Rationality

Ethical reason can potentially comprehend anything and it can influence things going forward, but it does not make everything or govern events. (See also Fragility of the Good.) Understanding comes late. Reason becomes free or autonomous only by a long, slow process. (See also Iterative Questioning.) Even so-called absolute knowledge — only “absolute” because it is free of the actually self-disruptive presumptions of the false freedom of Mastery — is just this freedom of reason.

There is after all a kind of negative freedom of reason at work here, but it is forever incomplete, and also has nothing to do with any negative freedom of a power, which is a fiction. We negatively free ourselves of unthinking assumptions while positively increasing our ability to make fine distinctions, our sensitivity to subtlety and nuance. This gives us new positive freedom in doing, with our still-finite power. (See also Ethical Reason, Interpretation.)

Normativity

“Normativity” means “values”, with emphasis on the implicit ought they carry with them.

Brandom and others have used the word “normativity” as a way of more explicitly recalling that our affirmation of particular values implicitly carries with it a Kantian obligation to realize them in life, and that while we may choose to affirm some values rather than others (and values are only binding on us because we have implicitly or explicitly endorsed them), the meaning of the values we do so affirm is fundamentally not up to us.

This has absolutely nothing to do with empirical “normality” or social conformity. Like all ethics, it certainly does have a fundamentally social significance, but there is nothing conformist about it. Normativity in no way entails unthinking or merely obedient acceptance of prevailing attitudes. On the contrary, it implies a responsibility to participate in potential Socratic questioning of merely asserted values. In Aristotelian terms, normativity is concerned with derived ends considered under the mode of potentiality, whereas “normality” is concerned with efficient causes operating under the mode of actuality. (See also Space of Reasons; Intentionality.)

What and Why

I want to say that questions of what and why of the sort asked by Plato and Aristotle are of vital importance for all ethically concerned people. These are questions of interpretation, and of what I have been broadly calling meaning. For the moment, I’m leaving aside obvious questions of what to do, in favor of these broader questions that implicitly inform them.

What something is and why it is the way it is — or should be the way it should be — are deeply intertwined. Aristotle provides many good illustrations of this. Also, at any given moment, our thinking about why depends on many assumptions about what we are concerned with that may call for review. Conversely, our thinking about each what implicitly depends on many more detailed judgments of why.

It is not practical to question everything at once, so we do it serially as the need arises, striving to be deeply honest with ourselves in our assessments of the relative levels of such needs. We seek the appropriate best balance of considerations, as well as a good balance between thoroughness of questioning on the one hand, and practical responsiveness or needed decisiveness on the other. (See also Context.)

The question why is quite open-ended. It asks for reasons or causes — and then potentially for more reasons or causes behind those — sincerely seeking to explain or justify, in the spirit of Hegel’s notion of a faith in reasonableness without presupposed truths. It arises in ethical deliberation, in general dialogue, and in many other practical circumstances, as well as in more broadly philosophical considerations. It always involves a dimension of explicit or implicit judgments of value and importance, and often interrelates with questions of fact or interpretation of fact. We should pursue it in a spirit of mutual recognition and expansive agency. Brandom’s normative pragmatics provides a good outer frame for why questions, and valuable technical tools for addressing them. (See also “Why” by Normative Pragmatics.)

The question what honestly faces the provisional character of our implicit and explicit classifications and identifications of things. As Kant might remind us, the what-it-is that we “immediately” apprehend depends upon complex processes of synthesis. Every what encapsulates many judgments and inferences. That does not mean our apprehensions are necessarily wrong — far from it — but it opens another huge space of questions an ethically concerned person should be aware of as possibly relevant, and should monitor for potential warning flags. As with why, questions of what also interrelate with questions of fact or interpretation of fact. Brandom’s inferential semantics provides a good outer frame and technical apparatus for approaching what questions. (See also “What” by Inferential Semantics.)

Dialogue

The ethical importance of dialogue can hardly be overstated. The key to ethical dialogue is mutual acceptance of sincere questioning about reasons. To ask a question is not to make a counter-assertion, and no one should ever take offense at a sincere question.

To qualify as based on good judgment or sound reasoning, a commitment or one’s reasons for holding it must be explainable in a shareable way. Sharing of the kind of meaning-based material inference used in everyday reasoning and judgment (as well as most philosophy) is a social process of open-ended dialogue.

The world’s oldest preserved examples of such rational dialogue (or any kind of rational development) are contained in the works of Plato. Earlier figures just wrote down what they saw as the truth. Plato provided many examples of a method of free inquiry. (Aristotle says the atomist Democritus was another initiator of rational inquiry, but the works of Democritus do not survive.) This is yet another reason why Hegel called Plato and Aristotle the greatest teachers of the human race.

Plato bequeathed to us many idealized examples of reasoning by dialogue. He raised them into an art form, creating a new literary genre in the process. His dialogues vary in the degree to which they approximate free open-ended discussion; most often, one character leads the discussion through question and answer, and sometimes even the question and answer is limited. However, since Plato’s dialogues are like plays portraying self-contained conversations, they are very accessible.

The style of question and answer often practiced by Platonic characters like Socrates — commonly known as Socratic method — provides a model for how anyone can contribute to such a development. The questioner tries to reason only from things to which the answerer agrees, but often has to keep questioning to draw out the needed background.

In a fully free and open dialogue characterized by mutual recognition, any party may make contributions of this sort. As Sellars and Brandom would remind us, to assert anything at all is implicitly to take responsibility for that assertion, which is to invite questioning about our reasons.