I’m beginning to look at Ricoeur’s The Symbolism of Evil (French ed. 1960). This was the last installment of the projected philosophy of will that he actually produced, concerned with a long detour through the experience of sin, mainly in the Old Testament and Greek traditions. Ricoeur apparently abandoned the projected final philosophical reconciliation that was to follow this, after the current investigation changed his thinking about relations between phenomenology and hermeneutics.
Near the beginning of this work, he speaks first of an experience of confession underlying the symbolism that will be investigated, then of a primitive sense of defilement or impurity. I think confession can have a positive role, but have grave doubts about the notion of impurity.
“[I]mpurity is measured not by imputation to a responsible agent” (p. 27) but rather by a violation of religious Law. He notes the huge place of sexuality in this context, adding that “the defilement of sexuality as such is a theme foreign to the ethics that proceeds from the confession of divine holiness, as well as to the ethics that is organized around the theme of justice or the integrity of the moral person” (p. 28).
Then he seems to argue that the excess of meaning inherent in symbolism will make it possible to reinterpret this nonethical content in terms that can be given ethical meaning. I don’t know yet how this will turn out, but I favor the priority of actual ethics over law, be it religious or civil. I also think sound theology puts the spirit of actual ethics before the letter of positive law.
This work has been criticized for privileging the Judeo-Christian tradition, and for presupposing too much about pre-existing meaning. But in all the works of Ricoeur that I have examined, I’ve been extremely impressed with the quality of argument, and the graceful way in which he combined personal faith with free philosophical development.
Personally, I’m happy with where he left things at the end of Fallible Man, with the potential for both good and evil. I don’t like dwelling on evil, let alone its complication in sin. But I greatly admire Ricoeur, and this is a major work of his that I want to understand.
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. (See also Ricoeur on Practical 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.)