Monday, December 30, 2013

dark morality: an argument in favour of moral uncertainty

Lecture 3: Equality and Our Moral Image of the World. In Putnam, Hilary (1987) The Many Faces of Realism.

I think this lecture resonates so strongly with me because it explains an issue that has worried me below the surface, without being able to articulate it clearly. The issue was wanting to be certain but not being certain about a variety of personal, political and cultural questions.

Putnam begins by saying that Kant kept a double set of books, one for a world we experience, our world, and the other, a world behind a veil (the Noumenal world), that we don't know about. Putnam, along with Lenin etc (Marxist critics of Kant) finds this dualism repulsive.

But unlike the marxist critics, who sometimes dismiss Kant contemptuously with one liners ("thing in itself", rubbish), Putnam finds much about Kant that is worthy and extraordinary.

Kant was the first philosopher to reject the idea of truth as correspondence to a pre-structured Reality (see Reason, Truth and History, pp. 56-7, 60-64 for more detail here)

Putnam evolved his idea of internal realism around about 1980. On the one side he rejected Big R Realism as being too algorithmic. On the other side he rejected Cultural Relativism as being too divorced from reality. Internal realism was a way to drive the philosophical chariot up the middle. This description is far too brief a summary of course, Putnam has written at length on this subject.

The fundamental idea of Kant's “critical philosophy” — especially in his three Critiques: the Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787), the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790) — is human autonomy

One version of empiricism (there are many versions) says that all we know for sure is sense data. Kant rejects this in his first critique. When we experience the outer world with our senses the actual experience is inner, not outer. Sensations, the "objects of inner sense", are caught within the web of belief and conceptualisation. They do not represent an uncorrupted given that anchors our knowledge. Kant was the first internal realist. Our conceptual contribution can't be factored out. The "makers-true" and "makers-verified" of our beliefs lie within and not outside our conceptual system

Each of Kant's critique presents a different kind of reason and a different image of the world to go with each kind of reason: scientific reason, ethical reason, aesthetic reason, juridical reason. So even though Kant thinks we have exactly one scientific version of the world, for Putnam these different kinds of reasons hint at the conceptual relativity that he supports (eg. see pp. 17-19 of The Many Faces of Realism for more detail on conceptual relativity).

Putnam's aim in this book is to sketch the outline of internal realism in moral philosophy

Kant inherited from Rousseau and the ideals of the French revolution, in particular, the value of Equality. Equality comes from the Jewish religion. All humans are created in the image of God. Greek ethics (Plato, Aristotle, Hellenistic period) had no notion of universal human equality.

Note for further study: Compare this with Hannah Arendt's critique of the French revolution, that compassion for the most disadvantaged projected as the supreme virtue contributed to the destruction of Robespierre (On Revolution)

The idea of equality, when it is detached from it's religious roots becomes somewhat mysterious and exposed to scoffing. How many people really, deeply believe in human equality, beyond a politically correct platitude?

The idea of secular equality might be based on notions of something morally mysterious about humans (which is left undefined), respect, happiness, suffering or rights. It is not based on talents, achievements, social contribution etc. Nietzsche attacked the idea that we should respect the untalented. His moral elitism is perhaps still shared by many, for example, those working next to the untalented receiving the same pay, to take one example. Unions tend to oppose merit pay, is that a correct stance? Our belief in equality needs to be put under the microscope. This is one value of Putnam's essay, he is developing a more robust philosophical defence of equality.

In traditional formulations of equality (religious and secular) the notion of equality did not relate to freedom.

Kant offers a new approach that links liberty or freedom to equality. Kant's central distinction is between autonomy and heteronomy. Heteronomy is acceptance of the domination of an outside authority, human or divine. One accepts a moral system unthinkingly. It never occurs to one to "think for oneself", the great maxim of the Enlightenment. Totalitarians try to produce heteronomous people (sheep)

But what is autonomy? What is a positive characterisation of autonomy (as distinct from it being the opposite of heteronomy?)

An autonomous person asks: What should I do? How should I live?

An autonomous person uses free will and reason (rationality) to choose ethical principles. This approach is compatible with medieval (the Middle Ages, 5th - 15th C) thinking, for instance that of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

Putnam praises Kant because he transcends this medieval approach.

The medievals thought we had the capacity to know human essence, to know what Happiness or Eudaemonia (human flourishing) is, in the "thick" Aristotelian sense, the inclusive human end. We use our free will and rationality to discover what one should do and then do it. Eudaemonia becomes an engineering problem.

Kant rejects this, is sceptical. Happiness can be interpreted in too many different ways to be reduced to an engineering problem.

More than this, Kant welcomes and celebrates this uncertainty about the human condition. If there was a revealed nature of Eudaemonia then that would lead to heteronomy. An objective, inclusive human end is repulsive to Kant and Putnam.

It would be a bad thing if the truths of religion could be deduced by reason because that would produce fanaticism, intense hostility to others thinking for themselves. The logical fanatic is the most dangerous type of fanatic! Fanaticism is undesirable in itself. As far as I can tell this seems to be a foundational truth for Putnam but one that I share. The problematic nature of moral truth (religious truth for Kant) is a good thing.

Being certain about our beliefs is sometimes a bad thing. We should always be open to the need to sometimes revise our beliefs (fallibilism). Scepticism, doubt and uncertainty have their place. Putnam's broader outlook is that both belief and doubt require justification. In this essay he puts the case against certainty in moral belief.

This is where Kant breaks with the medievals, that to know human essence can be reduced to an engineering problem!

At the other end, fideism maintains that faith is independent of reason or that reason and faith are hostile to each other and faith is superior at arriving at particular truths. Kant attacks fideism too, basing religion of faith, since that also leads to fanaticism.

Kant says let us recognise that we have a religious need but let us not be fanatical about the way in which we satisfy that need. Neither Reason nor Fundamentalism (leap of faith, blind faith) can tell us with certainty how to satisfy that need.

In our secular age this message is still relevant since people embrace non religious causes with religious fervour (Environmentalism, Marxism, Libertarianism etc.) and, of course, religious fundamentalism is still a huge problem in the world (eg. al Qaeda). All of these causes contain truths but the danger that those truths will turn into dogma is real.

The respect in which we are all equals is that we all face this same dilemma, we can choose to think for ourselves without a clear guide. We are free, we can reason but there is no certainty in the outcome. That is the most valuable fact about our lives, our Eudaemonia. Putnam is arguing that this insight, linking equality to freedom originates with Kant.

Kant's ideal community is one of beings who think for themselves without knowing what the human essence is, without knowing what Eudaemonia is, and who respect one another for doing that. This is a valuable corrective to the danger of those who embrace causes with religious, fanatical fervour.

Kant, although he admired Rousseau, is very far from Rousseau's notion of submission to the general will.

This exercise in philosophical anthropology leads to the emergence of a moral image of the world. Putnam takes this phrase from Dieter Henrich.

A moral image of the world is more than a checklist of virtues or what one ought to do (rights, responsibilities etc.), rather it is a picture of how our virtues and ideals hang together with each other. It may be as vague as sisterhood or brotherhood. Putnam asserts that we need a moral image of the world, or, since he is a pluralist, a number of complementary moral images of the world.

For the medievals metaphysical realism was unproblematically correct since rational intuition gave us direct access to things in themselves.

Kant's advance on this was to celebrate the loss of essences without turning back to Humean empiricism

The core issue for me is do we really believe in human equality in a deep sense and has Putnam, interpreting Kant in this way, produced a stronger argument for equality, by linking it to freedom. That the result of believing we have free will and using our rationality as best we can is not moral certainty but instead uncertainty or pluralism, many paths open, there is not One True Way as advocated by fanatics of different stripes (religious fundamentalists, environmental alarmists, marxist dictatorships etc.). Moreover, his moral image of the world, that we start out as free, rational individuals who despite our best efforts can't achieve certainty on many big issues is far more powerful than some check list of virtues or the way we ought to be. This appears to me to be an original contribution or a deepening of our knowledge about the human condition. Putnam's argument is strong in part because it is informed by a deep knowledge of the philosophers who came before him (Hume, Rousseau, Kant).

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