Values, Causality

I’ve said that normativity consists of derived ends in a space of multiple potentialities. Meanwhile, on the side of actuality, when we interact with the order of efficient causes, we become subject to the constraints of structural causality. In between come our finite choices. (See also Potentiality, Actuality; Fragility of the Good.)

Taking responsibility is a profound act that can have a kind of indirect efficacy of its own. Independent of the direct operation of our actual power and the order of efficient causes, taking responsibility can partially rewrite what would have been, at the broader level of meaning. Since we are so much creatures of meaning, this more circuitous route through the much larger space of potentiality can end up affecting an otherwise stubborn actuality, by changing the order of potentialities experienced by others, and thus affecting their choices.

One person alone may have no impact on the actuality, but for many together influencing one another’s choices, the story may turn out quite differently. At times, in this way even one person can end up initiating a much larger process far beyond that person’s individual power, and the total effect of many can be more than additive. In this way, what seems completely impossible can become possible, and the face of reality can be changed.

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?)

Acts in Brandom and Žižek

Both Brandom and Žižek recognize what Brandom has called the “world’s stubborn recalcitrance to mastery and agency”, and yet hold out for the possibility of transformative action.

Brandom ingeniously secures the practical reality of choice through the indirect route of an Enlightenment idea that we can only be bound by values to which we have at least implicitly committed ourselves. The recalcitrance of the Real prevents this from becoming a subjectivism, specifically by virtue of his complementary thesis that the meaning of our commitments is not up to us. But actively taking responsibility for things beyond our power turns out to indirectly have a kind of efficacy. Retrospectively, this may change meant reality.

A lengthy article by Fabio Vighi and Heiko Feldner discusses agency in Žižek from various angles. This account at least is happily free of the Badiouian narrowing of consideration to a few inflationarily conceived “exceptional” acts that afflicts some of the Žižekians (see “Hard” Kantianism?). The concern is with acts in general, and subjectivity in general. Here I can find a good deal more common ground.

For Žižek, our desires are not our own, but the split in the subject that makes us never fully ourselves also connects us with the social. A subject is contrasted with subjectivation. Although passive, alienating subjectivation is inescapable, it also can never be complete. A subject is positively constituted by its own nonidentity or “impossibility” (i.e., impossibility of complete identity with itself). According to Vighi and Feldner, “this decentred kernel of otherness embodies my self-consciousness, the only place where I have a chance to locate the truth about myself”. The conscious activity of individuals is said to be not free, but we can nonetheless accomplish a free act through identifying with the destabilizing effect of what is “in us more than ourselves”. They argue that Žižek does not hypostatize an abstract negativity in the way that I think Sartre did.

Žižek himself wrote that “To ‘pass to the act’ means to assume the risk that what I am about to do will be inscribed into a framework whose contours elude my grasp” (Tarrying with the Negative, p. 31). This connects agency with the Lacanian Real. He also wrote that freedom corresponds to “my ability to choose/determine which causes will determine me. ‘Ethics’, at its most elementary, stands for the courage to accept this responsibility” (The Parallax View, p. 203).

So, despite huge differences in approach and terminology and Žižek’s negative comments about Brandom, on this question at this level of abstraction, there is a similar practical import.


The most essential thing in heroism is not courage per se, but taking responsibility for things that exceed our power, which does also involve a kind of courage. I relate this to the Leibnizian idea that truly ethical action involves doing more than strict obligation requires (and demanding less for ourselves). Brandom’s very original new theory of responsibility leads in a similar direction.

It turns out that taking responsibility for things that exceed our power can indirectly have a kind of efficacy after all. Genuine social change toward greater justice commonly involves many people doing something like this. (See also Values, Causality; Kantian Freedom.)


I have very serious doubts about the efficacy of punishment as a means of moral improvement. Measures traditionally associated with punishment may still be justified, just not on the basis that they will make anyone a more ethical person.

With children, the purpose of disciplinary action is to rather to mold their outward behavior and habits in what we judge to be more responsible and safe directions. With apparently incorrigible and dangerous criminals, the social purpose is to protect others.

Needless to say, the real purposes should be borne in mind in the application of punishments. Cruel and unusual — or otherwise excessive or unnecessary — punishments have been given a veneer of rationalization from claims that they somehow morally benefit those on whom they are inflicted.

In cases where there are obvious victims, positive redress to the victims is appropriate where feasible, but the simple desire to see the perpetrator punished is just a desire for a kind of revenge, having little to do with actual justice. The legitimate concern is to prevent the perpetrator from harming others.

So-called victimless crimes are often associated with various kinds of social issues. In those cases, we should deal with the underlying social issues, rather than blaming individuals. Many crimes with real victims also have more to do with social issues than with real evil in the hearts of the perpetrators. (See also Blame and Blamelessness; Stubborn Refusal; Self, Subject.)


“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.)

Space of Reasons

Wilfrid Sellars (1912-89) was one of the greatest American philosophers of the 20th century. A pragmatist trained in the analytic tradition, he rethought analytic philosophy from a broadly Kantian point of view, and famously criticized the “Myth of the Given”. His positive reference to Hegel as “that great foe of immediacy” made a great impression on the young Robert Brandom.

Sellars originated the phrase “space of reasons”, now much used by Brandom and others. He said that to hold a commitment at all is to invite questions about the reasons for it. The particular reasons for a commitment involve other reasons, which involve still others, and so on, forming a “space” that can be explored through dialogue.

I would note that in Aristotelian terms, the space of reasons would be a kind of field of potentialities. Because the space of reasons is potential rather than actual, it involves a vast multiplication of alternate (counterfactual) paths, structures, and fibrations. I associate it with an open field of potential Socratic questioning and negotiation. By contrast, both individualized ethos and the beliefs generally shared by an existing community would be kinds of actuality, in which particular alternatives are already selected, but may change over time. (See also Normativity; Intentionality.)

Practical Reason

I think the introduction of rational ethics by Plato and Aristotle was the greatest single event in the history of talking animals on our planet, marking the threshold of a kind of historical cultural adulthood. Before that, there were traditional values; codifications of traditional values into law; and attempts by some people to impose their will on others; but there was no ethics as free and open inquiry into what is right.

Two millenia later, Kant took the next big step, and explicitly argued for the primacy of practical reason. This means that the kind of reasoning involved in rational ethics comes first in the order of explanation, before so-called theoretical reason.

Recently, Brandom’s highly original account of responsibility has closed any remaining gaps, making it possible to explain anything at all in terms that put ethical reasoning first. (See also Expansive Agency; Brandomian Forgiveness.) This also further refines Kant’s concept of the autonomy of reason, allowing for a stronger interpretation that eliminates the last vestiges of a dependency of ethical reasoning on anything external to it. It allows the primacy of practical reason to be fused with the autonomy of reason, resulting in a new kind of completeness of ethical reason. (See also Practice.)

Of course, any talk about a completeness of ethical reason presupposes a very broad construal of what ethical reasoning is (see also Reasonableness; What and Why; Context). It also requires that we be very careful to avoid taking its completeness in the wrong way. It presupposes a kind of epistemic modesty as a feature of rational inquiry.

Rational ethics stands in contrast to tradition, but as Hegel might remind us, much of the content of tradition turns out to be broadly rational after all, if we disregard its epistemic shortcuts.

The true antithesis of rational ethics is the subordination of values to a supposedly sovereign will — be it the will of God presumed as known; the expressed will of some individual; or a will attributed to an institution like the state, or to a social group. Such appeals to arbitrary will end the possibility of inquiry and dialogue. (See also Euthyphro; Authority, Reason.)

Trust as a Principle

Trust as a principle does not mean blind trust. It means trust as a default attitude. Trust as a universal default is perfectly compatible with every kind of critical thinking.

When we trust someone, we grant them a kind of authority, but authority must always be balanced by symmetrical responsibility. To make any assertion at all is enter the space of reasons. To make an assertion is to make oneself responsible for it, along with its consequences and incompatibilities. No one has privileged access to what is right, which depends upon shareable criteria. Generalized trust does not mean naivete or credulity, just a kind of fairness. It could not mean an abdication of our responsibilities as rational beings. In the context of what Brandom would call deontic scorekeeping, generalized trust means a level playing field, not an absence of standards.


Evil has no place in the natural order, and still less in the transcendental. The most admirable forms of traditional “metaphysics” — Platonic and Leibnizian — gave it no place there, either. Yet, alongside much beauty and good, there is undeniably an abundance of empirical evil in the world.

Among the various kinds of bad things, there is pain or misfortune; there is merely unreasonable or selfish human behavior; and there is real evil.

On one level, misfortune is a subjective interpretation based on a particular point of view, but having a particular point of view is intrinsic to the kind of beings we are, and calling misfortune subjective does not make it hurt less. Good is a formative influence spanning both the natural and transcendental orders, but it is not omnipotent, and even if it were, there would still be misfortune from particular points of view.

Unreasonable or selfish behavior comes from a lack of good emotional development. While bad, in itself it is not truly evil.

Malicious lies and hypocrisy, pathological cruelty, and systemic social ills are all things that cannot be adequately explained in terms of immoderate emotion or desire. Unfortunately, these all really occur. They are not illusory, and could never be part of a greater good. These I call truly evil. As with misfortune, real evil is possible because good is not omnipotent.

Deep malice and cruelty belong to individual pathology.

Systemic social ills such as extreme inequality and the oppression of groups belong to a kind of social pathology that may be aided and abetted by individual pathologies or by ordinary selfish or narrow-minded behavior, but social ills as such cannot be blamed only on the bad behavior of individuals. Their sources are wider and deeper than that, extending to the contingent factual structure of historical societies. On Brandomian principles, the whole community shares responsibility for combating things like this, over which no individual has control. (See also Stubborn Refusal; Fragility of the Good.)