Monday, April 20, 2009

Skeptical of a Heideggerian Ethics, Reading Hatab's Ethics and Finitude

As I read more Continental philosophy, the project of moral philosophy becomes suspect. Most have inherited a Nietzschean skepticism of ethics as rule normalizing that threatens heroic creativity, individual eccentricity and the openness of life. In some ways, maybe the climate in Continental circles is right. Analytic moral philosophy proceeds to ground systematic principles that explain normative praxis. What is missed in any conceptual analysis is the pre-reflective dimension of our practical involvement, social relations, concerns, emotions and very historic situatedness. Passing over, concealing over these dimensions, ethics has construed itself as moving beyond the limits of what Lawrence J. Hatab would call our finitude. "The finitude of being-in-the-world also refers to the limits of human selfhood caught up in the encumberances and contingencies of life" (p. 3, Being and Finitude)

Moving past these concerns, Hatab contrasts the presuppositions of Anglophone moral philosophy. It is preoccupied in theory, and measures its philosophical validity by logical consistency, universality, impartiality and indefeasability. In fact, I find some of these features very compelling, and am not inclined to shy away from all these criteria whereas Hatab sees them as detrimental to a deeper understanding of ethics as an engaged, interpretive, contextual, addressive discourse for the sake of disclosing ethical bearings in life. (Ibid., p. 4). Attempts at deeply universal or theoretical approaches that justify ethical principles extended over time are abandoned, and an anti-foundationalism is enacted to reflect how we are already situated in the threshold of our own finite limitations.

I take it that Heideggerian phenomenology empowers this type of analysis. However, I am unsure that ethical pronouncements can strictly be embedded in socially pragmatic and finite contexts. As I grow older, the same old patterns of human life repeat throughout history and forward in time. As such, if this is even a remotely accurate intuition, then the repeated patterns and forms of life enacted by human beings may generally be subsumed under moral principles, or in my case prima facie intuitions that have acheived a theoretical recognition of human life have validity despite the want for contextual-sensitivity that a Heideggerian would want to foster. This repetition throughout history is not a collapse into a human nature essentialism. On the contrary, it is just an observation that human beings seem quite comfortable in choosing what has worked in the past until there is a major rift in the necessity of life engendering a new pattern of life. I still maintain human beings are free amongst the contingent freedom they possess to choose between what pattern of human life would best suit them.

It would seem the one lesson to learn from Hatab stems from the contextual-sensitivity of ethical principles. Following his insight, we could say that the responsiveness of some people stem from observing the theoretical need for contextual-sensitivity and the pre-reflective dimension of human experience. This point has been made reluctantly by Simon Critichley who thinks that religion and politics will never go away despite the philosophical want for a secularly enlightened society (See Continental Philosophy Review, Dec. 2008). While leaving the question of religion aside, it does point to the fact that ethical pronouncements engage us traditionally and historically. The point remains whether or not such insights are more true, that is intuitively self-evident, beyond the manifestation in a particular traditional, religious or historical milieu.

At the outset, I am suspicious of Hatab's efforts here. The phenomenology of moral experience is concealed from the "view from nowhere" efforts at moral theorizing, yet the contexts of Heideggerian finitude cannot ignore the vast similarities throughout time that human beings have exhibited. To remedy this, as I have may said here in the past, the search for a phenomenology of moral experience should rest on the transcendental variety found in Husserl.

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