Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Existential Problem of the Present for American Conservatives

The central problem for American conservatism is its fascination with its past at the expense of the present. I call this problem, the problem of the present. In moral situations, we face the exigencies of life afforded by sensitivity to the fact that people are vulnerable to a range of injuries and injustices of life presently and currently. As such, the liberal intelligentsia often observes remedies to immediately respond to the temporal proximity of an injurious reality or institutional injustice, often with the medium of government in some way.

To resist this liberal intrustion, the American conservative is aesthetically obsessed with providing moral justifications of why we cannot remedy, undue or modify an existing practice especially those practices that are institutionally ingrained in American life. The Conservative goes out of their way to enshrine the past with a detached contemplative reverence in what could only be called an aesthetic attitude. This attitude is much the same with that of the tourist walking the Roman ruins. As Simone De Beauvoir says, "The tourist considers the arena of the Coliseum, the Latifundia of Syracuse, the thermal baths, the palaces, the temples, the prisons and the churches with the same tranquil curiosity" (Ethics of Ambiguity, p. 75) These things merely existed, and in that, they satisfy. In political culture -- and this is the point we are aiming at -- the American conservative uplifts the practices of the past in a magical and deceptive manner. For them, as De Beavoir says of the estranged Italian too, "the present already seems like a future past" (Ibid, p. 75) For the Conservative wants a Jeffersonian purity or a Madisonian understanding of our institutions and our Jurisprudence to reflect the past as if it were truly present as a perceptual object. However, the sad case, and this is what we academics understand, this can never be so. We cannot will the present to be a future past anymore than we could believe in square-circles.

The reason we cannot accept a willed action to be a future-past in the present is that we cannot extoll the conditions of our nation's history to the point we are willing blindly. The very philosophical truth is harder to admit. We are limited by our own finitude. We cannot reach out beyond the circle of our age, and transcend time and place to enter the subjectivity of a past author anymore than we can recreate the conditions under which the past was realized within that author. In thinking this transcendence of history possible, American conservatives merely "understand the temporary events and through them to cultivate that beauty which perishes not"--they are victim to their own blind reverence, the aesthetic attitude of history. They take the point of view of history when the present challenges their understanding. In taking that point of view, which I and many others have already shown to be an impossibility, they, as De Beauvoir would say flee "the truth of the present" (Ethics of Ambiguity, p. 76) According to the existentialist, choice is deprived of meaning if it is effaced willingly by those that could act, that could respond to the present.

If ethics has any meaning, then it can be agreed solely that ethics is about the freedom to respond. This aesthetic attitude, as De Beauvoir rightly claims, causes "inertia," or our inability to respond to the exigency of injury and injustice. The freedom to respond to meaning, to someone's suffering, is at heart why liberals are so emphatic about uprooting the bonds of tradition that hold sway over our considerations. We want to upsurge the existence of others, and make those outside our sphere better in some way. Ethics is about responding and uprooting the false views that blindly steer us away from a full commitment to the moral life.

Of course, the Conservative can only come up with two responses. First, the unreflective conservatives will esteem the fact that in religion one can have access to the past as it was revealed in a text. But such a response dares to cut its own feet off when even in their own view, the religious text is the only revealed access to that transcendence they seek in human tradition. For the religious conservative, only the Bible is capable of that transcendence. If they admit of American exceptionalism, then they are harder pressed to be dissuaded by their own shortcomings. American exceptionalism is at the root of all conservative fanaticism and stupidity. If we admit that we -- as a nation -- share in the teleology of a divine plan, and that our greatness coincides with the plan of God, then those exceptionalists succumb to the same version as before. They forget that transcendence is only capable of God, and put themselves on a pedestal of the sacred being they all admit more infinite in nature than they can possibly understand. To put these versions down, I need not even get started in my own philosophical views.

The second response is more sensitive to the content of what I have said here. He will say that you cannot forget history, we ourselves and our nation being the product of historical forces. In that, we both agree. I take to heart the historicity of our being. We are being, thrown by the world and its forces as directed by the fact that we are temporal beings. We live in time's ebb and likewise when we view the past with a backward glance, we cannot help but see the past solidify into a narrative. The point is, we don't forget the history. We do not make the history to be something so metaphysical that we are determined within the limit of history. Instead, we view that the freedom to respond to the present is more important, and that in our response will have a human signification, a meaning that attaches on to the forever moving present that we will make into history. In this way, liberals perceive the present as something not detached from history, but as a continuum without losing sight of the exigency of the present. In this way, we are progressive without being determined by the optimism about the future, but keeping the future open to all possibilities because we realize that we are bound ethically to all.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Does this work?

It has come to my attention that moral realists have been hard-pressed in many instances to provide an ontological story as to why others should assent to the moral realist's claim of independent existing moral facts. By moral facts, I mean the set of moral beliefs that inform our everyday day-to-day deliberation in the same way someone would speak of a set of worldly facts like how many grains of sand there are on Earth, or how many snakes are poisonous. The only difference in form from the analogy is that moral facts express evaluative notions about what ought to be the case rather than describing the world. I claim that the existence of moral facts can be treated as a body of truths that is implied by the acceptance of their relevance in lived-experience. Thus, I accept the following argument as a way of entering into the truth of moral realism.

P1: If moral facts exist independently of our endorsement of them, then moral facts constitute the fabric of the world.
P2: If moral facts constitute the fabric of the world, then moral facts arise in our experience of knowing the fabric of the world.
IC: If moral facts exist independently of our endorsement of them, then moral facts arise in our experience of knowing the fabric of the world. (HS, 1 and 2)
P3: If moral facts arise in our experience of knowing the fabric of the world, then moral facts, according to phenomenology, are rooted in our subjective constitution of moral intentionality that bestows meaning-formation of our lived-experience. (HS, IC and 3)
C: If moral facts exist independently of our endorsement of them, then, moral moral facts, according to phenomenology, are rooted in our subjective constitution of a moral intentionality that bestows meaning-formation of our lived experience.

Friday, August 14, 2009


Everyone has been super with our move. My wife and I love how we envision our life growing here in Southern Illinois. The university has been spectacular, and the department is encouraging. What a wonderful place!

Ross, Motive and the Sense of Duty

In a revisitation of Ross' The Right and the Good, I have been strangely trying to figure out a decent representation of the following textual argument. Here is that little snippet that catches my fancy:

Those who hold that our duty is to act from a certain motive (Kant is the great exemplar) usually hold that the motive from which we ought to act is the sense of duty. Now if the sense of duty is to be my motive for doing a certain act, it must be the sense that it is my duty to do that act. If, therefore, we say 'it is my duty to do act A from the sense that it is my duty to do act A.' And here the whole expression is in contradiction with a part of itself. The whole sentence says ' it is my duty to-do-act-A-from-the-sense-that-it-is-my-duty-to-do-act-A.' But the latter part of the sentence implies that what I think is that it is my duty to-do-act-A simply. And if, as the theory in questions requires, we try to amend the latter part of the expression to bring it into accord with the whole expression, we get the result 'it is my duty to do act A from the sense that it is my duty to do act A from the sense that it is my duty to do act A,' where again the last part of the expression is in conflict with the sentence as a whole. It is clear that a further similar amendment, and a further, and in the end an infinite series of amendments would be necessary in the attempt to bring the last part of the expression into accordance with the theory, and that even then we should not have succeeded in doing so. (R&G, p. 5, CH 1).

This seems, at first glance, to be a devastating argument. Motive and duty cannot be contained in the other. However, I am unsure as to how the contradiction is reached given that the contradiction is internal to the statement. And how exactly does Ross understand the given expression? Untangling this mess will require some effort, and has been the subject of some scholarship since this is a famous argument made against Kantians (Arthur T. Shillinglaw 1933 in Mind for starters). Before we get to analysis of this argument, I want to further add what he says about acting from the sense of duty.

On this argument, Ross clearly says that only acting from sense of duty will it lead to a infinite regress (p. 6). However, acting from other motives will be free from the infinite regress. Still, he reminds "it would be paradoxical to hold that we ought to act from some other motive, but never ought to act from a sense of duty, which is the highest motive." For Ross, there is a positive significance acting from a sense of duty has; it is just that we cannot regard any theory which holds "that motive of any kind is included in the content of duty" (p. 6)

Now, reductios attempt to get A and Non-A statements together in a proof. In application, this means showing that a theory or thesis commits one to its negation as well as positive formation. Above, let's identify what thesis is up for attack. I'll call that the Kantian Containment Thesis, or KCT for short.

KCT: The motive from which a moral agent ought to act is the moral agent's sense of duty.

So, Ross would show us how we reach ~KCT:

~KCT: The motive from which a moral agent ought to act is not the moral agent's sense of duty.

Yet, I am not too sure that this is done. Any thoughts? I could be missing something, but I'm going to think more on this.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Where Have All the Essences Gone?

When someone finds themselves influenced by a historical thinker, one takes up positions counter to others along shared beliefs with the philosopher in question. However, sometimes, what strikes me most about Husserl is what little is said about a key issue, and the problem left in its wake has an effect. Consider for a moment what we can glean from Husserl's phenomenology about ideal objects, or what I take essences to be.

Essences are eternal, apodictic and eternal. They are non-temporal, and are only described by phenomenology since phenomenology is the descriptive science of phenomenological essences. The descriptive focus is the most attractive thing for being a phenomenologist; it allows me to get to the concrete matters of our lived experience whereas other more naturalistic philosophies often conceal over the elements of our lived experience in which decisive data for philosophical problems can be gleaned (this is the source of dialectic tension between the broad landscape of naturalists in Anglophone philosophy with my non-natural leanings). However, this descriptive emphasis avoids the metaphysical problems associated with ideal objects. These essences have no ground other than they occur within our experience of consciousness in the world and are describable.

At first, I always never thought of these essences as anything more than realized intuitions that appear to us at the end of phenomenological reduction. I thought of them as byproducts, and easily regard them as a coherentist would a series of representations and non-inferential intuitions that mesh together in a series of propositions. For me, the intuition of these essences consists nowhere but their apprehension. I was left with just ideal objects looming in Husserl's system (esp. in Ideas I where Husserl talks about the world could vanish and as long as there appears before consciousness phenomena, phenomenology would be a viable enterprise), and him denying possible grounds, or hypostases as we might call them Julian Marias confirmed this shared suspicion with his chapter on Husserl. I like how he divcides them up:

1. Psychological hypostasis would locate ideal objects in the mind; their existence would be mental and they would exist in my thought.

2. Metaphysical hypostasis would state ideal objects are entities located in an immaterial place, e.g. Platonism

3. Theological hypostasis would locate ideal objects in the mind of God who is constantly thinking them. (Marias, p. 406, The History of Philosophy)

Now, given that Husserl rejects all of these but still maintains the existence of ideal non-temporal objects/essences, then where exactly can we put essences in our ontology? While I think Husserl would avoid the metaphysics of the issue, there is a decisive advantage to 1. For whichever theory of pscyhology pans out as the truest in the discourse of psychology, we could wait for theoretical consensus and be consistent with the result of the science to say we've only been describing the world the whole time. However, that might have the dogmatism of the natural attitude all over it.

If we indulge in 2, committing to a immaterial plane, then the immateriality of God in 3 is but one step away given our interpretation will eventually require God, I think. Yet, the decisive advantage is that we gain that truth is guaranteed by relating to an ultimate Absolute, very much in the spirit of the American philosopher Josiah Royce. For he claimed that truth only occurs by being in reference not to a contingent world of nature, but to an Absolute ground. Our experience of the world would be limited unless it refers to a reality that outstrips it. Husserl would, I think, reject 3 clearly in thinking that emphasizing that ideal objects are the absolute reality we lose a connection to the lived-experience of the concrete world in the very same way that the natural attitude operates. Ideal objects become presentations of God's mind, and we no longer can follow the Husserlian motto: To get back to things themselves if the things themselves (ideal objects) become something other than they are. For Husserl, we are strictly limited to our consciousness of the world, and how it constitutes phenomena. That's it. Plain and simple.

Therefore, it would seem we are left with 2 as long as we don't read into the immateriality of ideas. We would be left with the same place we started from, only sure that what is required is a loosely-based Platonism without any commitment to the content of the ideal object's ontological nature. All we can know of them is that they are epistemologically required via phenomenology qua philosophy. For the other options 1 and 3 lead us away from the very insight as to why we practice phenomenology in the first place.