisionally adopting John Rawls’ abstraction of equitable distribution of goods as including procedural considerations, he argues that overall equity cannot be realized without “taking into account the real heterogeneity of the goods to be distributed. In other words, the deontological level, rightly taken as the privileged level of reference for the idea of the just, cannot make itself autonomous to the point of constituting the exclusive level of reference” (p. xix; emphasis in original). Ricoeur accepts Rawls’ claim that a pure theory of procedural justice can be developed autonomously, but argues that its real-world applications still require Aristotelian practical judgment.

All people, Ricoeur suggests, have a kind of “power over” others, as a result of the capacity to act. This “offers the permanent occasion for violence in all its forms…. What do we get indignant about, in the case of shares, exchanges, retributions, if not the wrong that human beings inflict upon one another on the occasion of the power-over one will exercises in the encounter with another will?” (p. xvii; emphasis in original). The kind of impartiality that frees indignation from the desire for vengeance, Ricoeur suggests, is embodied in the idea of universally valid law and deontological obligation to avoid harming others.

Ricoeur says actually the most serious issue about justice has to do with what he calls the “tragic dimension of action. It is at this stage that the moral conscience, as an inner forum, one’s heart of hearts, is summoned to make unique decisions, taken in a climate of incertitude and of serious conflicts” (p. xxi; emphasis in original).

The ultimate need for open-ended Aristotelian practical wisdom above and beyond the best discipline of the abstract application of rules, Ricoeur says, is a kind of correlate of the irreducibility of a consideration of ends. This will be the most important thing in the practice of jurisprudence. (Leibniz also suggested something like this with his idea of justice as “wise charity”.) Ricoeur relates such practical wisdom to Aristotle’s notion of (non-sophistical) rhetoric as speaking well in the sense of saying things that are persuasive because rightly said; to hermeneutics; and to poetics. (See also Ricoeur on Practical Reason.)

Justice’s “privileged moment” of mediation through formal universality, while neither self-sufficient nor ultimately decisive, is nonetheless essential to the process. The same kind of mediation appears in Ricoeur’s works in numerous contexts. Freedom is mediated by necessity; our understanding of the self is mediated by a “long detour” through cultural objectifications; open-ended interpretation is mediated by disciplined explanation. Similarly, here an ultimately open-ended approach to justice that begins and ends with Aristotle is enriched and made more rigorous by the additional mediation of Kantian universality.

These examples help clarify the main sense of Ricoeurian (and Hegelian) “mediation”, which is very different from the sort of theologically perfect, transparent mediation invoked, e.g., by Aquinas. Ricoeurian and Hegelian mediation are always bumpy, and the last word is never said.

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.

Deontic Modality

I just realized that linguists have been using a concept of deontic modality to express various degrees of “ought”, “may”, “can”, and the like. This is interesting in a couple of ways.

Brandom often talks about a pair consisting of deontic normative and alethic modal things, while sometimes suggesting that truth is actually subordinate to normativity. “Alethic modality” is the phrase used by the linguists to express modalities of truth. I’m not sure why Brandom chose not to similarly adopt the linguists’ exact phrase for the deontic one (perhaps to save “modal” for its standard, hyperstrong logical sense), but it is certainly interesting to note that the linguists see the deontic one as also modal.

It is also very interesting to see that the linguists apparently see deontic modality as expressed in terms of degrees, which seems eminently reasonable. I tend to see deontological ethics as promoting untenably unconditional ground-level requirements, so this is a welcome relief. (See also Necessity in Normativity; Binding; Evaluation of Actions; Modality.)