Truth, Beauty

In my very first post here, I mentioned a reversal of order of precedence in my own top-level view of things. An always ongoing quest for better understanding of things large and small, combined with intuitive sympathy or empathy for others, used to seem to come first. (Such “understanding” would not be the univocal representational Understanding that Hegel talked about, but something broader and more open-endedly interpretive.) Ethics would thus have basically taken care of itself, and would at most have been a matter of working out details.

At another intermediate point, I thought what should come first would be to seek beauty in all things, incorporating a sort of ancient Greek notion of beautiful actions. Again, ethics would have basically taken care of itself. If queried about this, I might have added that provided one sincerely cares, it is better to be light of heart than worried all the time. (See also Affirmation.)

Now I have come to think that understanding of things large and small is itself at root an ethical or meta-ethical activity, and have even begun to speak of a normative monism. The point I want to make here, though, is that there is a common theme across all three of these stages.

The common theme is a profound interdependence between how the world is for us, how we ought to think about it, and how we ought to act. The three phases represent not changes of values that would result in different ground-level ethical conclusions, but rather a progressively deepening “self-consciousness”. (According to Brandom, this sort of autobiographical Hegelian genealogy itself plays an important role in the improvement of what I am here loosely calling “understanding”.)

From a Kantian critical point of view, we know that there will always be a difference between how we think the world is and how it actually is (and ultimately that anything like Cartesian certainty can only be a dogmatic illusion). But from an Aristotelian pragmatic point of view, we can go ahead and work with our current best understanding. Then from a Hegelian point of view, without forgetting that our understanding will never be the last word, we can charitably or forgivingly recognize that current best understanding as an expression of Reality and Truth. (See also Objectivity; Brandom on Truth.)

Brandomian Forgiveness

Forgiveness is the process by which immediacy is mediated, by which the stubborn recalcitrance of reality is given conceptual shape.

A Spirit of Trust, p. 612.

Confession, forgiveness, and trust are what we must do, recognitively, in order to find objective, determinately contentful conceptual norms being applied cognitively in judgment and practically in action.

p. 628

[F]orgiveness and trust embody an expansion strategy, by which self-conscious individuals identify with actual goings-on over which they exert some real, but always only partial authority, identify themselves as the seats of responsibilities that outrun their own capacity to fulfill.

p. 623

The final chapter and conclusion of Brandom’s A Spirit of Trust include a strong ethical message about mutual forgiveness, interwoven with his reading of Hegel’s resolution of the subject-object dichotomy. Sophoclean tragic heroes encountered fate as an uncontrollable alien force that changed the meaning of their actions against their will, but still took responsibility for their actions anyway. Aristotle and important strands of the Christian tradition already anticipated what Brandom calls Kant’s contraction of responsibility to a responsibility for intentions only. Brandom sees in Hegel a novel suggestion that instead of thus contracting responsibility to commitments alone, we should expand it and make it mutual.

Instead of blaming the actor for the action’s unintended consequences or contractively saying no one is responsible in such cases, Brandom sees the “postmodern”, “expansive” Hegelian alternative as consisting in the actor taking responsibility for unintended consequences, while the recognitive community also takes responsibility by forgiving the actor. Aristotle and the aforementioned strands of Christian tradition both already explicitly recommended forgiveness of the actor for unintended consequences and unwilling actions generally, even if they grounded it in what Brandom calls a contractive model of responsibility. In terms of concrete ethics, the results are similar. (See also Willing, Unwilling; Blame and Blamelessness; Evaluation of Actions.)

The gain from Brandom’s expansive model of responsibility lies rather in its consequences for the project of treating meta-ethics as first philosophy. Brandom wants to nudge us to move from an implicit normative/factual dualism toward a purely normative monism, in which all facts are what they are by virtue of their place in the normative synthesis of reasonable explanations.

When we fail to come up with a charitable interpretation of someone’s action, commitments, or reasons, Brandom recommends we trust that someone else eventually will be able to do so. “Where our normative digestion and domestication of immediacy, contingency, and particularity shows its limitations, when (as in each case 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 capable future recollectors” (p. 756).

For Brandom, what I above called normative monism is the final step in the long process of resolving the subject-object dichotomy bequeathed to us by early modernity. Simultaneously, it offers a new concept of community, in which “each member identifies with all the others, at once expressing and sacrificing their own particular attitudes by taking coresponsibility for the practical attitudes of everyone” (p. 757). He cites Hegel’s invocation of the “‘I’ that is ‘We’, the ‘We’ that is ‘I'”. Though it has a historical dimension, this is the universal community of rational beings participating in the transcendental field, not an empirical community.

It is worth noting that forgiveness applies to individual people, who potentially could participate in concrete acts of mutual recognition. Insofar as we tend to hold actual people responsible for what we deem to be bad circumstances, institutions, or organizational behavior, we should be forgiving toward those people.

But there is still such a thing as injustice, and as long as we are forgiving of individual people and exercise appropriate interpretive charity with respect to their motives, in the formation of normative syntheses we are under no obligation to be similarly tender toward circumstances, institutions, or organizational behavior. On the contrary, if we have an obligation in this case, it is to right what is wrong. Circumstances, institutions, and organizational behavior are not people deserving sympathy, and not participants in any recognition process. Any or all of them may be deeply unjust in actual cases. Here, critical thought about what is good and the consideration of impacts on people should have full sway. (See also Justice in General; Honesty, Kindness.)

Meta-Ethics as First Philosophy

I want to say that history of philosophy aside, philosophy can be divided into just ethics and meta-ethics, which would comprise everything else (semantics/hermeneutics, epistemology, logic, philosophical psychology, historiography, politics, aesthetics, what was traditionally called ontology, philosophy of science, and so on). Of course, this is nonstandard. The point is that all of these things have at least indirect meta-ethical relevance in one way or another, and meta-ethics can be regarded as what Aristotle would call first philosophy.

I also think that logic in particular has a directly normative character. Things like tautologies, logical rules, and modalities express strongly deontically binding higher-order norms relative to particular logics, not some strange kind of facts. This was apparently Frege’s view as well.