Ethical Being

Previously I suggested that a modest discourse about beings is all the ontology we need.

At this level, the most distinctive thing about us talking animals is that we are what I would call ethical beings, that is to say beings with potentiality for ethical reason. With Aristotle, I identify each being with its distinctive way of being. Ethical being in the singular is just a name for the quality of being an ethical being. It also translates Hegel’s term sittliches Wesen. Hegelian spirit is actualized by the actions and ethical being of ethical beings. (See also Back to Ethical Being.)

Reason, Nature

Ethical reason is our simultaneously active and receptive contribution to the bounty of nature. We are neither masters nor slaves or automatons, but co-stewards of this world.

The open-ended inclusiveness characteristic of ethical reason resembles the superabundance of form in nature, the same resemblance I’d like to think Plotinus had in mind when he said we should act in ways that express a “likeness to God”, which I take in the spirit of Leibnizian affirmative “wise charity”. (See also Fragility of the Good; Two Kinds of Character; Magnanimity; Second Nature; Naturalness, Mindedness; Interpretation.)

Brandom and Hermeneutics

It’s been a while since I said much about Robert Brandom, though his work — along with my own nonstandard reading of Aristotle — continues to be one of the main inspirations behind everything I write here.

Lately I’ve been devoting a lot of energy to belatedly catching up on the hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur. To my knowledge, Ricoeur never commented on Brandom during his lifetime, and Brandom has not specifically commented on Ricoeur.

Brandom has, however, in Tales of the Mighty Dead explicitly endorsed some of the broad perspectives of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics, and he has devoted much attention to a “hermeneutics of magnanimity” in Hegel’s Phenomenology. Brandom’s mentor Richard Rorty concluded his famous work Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature by recommending a general turn from foundational epistemology to nonfoundationalist hermeneutics, and I have previously suggested that Brandom’s work as a whole could be viewed as a novel sort of hermeneutics developed within the analytic tradition.

Brandom’s fundamental concept of the priority of material inference over formal inference puts meaning — and therefore the interpretation of meaning — in the driver’s seat for reasoning, so to speak. This allows for the recovery of a more historic concept of Reason, which ever since Descartes has been mostly replaced by a mathematically based kind of rationality that is more precise and invaluable in technical realms, but also much more rigid, and in fact far more limited in its applicability to general human concerns (see Kinds of Reason).

Even prior to Descartes, Latin medieval logic already moved increasingly toward formalism. Since Frege and Russell, the rigorous mathematization of logic has yielded such impressive technical results that most philosophers seem to have forgotten there is any other way to view logic.

In the 1950s Wilfrid Sellars took the first steps toward initiating a counter-trend, reaching back to the pre-Cartesian tradition to formulate the notion of material inference later taken up by Brandom.

Modern complaints against Reason strongly and wrongly presuppose that it inevitably follows or approximates a formal path. Material inference provides the basis for a fundamentally hermeneutic view not only of Reason but also of logic and logical truth.

I have further stressed the fundamentally ethical or meta-ethical character of material inference, leading to a concept of ethical reason as the most fundamental form of Reason overall in a view that puts material inference before formal logic. As I put it not too long ago, ethical reason may optionally use the more technical forms of reason as tools. Ethical reason, I want to say, has a genuinely active character, but technical reason does not. Ethical reason is fundamentally oriented toward the concrete, like Aristotle’s practical judgment.

I want to say that there is such a thing as logical or semantic reference — saying something about something is not in vain — but a prior hermeneutic inquiry is necessary to ground and explain reference. Moreover, both Aristotle and Kant recognized something like this. Such a perspective is compatible with science, while putting ethical and meta-ethical inquiry first.

A hermeneutic concept of Reason saves us from a false dilemma between formalism on the one hand and question-begging appeals to intuition, authority, or irrational “decision” on the other. (See also Dialogue.)

Kinds of Reason

As Aristotle might remind us, “reason” is said in many ways. All forms of reason are potentially valuable, but there is a very important distinction between what I’ve been calling the ethical reason that is intimately involved with who we are, and other forms that are more like tools we can use. Also, ethical reason relies on concrete judgments of things, rather than formal manipulations.

In some ways — in terms of the role I see it playing — ethical reason is more like what some people have called “will”. I prefer to avoid the term “will” because it is too often associated with an arbitrary power of decision. I do very much think of ethical reason as the thing in us that ultimately decides things large and small, but the kind of decision involved is always at least implicitly ethical (concerning what we “should” do), and therefore by no means arbitrary.

Common complaints against “reason” concern what I would call what I would call a usurpation of the place of ethical reason by the tool-like kinds of reason, or claims made on their behalf. Contrary to the claims of a certain ill-conceived modernity, tool-like reason can aid us in utilitarian calculations that may help inform decisions, but cannot by itself provide an adequate basis for decision, which is always ultimately ethical.

Whereas tool-like reason aims at precision, ethical reason is maximally inclusive in what it takes takes into account. This inclusiveness is its strong point, but at the same time makes it especially fallible. Due to the fact that we are situated beings in the world, there is no such thing as an infallible decisionmaking process we could use. Aristotle already pointed out that ethical reason is less precise than other forms. Tool-like reason achieves its precision by excluding considerations that ethical reason cannot ignore.

Because of this, concrete realizations of ethical reason can be better or worse. In general, human beings are called rational animals not because we are perfectly rational, but because we have the capability for reason. Especially in the case of ethical reason, that capability is always a matter of degrees. We all use it all the time, and do better or worse. We can also learn or be inspired to do better than we did before.


The term “kerygma”, used by Ricoeur in discussing hermeneutics, was a Greek New Testament word. The influential 20th century theologians Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Barth — both referred to by Ricoeur — used it for the message of the Gospels, which Bultmann considered as addressed not to theoretical reason but to “the hearer as a self”. This sort of language resonates with the perspectives of Ricoeur’s mentor Gabriel Marcel.

Bultmann applied a kind of Heideggerian hermeneutics to the New Testament, and developed a sort of Christian existentialism. He contrasted kerygma with myth, and argued for a “demythologizing” view. I don’t know his work well, but have issues with his apparent opposition to an emphasis on ethics and to historical research.

I regard “theoretical” reason merely as a valuable tool used or usable by our everyday ethical reason, which I don’t quite regard as a self, but rather as associated with what we care about and how we act on that. There is, however, only a short distance from this to Ricoeur’s idea of a Self as an ethical aim rather than an actuality. I read Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel among others as identifying Reason in general first and foremost with the much broader and more “human” or spiritual ethical reason, rather than the narrow “theoretical” reason, which I see as closer to technical reason and formal logic. With this emphasis on ethical reason, it seems to me Bultmann’s dichotomy is superseded. In my view, hermeneutics applies not just to a sacred text, but first and foremost to our understanding of life and ourselves. I also take it to include a good deal of questioning.

Ethical Reason, Interpretation

Now I want to say that the ethical reason or practical reason I have in mind is broad enough to subsume not only a consideration of feeling and non-ego-centered meditation, but all sorts of philosophical questions, and all sorts of technical disciplines as well. It is able to learn from things as diverse as structuralism and Marcelian spirituality.

The broad perspective of ethical reason, born in Plato’s dialogues and developed by Aristotle into a generalized approach subsuming many more specific inquiries, was largely lost in early modern thought, but revived again by Kant and Hegel. To this day, much modern thought remains polarized between untenable alternatives of allegedly value-free scientific or technical analysis on the one hand, and subjectivist self-assertion and anti-rationalism on the other.

Ethical reason asks what and why in a spirit of mutual recognition, and in a way that is at once open-endedly interpretive and concerned with values. (See also Rationality.)

Freedom from False Freedom

This is just a tricky phrase rather than a new idea, but the idea is vital.

No person or institution has a “right” to do arbitrary things. Here, “arbitrary” means having no justification by ethical reason broadly construed. It thus applies to things like disrespecting others, or engaging in wanton destruction. Freedom should not be allowed to serve as a cover for unethical action.

With regard to wanton destruction, I would point out that we have no right to destroy the planet we live on. This raises issues of diffuse, expansive responsibility that no one wants to deal with, and for which most people at least cannot be individually blamed.

We all need to take more responsibility in cases where we could not be blamed for failing to do so. (See also Expansive Agency; Freedom Without Sovereignty; Mutual Recognition; Stubborn Refusal; Economic Rationality?)