Category: moral philosophy

Morality—and the State

In The View from Nowhere (Oxford University Press, 1986), Thomas Nagel writes: “moral requirements have their source in the claims of other persons” (197) and that “the basic moral insight is that objectively no one matters more than anyone else, and that this acknowledgment should be of fundamental importance to each of us” (205).

This seems to me both pretty accurate—and utterly wrong—about what morality is and what it does.  Morality, I want to say, is a two-edged sword.  And that makes it very hard to decide whether, in the final analysis, morality is a good thing or a bad one.  Does it do more harm than good in the world?  I don’t think that is an easy question to answer.

Why?  Because morality attempts to order the relationships among people—and between people and other inhabitants of the globe. What is the right way to interact with others?  What attention, consideration, and resources do I owe to others—and they owe to me?  What actions and attitudes do I find admirable, even worthy of imitation as well as esteem?  What actions and attitudes, all things considered, make things go better in this sublunary world—reduce suffering, promote happiness and flourishing?  It is unthinkable that humans would not ponder such questions—and attempt to provide answers.  Nagel seems to think that if we ponder these questions—taking into consideration the claims of others and our own claims on others—that we will, in Kant-like fashion, reach a radical version of egalitarianism.  No human matters any more than any other.  I cannot make an exception of myself (or of my family, or of my compatriots); I am to be treated the same as everyone else.  What I feel due to myself is due to them.

Now Nagel does take seriously Bernard Williams’ objection that Kantian universalism asks something that is not only impossible to achieve, but in actual practice would be fairly objectionable, perhaps even monstrous.  Any morality that asks us to treat our mother or our spouse exactly as we would treat everyone else in the world flies in the face of human psychology—and of human flourishing (since rich particularized relationships with a small set of others are essential to flourishing).  Nagel’s response is that the “gap” between universalist (“objective” in his terms) morality and personal partiality cannot be closed.  It is a tension we must needs live with—and negotiate on a case by case basis.

My concern is rather different.  I do think a moral politics looks something like Nagel says it does.  “An important task of politics,” he writes, “is to arrange the world so everyone can live a good life, without doing wrong, injuring others, benefiting unfairly from their misfortunes, and so forth. . . [The best would be a world in which] “the great bulk of impersonal claims were met by institutions that left individuals . . . free to devote considerable attention and energy to their own lives and to values that could not be impersonally acknowledged” (206-207).  In other words, a social democracy that served the resource needs of all while regulating against exploitation and other forms of special privileges as the public business of politics, while leaving individuals both free and resource-enabled to pursue their individualized, private visions of the good life.  Again: a vision premised on the notion that all are equally entitled to the means for flourishing, and that many different versions of how to flourish are to be tolerated.

The problem is that there is a very different view of what morality entails.  This other morality is more prescriptive (more restrictive) in its vision of the ways one might choose to flourish—and still be found morally acceptable.  Even more crucially, this second “other” morality is not based on a vision of the equality of all.  Just the opposite.  This morality divides between the worthy and the reprobate—and feels fully justified (in fact finds the grounds for that justification in morality itself) to deny to some what is granted to others.  Sinners are not entitled to anything; they deserve nothing, except to be punished.  Far from being an equalizer, morality is deployed to be a great divider.  It gives us the means to identify those who are not equal, who are not worthy of consideration and respect and a sufficient share of the world’s goods.

In other words, it seems like the height of wishful thinking for Nagel to say that the (objective, impersonal”) view of morality leads to the conclusion that all are equal.  It is pretty implausible, it seems to me, that even 25% of humanity holds to that conclusion as a moral demand upon themselves—and, as Williams points out, even that 25% makes exceptions to equal treatment all the time.  More obvious is that the vast majority of humans distinguish between worthy and less worthy people—and use morality to both make that distinction and to justify treating the unworthy in various differential ways, ranging from indifference to and lack of sympathy with their troubles to active deprivation and punishment as what they deserve.

This divisive use of morality—accompanied as it often is with a distasteful, sanctimonious self-righteousness—is more than enough to give morality a bad name.  Many have argued that morality is the source of more harm to humans than any absence of morality.  In morality’s name, we meet out punishment, deprivation, contempt, and hate-filled condemnations. 

So what’s the answer?  Does morality do any good at all—or should we dispense with it altogether? (Note here that I have loaded the question to the liberal, social democrat side.  The practitioner of divisive morality would say it does good; it is fit and proper that we identify sinners and deal with them as they deserve.  After all, isn’t justice getting what you deserve, not this namby-pandy liberal idea that everyone is deserving just by the fact of showing up?) In any case, I can only say that the Kantian, equality affirming morality has done good in the world; there has been progress toward increasing equality inspired by that viewpoint.  But there is no denying that divisive morality has justified great cruelty and massive exclusions.  So we can’t say morality is to be endorsed tout court.  It is an ambiguous—and very dangerous—tool that can be used in contradictory ways. 

Would we be better off without morality at all, without these attempts to delineate worthy ways of living and of arranging our social relations?  I am not prepared to go that far, but I do think we should be wary of any self-congratulation about our tendency to partake of such attempts to use morality to advance the egalitarian thesis.  Those attempts (as Nietzsche among others alerts us) might very well be more despicable than otherwise.

Reflecting on these matters led me to realize that much the same can be said about the State.  Let me explain.  Despite the resistance to this idea in certain leftist circles, I think there is little doubt that States work against pan-violence.  The historical record of pre-state societies is one unbroken litany of violence.  Hobbes was mostly right: the war of all against all (or, at least, of tribe/clan against neighboring tribe/clan) was endemic.  Men strove to grab what other men possessed.  (That all this is a pathology of masculinity seems indubitable.) Plunder and rapine were hardly abhorred; they were the source of honor even in Homeric epics that could also register their horror and insist that an unattainable peace would be preferable.

What some deny is that states bring this omnipresence of violence to an end.  “War is the health of the state,” Randolph Bourne proclaimed.  And that statement is hardly nonsense.  We can say of the Western states formed in the period from 1500 to 1900 that they 1) exported violence/war to the regions that became their “empires”; 2) that they exerted violence (in the form of various types of punishment) on their own domestic populations of criminals, religious and political dissidents, and those deemed mentally or morally deficient; and 3) that they fought one another with astonishing regularity.  Periods of peace and security for people trying to live out a normal life-span untainted by violence against them were short and uncertain. 

Furthermore, and this is usually the clincher in such arguments, is that (starting with the Napoleonic wars at the very least, but likely true of the earlier religious wars) the organizational powers of centralized states meant that violence was carried out at a scale impossible for the clashes between clans/tribes characteristic of pre-Columbian America, pre-monarchy in Scotland, or in various locales of the Middle East before the rise of the Ottoman Empire (to take just a few examples).

The State, in other words, is also double-faced: it suppresses one kind of anarchic and ever-present violence, the outright kleptocracy of pre-state conditions.  But in its gathering the means of violence to itself (partly as a way to cow other actors into non-violence) it periodically (and with depressing regularity) deploys that violence with results (in terms of deaths, suffering, and destruction) that dwarfs pre-state violence.  So the state, like morality, seems both a pathway to peace and forms of society that allow for peaceful co-existence—and the source of the most horrific violence.

Can you get one without the other?  The anarchist dreams that getting rid of the state will eliminate violence altogether as we live in ways that realize our mutual dependence on one another.  The Kantian dreams of a perpetual peace if only we can have one super state (thus eliminating in one fell stroke wars of one state against another and the violence of pre-state societies).  Like morality, the state delivers something that is good (control over omnipresent violence) and something terrible: the infliction of violence on vast numbers.

And there is more than just an analogy between that state and morality on the level of their doubleness.  There is also a clear connection in that both work to designate those who are legitimate targets of differential treatment—reaching all the way to killing them.  The reprobate for morality are the non-citizens for the state (even as the state will also treat citizens deemed reprobate differentially). 

I sometimes think it all comes down to punishment.  Both morality and the state identify those who should be punished.  These people deserve punishment, are worthy of being punished.  When it comes to the state, the justification is even more arbitrary than it is for morality.  The non-citizen can be legitimately deprived of various things simply on the basis of bad luck.  The non-citizen was born elsewhere, so has no claim to the state’s protection or its largesse. 

There are multiple ways to configure the assertion that some human being is not entitled to what I have.  Morality and that state (through the law and through the category of citizenship) enact that sorting function all the time.  It is to a certain extent their raison d’etre.  That an alternative morality aims to establish the equal entitlement of all, just as an alternative politics looks to use state power to distribute to all the resources needed to flourish, stands as one justification for holding on to morality and the state as necessary contributors to what this alternative vision wants to accomplish. But it’s such a steep climb because morality and the state are tainted with the ways in which they actively thwart what the social democratic, Kantian vision aims for.

Fact/Value Divide

It’s been a long hiatus.  But I want to pick up where I left off.  I have three issues on the table:

1. Cognitive versus non-cognitive theories of art.

2. The very distinction between cognitive and non-cognitive appears to motivate a fact/value divide—as shown most dramatically in the emotivist, non-cognitive theories of ethics/morals developed by the logical positivists in the mid-20th century.

3. I am still angling to get eventually to a consideration of the connection of art to meaning—with the corollary of considering if meaning differs substantially from information and/or causal explanation. On this last point, I am courting, it would seem, my own dichotomy.  I, for the most part, have no commitment to proving the arts “distinctive” in some absolute way.  I don’t feel a need to show that the arts do something that other activities we would not consider artistic do not.  But I do suspect that a focus on or concern with meaning leads in different directions than a focus on explanation.  To explain how hydrogen and oxygen combine to create water says little to nothing about the “meaning” that interaction might have. At least, that’s my intuition.

But today’s post focuses in on #2, the fact/value divide.  I think I am stealing my basic insight here from my friend Allen Dunn, but will follow a path derived from Wittgenstein and Dewey to make my case.

Consider the following sentences, all of which (except the last two) use some form of the verb “to be,” and take the form of assertions.

1.  There is a red house. [The speaker points at a yellow house.]

2.  There is a dog.  [The speaker points at a cat.}

3.   Henry is taller than John.

4.  Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States.

5.  Abraham Lincoln was the greatest president in American history.

6.  Incest is wrong.

7.  “All men are created equal.”

8.  Hitting your child is wrong.

9.  Moby Dick is the greatest American novel.

10.  Moby Dick is a chaotic mess.

11.  Moby Dick is about a milkman who loses his job.

12.  James has Parkinson’s Disease.

13.  William has prostrate cancer.

The usual, intuitive, reasons for believing in a fact/value distinction are 1. The belief that values are human and are added on top of natural facts and 2. The notion that facts, generally, are verifiable and thus non-controversial, while disagreements over values are rife and irresolvable.  It is easy to agree that this copy of Moby Dick has a red cover, but it is harder to reach agreement over the artistic value of Moby Dick.

On number one: my inclination would be to say facts are as human as values—insofar as facts are fabricated (in the ways Bruno Latour’s work has made familiar to us) and that the mobilization of facts, their use in rhetorics of persuasion that aim to achieve agreement, is a human enterprise.  (Let’s leave speculation about the consciousness of animals and plants to one side for the moment.  I am a complete agnostic on this topic.  We learn more and more every year about animal and plant consciousness.  So I do not deny out of hand that these non-human creatures might have their ways of ascertaining facts and, crucially, bringing apprehended facts to bear in subsequent behavior, and communicating with others.)  For humans, the key for me is that facts are understood as pieces of information that have been produced, and then mobilized in processes of deliberation and the formation of individual and collective intentions. 

In other words, once a fact has been fabricated in the Latourian fashion, it then becomes something that is used in making plans and in trying to persuade others to assist with those plans.  Thus, a hurricane is not a fact until it has been made into one by an assemblage of the symptoms and consequences and causes gathered under the name “hurricane” by meteorologists—and then that name (with all that is associated with it) is used (for example) to justify an evacuation order.  In short, on this account, there is no reason to think the creation of values differs significantly from the creation of facts.  Both facts and values are assemblages that bring together various factors to designate something as the case (i.e. hurricanes cause damage; incest is wrong).

What I take from Allen refers to number two, the idea that facts are non-controversial while values generate endless disagreements.  Allen’s point was that we have many value statements that are almost universally accepted.  Very few people insist that incest is just fine.  Far fewer people call incest OK than believe that alien abduction happens.  We cannot sort things into the fact bin and the value bin on the basis of agreement over the truth of fact assertions as contrasted to value assertions.  The American experience of the past four years has merely brought the idea that facts are incontrovertible to its knees.

At this point, the temptation is to throw up one’s hands and say “anything goes.”  This is where Wittgenstein and Dewey can prove helpful—even though they will not “solve” the problem of disagreement.  But they can help us think about it more clearly. 

The sentences I offer at the top of this post are Wittgenstein-like.  For sentence one, where a speaker calls a yellow house red, we would first ask him to look again.  If he repeated his assertion, we could only conclude that he is color-blind (and would arrange for him to be tested for that condition), or that he doesn’t understand how the word “red” is applied in English (and would proceed to try to teach him the color terms and their application in English.) 

For sentence two, where the speaker calls a dog a cat, we don’t even have known medical condition to appeal to.  Now it is simply telling him that “we” (the speakers of English) call that animal a “dog” not a “cat.”  This looks like sheer compulsion.  There is no underlying reason or fact that justifies using the word “dog” instead of the word “cat.”  It is just the way we do things in English.  The agreement is motivated (perhaps) by its usefulness in facilitating communication, but nothing else underwrites the convention.  For Wittgenstein, reasons stop at a certain point.  This is where my spade turns, he writes.  Reasons come to an end, and there is just the bald statement: this is what we do, this is how we think and act, this is what we believe. 

What Dewey adds to this Wittgensteinian picture is the notion of “warrants.”  Where there are disagreements over an assertion, there are reasons I mobilize in an effort to convince another that my assertion should be credited.  It is important to recognize that the warrants vary widely depending on the nature of the assertion.  The warrants for sentences one and two are, from a positivist point of view, pretty feeble.  The only “verification” is to show that this use of the words “red” and “dog” is actually what English speakers do.  There is no connection to natural facts involved.

When we get to sentence three, Henry is taller than John, we can stand the two boys next to each other.  Here there appears to be a fact of the matter that can be “shown.”  Agreement still depends on both parties understanding the term “taller” in the same way, but there is also (as the positivist sees it) “direct’ evidence for the assertion.

Sentence four shows how quickly the positivists’ view of facts falls apart.  There is no “direct” proof that Lincoln was the 16th president.  In a very real way, we must take that fact on faith, placing credence in various documents.  We in 2020 can have no first-hand knowledge of Lincoln having been president.  In part, we take that fact on authority.  But we also believe that fact because questioning it would undermine all kinds of other beliefs we have.  Our beliefs “hang together” to establish a holistic picture of our world and our place in it.  To discredit a single assertion can, in many cases, threaten to unravel a whole web of beliefs.  We are, for this reason, “conservatives” in the matter of beliefs, William James says.  We want to conserve, to not upset the apple cart.  We have to have very strong reasons (of interest, or argument) to give up a settled belief.  Saying this, however, indicates the extent to which we believe what it is “comfortable” to believe—and thus points to the ways we can believe things that, to others, seem to patently disregard compelling evidence to the contrary.  On the other hand, “confirmation bias” points to the ways we credit anything that seems to shore up our current beliefs.  We humans can be remarkably resistant to what others will claim are “the plain facts of the matter.”

Dewey’s notion of “warrants” tells us that what will “count” as evidence will vary from case to case.  The evidence brought to back up the assertion that Lincoln was the 16th president is different from the evidence called up to claim he was the greatest American president.  Of the asking for and giving of reasons there is no end.  But the kinds of reasons offered must be deemed pertinent to the matter at hand. 

Thus, when we get to the statements “incest is wrong,” or “all men are created equal,” we might be tempted to argue in terms of consequences.  There are harmful biological consequences for inbreeding, and there might be harmful social consequences (violence, resentment, various other forms of conflict) from treating some as inferior to others.  But incest was considered wrong long before there was any understanding of genetics, and the harmful consequences of inequality are uncertain.  In the case of incest, there is not much (if any) disagreement.  Certain persons might violate the injunction against it, but they recognize the force of the assertion in their keeping its violations secret.  I am tempted to say that the assertion “incest is wrong” is akin to saying “that animal is a dog.”  It is just the way this community does things.  It is foundational to our being a community (we share a language; we share a belief than incest is wrong and that it should be forbidden).  Our spade turns there.

The equality assertion is more debatable (as is the assertion that hitting a child is wrong).  Arguments (reasons) are offered for both sides.  Disagreements over consequences (installing equality breeds mediocrity; sparing the rod spoils the child) will be rife.  Kant, of course, offers a different argumentative strategy, one that depends on seeing the contradiction in making an exception of oneself.  You, Kant says, don’t want to be treated as an inferior.  So why should you think that it is right for another to be so treated?  Kantian arguments have proven no more decisive than consequential ones.  But the point is that these two kinds of reasons are typical of the “warrants” offered in cases of moral assertions.  Where they fail, we can only say “I have nothing more to offer. Here my spade turns.”  The kinds of evidence/reasons offered are different than the kinds I offer against claims of alien abduction or that Donald Trump really won the 2020 election, but there comes a point where what I deem more than sufficient reason to believe something does not work for others.  At that point, there is nothing further to be done.

 The Moby Dick sentences make the point that in debates over aesthetic values different kinds of assertions will call for different “warrants.”  The assertion that the novel is about a milkman is akin to someone calling a dog a cat.  There is no place to go with such a disagreement; the parties to it are literally not speaking the same language.  Wittgenstein’s point is that only where there is a fundamental agreement—we can call it the minimum required to be part of a community—can a disagreement then unfold.  I can’t play a game of tennis if my opponent says balls that go into the net are do-overs.  Unless we both stand within the constitutive rules of the game, the competition of an actual match cannot unfold.  I can’t have a conversation about Moby Dick with someone who thinks it is the story of a milkman.

But the other two sentences about the novel require different warrants.  To talk about it being the greatest American novel (just as any talk of Lincoln as the greatest American president) requires some kind of articulation of what makes a novel great and some attempt at comparison with other American novels my interlocutor might consider great.  To say Moby Dick is a chaotic mess need not involve any comparison to other novels, while the criteria for “chaotic mess” will be different from the criteria for “greatness.”  In both cases, I will presumably appeal to features of the novel, perhaps quoting from the text.  In the Latour vision, these appeals to the text are acts of assemblage, of putting together my case, calling into presence various available sources—features of the text, the opinions of prior readers and critics, my own responses to the novel’s shifts of tone and topic etc.—to make my assertion credible.

I have included the last two sentences, which provide a diagnosis of Parkinson’s and prostrate cancer, to indicate how warrants in medical science also differ from one case to another.  In prostrate cancer, we have blood tests and various forms of imaging that establish the “fact of the matter.”  In Parkinson’s there are no such definitive tests.  A patient is judged to have Parkinson’s on the basis of a bundle of symptoms (not all of which will be present in the majority of cases) and on the basis of how they respond to certain drugs or other treatments. 

There are two conclusions to draw, I think.  The first is pluralism.  Our reasons for believing assertions vary; we offer to ourselves and others different arguments/reasons/evidence to undergird (or justify) what we do assert, what we do hold to be true or to be good to believe.  (I recognize that I am going to have to think about the word “true” and the work it does when I take up the questions of meaning.) 

The second is that the kind of reasons offered in different cases do not separate out along lines that coincide with the traditional way of understanding the fact/value divide.  A consequential argument about the damage hurricanes produce takes a similar form to a consequential argument about the damage done by physically punishing a child.  In both cases, we might very well point to previous instances to show what those consequences might be—or we may point to larger-scale studies of multiple instances to show the odds of bad consequences, even while admitting that in some cases not much harm ensues.  And if, in the two cases of the hurricane and of child-rearing, we argue that humans should do all they can to mitigate the possible damage, we are asserting that suffering is a bad thing and to be averted wherever possible—an argument that can probably only be underwritten by some kind of Kantian reasoning about the good (the right) of all beings to avoid unnecessary pain.

Various writers—of the ones I know, Kenneth Burke and Hilary Putnam prominent among them—argue that fact and value are inextricably intertwined.  That the two comes packaged together in our apprehension of the world.  In Burke’s account, we have an “attitude” toward things and situations embedded within our apprehension of them.  But this Burke position still accepts the analytic distinction between fact and value, even if that “analysis” comes after the moment of their combination in actual experience.  The pluralism that Dewey points us toward suggests the distinction between fact and value misleads us altogether by suggesting that some things (Facts) are given and incontrovertible while others (Values) are human contrivances.  Better to look at how both facts and values are “made” (just as William James asks us to consider how “truths” are made), while paying attention to the plurality of ways of making humans (and other creatures) deploy.

Non-Cognitive Theories of Art (1)

Non-Cognitive Theories of Art

Enough of this election anxiety.  Back to the airy heights of theories of the aesthetic.

My four posts on cognitive theories of the aesthetic were really just a prelude to considering non-cognitive theories.  And I am going to start with Martha Nussbaum (although she can be seen as just the latest in a long line that would include David Hume and George Eliot).

Basically, Nussbaum believes that art works activate sympathy.  A novel can portray the sufferings of Oliver Twist and children like him.  Such a novel may serve to bring to our attention facts about orphans and workhouses, thus adding to our knowledge.  But more crucial is the way the story inspires fellow-feeling, a new sympathy for the plight of orphans.  It is one thing to know that orphans are often underfed; it is another thing to respond to that fact feelingly, to experience it as something that should be rectified.  The moral emotions of indignation and sympathy are brought into play through the power of the story, a power that a simple recitation of the facts does not have.

Such a way of explaining what is going on rests on a fairly stark fact/value divide, Hume’s worry about deriving an “ought” from an “is.”  One can see that an orphan does not have enough to eat.  But that seeing does not entail the judgment that the orphan’s hunger is “wrong” (or “unjust”) and that it should be rectified.  Rationalist theories of moral value (Kant or Mill, one deontological, the other utilitarian) believe that reason provides the basis for moral judgments.  But the Humean school hands that job over to feelings.  Our moral judgments come from those moral emotions, from our indignation at suffering felt (perceived?) as unnecessary or cruelly inflicted, from our sympathy with those who suffer.  

Some may be able to see the hungry child and feel no sympathy, may even be able to claim the child is getting what he deserves.  Those seeking to convert such a person to their sympathetic view needs to find a way to pull on the heartstrings, to call forth the needful feelings.  Arguments and reasons will not do the trick.  We don’t know something is heinous simply by looking at it.  Thus it is unlike knowing something is red.  We don’t need some particular “feeling state” to judge the thing is red.  But we do need the appropriate feelings to judge something is unjust, should be condemned and, if possible, rectified.

This is philosophy, so of course it gets complicated.  My own theoretical and moral commitments mean that I really would like to avoid such a sharp fact/value divide.  There are, as far as I can see, two pathways to lessening the gap between fact and value.  Neither, I think, closes that gap completely.

The first path is one I think Nussbaum takes.  She is very committed to the assertion that feeling and cognition are not distinct—that, in fact, a feeling-less cognition is monstrous and mostly impossible.  For her, sympathy enhances understanding.  The story of Oliver Twist increases our understanding of the plight of orphans. (George Eliot would make this claim as well.) If we define “empathy” as the ability to get a sense of another’s experience, then sympathy is the gateway to empathy.  We know more about others when we are able to sympathize with them—and that ability is feeling-dependent.  No amount of simple or “rational” looking will do the job.  The feelings must be activated for the most adequate knowledge to be accessed. 

Thus, Nussbaum (ultimately) is a cognitivist when it comes to (at least) literature. (What she would have to say about non-literary artistic forms is not clear; she seldom writes of them.)  But there still lingers the difference between explanation and understanding, or determinative and reflective judgment.  To know that the house is red is a determinate judgment (in Kant’s terms).  We don’t claim to “understand” the house; we just state what its color is, and would presumably “reduce” that judgment to the physics of wavelengths and the semantic facts about English if we had to explain to someone the basis for the judgment. 

[A digression: I continue to struggle with the possibility that there is a significant difference between “explanation” and “understanding.” To “understand” the orphan’s plight is not to “explain” it; to understand can mean either I now see that he is hungry or now empathize with, have a sense of, his suffering. To explain his hunger would, presumably, be to trace its causes, what factors have deprived him of enough food, or what physiological processes lead to hunger. Since Dilthey (at least) there has been an effort to see “explanation” as characteristic of the sciences, and “understanding” as characteristic of the humanities. My problem–shared with many others–is not being able to work out a clear distinction between explanation and understanding. Plus there is the problem that making such a clear distinction threatens to create another gap similar to the fact/value divide. Do I really want to see the sciences and the humanities as doing fundamentally different things, with fundamentally different goals and methods? How drastic a dualism do I want to embrace–even when a thorough going collapse of all distinctions between the science and humanities is also unattractive? The trouble with many aesthetic theories, in my eyes, is their desperate commitment to finding something that renders the aesthetic distinct from every other human practice and endeavor. I don’t think the aesthetic is so completely distinctive–and I don’t see what’s gained (in any case) if one could prove it unique. So my struggle in this long series of posts on the aesthetic is to find some characteristics of the aesthetic that do seem to hold over a fairly large set of aesthetic objects and practices–while at the same time considering how those characteristics also operate in other domains of practice, domains that we wouldn’t (in ordinary language as well as for analytical reasons) deem aesthetic. And, to name once again the golden fleece I am chasing, I think some account of meaning-creating and meaning-conferring practices is the best bet to provide the theory I am questing for.]

To return to the matter at hand: The judgment that the plight of orphans is unjust or outrageous is a reflective judgment in Kant’s sense.  Reflective judgments have two features that distinguish them from determinative judgments:

1. The category to which this instance is being assigned is itself not fixed.  Thus, for Kant, “beauty” is not a stable standard.  A new work of art comes along and is beautiful in a way we have never experienced before and/or had hardly expected.  But we judge that the term “beauty” is appropriate in this case, even though it is novel—and even though our judgment revises our previous senses of the category “beauty.” 

2. Kant is also very clear that reflective judgments originate in subjective feelings.  He is concerned, of course, to find a way to move from that subjectivism to “universal validity” and “universal communicability.”  But the starting point is individual feeling in a way that it is not for determinative judgments.  My feeling about the house plays no role in my assertion that is red.  But my feelings about the Matisse painting are necessary, although not necessarily sufficient, to my judging it “beautiful.” (not necessarily sufficient because my judgment also takes the sensus communis into account. I judge, as Arendt puts it, in the company of others. Reflective judgment is neither entirely personal nor entirely social. Its public character comes from the fact that it will be stated for/to others.)

Thus, even if we (as Nussbaum wants to do) say our aesthetic and moral judgments count as knowledge, as assertions that we make with confidence and expect others to understand (at least) and agree with (at best), those judgments still arise from a different basis than judgments of fact. (N.B.: I am following Arendt here in taking Kant’s aesthetics as a more plausible basis for morality than Kant’s own moral theory.)

To summarize: aesthetic judgments (“this is beautiful”) and moral judgments (“this is unjust”) would still be seen as “cognitive.”  Such judgments are assertions about how some thing in the world (an art work, an orphan’s hunger) should be understood, should be labeled—and purport to say something substantial about that thing in the world.  But the process by which that judgment is reached—and the process by which I would get others to assent to it—is distinct (in certain ways) from the processes that underwrite statements of fact. A key feature of that difference is the role feelings play in reaching the two different kinds of judgment.

So maybe Nussbaum’s approach is not non-cognitive; instead, it is committed to their being different forms/processes of cognition.  Then we would just get into a fight over what we are willing to label “cognitive.”  How capacious are we willing to let that term be? Is calling the Matisse painting “beautiful” a knowledge claim or not. The positivists, of course, pronounced aesthetic and moral judgments non-cognitive in the 1930s–and philosophers (of whom Nussbaum is prominently one) have been pushing against that banishment ever since. The only stake (it seems to me) would be whether being deemed “cognitive” is also seen as conferring some kind of advantage over things deemed “non-cognitive.”  Nussbaum certainly seems to think so. She is very committed to expanding the realm of the cognitive and the rational to include feeling-dependent judgments—and seems to believe that enhancing the status of such feeling-dependent judgments will increase the respect and credence they command.

But the alternative would be to say credence does not rest on something being cognitive; that we should look elsewhere for what leads people to make judgments and to assent to the judgments that others make. Standard understandings of cognition are just too simple, too restrictive, to account for the complexities of how people actually judge and come to have beliefs. Better to abandon the cognitive/non-cognitive distinction altogether–and provide an alternative story about how we come to think and feel about things.

I am going to leave it here for today—and discuss in my next post an alternative way to lessen the fact/value gap, one that does move toward ignoring characterizing judgments and beliefs as either cognitive or non-cognitive.

Arendt Contra “Life”

Hannah Arendt famously insisted that any politics that attended to the demands of “life” was doomed to descend into factional strife.  How to understand her argument on these matters has troubled her readers ever since she first articulated this view in 1957’s The Human Condition and, more forcefully, in 1962’s On Revolution. It doesn’t help matters that the critique of a life-based politics in the former book is replaced (augmented) by a differently inflected argument in On Revolution: namely, that politics must avoid addressing “the social question.”  Just how Arendt’s disdain for “the social” connects to her insistence that “life” should never be the principal motive for “action” is hard to parse.

Let me start with life.  Arendt’s argument (derived from Aristotle in ways that resonate with Agamben’s adoption of the distinction between “bios”—bare life—and “zoe”—a cultivated life) is that life belongs to the realm of “necessity.”  What is needed to sustain life (food, shelter, etc.) must be produced and consumed.  The daily round of that production and consumption is inescapable—but the very opposite of freedom. 

Politics exists in order to provide freedom, to provide a space for action that is not tied to necessity.  As countless readers have pointed out, Aristotle’s polity relies on slaves to do the life-sustaining work tied to necessity—and Arendt seems nowhere more mandarin than in her contempt for that work.  While it is going too far to say that she endorses slavery, there is more than a little of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic in Arendt.  She seems at times to accept that the price of freedom, the price of escaping slavery, is an heroic, aristocratic disdain for life that allows the master to achieve his (it’s almost always a “he”) position of mastery in the life/death struggle that creates slavery in the Hegelian story.  Those tied to “life” are slavish in disposition; they have bargained away their freedom because they have valued life too highly—have, in fact, taken life (not freedom or mastery) as the highest (perhaps even the sole) value.  This contempt gets carried over into Arendt’s deeply negative views of “the masses.” 

Arendt’s disdain for “life” has often been seen as a critique of bourgeois sensibility.  The bourgeoisie is focused on “getting and spending” which it deems “private”—and is, consequently, uninterested in politics.  That’s one way of interpreting Arendt’s lament that politics is in danger of disappearing altogether in the modern world.  In a liberal society, all the focus is on “private” pursuits—the religion of personal salvation, economic pursuits, family and friends.  It is reductive, but not altogether inaccurate, to link Arendt to figures like Tocqueville who lament the loss of an aristocratic focus on “honor” even as they both admit that aristocratic virtues are lost forever.  If the triumph of “life” is to be overcome, it won’t be through a revival of either Aristotle’s or Machiavelli’s worlds. 

Arendt’s prescription (especially in The Human Condition) appears to be the attempt to substitute amor mundi (a love of the world) for the love of life.  My student Martin Caver wrote a superb dissertation on the concept of amor mundi in Arendt—and had to contend mightily with how slippery and vague that notion is in her work.  Pushed into thinking about this all again by Matt Taylor’s essay—and by a subsequent email he wrote to me in response to my post on his essay—here is how I would pose the contrast world/life today.

The problem with “life” from Arendt’s point-of-view is that life is monolithic.  Its demands appear to be everywhere the same: sustenance.  To maintain a life is a repetitive grind that Arendt depicts as a relentless “process” that never allows for individuation.  There are no distinctions within life.  Every living thing is the same in terms of possessing what we can call “bare life.”  Paradoxically, life renders everyone the same even as it also renders everyone selfish. Unlike politics, which for Arendt offers the possibility of individuation, selfishness just makes everyone alike. The bourgeois self is focused on “getting his”—which is why “life” is antithetical to amor mundi.  We humans are in a sorry condition unless we can generate some care (think of Heidegger on Sorge at this point) for the world that we share.  When everyone is pursuing only his own interest, the world falls apart. (Certainly sounds like a pretty good description/diagnosis of American society in 2020.)

What is this “world” that Arendt calls us to love?  She insists that it is the fact of “plurality” (the fact that we are with others on this planet) and that it is what lies “between” the various actors who inhabit it.  The modern retreat into the private is making the world recede.  We no longer (at least as intensely) live and act together in a shared world, in a public space.  That public space is the scene of politics for Arendt.  And politics is where one distinguishes oneself (i.e. where one can achieve a distinctive identity).  Politics is also where the world is produced through “acting in concert.”  The notion here (although Arendt never articulates it in this way and is way too vague about the particulars of “acting in concert”) is that a public space is created and maintained by the interactions of people within that space—just as a language is created and maintained by people using it to communicate.  The ongoing health and existence of the language is a beneficial, but not directly intended, by-product of its daily use by a community of speakers.  Our common world is similarly produced.

Love of that world thus seems to mean two things: caring for its upkeep, it preservation, and a taste, even a love, for plurality.  I must cherish the fact that it is “men,” not just me, who constitute this world.  In Iris Murdoch’s formulation: “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.”

To understand Arendt’s critique of “life” in these terms leads almost too smoothly into her work of Eichmann and, then, to The Life of the Mind.  To be thoughtless (as Arendt accuses Eichmann of being) is precisely to be incapable of comprehending otherness, that fact that “something other than oneself is real.”  Selfishness is thoughtless, a failure of imagination, a failure to grasp the fact of plurality in its full significance.  Soul-blindness. And she reads Eichmann’s blindness in terms of his being entirely focused on climbing the ladder in the bureaucracy within which he works.  That’s why his evil is “banal.”  It’s the product of his daily round of making his way, not a product of any deeply-held convictions or ideology.  He was, in her view, quite literally just doing his job with an eye toward promotion, without any conception of how his actions were effecting other people.  (Whether this is a plausible reading of Eichmann is neither here nor there for the more general argument that the modern mind-set, along with the  bureaucracies—among which we must count large corporations—in which so many moderns are embedded, generates soul-blindness, the thoughtless inability to see the consequences of one’s actions apart from how those actions contribute to one’s “getting ahead.”)

No wonder, then, that Arendt’s grasps onto the passage in the Critique of Judgment where Kant calls for “enlarged thinking”—and ties judgment to the capacity to see something from the other’s point of view.  I must go “visiting,” Arendt says, in order to make a judgment.  The person who is focused solely on gaining a “good life” for himself will never encounter “the world,” never grasp plurality.

The problem comes when the critique of “life” in The Human Condition is paired with a critique of “the social”—and that problem becomes a crisis when the full implications of banning the social from politics are articulated in On Revolution.  Even Arendt’s most adept readers—Seyla Benhabib, Bonnie Honig, Hanna Pitkin—barely try to defend her position at this juncture.  Bluntly put, Arendt says that the polity should never attempt to address or alleviate poverty or material inequities.  The necessities of life—and how to secure them—should never be seen as a matter appropriate to politics.  To make that mistake is simply to make politics itself impossible while leading to endless strife. 

The puzzle has always been how a thinker of Arendt’s power could have been so blind, so stupid, so thoughtless (she is never so close to her caricature of Eichmann as at this point) on this score.  How could she think 1) that banishing the endless strife over material resources to “the social” somehow solves the problem of that strife, and 2) that “politics” could somehow (by fiat?) be separated from allocation of resources (where those resources include power and status as well as material goods)?  I can only suspect that she harbors the old aristocratic disdain of “trade” and imagines she can erect of field of contention where only distinction, honor, and virtuosity are at stake—and nothing so vulgar as monetary reward.  Arendt’s ideal politics are, after all, agonistic.  She is not against strife.  But she wants a “pure” strife focused exclusively on excellence, unsullied by irrelevant considerations of money or status.  She hates “society” because she deplores the standards by which it confers distinction.  No surprise that her politics seem so aesthetic—and that she goes to Kant’s Critique of Judgment to discover his politics.  What matters in the idealized aesthetic space is the quality of the performance—and nothing else. 

So the question Arendt poses for us is: Is it harmful to have this ideal of a practice (or practices) that are divorced (by whatever means are effective) from questions of material necessity and reward?  At a time when utilitarian considerations seem everywhere triumphant, the desire to carve out a protected space has a deep appeal.  Reduction of everything to what avails life (Ruskin’s formula) very quickly becomes translated into what can produce an income.  Various defenses of the university are predicated on fighting back against the utilitarian calculus.

But the danger of taking the anti-utilitarian line (the aestheticist position, if you will) is that it reinforces the bourgeois/classical liberal assertion that “the economic” is its own separate sphere—one that should be understood as “private.”  Arendt may be a sharp critic of bourgeois selfishness and how that selfishness diminishes what a life can be even as its blithely denies the necessities of life to others, but she seems to be reinforcing the liberal idea of “private enterprise.” 

It is not clear how (or where) economic activities exist at all in the “world” she wants us to love.  And we have ample evidence by now that leaving economics to themselves is not a formula for keeping the economic in its place, in preventing its colonizing other spheres of human activity.  Just the opposite.  Laissez-faire is a sure-fire formula for insuring that the economic swallows up everything else.  It accumulates power as relentlessly as it accumulates capital—and thus distorts every thing in the world.

In the realms of theory, then, Matt’s instinct that a monolithic, overarching concept like “life” would be better replaced by a pluralistic reckoning of the needs and desires of “living” seems promising.  The thought is that “life” requires (in order for it to be defined) a contrast with “not life” (the world fills that role in Arendt)—and thus to a designation of the enemies of life (or, in Arendt’s mirror image, to a denigration of “life” in favor of another value, amor mundi).  In either case, the logic leads to a desire to eliminate something because it threatens what is desired. 

The alternative path of pluralism disarms such categorical condemnations.  That path returns us to the “rough ground” (Wittgenstein) of tough judgments about what to do in particular cases where we have to attend to the particulars—and not think that generalized formulas are going to be of much (if any) use.  There are always going to be multiple goods and moral intuitions in play, with painful trade-offs, and messy compromises.  No overarching commitment or slogan—like “reverence for life”—is going to do the work. Similarly, we cannot successfully separate things into separate spheres—the aesthetic in that bin, the economic in another one, and politics in a third. It is just going to be messier than that even as we also struggle to prevent any one type of motive swamp the others.  Pluralism is about (among other things) giving multiple motives some room to operate.  Which is why I remain so attracted to some version of a universal basic income, some version of supplying the minimal resources required to “flourish” to all.  Only when the material necessities can be taken for granted because secured (not disdained because they are bestial or vulgar) can other motives take wing.

One can also expect that others will disagree with, castigate her for, the course of action she does pursue, the positions for which she advocates.  Plurality comes with a price—which is why it is hard to love.  And why thinkers keep imagining formulas that will enable our escape from it.