I’ve listened to about twenty minutes of this video lecture, and it’s really good. Wayne Martin of the University of Essex gave a wonderful talk about phenomenology and its key themes. The lecture is given to people with whom no prior knowledge is necessary about phenomenology. It’s part of a series called “Philosophy Crash Courses.”
Today, I heard an interview of Chelsen Vicari, Evangelical Director of the Institute of Religion and Democracy, a conservative religious think-tank. She is author of the soon to be released Distortion: How the Christian Left is Twisting the Gospel and Destroying the Faith.
Her comments were not surprising, and the interview was standard fare for a show on Moody Radio. I sometimes mistake it for NPR between two rock stations on my drive home with the “seek” button. What happened surprised me. Ms. Vicari accused the Christian Left and the Emergent church of not understanding the Bible for what it says. She simplified knowing God’s word, but left untouched what must be true for such a simple reading of religious scripture to be true (that is, if you fall for that sort of thing). In that moment, she is committed implicitly to the following: (1) Reality is as the Bible says and persists in being that way, (2) The way in which such truth is known is revelation, (3) Revelation is without error, though knowable ,and particular values that those values perdure for all time. (4) Revelations come from God beyond history and are not contingent. (5): (1), (2), (3) and (4) generate the perceived simplicity of God’s word and with that simplicity, the Bible’s authority is equally established. In essence, such claims are accepted, but they are just a form of naive Platonism.
(By the way, I actually think Platonism’s influence on Christianity from Augustine’s reading of Plotinus is a positive development unlike today in which many, if not all, mainline Protestant seminaries avoid teaching philosophy courses. That’s another post for another time, and naive Platonism is not to be confused with its more sophisticated cousin Platonism.)
The challenge of religion is that it leaves many of these concepts implicit. Christianity, like every religion must endorse a metaphysical picture of the world and an epistemological view of how its tenets become known (almost always the epistemology could be recast as a form of intuitionism, even Buddhism). These concepts hang in the background of religion; they lie on the periphery of what is believed, and they never get addressed philosophically. In recent years, however, a host of theologians have been inspired by postmodern thought to rethink Christianity. Therefore, the only real merit to challenging the Emergent Church must be on the philosophical grounds that underlie their disagreement with what is done in the name of Christianity on the part of Conservatives. This higher philosophical level dimension is doubtfully present in her book (even some of the works of Brian McLaren often smooth over the philosophical difficulties), but I could be wrong about Vicari’s book. It’s not published until September 2nd.
What Vicari fails to see, or articulate in the interview is that like Luther dissatisfied with the Catholic Church, so too are people rethinking the position of what contemporary Christianity has become. At least in the interview, she conveniently ignores the historic origin and challenges that different forms of cultural life have converged to merge with Christianity. The rise of capitalism in the late 17th century and Christianity have mutually reinforced each other such that only a clearly articulated geneaology exemplified in either Foucauldian or Nietzschean style can article how these threads continue in their own American way. There is a unique thread about how Christianity become embedded with capitalism.
Apart from that historical ignorance in the interview, the Christian Left takes Christ very seriously. Christ’s focus on the poor with such verses as Luke 18: 25 reveal a grassroots inclusive social ethic that seeks to liberate the immanent suffering of people, not reinforce more suffering with a lack of redistribution. Christ saw opulent wealth as an obstacle to be overcome. Wealth sets up boundaries between people in the here and now. Unlike conservative Christianity’s understanding of a kingdom as a future state yet to be achieved (depending upon the eschatology underlying the particular denomination in question), Christ’s Kingdom is immanent for the Christian left. It’s in the here and now at this very moment, and the kingdom of God is brought about by our coordinated efforts to love unreservedly or not at all. In the Gospels, Jesus preaches to the gentiles, to those considered unclean, and Jesus is radically inclusive of all forms of otherness at his time. If this insight of radical inclusiveness of otherness appropriately translates into contemporary American life, then Christians should love unreservedly those with whom society may despise. Such love means a radical acceptance and openness towards our LGBT brothers and sisters, the poor, children from other countries seeking our help at the border. It does not matter. In this way, Christ is a model for the here and now, or so this story goes. Christ’s love, agapic love, is transformative; it overcomes all forms of oppressive structures. That’s ideal of Christ’s love applies to all forms of social, political, and economic way of life. That’s a hard pill to swallow for Conservative Christians.
There is a new blog called Critique and it integrates the philosopher as a participant in the unfolding dynamic of cultural life. I like it a lot, though I only liked one essay so far. I liked this essay for its simplicity. Luke Russell writes a very decent and publicly accessible entry about evil. Share your thoughts below about what you think about the essay.
When I was an undergraduate, I read everything Hannah Arendt wrote. And in Eichmann in Jertusalem: A Report in the Banality of Evil, Arendt seemed to link the dearth of someone’s ability to judge from the point of view from another with the concretion of evil. Evil was a lack of a Kantian “enlarged community,” a lack of either those willing to judge or incapable of judging. In many ways, I assume that she meant both types since both types are very common (banal).
In ethics, the language of immorality can be heightened verbally, given weight and emphasis by calling the immoral action or person “evil.” However, as so often happens, most ethicists remain (ought to remain?) humble in their ethical pronouncements about what actions and/or persons are evil. Judgments about what is evil carry with them a level of certainty that intellectual humility in ethics causes us to avoid.
I’ll be presenting at the Pittsburgh Continental Philosophy Conference, and the conference program was finalized today. I’m really excited about the second day. The conference will be held at Duquesne University, September 26th and 27th.
I’m writing on Caputo for my book, and trying to develop these ideas. The abstract reads as follows, just in case you’re interested 😉
A Phenomenological Refutation of Caputo’s Critique of Obligation and Ethics
By J. Edward Hackett, Ph.D.
In this paper, I explicate Caputo’s critique of obligation and ethics. Then, I apply Max Scheler’s phenomenology of value to Caputo’s critique. When I do, an amazing insight occurs. With Scheler’s phenomenology, I can explain why Caputo’s critique of obligation and ethics makes sense though some interpretation must be made since Caputo is intentionally ambiguous both about what he means by “obligation” and “ethics.” Hence, I interpret Caputo’s claims to be about the universality and codifiability of moral claims through the use of decision-procedures common to the systematic moral philosophies in act utilitarianism and Kantian deontology. In these two instances, Scheler can agree with Caputo, but not for the reason Caputo defends through deconstructionism. Instead, Scheler argues that reason is impotent, which finds agreement in Caputo. Both universality of obligation and the codifiability of moral claims are underwritten by claims of practical reason in terms of utilitarianism and Kantian deontology. However, the experiential claims for Caputo’s skepticism are unfounded. The claim of obligation, its very allure and demandingness is not even based on reason, but on intentional feeling.
I do not know if the distinction working-on and working-in are as separate as the author insists. Practically. I’d like to think many of my concerns in Continental philosophy are motivated out of something beyond and in tradition. I am concerned about normativity and themes in ethics—something both the Analytic and Continental tradition both make claims about—but take up these questions by working on Scheler by working in Continental philosophy.
Also, it may be a little unfair to the phenomenologist if she doesn’t know about Badiou. One doesn’t need to know all areas within Continental philosophy since the category itself was imposed from the outside by others that knew nothing about the concerns of those within Continental philosophy. Continental philosophy is an umbrella term and logically there are some schools within Continental philosophy that are not logically consistent with other parts. In my experience, a phenomenologist will certainly know about Merleau-Ponty, even if they did specialize on Husserl. It’s when we demand competency in the entire thing from specialists in Continental philosophy that it gets a little unfair. But the label was unfair to begin with.
Many philosophers – and I think this is more the case as we survey younger and younger generations of philosophers – wish we could simply move past the so-called analytic-continental divide, and tend to view the whole division as a byproduct of misunderstanding, or even of a the politico-cultural situation of philosophers of a previous generation. Frankly, we disdain the division, and vacillate between wishing the distinction no longer existed and acting as though it in fact no longer did: that is, we pretend to be ‘over it’.
That this is a pretense, however, is shown up in the structures governing the advancement of work that purports to promote dialogue between, or work across, these traditions.
The model followed in nearly all such attempts – and paradigmatically, in the structuring of pluralistic or continental-friendly departments – is that of attempting to achieve numerical proportionality between those working ‘on’ analytic…
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There is a lovely blog called AusomeAwestin, and for the purposes of this post, I will address the author as Awestin. I cannot tell to whom the blog belongs, but nobody just writes on Mark Timmons in metaethics without at the very least being either a graduate student or established scholar of ethics and metaethics. From what I can tell of the self-admitted survey, we have similar metaethical positions minus the untenability of virtue ethics, which is largely what I will be discussing today. At one time, I loved W. D. Ross, thought that moral properties were nonnatural, and thought that values should be described as moral properties. I am very sympathetic to these positions. Moreover, since I am doing House of Cards and Philosophy, I wanted to make a few brief comments about one particular post that struck my fancy. This would have never happened if they did not like a blog post of mine, so I am returning the favor.
Consider Awestin’s blog post here. Let me summarize the argument as I understand it.
Following Gilbert Harman, Awestin embraces the critique of virtue ethics based on Harman’s objection to moral realism, and the implicit premise unstated here is that virtues of a person are moral properties in a realist sense. Obviously from his Nature of Morality, Harman distinguishes between scientific observations and moral observations. Like scientific observtions, moral observations should be explained by the normative theory I accept. Obsservations are evidence for theories. So the analogy holds to scientifc observation should directly support the theory I adopt about physical objects and perception just as much as moral observations should support the moral theories I adopt. Clearly, Frank Underwood could be a very good candidated for being a bad person.
But wait, as Awestin believes, the observation that Frank is a bad person does not support the moral theory of virtue ethics. “In order to meet Harman’s objection completely, the fact that Underwood is morally bad must explain why the actions he commits are morally wrong. ” At best, the moral observations are reports about sociological and psychological facts about how Frank behaves and the relevant assessments that belong to our cultural milieu. We are limited only to moral observations. Put more boldly by Awestin, “no supervenience relations between non-moral facts and moral facts of the sort required by moral realists need be posited to explain my observation, only non-moral psychological and sociological facts, thus casting doubt on moral realism, and with it, virtue ethics.” Virtue ethics cannot account for the supervenience of moral facts onto the nonmoral psychological facts about persons. I want to ignore Sturgeon’s response to Harman, as Awestin thinks that the virtue ethicist falls at the feet of Harman from the get go, though other forms of moral realism are implicitly safe from this critique apart from virtue ethics (though to be fair we are never told why, but also I am forgiving for blog post philosophizing just the same).
Since virtue ethics describes persons and not actions and states of affairs, virtue ethicists must be committed to attributing moral properties to persons. If a person can be good or bad, then we are forced to regard moral properties as belonging to persons when moral properties make more sense when applied to actions and state of affairs. Harman and Awestin think moral properties about persons would “entail subjectivism of moral facts due to the supervenience relations between moral facts and non-moral facts being too closely linked to individual persons.”
There are several responses to all of this I would like to maintain, but most notably, I wonder why we must think of values as properties at all. The reason we think of properties falls at the feet as to how the term properties entered moral philosophy historically and its entrance carries with an entire history of metaphysical baggage that problem-based analytic philosophy is unwilling to think through. Like many other metaphysical terms, the use of “moral properties” commits us to the baggage that constitutes them. They are regarded as mind-independent, somehow motivating, and only properly thought to belong to actions and states of affairs–which is easy to explain historically. We first thought of properties as part of objects, and actions and state of affairs are closer to objects than persons are. Yet, the strange thing is that values are realized through persons as that which brings value into being. Property-talk about values reifies them naturally when the metaphysics of values is truly somewhere between mind-independence and mind-dependence. The former and the latter presuppose a strict split between subject and objects, and for reasons to long I cannot defend this here. Needless to say, values are not properties as much as they are correlates of emotion that condition how various phenomena are given to us.
Second, Awestin seems to think that action-guidance is a goal of moral theory itself. However, virtue ethics provides a way to talk about how persons ought to realize themselves as a deeply flourishing human being. When we only think about actions and states of affairs, we sever the connection between the type of people we ought to be since living out a life of virtue and connects philosophizing back with the concrete world of experience rather than severing ethics from the concrete life due to the fanciful abstractions of analytic moral theory. Only by conceptualizing human life through how we are deciding to be can ethics make any headway and connect up with how we ought to live. Therefore, the goal of ethics is not to tease out our prima facie moral intuitions about actions and state of affairs and somehow to establish a reflective equilibrium between my intuitions and principles, but to offer us a way to conceive of human life, the choices we make, and to offer us a way to talk about realizing a complete life.
Let’s go back to Frank Underwood. Connected to popular culture, Underwood epitomizes the hyperbolic fear that politicians could be that bad.He is a type of vicious person. He swindles, deceives, and murders people. He is the type of human being we should never be, and it’s not just the actions that are wrong. That’s only part of it. He is realizing a normative type of life that one should never lead. That’s it. End of story. If you advocate a form of moral realism that severs ethics from the type of person someone is becoming, it’s not that virtue ethics is full of shit, but the abstractions that have convinced you otherwise about ethics.
I wonder if the scholar has vanished and I do not think that is a good thing.
I do not mean scholarship, but the class of people sufficient in means and time to devote their entire life to study. In many ways, I aspire to that life, but adjunct teaching between several universities has not yielded much time that other full-time professors have. I’m lucky to have gotten done this year what I could. And the pressures of contemporary academic life push teaching on the full-time academic more so than in previous times. In addition, we teach more people of varying degree in intelligence and willingness to work. As such, there are many forces undermining the ideal of the scholar.
Perhaps, a contemporary example is in order. To publish my writings, I had to work on them in my own time, often intruding upon my marriage and other non-academic duties life throws at you. Since I do not have kids and doing philosophy on the weekends or even when I get home from commuting between two-part time positions at local universities, I have had little personal time to devote to the things of life other full-time people take for granted.
And here’s the clincher: with full-time positions disappearing and being replaced by contingent adjunct faculty, the real crisis of the humanities is not their already established irrelevance, but the fact that the very life of the scholar that would show the relevance of the humanities is a lost way of life nobody could recognize at all. The scholar is vanishing before us.
The strange irony is that we are all given a taste of scholarly satisfaction. All of us may have been excited by our dissertations, the pure intellectual satisfaction of drawing connections at a time when we may have been funded just to research it and write it. That may be the last time any of us had a taste of what it meant to be a scholar.
I will start teaching on Monday, and won’t be as free to blog about many things in the world. To this, I apologize. Maybe some of you like reading my thoughts, as scattered as they are.
I always suggest blog writing. It’s therapeutic. Blog writing frees the mind to write, and writing is a natural impulse for me. When I am thinking, I often write out my thoughts, and sometimes, I wish the very act of thinking manifested on a typewriter or word processor somewhere.
With that said, i wanted to leave you with a marvelous passage I found this summer, and I wandered if the celebrated Sellars got his famous saying about the role and current situation of philosophy from William James’s “The Thing and Its Relations” in his posthumously collected Essays in Radical Empiricism. Several of my colleagues are enthralled with Sellars version of neopragmatism, and these two passages just got stuck in my head. First, the often quoted passage from Wilfrid Sellars’ The Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man:
The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term” (PSIM, in SPR:1; in ISR: 369).
And from the often neglected and celebrated personal favorite, William James:
Radical empiricism takes conjunctive relations at their face value, holding them to be as real as the terms united by them. The world it represents as a collection, some parts of which are conjunctively and others disjunctively relate. Two parts, themselves disjoined, may nevertheless hang together by their intermediaries with which they are severally connected, and the whole world eventually may hang together similarly, inasmuch as some path of conjunctive transition by which to pass from one of its parts to another may always be discernible. Such determinately various hanging-together may be called concatenated union, to distinguish it from the “through-and-through” type of union, “each in all and all in each” (union of total conflux, as one might call it), which monistic systems hold to obtain when things are taken in their absolute reality. In a concatenated world a partial conflux often is experienced. Our concepts and sensations are confluent; successive states of the same ego, and feelings of the same body are confluent. Where the experience is not of conflux, it may be of coterminousness (things with but one thing between); or of contiguousness (nothing between); or of likeness, or of nearness; or of simultaneousness; or of in-ness; or of -ness; or of for-ness; or of simple with-ness; or even of mere and-ness, which last relation would make of however disjointed a world otherwise, at any rate for that occasion a universe “of discourse.” (Section iv, p. 56, bold-faced terms are mine).
What I want to know is if Sellars has borrowed any deep sense of the term from James? I will just offer a brief statement about the passage before quitting blogging for the weekend (and possibly the near future).
While it might not look like it, the fact that the various parts are experienced dynamically leads James to conclude that one metaphysical system cannot be exhaustive of how little we know the whole, and that holds for any philosophical effort that would systematize its efforts to the whole, including robust epistemologies, and ethical systems as well. The dynamism of the parts and how they appear (all the different ways we communicate those appearances with “grammatical particles”) In fact, we are ever in a position to know the whole reality of experience and must be humble about what relations we do posit about experiencing in general. In this way, James is offering us a dose of modesty about the various relations philosophers can claim about experience (and also the implicit idea that philosophizing can only be about experience itself). Given such limits, James’s pluralism follows from the limits of radical empiricism’s description of experience and from the fact that “so many of the conjunctions of experience seem so external that a philosophy of pure experience must tend to pluralism in its ontology” (p. 57). James’s use of “external” is not a reification of the outside versus the inside, as many have claimed about modern philosophers and their conception of the rational or empirical subject. Instead, the use of the term external is a metaphor for the intersubjective and transcendent feature of experience that various relations hold for not just me, but also you, very much like our shared experience of some external object.
Anymore discussion of the external object would be linked to F. H. Bradley, and that my friends would take too long, and derail the question I am putting to those interested in Sellars’s work.
I teach Simone De Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity. It’s a lovely book and one can get from existentialism what some analytic philosophers get from teaching feminist ethics of care–a critique of foundationalism in ethics, how one’s subjectivity and concrete situation might alter what one asks from philosophy itself, and moral generalism. Of course, these are not the only items one can get out of her work. The same may be said for teaching Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals.
Since I am teaching the Genealogy, I am currently outlining it for the purposes of lecture, and what I find when I do this now is that there are many levels of textual experience. These levels of textual experience correspond to how demanding I form my expectation of the text in question. For the first year student, I typically do not expect as much accurate exegesis from them as much as I want to get my first-year students on the path of realizing how difficult university reading can be (of course if these two things converge, that makes me the happiest as a teacher of philosohy) There will be many classes where they will read complicated material, a first year philosophy class and possible courses in history, sociology, and literature to name a few. When students complain that “they will never use this,” I tend to point out those times in life where difficult reading will be required of them, regardless if it occurs in Nietzsche, a rental lease, or when they sign all the paperwork attached to their FAFSA loans.
Nietzsche’s texts can be challenging. The Genealogy is absolutely wonderful. It moves between rhetorical license and philological reasons for Nietzsche’s skepticism concerning morality. In many ways, its an artistic presentation of philosophy, but unlike other works, it moves between argument and rhetoric much more naturally than his other works. In the Genealogy, Nietzsche even meditates on what it means to read his own aphoristic style. This might surprise many. He writes, “An aphorism, properly stamped and molded, has not be ‘deciphered’ when it has simply been read; rather, one has then to begin its exegesis, for which is required an art of exegesis…one thing is necessary above all if one is to practice reading as an art in this way, something that has been unlearned most thoroughly nowadays—and therefore it will be some time before my writings are readable” (23).
What I find interesting is that this is where the preface ends. For him, the aphoristic style “is not taken seriously enough” (ibid). And the type of reading we encounter in Nietzsche is one where he forces upon his readers an eternal struggle to find the meaning of his intention, yet this is the goal of all reading. The struggle of wrestling with an author’s meaning in a difficult passage requires perseverance and patience. Put another way, the irony is that what he demands here is nothing short of the end goal to which my ethics class is but one bump in the road of the university student’s journey. I just hope his style does not scare them off because his writing can be very powerful. As I often encounter in my student’s this perseverance and patience is the hardest thing to teach, and without the student’s willingness, a teacher often finds resistance in the student. In my experience, I can overcome this resistance, but in so doing, I must re-teach what it means to read a text to students coming out of high school. That’s the most disturbing part of teaching university classes—the amount of deprogramming what high school teachers transmit to the students (which often boil down to a series of oversimplifications) and the students assuming that reading and writing can be as simple as deciphering passages in standardized testing and writing the classic 5-paragraph essay.
When students enter my class, they have never taken a philosophy class, especially Fall classes. Unlike France, these students may have never heard of Plato, let alone Nietzsche. In the Fall, all my students are entering freshman and usually speckled in the back with the occasional upperclassmen waiting to fill their general education requirements. That’s why it’s very crucial to lecture on how to read and then practice that reading. With respect to the Genealogy, I have a few strategies in mind that has worked in the past with The Ethics of Ambiguity. Let me tell you what I did last year, and what I will be doing differently this year.
With the Ethics of Ambiguity last year, I had students develop questions that they turned in on Wednesday (of a standard M, W, F class), and then I would develop am entire lecture to answer their questions for the whole class on Friday. With the question submissions, students knew ahead of time that they will be singled out since I am answering their direct concerns Friday morning. In almost every case, the student is asking what I as a philosophy major wondered about, and as such, the students soon learn that asking critical questions of the text is expected (and even encouraged). Through discussion, they see their questions and hopefully a few exemplars amongst their peers. This exercise can take a whole class period (and maybe part of another), but what this also does is keep in check “where they are” versus “where you think they should be.” Many students can ask the same question in different ways, and you can show them that they are not alone in their struggle with the text. That’s the whole reason I do this assignment. I caution, however, that oversimplifying a student’s concern with others without mentioning their name is counterproductive. You want your students left with the impression that you have given weight to their question fairly, so if you do thematize their question alongside similar – if not identical questions – is explain how all of the thematized questions belong to each other. The whole purpose of this assignment is to impart students why we read read philosophy critically and to have them collectively share in the same experience.
This year I want to do a question paper. Students will pick the best of their questions (or maybe I will) out of three, and they will write a two page paper detailing a difficult passage that generated their initial concern. In so doing, they are not to come to any resolution about the passage, but explain what they find confusing about the passage. Therefore, the question paper is to ask a question of the text, the type of question that moves between the lines of a philosophical text and demonstrates an openness to explore the text. With respect to Nietzsche, I am hopeful this assignment might move beyond the very flowery prose. Students might ask about a section of the text that has no real import or ask questions that delay the progression of their understanding. I anticipate some students identifying irrelevant passages to their stated confusion, and if that happens, that’s okay. That’s a wonderful teaching moment we professors can readily embrace since students must learn what is essential to a text’s overall argument and how to articulate why they found it problematic in the first place. You may be surprised that the student was right to be confused. The whole aim of the question paper, as I am conceiving of it, is to demonstrate the health of being confused. So many times, my students are flustered. They think that philosophy, like so many other subjects, has a “right answer.” When they learn otherwise, when they learn that philosophy is “not so simple,” they become agitated, so I’d rather teach them the intellectual humility of philosophical reflection. Philosophers are often confused. That’s the starting place of many of my inquiries, and what that should do is to be a call to think more about it. Life is never so simple, and is challenging–like reading Nietzsche.
Towards the end of part I in Simone De Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity, she outlines some thoughts regarding Kant and the difference between Kantian ethics and existentialism. In this post, I would like to summarize some thoughts I had, and interpret De Beauvoir’s ethics as a form of consequentialism.
First, there are two differences between Kantian ethics and what De Beauvoir is claiming. These differences are:
- De Beauvoir’s ethics does not ask us to deny the exercise of freedom at the expense of our particular concrete situation and desires.
- De Beauvoir’s ethics can make sense of moral evil.
In Kantian ethics, the categorical imperative shows us what is morally required to act rationally, and acting rationally presupposes the very freedom that should be at the heart of ethics. For the Sartrean existentialist, freedom is both the ontological condition of human subjectivity (the moral agent) and the value. I’ll distinguish De Beauvoir later from this reading. In this way, I do not think it is wrong to suggest that Sartre conflates the descriptive and the normative. For Sartre, we should strive to be free as we are ultimately free ontologically.
For Kant, any notion of evil will involve deviation from the categorical imperative, and the freedom to adopt maxims that deviate from what morally right maxims demand of us. And following Nietzsche, Kantian ethics can be seen as secularized form of the Judeo-Christian ethic. Radical evil cannot be made sense of even though much of the Religions is devoted to answering the question. In general, Kant sees radical evil as dependent upon human nature (6:29-32) and a disposition to deviate from the categorical imperative either by choice or human nature. Such a conception of evil does not fit since evil can only be a privation in Christian ethics since creation is all-good, and in Kant, evil can only be a privation of rationality. Therefore, the existentialist suspicious of metaphysics will react to both the metaphysical beliefs that creation is entirely good, and that human beings are entirely rational. Now, I cannot give these issues, but a cursory glance here. I ask that we leave them in their lightly sketched form, and let’s move on and state what I find the De Beauvoir’s ethical principle to be.
I would put her ethical principle as follows:
DB’s Ethical Principle: To will oneself as moral equals willing other people’s freedom and oneself (p. 32, EoA).
If we take this as the moral principle in her ethics, then this principle entails a logic of reciprocity.
Logic of reciprocity: I must will other people’s freedom in the exercise of my very own.
This logic of reciprocity looks a lot like Kantian universalism that requires us to treat everybody as an end-in-themselves (human dignity). As such, one could ask whether or not De Beauvoir’s principle amounts to treating everybody as an end? Kant requires that to act in obedience with the moral law is a call of our rational nature to do what the categorically imperative requires. Kant’s Principle of Humanity emphasizes respect and dignity, claiming that these alone serve as the basis of morality.
Principle of Humanity: Always treat a human being (yourself included) as an end, and never as a mere means.
In other words, armed with this principle, a person can find those categorical reasons that apply equally to everybody—what Kant calls maxims. These moral judgments filtered through the categorical imperative apply to everybody since we are rational. The freedom for Kant is in our ability to incorporate these maxims, and in our ability to override and suspend our emotional natures.
In this exercise of personal freedom, the Kantian and the existentialist come close. Both De Beauvoir and Kant think we can take ownership/take a step back and “own” our own action. Let’s see how to square these two conceptions of freedom in the following thought experiments. Initially, I formulated these thought experiments for students.
Thought experiment 1: You’ve gotten into several schools, and your live-in Aunt is very sick. You’ve been helping take care of her, and your parents cannot really afford any other arrangement. Both your parents work, and they want you to go to school part-time and locally. However, you want to go to school full-time, and you’ve gotten into an excellent program somewhere in Indiana (or several states away). Yet, to do what you really want means that nobody will be around to take care of your aunt. If you stay, then you will lose out on being admitting to such a wonderful program. If you leave, then you will put additional stress onto your family. What do you do?
Thought Experiment 2: You’ve worked all summer to save up for a new used car. If you buy the car, then you will have no money to take Fall classes, but you need the car to commute to class. If you do not buy the car, then you will have money to take Fall classes. What do you do?
Both of these thought experiments are unfair. The exercise of our freedom comes at the price that there are real consequences to exercising it, and we must be accountable (responsible) to others for its very control. In the first, what does one do? If I take care of my aunt, I have to own that possibility, not live in a past choice that never was. I must come to grips with that choice. Likewise, even in the second scenario, without the car, I cannot attend classes in the future. I’ll have to take ownership of that situation as well. We must take ownership of the situation, and taking ownership of one’s freedom involves a simultaneous acknowledgement about the limits of its exercise in the situation. This leads to two ways in which ownership can take place for the Kantian and the existentialist.
In owning action:
- Kant wants us to deny what is particular to our situation. Reason is what makes us take ownership of our inclinations.
- De Beauvoir wants us to keep in view the particular concrete situation, and this underscores the first difference.
In Kant, there is a conception of humanity that limits us to take ownership of our situation since we must respond to that situation through our shared rational nature. In existentialism, the concrete situation belongs to the responder of the situation to her and her alone. While the action will affect other people, the existentialist is not required to subordinate her freedom at the expense of an impersonal and universal norm. At least, I think this is where the discussion goes when the existentialist and the Kantian think through their differences.
Let’s revisit the fact that Kant cannot understand evil. De Beauvoir cites Kant on his definition of man. Kant defines man as a “Pure Positivity.” De Beauvoir leaves it quite open as to what that means, but clearly she means the term to be a contrast against the existentialist. By “pure positivity”, I define this term as meaning a subject that gives reasons to itself could not understand why someone would choose against its own nature. Hence, radical evil is unthinkable in Christian thought and in Kant since we are inherently good, rational, and in this positivity, evil as a negation contradicts the metaphysical claims that bolster the apparent positivity. Both Kant and Christianity are based on a metaphysics of presence to put it in Heideggerian terms.
By contrast, De Beauvoir defines man as a Pure Negativity. Negation is a necessary category of thought to think through how she defines the subjectivity through Sartre. Man must make himself a lack of being so that there can be being. That involves not only a subject that gives reasons to determine herself. Instead, she makes herself a lack, and because of that indeterminate self-grounding underlying the existential conception of freedom, she is entirely responsible for that self-directed creativity. This leads me to the following division:
Pure Positivity Pure Negativity
Man as free rational agent vs. Man as a free creative agent
Push aside desires Embrace the particular concrete situation
Grounded in rational human nature Ungrounded self-affirming reasons/desires, not authorized
by a static human nature
In existentialism, one must decide in every moment without recourse to an independently authoritative set of reasons (in utilitarianism and Kantian ethics). Therefore, the individual becomes exemplary in moments where we are completely alone in the exercise of our freedom whereas Kantian ethics is a moment where we are joined by our rational natures with other rational people. Noting this difference of the individual experiencing exemplary moments, we can understand the relevance of Kierkeegard’s Abrahamic exemplarism for Christian existentialism (that is, the experience of Abraham’s solitude in trying to decide whether or not to ill Isaac is one of “fear and trembling”) and why both Sartre and De Beauvoir model the exemplarism off the artist. The artist is the only individual capable of the robust freedom they both demand since the demand of that robust freedom leads to the experience of anguish.
Anguish is an experience persons feel when they must confront the gulf between the consciousness about to realize this freedom and the uncertain unmade future. The realization of our projects is a determination of something. It’s that point when the exemplar of the artist is the only metaphor for experiencing this radical freedom of human life. Such freedom is unnerving, and many can flee from it. Others like the artist can embrace it. How does this apply to the observation evil we’ve mentioned already?
According to De Beauvoir, evil is a choice. Human beings can determine themselves in this way; evil can be accounted for as a groundless choice better than Kant due to the fact that in existentialism human beings are free and ethics pays attention to the concrete situation facing the individual. Since there is no ground other than human beings, values are brought into the world by humans and can be altered by our response to them if we so choose. We can bring “good” or “evil” into this world insofar as we also keep in mind that we do not need the extra metaphysical baggage of either theology or philosophical conceptions of human nature to address the reality of “evil.”Given the metaphysical truth of human freedom in consciousness, values emerge only from us. That means that the meaning of human life and values we choose occur because of the choice of individuals to sustain them.
I find the whole existentialist program quite drab. If I were to offer some criticisms, they might be. First, Warnock was right about the conflation of the descriptive and the normative, and this is instructive for recuperating De Beauvoir against Sartre in reading her as a consequentialist. Second, this radical notion of freedom finds its exemplarity only in individuals with an artistic temperament in much the same way that Nietzsche’s “Overman” is suited to the same prominent self-confidence and assertion of egoistic personalities fetishizing their projects over other concerns. Such exemplarity need not belong to the artists, however. In fact, I think there’s another way of retrieving De Beauvoir’s insights.
We should think of her moral principle as a consequential call to maximize other people’s freedom all the time in everything we do, including our life projects. In this way, we honor the accurate insight in De Beauvoir and Sartre that the exercise of our freedom is indistinguishable from the assumed sociality of freedom’s exercise. Then, her ethics becomes an ethics of hope, and we can then read (even if against what De Beauvoir would not want us to claim about her thought) this freedom back into the Ethics of Ambiguity. We can see her embrace of the ambiguity of being a lack of being to bring about being as a meditation on the importance of freedom for all human experience since to impede the freedom of others impacts my very being. Perhaps, more on this later…