Ontology as Morality

Radical Orthodoxy is the most intellectually sophisticated version of postmodern Christianity — a class that for me includes Hauerwasianism, the Emergent Church, the evangelical development of “worldviews,” and creationism, to name just a few examples. The postmodern versions of Christianity are all helpful in understanding what postmodernism was all along: a moralizing discourse that approves or rejects various ontologies based on their putative moral effects. Modern subjectivity? Immoral — it caused the holocaust, environmental degradation, etc. The disseminatory play of difference? Moral — it helps us to be open toward the other. Though postmodern Christianity does sometimes deploy what purport to be factual critiques of its target ontologies, the emotional charge is ultimately on the moral effects: evolutionary theory, for instance, is immoral because it undercuts belief in God and in human dignity.

In the case of Radical Orthodoxy, a particular version of Neoplatonism is put forward as the only “robust” ontology, the only ontology that can ground a peaceful, presumably socialist polity. Such an ontology is supposed to have prevailed during the High Middle Ages. There are occasional gestures toward demonstrating how much better things were back then, but it all takes place on a very formal level — and when push comes to shove, it is claimed that the goal is to rejoin an alternate future (because apparently “progress” occurs in this ontology).

More generally, in clear defiance of the etymology of “ontology,” there is very little serious effort to base their robust ontology on how things actually are. Analytic philosophers studying brain sciences presumably have the “metaphysics of a serial killer”: alright, but does Radical Orthodoxy have a better way to account for the results of brain science? I suspect that any such attempt would amount to yet another reassertion of the ontology that they know is true because, in some imagined alternate future, it produces beneficial moral effects.

The only credible way forward for a genuinely robust ontology — i.e., one that would be persuasive to those for whom actual reality is a more decisive factor than purported moral consequences — is Pannenberg’s. In my view, his method in Anthropology in Theological Perspective charts the course for any attempt to hold speculative thought — and here I would count non-vuglar-materialist philosophy and psychoanalytic theory along with theology — accountable to empirical evidence.

For those who are not familiar, I include my description of Pannenberg’s method from my 20th Century exam. (As a teaser for the much anticipated Žižek and Theology, I include a section comparing Pannenberg and Žižek.)

Wolfhart Pannenberg’s engagement with the human sciences is demonstrated primarily in his Anthropology in Theological Perspective, which is nothing short of a tour-de-force, covering virtually all the human sciences with an amazing level of detail and nuance. To keep with my scheme of assigning adjectives to the various theologians, we might call Pannenberg’s approach a dialectical one. On the one hand, Pannenberg takes very seriously the insights of the human sciences and believes that theology must take them into account in a very rigorous way if it is to be credible. Thus, to take a simple example, if science tells us that the scenario of a “first couple” historically falling from a state of original perfection is not credible, theologians cannot allow themselves simply to dodge the question—particularly not by using the customary method of shifting the importance to a transcendental or symbolic level while still leaving basically intact the presumption that there historically was some originally perfect state. But on the other hand, Pannenberg does not believe that theology can simply take up the findings of the human science as neutral “raw data” that can then be deployed at will. Rather, Pannenberg takes seriously the possibility that the traditional dogmatic themes of original sin and the image of God can help to clarify the problems of the various human sciences—while at the same time rethinking those very doctrines in light of the human sciences.

The artificial division between secular science and spiritual theology is thus discarded in favor of an integrated vision of theological anthropology that is founded on the premise that “religion” is an essential part of what it means to be human. Moving from biology (here represented primarily by behaviorist psychology) through to human sociality (psychoanalysis, etc.) and culture (language, theories of play, political theory, etc.), Pannenberg stakes out his position practically as an “insider” to each of the human sciences, but in such a way that contrasts sharply with the more traditionally apologetic approach of Tillich or Niebuhr insofar as Pannenberg does not take the Christian revelation to be some immutable thing but rather allows it to be altered by what he takes to be incontrovertible results of modern scientific research. While he does advocate for a kind of “return to Christianity” in the Western world as a way of achieving genuine social integration and personal identity, his is a Christianity that has been chastened and has matured through its modern travails—and his very method demonstrates what he means by that “maturity.” Though Pannenberg clearly believes that Christianity is the highest form of religion—a point on which the white male European authors on the reading list are nearly unanimous—he has a non-triumphalist approach and is sensitive to Christianity’s own responsibility for its increasing marginalization in Europe. (Indeed, his non-triumphalism extends even to the claim that not all pagan worship is idolatrous.)

As for his concrete use of the human sciences in his work, the only complaint one can really bring is that he is too thorough—such that virtually no other single person can adequately assess the entire work. The overwhelming nature of the book thus tends to militate against the possibility of having a genuine impact.

(I don’t necessarily advocate the results Pannenberg comes to, just the “dialectical” method.)

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91 Responses to “Ontology as Morality”

  1. discard Says:

    This is really interesting, I’m sympathetic. I do wonder though how this would relate to questions of representation, ie would the idea that an ontology that talks about the way things actually are be something other than representational? And then what do we do about the idea that ontology is always something of an invention — or is there a strong realist criteria?

    Of course a moral need just as realist, I suppose — not wanting to defend that. As for the dialectical method, i there’s a question as to whether we ought to be mediating between empirical evidence and speculation, or to be imagining some alternative (non-dialectical) relationship between the concept of empirical evidence and the concept of speculation.

    If that makes sense.

    Oh, and have you thought about how Eastern Christianity doesn’t have these dilemmas?

  2. bjk Says:

    We all would like to be up-to-date, but what are these new discoveries made by the “human sciences”? I didn’t know that the “brain sciences” had made critical new discoveries. I just read (skimmed) a book by Steven Pinker that was rehashed Aristotle, though Pinker seemed unaware of it. Anyway, I certainly agree with the moralistic intent behind deconstruction.

  3. Adam Says:

    bjk, From the perspective of most theology, almost all the discoveries of modern science are still new.

    Discard, How does Eastern Christianity avoid these problems?

  4. Alex Says:

    This all said, has anyone really tried to provide an ontology that is accountable to empirical evidence? The way it stands in analytic philosophy, or so it seems to me, is that someone like Quine says that the natural sciences themselves require no ontology and that no ontology could even be written that accounts for them.

  5. Adam Says:

    There’s Whitehead.

  6. discard Says:

    Just thought it would be nice to get Dejan involved…

  7. discard Says:

    Would this change if it were ‘ontology as politics’?

  8. Adam Says:

    That’s exactly the direction I would hope to take it.

  9. larvalsubjects Says:

    Adam, I’m highly sympathetic to the sort of thesis about the relationship between values and ontology you’re advancing here. This, I think, is one of the dishonest aspects of the secular versus religious debates as advanced from secularist perspectives. Secularists try to pitch their position as “value free”, failing to recognize that an entire set of values already follow from their claims and that the debate is already decided from the outset when all inquiry is commanded to proceed on secular grounds. I think this comes out with special clarity in Russell McCutcheon’s Critics not Caretakers. He proposes to approach the phenomenon of religion exactly as a social theorist would approach any other social phenomenon, but in doing so he, in effect, begs the question, deciding everything in advance. Behind this is a whole body of assumptions about what is of value and a whole set of decisions pertaining to epistemology and ontology that are not themselves explicitly thematized.

    It seems to me that Levinas’ discussions of ethics preceding ontology, Brandom’s discussions of the normative nature of all inquiry, Taylor’s analysis of the normative underpinnings of the rise of secularism, and Deleuze’s discussion of value in Nietzsche & Philosophy would provide ripe grounds for developing this observation.

  10. Daniel Says:

    Alex: “To be is to be the value of a bound variable”? And the Quine-Putnam argument for Platonism just is that the sciences require an ontology which includes numbers, and so our ontology must include them. I have no idea how you could come to such a weird view about Quine. Not to mention all of the arguments about physicalism and reductionism (whether biological concepts are reducible to physical ones, for instance, and the separate question of whether living things might be reducible to physical ones). Or folk like Dennett and the Churchlands in the philosophy of mind. Analytic philosophy tends not to view ontology as a moral-political matter, but I have no idea how you can think that analytic metaphysics ignores the empirical sciences.

  11. Nate Kerr Says:

    This is somewhat off-subject, but I figure that as much here as any other place I know I might get something of a response to this question. So: Can anyone speak at all for me of Milbank’s relation to William Temple? Does Milbank engage Temple at all, especially Temple’s Gifford Lectures and his Christianity and Social Order? I assume that he does in Theology and Social Theory if not elsewhere. I just cannot recall at this time. I’m away from my library, or I’d look this stuff up myself. Any commentary would be helpful.

    (And I swear, this query is fully in line with the concerns of this post — well, more or less “fully”!)

  12. Alex Says:

    I am not arguing that they don’t take account of the empirical sciences at all – I saying the opposite! That they (at least seemingly) begin with the empirical sciences as free standing entities that do not require philosophy to “give an account of”…

  13. Adam Says:

    LS, Does it really seem to you that I’m advocating an ontology that is first of all moralizing?

  14. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Well if one wanted to be annoying they could say you were making the implicit normative (i.e. moralizing) claim that one’s ontology should be created without regard for its moral or political (or social, etc.) consequences.

  15. Adam Says:

    Anthony, Clever — but not all normative claims are moralizing claims.

  16. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Well now I’m sure the annoying person would ask you to explain or give an example.

  17. Adam Says:

    Specifically, moralism includes arbitrarily-imposed delusions — so that even the account of the consequences has no connection with reality.

    For example, the famous “slippery slope” argument that acceptance of homosexuality will lead to normalization of bestiality, incest, etc., has no bearing on actual homosexual practice — rather, the connection between homosexuality and the other practices was posited by the moralizing discourse against homosexuality in an attempt to “borrow” the pre-existing stigma of bestiality, incest, etc. In reality, homosexuality is not a “gateway drug” to bestiality. (In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that most people who have sex with animals are, for lack of a better term, straight.)

  18. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    OK, I grant that, but I don’t quite think this is what Radical Orthodoxy is up to anymore than Marxism. I mean, yes, an offhand remark to me made by a ‘member’ concerning Deleuze having the metaphysics of a serial killer, but the big thing that worries these folks is that so-called immanentist ontologies don’t give enough difference between things in the world such that one can’t have an ontologically credible ethics. That is not the same argument as the slippery slope one, but rather indebted to their Hegelianism holding that thought shapes reality (spirit is a bone, no?). My worry here is that you are separating speculative thought far too easily from ethical practices that gives some credence to the false problems fostering the “theory v practice” debates.

  19. Adam Says:

    I mean something specific by “moralizing” — essentially what Nietzsche meant by it. And for what it’s worth, Milbank appears to be much less moralizing than his epigones, but Conor Cunningham sounded like a total evangelical to me — not in a private remark, but in a public setting where he was reading from a prepared manuscript.

    I don’t mean to undo all normative claims or detach them from speculative thought — that would be stupid. I told Discard I was wanting to take this in a political direction.

  20. larvalsubjects Says:

    Adam, I took it that you were talking about the way in which issues of value and ontology are intertwined with one another in ways that theorists often disavow or ignore, not that you’re proposing an ontology that is first of all moralizing. If this is what you were talking about I would agree. My inclination is that the idea of a value-free ontology or ontology as a field entirely independent of values is a chimera. Have I misunderstood what you were pointing to in this post?

  21. Adam Says:

    LS, It seems almost as though you didn’t read the post beyond the title, honestly.

  22. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    ‘And for what it’s worth, Milbank appears to be much less moralizing than his epigones, but Conor Cunningham sounded like a total evangelical to me — not in a private remark, but in a public setting where he was reading from a prepared manuscript.’

    That could very well be. I’m sure this also holds for proponents of Deconstruction as well though (i.e. Derrida is less moralizing than those who write invoking his name). Perhaps equally as troubling though is Derrida’s remark (in his final interview) that he felt closer to those in literature departments in the States than philosophers in France.

  23. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    ‘Adam, I took it that you were talking about the way in which issues of value and ontology are intertwined with one another in ways that theorists often disavow or ignore’

    Wait… isn’t that the opposite of what you were saying? I think I’m missing something here.

  24. larvalsubjects Says:

    Alright, I must have misunderstood. On the one hand, I think there are serious problems with those philosophical approaches that argue “x is mistaken because it leads to the holocaust” or “x is right because it affirms difference”. These sorts of approaches seem especially rife in appropriations of French thought (not so much among the great French thinkers themselves as many of their followers). On the other hand, I think that historically, after Kant, a number of Continental and Anglo-American thinkers increasingly came to argue that normativity and inquiry are imbricated in such a way as to be inseparable. Than lineage, I think, would argue that an ontology that restricts itself to questions of “how things actually are” is impossible for structural reasons. On the Continental side I’m thinking primarily of thinkers deeply influence by Kant (this was the point of second half of the First Critique vis a vis the relationship between pure reason and practical reason, right?), Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. Kant’s aesthetic theory also plays a crucial role in terms of the developments of romanticism and subsequent German Idealism. On the analytic thinker I’m thinking of figures like late Wittgenstein, Sellars, Davidson, Rorty, and Brandom. Both of these streams would be different than what you’re rightly denouncing. That is, these positions wouldn’t proceed from a moral judgment about some horrible social arrangement or political event to whether or not a particular ontology is viable. Rather, they seem to argue something to the effect that being is always related to under the horizon of certain normative values that guide inquiry (that’s far too crass a way of putting it).

    At any rate, I certainly wasn’t trying to start a fight, nor was I in any way criticizing you, but was interested in the way the relationship between being and value might be discussed. I’m thoroughly exhausted by such fights and after the death and funeral of a very close family member this last week I have no energy to engage in provocations or jousting matches. The original post was actually enthusiastic about your diary, not the reverse.

  25. Brad Johnson Says:

    That could very well be. I’m sure this also holds for proponents of Deconstruction as well though…

    “Though”? I was under the impression Adam was already including deconstruction in his criticism.

    A certain moralism is the deepest root of even Milbank’s work — albeit, in a more formal way than something like “God hates fags,” and what not. “Moralism” in the sense of addressing, via ontology, why we can identify anything as good at all.

    One of the keys to this criticsm becoming really viable, in my mind, is addressing the postmodern claim about violence. Namely, whether the intended goal suggested by Adam, “ontology as politics,” can be distinguished/separated, non-moralistically, from (the morality of) violence? Can this be distilled to a de-moralized ontological violence, which we will call “normativity,” versus a non-violent politics/ontology or political/ontological non-violence?

    (For my part, the former is certainly what I find to be the case in the literary visions of, say, Cormac McCarthy or Herman Melville — both quintessentially “rugged male” writers/thinkers, though I can but wonder now about the implications of that. It also bears noticing that McCarthy’s rendition of that is deeply aligned, for him, in his reception of complexity science — he works out of the Santa Fe Institute these days.)

  26. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I meant that I don’t think Derrida does what proponents of deconstruction do – i.e. he does not moralize in this way or to the degree.

    So when you talk about McCarthy and Melville being a kind of case of de-moralized ontological violence does that mean we’re moralists if we are troubled by the actions or being of Chigurh?

  27. Adam Says:

    LS, I didn’t think you were trying to start a fight at any point in this thread — I was just frustrated because I didn’t understand the relationship between your response and my post. This is a problem I’m grappling with in comment threads generally.

  28. larvalsubjects Says:

    I’ve been experiencing the same thing on my blog recently with people who jump in out of nowhere, midstream, never having read anything on the blog or having much if any theoretical background with the thinkers being engaged with. I think it’s a severe limitation of blogging in general; one that highlights Derrida’s points about context and iterability as outlined in Limited Inc. and “Signature Event Context”. I’ve been considering turning off my comment function altogether, though I haven’t decided yet. Explaining things over and over or being taken in completely tangental ways gets old real quick.

    At the moment these questions have been forefront in my mind as I’m working through Nietzsche & Philosophy again, trying to decide whether to teach it this fall and am gearing up to work through Goodchild’s Capitalism and Religion, which seems to obliquely approach some of these issues.

    Anthony, you write:

    I mean, yes, an offhand remark to me made by a ‘member’ concerning Deleuze having the metaphysics of a serial killer, but the big thing that worries these folks is that so-called immanentist ontologies don’t give enough difference between things in the world such that one can’t have an ontologically credible ethics.

    I recall that you discussed precisely this example in a conference paper you posted here some time back. Did you ever formulate a response to this rather underhanded criticism? (If I missed it I apologize). Since the Nietzsche book is at the forefront of my mind at the moment, it seems to me that a discussion of the sorts of forces that animate the serial killer would be one way of overturning such a criticism. That is, can one imagine a serial killer in Deleuze’s universe that is characterized by active forces and affirmation? The tricky point, I think, is that Deleuze’s ethics isn’t one of judgment or apportioning debt and blame, but of creation and affirmation. As I recall from your original post, the question you were responding to seemed pitched at the level of judgment and blame, rather than affirmation, i.e., “how can we judge the serial killer in Deleuze’s universe?” On the other hand, Deleuze does allow for a form of negation that follows from affirmation. Perhaps that would be the way out.

  29. Brad Johnson Says:

    Anthony … my take: I think McCarthy, in the progression of his work, would say you can be as disturbed by it as you want, but what matters most is one’s response. Does one run? Does one fight? In the end, none of that matters, because it is looking for a solution to what is inevitable. He settles, it seems to me, on something so painfully “dull” as responding to the violence with senseless acts of love. These do not dull the violence, but are rather the ways & means of living in the midst of it — life being not a resistance to death, but a life permeated by death to the extent that its coordinates, the fear of the end, are no longer predetermined. (Sorry for apparently injecting my own interests in your blog thread, Adam, but it’s striking how these things collide.)

  30. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    “That is, can one imagine a serial killer in Deleuze’s universe that is characterized by active forces and affirmation?”

    Yes. Again, Chigurh.

    I don’t think my presentation (for a class, nothing about it was conference worthy) was about “judging” the serial killer. But rather about evaluating whether or not what Conor meant, i.e. that particular human beings aren’t important but only the moment when one sees a life cross through one, was particularly damning if Deleuze’s philosophy is an ethical one. I’m not sure, even as I find it intellectually attractive, if I’m comfortable with the kind of social contracts and relationships that come out of your gloss on Deleuze’s ethics.

    Brad,

    That’s interesting. And of course incredibly attractive. But seeing as this is a very Deleuzian take I wonder what it means in terms of positive political projects. I have some ideas but, again, one always has to deal with the gut reactions to things as well.

  31. larvalsubjects Says:

    No, I wasn’t suggesting that you were approaching Deleuze from the standpoint of justice but rather that the question seems formulated from the standpoint of judgment. I received something similar a few months ago back-channel, where the person was asking where Deleuze would come down on abortion. I had no idea how to answer the question as it doesn’t seem to me that Deleuze’s though is designed to answer these sorts of questions.

    I wasn’t aware that I’d written anything on Deleuze’s ethics, especially since I’m somewhat unclear on it myself. “Social contract” seems to be far too strong for what I’m describe as far as the social and political goes, as, for me at least, social contract has resonances of identity (those that enter into a contract come to share some minimal identity with one another) and agreement. I think I’m trying to get at something far closer to a social ecosystem, where, just as in an ecosystem, you have all these relations between different species– some parasitic, some benign, some antagonistic, etc –and where there are certain tendencies of development or change as a function of these inter-relations. So I’m not trying to think of unified groups pursuing common goals, but something far more heterogeneous than that, in keeping with the idea of a multiplicity. Whether such an idea is only of sociological interest or has political consequences as well. Part of this is a reaction to the party form of politics that dominated certain forms of socialist thought. I think there are certain dynamics to unified groups that can be very ugly in terms of unquestioned allegiance to the group and its leaders, internal purgings and purity tests, strong antagonisms directed towards other groups, etc. This is one of the things that interests me in loosely knit collectives without over-arching dogma like the early Baptist church, blog collectives, and so on. I am not at all saying these ugly dynamics are restricted to forms of socialism. I’ve seen precisely the same dynamics among collectives belonging to the democratic party, various conservative groups, other leftwing groups, highly organized academic philosophical groups around a particular cannonical figure, and so on.

  32. discard Says:

    Ignore this if it’s annoying, but if possible, can someone explain the sense in which Chigurh is characterized by active forces and affirmation? Let it be noted that I’ve only seen the film, but it seems to me like he is something more like fate, “what is,” etc.

  33. Brad Johnson Says:

    I’d be curious to see Anthony’s response to that, too.

  34. larvalsubjects Says:

    The first sentence of my last post should have read “from the standpoint of judgment…” not “justice”. I’d be curious to hear more about the connection between Chigurh and this issue as well. Unfortunately I haven’t seen the film, though apparently I should rent it.

  35. Brad Johnson Says:

    No Country doesn’t seem to me to be the best place to look for active forces in McCarthy’s oeuvre. If there is any, I’d think it’d be Moss. His end is set, but the path isn’t, at least. Hell, it doesn’t even seem like Chigurh, the force of nature / fate / etc., was the one who got him in the end. What’s interesting about Chigurh is that contingency acts on him, too, in the final parts of the movie.

  36. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    LS,

    Interesting.

    Re: Chigurh. Well I could be wrong here as it was just an idea that popped into my head as I was watching the film. However it seems like a serial killer who kills because of some kind of trauma is a body traversed by reactive forces. The rituals performed by serial killers seem to be a reaction against their “nature” or a way of coping with what they “must do”. Chigurh, on the other hand, seems to have accepted, if that is even the word, that killing is what he does. For example, when he is shot by Llewellyn there is no sense that he is resentful against Llewellyn’s power, but he does what comes to him – run away and do what is necessary to remain active. He doesn’t bring up the fact that he was shot with Llewellyn, there is no antagonism, just affirmation that his power will triumph.

    Some of the terminology isn’t clear, but I have the flu, it’s 6am and I haven’t read the Nietzsche book in about 2 years. See… reactive forces.

  37. JD Says:

    What troubles me about this discussion is the way the way the levying of the charge “moralizing” here seems to function as an attempt to evade the is-ought problem of ethics. Any normative claim about an “ought” that is made apart from a descriptive claim about what “is” seems to be ipso facto understood as “moralizing.” But, that’s not actually saying anything; it’s changing the subject.

    Adam, your example of the connection between homosexuality and bestiality is well taken, but it doesn’t seem to actually function the way you want it to. It just seems to be an example of poor ethical reasoning, and not reasoning that fails for being out of touch with a more adequate description of reality.

    I’m also having trouble seeing the connection between that claim and Pannenberg’s understanding of theological method. This is the second thing that troubles me. I’m not clear on what is at issue? Ontology? Ethics? Theological method? Politics? Seriously, those all seem to me to be very different conversations.

  38. JD Says:

    That is not that Adam is guilty of poor ethical reasoning, but that the argument to bestiality is, in case that wasn’t clear.

  39. Adam Says:

    I view “moralizing” tout court as a deficient form of ethical reasoning, based not simply on the incorrect view of reality at its base, but on the particular way in which an account of reality is instrumentalized to reinforce the morality. Then changes in the view of reality become directly moral dangers.

    For instance, in the ideology that sexuality is only for reproduction, one imposes a view of a “law of nature” that directly teaches us this fact, and challenges to that view (gay penguins, whatever) are either ignored or chalked up to people who have an immoral “agenda” of undermining the view of reality that is necessary for reality.

    I don’t deny that ontology has ethical consequences. I believe that certain ontologies — such as a mechanistic view of the universe — have destructive effects. But I also believe that the mechanistic view is not an accurate account of reality.

    If I were giving a lecture on this, I’d probably come up with some scheme where there is a continuum between moralizing and reductionism (pure “ought” vs. pure “is”), and “the truth is in the middle.”

  40. Adam Says:

    I also view the “moralizing” stance as a near-constant in the Christian tradition, starting perhaps with Athanasius. Earlier struggles against heresy had tended to involve a kind of mutual coimplication of ontology and ethics — Gnostics believe that the flesh has no value, leading them to have constant orgies, etc. — and even if the actual charges were spurious, I find the impulse sympathetic. With Arianism and the post-Nicene heresies, however, there actually wasn’t any immediate deviation in practice for the most part, or even accusations thereof — the beliefs of the Nestorians or whoever directly were immoral.

    Broad strokes, I know.

  41. Adam Says:

    Shit, that last comment doesn’t make sense in terms of this post.

  42. Adam Says:

    Wait, no! It does! Or can be made to!

    What I’m characterizing as Athanasius’s approach (even though I think Athanasius actually did win the debate on the merits) is the “zero-degree” of moralization — no underlying difference in practice, but the beliefs have a directly moral charge in and of themselves.

    It’s a characteristically postmodern move, displayed by the American deconstructionists and Radical Orthodoxy. I believe it is formally the same move as that made by creationism, etc., though Radox and postmodernism are obviously much more intellectually sophisticated.

  43. Adam Says:

    For instance, people who believe in the metaphysics of presence just are bad people, irrespective of whether the metaphysics of presence really caused the Holocaust — the fact that it did cause the Holocaust is simply strong corroborating evidence for the inherent badness of the metaphysics of presence.

  44. Adam Says:

    Okay, I need to clarify that the “truth in the middle” thing was a throw-away line about lectures as a genre — within the terms of the “is/ought” distinction, reductionism and moralizing are the poles, but I think “is/ought” is a false dilemma. The truth is not in the middle of those two poles.

    I need to write a new post instead of posing so many sequential comments. I’m turning into Dave Belcher here!

  45. Thomas Bridges Says:

    Adam,

    I think you are correct about Athanasius (especially, e.g. in The Life of Antony, where he continually contrasts Antony’s noble ascetic life with “those immoral Arians”). However, there are streams of thought earlier where pre-Nicene thinkers did have examples of immoral Gnostics who did actually practice different ethics that correlated with their different beliefs, and they started with their interpretation of the apostolic witnesses, not with “who has the best ethics – listen to them,” These earlier thinkers(such as Irenaeus) influenced Athanasius, and set a trajectory Athanasius was seeking to defend, whether he did it in a correct manner or not. I am not sure this is going against what you are saying (I think ti is in agreement).

    (I just thought I might as well add my tangent to an already eclectic comment thread).

  46. JD Says:

    I don’t know. Conor’s statement about the serial killer always struck me as not flawed metaphysically, but categorically. That is, he was advancing a weak metaphysical argument for a strong ethical critique precisely insofar as he was trying to claim that his account of what ‘is’ (hierarchy) is more adequate to what ‘ought to be’ than discard’s. That’s why Surin’s response to him — that this is really all about desire — was spot on. As long as the argument is conducted on ontological grounds, if Surin and discard do not have the upper hand, then the debate is at least a draw.

    But, that seems to prove the point of the is-ought distinction: viz., there is nothing in the differing accounts of what “is” that can adjudicate the differing assessments of what “ought” be the case. All we can give are different, competing visions of what we desire. This is where I think you are going with the political ontology bit; but, I don’t think this is ethical reasoning. I think this is just a different way of naming the impossibility of ethical discourse. This may not be incoherent, but it is where and how Conor’s critique becomes more substantive. And, it might be that Anthony’s earlier point is exactly right: what is difficult for me to see is how, if all we ever really have are competing desires and no possibility for genuine adjudication over what “ought” to be, then every ethical judgment is only ever “moralizing,” right.

  47. JD Says:

    It’s also where Anthony is right to inject Chigurh into the discussion. As the embodiment of fate, reality, what is, what will be, etc., Chigurh is absolutely indifferent to what ‘ought be.’ His conversation with Carla Jean demonstrates this precisely. His cold “ethical” adherence to the fact of his promise to Llewelyn demonstrates this perfectly. He is absolutely incapable of judging what ought be the case independently of what happens in the coin toss. He will, however, relentlessly affirm what it determines.

  48. JD Says:

    I agree, by the way, about your characterization of natural law and the history of Christian ethical reasoning.

    (Regarding Catholic sexual ethics, it has always struck me as just bizarrely incoherent to tell people that because they are “intellectual” creatures, and therefore “more than animals,” that there sexual behavior should be delimited to its animal functionality.)

  49. Adam Says:

    There has to be some way to gauge whether the world (or being, or reality, or whatever you want to call it) is hospitable to what we desire — or, as I was thinking of putting it, what we hope for. I can think of some popular hopes that the world does not seem to me to be hospitable toward: the endless accumulation of capital by immortal corporations, for instance. I would say the same of a society ordered by an intrinsically peaceable hierarchy in which the higher entities mediate the super-abundant grace of God to the lower, too, if I had any fucking idea what that was supposed to look like in practice.

  50. bjk Says:

    Corporations don’t accumulate capital. They reinvest it or distribute it to shareholders.

  51. bjk Says:

    For instance, the Port Huron Statement complained that AT&T wasn’t reinvesting enough.

    “American Telephone and Telegraph holds back modern telephone equipment . . . until present equipment is financially unprofitable.”

    The implication being that AT&T should invest more, for the sake of the public good. I certainly agree with the good sense of the authors of the PHS.

  52. bjk Says:

    I realized I’m trying to hijack a thread on theology. My mistake. Please ignore these posts.

  53. Adam Says:

    No, you’re right — it’s the capitalist class that accumulates capital, strictly speaking.

  54. Brad Johnson Says:

    JD (and Anthony) … doesn’t that he is bound to the promise, via fate or whatever, undercut Chigurh’s role as an active force? Or am I missing the full reach of that concept?

  55. discard Says:

    I would echo Brad here. One of the key elements of activity, in Deleuze, is the capacity to be affected — in other words, one increases one’s power by increasing one’s power to be affected. It’s not clear that this last is at work in Chigurh. Even the Spinozian “God” is affected.

  56. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Well it could be that Chigurh is affected, but not in a way we, those who want a different world rather than the brute is, want to identify with. I’m not trying to suggest that Chigurh is the embodiment of active forces taken to their extreme, but in so far as he is like the tick and his power is limited to killing he affirms it. He can only increase it in one direction. Or something of this sort. No? I’m not suggesting that the truly affirmative and active person is impassable, or at least if that is what my point above is suggesting (and it may be) I would say it was a mistake on my part.

  57. Brad Johnson Says:

    I’m not entirely sure how Chigurh is different from Moss in this respect, if one were to replace “killing” w/ “surviving.”

  58. JD Says:

    Actually, what I was suggesting regarding Chirgurh’s affirmation of what is determined was meant to be a way of talking about his capacity to be affected. The car crash, “that fuckin’ bone,” his being shot, etc. — those are examples of that. He has affections, but he isn’t reactive. The fact that he keeps going, escaping from prison, removing the bullet, improvising a sling, etc. — those are all expressions of his affirmative power. I think the conversation with Carla Jean reveals him to have the capacity to be even emotionally affected; but, that does not and cannot change anything.

    His commitment to his promise is the example of what I am talking about regarding the ought-is. I think John Searle or Dennett try to use the example of adherence to a promise as a way of talking about the illusion of the is-ought problem. But, I think this scene – and I wouldn’t be surprised if McCarthy actually had that in mind when he wrote it (he does mention the promise in the book, right?) – demonstrates quite well the stupidity of that position. This is either not an ethics, or it is an horrific one.

    So, I don’t think its that he lacks affections so much as he it is that he is absolutely non-reactive. Isn’t the point of the coin toss to determine whether this set of circumstances has, can, or will come to anything different than what has otherwise been set in motion? He’s not saying nothing new can happen; he’s just saying that whatever does happen must be affirmed. And, he understands very clearly that, whether he is affected or not, he cannot determine what ought to be done independently of what is the case. That’s why he is the perfect example of what I’m driving at here. He must affirm whatever is; what he can’t do is say that what is ought to be different. There is nothing, even their affections, that lies outside the coordinates of their situation, and by which that situation can be judged. In the end, how either one of them feels about it or what they desire is just another constituent factor of the situtation they find themselves in, which ultimately just is what it is, and can turn out to be any number of things. What can’t be done is to say that it ought to be one thing rather than another.

  59. Brad Johnson Says:

    JD … I definitely agree w/ your description here. It’s certainly in keeping with what I regard as McCarthy’s take on the world. I see & understand the case your making on behalf of Chigurh here, and think it is compelling. The key, if we are to square all this with him as an active force, is to reconcile how it relates to creativity.

    For McCarthy, creation emerges from the contingency that order cannot corral — i.e., the creativity of decisions and actions in the face of random, dumb luck. One’s action & decision are not predetermined, any more than the contingency, even if the end result of your decision often (for McCarthy, typically, death) is. In No Country, Chigurh definitely is faced with contingency, but I don’t know where the active creation, or decision, is. That is to say, his decision — to kill or to spare — seems pre-set, by the decisions made by his victims.

    So, in short, I really want to go along w/ this reading. I find it compelling, and I’ve flirted with it myself. But… for some reason, I can’t make the final leap.

  60. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    ‘I’m not entirely sure how Chigurh is different from Moss in this respect, if one were to replace “killing” w/ “surviving.”’

    I wouldn’t argue against that but I only brought about Chigurh in relation to Sinthome’s question about whether or not we could conceive of a serial killer in Deleuze’s universe that was traversed by active, and not reactive, forces.

    As to whether or not he can say what ought to be, well, I’m not convinced that anyone is very good at that regardless of whether or not they are a serial killer. In Deleuze’s philosophy I think this is when he turns to the powers of the false, fabulation, and his own account of faith/belief (arguably not a rigourous enough differentiation is made in his work at this point).

  61. discard Says:

    “That is to say, his decision — to kill or to spare — seems pre-set, by the decisions made by his victims.”

    This is the point i was trying to get at with my comment regarding affection. It’s not clear to me that C’s affections play a constitutive role in his own decisions, actions. That’s not to say he’s reactive, for it’s true, there’s no resentment, etc. However, not being reactive is not the same, for me at least, as being creative.

    Of course, this relation between active forces and creation is a vexed one in Deleuze — if i’ve jumped on some of the claims here, it’s not because i think they are necessarily misbegotten (for example, I would not disagree with Anthony’s last two comments), but because they lie at the heart of a problem that itself lies at the heart of Deleuze’s thought (and that’s sort of at the base of my dissertation).

    Of course, the question of a promise, its rules v. its openess, etc, is a really tricky one. I certainly would prefer C’s approach to the pious failure implied by Derrida’s “promessianic.” At the same time, I wonder whether C is capable of ever being affected in such a way that he says, ‘this promise, this game/coinflip, etc, is an intolerable mode of being — i’m in a bottlneck, but i must invent soemthing different.’

  62. JD Says:

    For the sake of reconnecting this to Adam’s original point, I really only thought that that particular scene was illustrative of my point about the is-ought problem of ethics. Chigurh, it seems, is the supreme example of a relentlessly consistent “ethics of the is.”

    I only brought up the point of the is-ougth because I couldn’t see how Adam’s characterization of moralizing discourse did not amount to the vitiation of ethical discourse altogether.

    Although I’m very skeptical about it, I didn’t mean to suggest that it is impossible to derive ‘oughts’ from the ‘is,’ only that you have to be sure in doing so that the shift from descriptive to normative language is justified. So, I was exploring the idea that the reason for the moralizing might not be because of their inadequate reflection of what is, but precisely because the ethical claims were rooted in what is.

    I wrote this comment becuase I have an intuition that Adam is pissed at the degree to which this thread deviated from his original concerns.

  63. Brad Johnson Says:

    Oh, I’m sure Adam doesn’t care. He’s probably more impressed we’ve managed 63 comments w/ out a blogfight.

  64. Dave Belcher Says:

    Adam, in my defense, I really think I have a disease that seems to pervade all areas of my communication with folks; that is, not only do I keep writing more and more explanatory comments–with myriads of asides–along with comments that easily have already started new conversations and thus should warrant new blog posts, but I also leave unbelievably long voicemail messages when I call folks–JD and Nate can both attest to this…as I often say: I just can’t stop…it’s biological or something.

  65. Dave Belcher Says:

    JD,

    I really like what you are suggesting here…with Chigurh’s “ethics of the is” outstretching the “is/ought,” that is…especially because it relieves any silly correspondence/competition between Chigurh and, I don’t know, Darwin’s random selection (for instance, neither can one say that Chigurh’s murderous character is analogous to Darwinian evolution…and I can imagine the evangelical creationists turning their wheels already–and this remains even if one bars the obvious dissimilarities such as the absence of any notion of survival or mutation of species, etc. in Chigurh–nor can one say that we are offered two disparate visions of reality here…since Chigurh simply “affirm[s] what is determined,” as you so aptly put it…and this is exactly how I understood the coin toss as well when I finally saw the film last week).

    I can see someone like DB Hart (or even Philip Blond), of course, claiming that they have offered precisely an “ethics of the is,” simply that their “is” can beat up your “is” (or, more to the point, that their “is” is grounded in the Christian mythos, whereas Chigurh’s is obviously pinned to a narrative where violence is inscribed as necessary, or something). You know what I mean? In the end, I think you are right here also: neither DB nor Philip Blond simply proffer moralizing discourses (though I think I get your point now Adam), but both are, rather, stuck within the is/ought distinction in a way that makes every ethical claim incoherent (which is also why DB has no ethics and Blond cannot yet offer an ethics, but must defer it to “elsewhere”). They are quite literally stuck in the is/ought, because any ethical–or “normative”–claims only have import after one, as per Blond, mentally “constructs” and materially “receives” reality…this is why Blond is only offering an “ontology” with his aesthetics and not an ethics (I think it’s also telling that aesthetic poesis is divided from ethical praxis for RO…and this all seems to boil down to a teleological rather than eschatological status attributed to poetics–Milbank, for instance, rejects praxis in favor of poesis because praxis does not point beyond itself to a transcendent end, as does poesis, but “merely at doing well”…somewhere in the chapter on arrows and circles at the end of TST). This is also why I have claimed that DB’s underlying thread of “analogy” throughout his aesthetics is anything but analogical, instead remaining merely “descriptive” (a claim I believe Nate Kerr has also levied against RO).

    One question: I am curious, if we are not bound only to competing desires, what would you say might be the criterion for adjudicating between a shift from the is (description) to the ought (normative/regulative)? Thanks for all the insightful comments, and for the original post Adam.

  66. Alex Says:

    Actually, I think RO already has an answer for this question, and to find it one needs to return to the pages of Alasdair Macintyre’s After Virtue. The division and problem of is/ought is attributable only to an ethics that is after modernity – to paraphrase Macintyre – to even worry about is/ought bespeaks of a impoverished and fragmented moral discourse where we haven’t worked out anything like the good life and the virtues that might constitute it. Now I don’t know how this relates to Adam’s post, but RO’s alliance with virtue ethics appears to already offer a way out of the is/ought problematic.

    Bang on though on the Milbank poesis versus praxis thing. This is why he likes people like Ruskin, David Jones and Morris against capitalism – since their resistance appears to be poetical and aesthetic as well as moral, that work, for example, must be changed into a creative sign-making activity.

  67. Dave Belcher Says:

    Alex, I’m curious if you have read Philip Blond’s contribution to the Theology and the Political volume…?

  68. Dave Belcher Says:

    Blond makes explicit use of the is/ought distinction throughout.

    As I understood it, JD was saying–especially with regard to Conor’s statement about the serial killer–that the question of the competing “is’s” (particularly, how Conor was attempting to demonstrate that his “is” could produce a better “ought” than discard’s “is”) has more to do with competing desires (per Ken Surin’s comment at the AAR on the theology/political panel) than it does with ontology/ethics, is/ought.

    I’m not sure what you mean by your last paragraph…that you agree with me, or that I am simply wholly misinterpreting matters here? Thanks.

  69. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I’m finding this whole conversation entirely confusing. How can anyone separate the is/ought problem from either ontology or ethics or desires? Isn’t it a logical truism that you can’t derive an ought from an is? Further that you can’t derive an is from and ought?

  70. Dave Belcher Says:

    Sorry to confuse. I’m late to the conversation and extremely dizzy today (holidays, family, on the road, and other such excuses, blah blah blah)…

    Would it help if I just say that there is no such thing as the “is-ought”…that this is an illusion…and to reduce ethical matters to such a distinction (of whether the is or the ought is prior) confuses things altogether? I’m thinking of Surin’s comment in his essay from TandP where he says that any truly “new thing” can only take place as a self-surpassing of desire, beyond what even desire can expect or anticipate (and this would negate, for Surin, any fetishization of ontological origins). Maybe this is already implicit in your question? I must be dense today if so…I have found myself asking people to repeat or rephrase things a lot today…maybe it’s the turkey or something.

  71. Alex Says:

    Dave – nope.

    Anthony, I’d say logical problem rather than truism – we have Hume to thank for this one. But it is largely correct, despite evolutionary ethicists claiming it can be done and virtue ethicists trying to dissolve the problem all together. I wish I could remember the Macintyre more clearly!

  72. Dave Belcher Says:

    Alex, I have no idea to which question the “nope” refers! Little help?

  73. Dave Belcher Says:

    Alex, one other thing real quick. For Milbank, “virtue” itself is surpassed by ontology. Recall that the “ontological priority of peace” in the same chapter I referred to earlier from TST outstretches even virtue (in the context he is saying that there is an ontological priority of peace to conflict, but he explicitly says that the ontological is prior to ethics). It seems to me that only an ontological narrativization of peace can secure virtue for Milbank. Above you say, that “to even worry about is/ought bespeaks of a impoverished and fragmented moral discourse where we haven’t worked out anything like the good life and the virtues that might constitute it”; this is, I think, precisely the problem to which I’m pointing. This seems to itself be stuck within the is/ought problematic–“the good life and the virtues that might constitute it” must be “worked out”…and this of course means ontologically for RO (and for Milbank’s appropriation of MacIntyre)…in order for the good life or virtues (ethics) to be properly situated. In other words, ethics only flows from ontology…the normative from the descriptive. If I’m right–and it seems that both you and Anthony think that I’m just cuckoo here…and that could be–then my original point was simply that JD is also right that such a move has to be demonstrated by recourse to some sort of adjudicating criterion or set of criteria, when this has not yet taken place.

    Am I making sense, or am I just babbling again? Peace.

  74. Alex Says:

    Nope = I haven’t read anything by Phillip Blond.

    Dave, I totally see what you mean. Your worry is that that for the virtues to be worked out, there must be some sort of “some sort of adjudicating criterion or set of criteria”. And yes, in the case of RO and most virtue ethics, I don’t think anyone has worked this out. Then again, I can hear at the back of my mind the virtue ethics people clamouring that this whole paradigm is what it attempts to escape: the criteria/rules that Kantian and Utilitarian ethics attempt to establish. There is a great essay on Abortion is the volume on Virtue ethics

    Anthony, with regard to the is/ought distinction, with Macintyre it kind of works like this (which you might recall from my brilliant presentation on the subject!). Virtue ethics is like this, when we make descriptive statement about a thing we already have some kind of account of the telos of that thing. For example, if I describe a farmer as someone who cultivates the land and tends to it, you already have a description of what a good farmer is – a good cultivator of the land – and hence the teleology of a farmer. Hence there is no is/ought, the is contains an ought because it is an is. Virtue ethics applies the virtues to try to come up with an account for the subject ‘man’. This is obviously rough, but I actually think that virtue ethics is actually a better model of how people pan-culturally actually morally reason…particularly religious groups and particularly Christianity.

    Then again, as we have discussed, this might lead to some kind of totalitarian discourse – this is what a black man should be, a slave is his telos. However, I think a nuanced virtue ethics would obviously avoid this – it would include an account of freedom, for example.

    This might be muddy. I have had a few beers and tried to convince a friend that Daniel Dennett’s memetics might not be all that hot.

  75. Alex Says:

    This volume of virtue ethics. Sorry posted too early. This essay shows how wondering about ethical issues in a virtue ethics differs quite fundamentally from other ethical schemes and maybe doesn’t have to have this set of criteria that work everything out.

  76. Dave Belcher Says:

    Thanks, Alex, I’ll check out the volume when I get a chance.

    And sorry about throwing in David Bentley Hart and Philip Blond–two “aesthetic theologians”–into the mix…even though they might seem tangential at first, I think the issues they are wrestling with is central to this discussion. I first thought of Blond because he continually makes reference to the “is/ought” as an expression of material revolution (moving from what is to what ought to be by way of “overthrow”–he makes recourse to many such words in the essay in question)…and I’m really only thinking of that one essay (which is all of I’ve read of his), “Politics of the Eye: Toward a Theological Materialism,” a very odd and in my mind utterly confused essay.

    Peace.

  77. discard Says:

    re: the overcoming of is/ought, isn’t that dependent on a vagueness of “good” cultivator, whatever

  78. Daniel Says:

    APS: If it is the case that the president ought to be wiser than he has been, then it is the case that there has been (and continues to be) a president. So, there appear to be valid inferences from “ought”-sentences to “is”-sentences. That such-and-such ought to be the case does not imply that such-and-such is the case, but this is both obvious and not a particularly logical matter; it seems to me that it’s rather an empirical fact, and could’ve been false rather than true. If humanity was a race of angels rather than men, we might be able to validly infer from “p ought to be true” to “p is true.” But as it happens, such inferences hold all too rarely.

    Whether or not an “ought” can be derived from an “is” is not so much a logical matter as an issue of how one handles moral motivation. That my hair is on fire seems to me a perfectly good reason to hold that I ought to douse my head promptly, but the form of the sentence “My hair is on fire” shows no signs of any “oughts”. Yet the inference to an “ought” sentence seems impeccable; if I hold the one sentence true, then I shall hold the other true also — or if I don’t, then I reason poorly.

    It is often supposed that there must be some middle term leading from my holding-true of the “is”-sentence to my holding-true of the “ought”-sentence; for instance, it is claimed that I really am reasoning thusly:

    1) My hair is on fire
    2) I ought to douse my head, if my hair is on fire
    ___________________________________
    3) I ought to douse my head

    But ‘2’ here just describes the sort of inferences I hold valid. It is not a part of my reasoning; the truth of 2 is not something which contributes to my inference from 1 to 3, but merely says that I hold inferences from 1 to 3 to be valid. The above is no more an accurate representation of practical inference than the tortoise’s account in “What The Tortoise Said to Achilles” gives an accurate picture of logical inference.

    There are of course disagreements about which inferences are valid and which are not, in the practical sphere as in any other. We may disagree on whether 3 follows from 1; perhaps you would prefer I burn to death, and so reject the inference. But this could just as well be the result of a disagreement about “is”-sentences; perhaps you are of the opinion that I am the Antichrist, and this is the grounds for your preferring me dead. Disagreement about the truth of “ought”-sentences may rest on disagreement about the truth of “is”-sentences.

    The two are not hermetically separated; inquiry is a normative matter, and practical deliberation is only possible against a background of knowledge of what is and is not the case. “No ought from is” is just a Humean dogma. Hume argues that there can be no valid argument with an “ought” in the conclusion which had no “ought” in the premises, but this is just to ignore the normative role descriptive sentences play in practical reasoning (and the dichotomy itself ignores the normative element in description, which comes as no surprise given Hume’s account of “knowledge” as various associations of private sense-data).

    (I take this sort of line from McDowell, who comes to it through his reading of Aristotle & Philipa Foot; so, I mean to be supporting something in the vicinity of “virtue ethics”, though I find a lot to complain about in Macintyre.)

    Alex: I’m not seeing the totalitarian threat, here. If so-and-so holds that a black man’s telos is slavery, then he is wrong (I disagree with him); this is just a more extreme example of everyday sorts of disagreement, it seems to me. “Virtue ethics” won’t resolve the matter without reference to society etc., but I took that to be one of the points virtue ethicists pride themselves on: They don’t try to answer questions they aren’t in a position to answer. Which telos a particular thing really ought to have is not an issue philosophical ethics can answer; such an ethics rather gives an account of how such questions are answered generally. The particular cases are for particular people to hash out, not for philosophers to expound on a priori. That descriptions imply commitments to teleological views need not lead to totalitarianism, unless teleology is supposed to be always already totalitarian, or somesuch. Which doesn’t strike me as at all plausible, but I suppose someone somewhere might go in for it.

  79. JD Says:

    Daniel, your response to APS nicely demonstrated what I’m critiquing. When descriptive statements are granted primacy — e.g., “practical deliberation is only possible against a background of knowledge of what is and is not the case” — ethical discourse becomes basically impossible, except as the expression of either pragmatic criteria vis-a-vis a specified goal or simply desire itself.

    Whether or not one douses one’s hair with water when it is on fire is a categorically different matter than whether or not one ought to spray burning gasoline gelatin at Vietnamese children. Your account, however, cannot but reduce the latter to the former. That is the point.

    This does not seem to me to be particularly controversial.

    Alex, I do think you are right that virtue ethics, of a certain type, is a different matter. But it works according to certain presuppositions already encoded in the narrative of the good life itself. We would have to do a bit more to tease out the differences. I do not, however, buy the notion that the logical problem disappears simply because of adherence to a particular narrative of the good life because it seems to me to be a aporia of rational reflection as such.

    Like I said, I am not saying that one cannot derive them, only that one has to be clear to be justified in the transition.

  80. Daniel Says:

    JD: I do not see any categorical distinction between the two. (Though one feels that a distinction of degree could be made — myself burning doesn’t seem as bad as a lot of children burning.) So, I’m not inclined to think there’s any reducing going on.

    I don’t see why “ethical discourse” would have to end up as the expression of criteria for a specified goal; one can just as well discuss goals. (I don’t think these two can come apart. Which “ends” one holds to be desirable to bring about can shift as the possible “means” one has in view change. And talk of “ends” without talk of “means” is building castles in the air.) I haven’t the foggiest what “simply desire itself” would be; if the worry is that ethical discourse might be reduced to my saying what I think is good, then this strikes me as a paper tiger; the threat is no more real here than in the parallel worry that perhaps all my thoughts are merely my thoughts, and have nothing to do with the world itself. And as in the other case, the reverse also holds: There’s no sense to the idea that I might consider what’s “good in itself” apart from what I hold to be good, just as there’s no sense to the idea of empirical inquiry apart from what I believe to be the case.

    Practical deliberation is only possible against a background of knowledge of what is and is not the case because if (per impossibile) I lacked any such knowledge, my thoughts could have no content, and this would also hold for any ethical thoughts I might have. It’s an externalist concern.

  81. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Sometimes when two worlds collide it is interesting. Other times it is not.

  82. JD Says:

    Daniel, Of course you are being reductive. There is no moral judgment to be made in your example. There isn’t even an inference involved in it. All you are describing is knowledge of the fact that water extinguishes fire.

    You could, however, infer that the fire was the result of a chemical reaction between your hair gel and your lit cigarette. You could infer, on the combined basis of your knowledge that water extinguishes fire and that beer is relatively low in alcohol, that beer would extinguish your flaming head just as well as water.

    You cannot infer, no matter what your criteria for validity, merely on the basis of the fact that your head is burning, that you ought not use your burning head to ignite your choleric, aged gradmother. And this is so even if that inference itself is based on the indisputable fact that the choleric humor is immediately related to the element of fire. (Although, you could infer, on the basis of your presumption that her choleric humor is due to an excessive heat in her body, that the application of your flaming head to her otherwise frail body would not itself harm her. This would be a false inference. But, it would be made on the basis of empirical data you might believe to be the case. Its being true or false has nothing to do with whether you should light her on fire.)

    Nonethless, you could rebutt that a flaming head, ready to hand, is most efficient for realizing your goal of a conflagrant grandma. True. Plus, given the particular “situation” you happen to be in with your grandma, the fact that your head is at this very moment on fire may present you with the most desirable way of not only being rid of your very undesirable grandma, but the insurance money from the house, as well as the inheritance you are bound to recieve, may just be that one little push you needed to realize finally your dream of opening up a gondola ride/waverunner rental business in Venice, CA — not Italy (that’s the funny part about the gondolas!)

    The former would be an example of making “ethical discourse” a matter of pragmatic criteria with regard to a specified goal. Does it work or not? The latter would be an example of judging a good according simply to “desire itself.”

    You would be right to say that these two should not be separated from one another. You’d be even more correct to say that this is a position you hold as good. After all, who am I to say you don’t?

    But, when I say to you that your goal of igniting your grandma with your flaming head is wrong, that it ought not be done and that it ought not be judged by you as good, I will not make my case by saying “Your head is on fire, thus…”; nor, I hope, will you attempt to refute my claim by saying “My head is on fire, thus…” No, we would both agree that transitioning from the fact that your head is burning to making a judgment about whether you ought to use your burning head to burn your grandmother will involve some justification one way or the other.

    Clearly, this transition is not justified by saying, “But flaming heads are useful for burning grandmothers.” So justification cannot be merely pragmatic with regard to a specified end. As you said, we can also discuss ends. But, it is also unjustified to say, “But, I desire to be an entrepeneur in Venice, so I ought to burn my grandmother…”; nor, is simply saying, “I desire to burn my grandmother…” The fact that it is the case that you desire it is not sufficient to justify it as a good. Some other discourse, beyond description, pragmatics, and desire is necessary if this justification is to be possible. (As Critchley in particular notes, this discourse must be one of obligation, demand.)

    But, as I have repeatedly said in this thread: you may not want to maintain the possibility of such justification. But, proceeding without that discourse of justification is to give up on the possibility of ethics.

  83. Daniel Says:

    I had a page or so of stuff here, but then I saw APS’s comment. The point is well-made.

    Happy new year, everyone!

  84. Alex Says:

    No, please, carry on! I found it interesting at the very least!

  85. JD Says:

    Yes, it was well-made.

  86. Alex Says:

    Losers, both of you! ;-)

  87. JD Says:

    Alex, also a point well-made.

  88. Daniel Says:

    Yes, very well-made.

  89. Alex Says:

    I am about to start reading Robert Spaemann’s Happiness and Benevolence (have you read Persons? said my friend. Well this one is even more dense!). Spaemann is a big influence on John and in passing it seems that he does exactly what you are suggesting in this post: ethics and ontology are combined…Milbank’s blurb on the back says that Spaemann goes beyond recent virtue ethics in moving into ontology…time will tell.

  90. Futher Thoughts on Ontology « An und für sich Says:

    […] March 25, 2008 I have commented here before on what one might call my “methodological” objection to the Radical Orthodox ontology […]


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