Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Ethics and the Tradition of Cultural Critique

This opposition between a timeless conceptual analysis in ethics of, say, common sense morality, and the Continental suspicion of mainstream culture overlap, I think. This overlap is another point of contact between roughly two figures that would not talk to each other, and as such, I want to at least offer an initial point of contact.

After having seen Butler in action in Bodies That Matter, one might regard her analysis as calling into question mainstream cultural opinions, especially about how it is that we acquire a sexed position in language. Her critique resembles the general propensity of Continental philosophers to question culture, and offer critique. In some ways, Heidegger reading back the question of Being into our culture and finding no ability to express this question (to the point that even Carnap becomes a symptom of the question's inexpressibility) is a symptom of our culture. In Husserl, the natural attitude conceals over the implicit consciousness that structures our world. We forget that intentionality is there, and take it for granted. In all these ways, there is a suspicion of our cultural world. So, what I am getting at is exactly this: construing philosophy as a form of cultural critique would inform a general suspicion that can also be suspicious of certain trends within philosophy that exemplify a targeted cultural problematic. As such, some philosophical questions in the Analytic tradition presuppose what some Continentals would reject as ridiculous unsubstantiated assumptions.

Now, take this move of cultural critique to someone like Sidgwick and his ruminations about the possibility of ethics. Sidgwick is answering the question why do we find common-sense morality so plausible. For me, this may assume a hegemony of one's culture, upbringing or Zeitgeist of the age that determines why Sidgwick is answering this question. Before we answer this, let's at least be clear what Sidgwick might think he is doing. First, Sidgwick is not saying that common sense morality is independently valid. Clearly, he thinks that common sense morality offers us action-guidance, but it must do so only because a more fundamental principle undergirds its possibility for action-guidance. For him, it is the utilitarian principle.

There is a backdoor to this line as well. Sidgwick reconciles an intuitionist epistemology with the utilitarian principle. In this way, Sidgwick opens himself up to the charge that all intuitionists face, namely, that one's intuitions are simply echoed historical socializations. Thus, his classical four criteria for an intuition to be true is just a deeper problematic of our age, one in which elevates the subject beyond the historical conditions under which the subject is realized (as Foucault explains very well in applying a Nietzschean geneaology to numerous problematics). This might also be a way of reading historicity back into another author that offers another anti-historic analysis of right and wrong. You might notice, dear reader, I have been thinking of this theme of history as it relates to the possibility of ethics as of late.

Now, I'm not going to give content to Sidgwick or to any particular form of cultural critique. Instead, I am only suggesting an initial conceptual tension, one already realized at least on the side of the Continental tradition that sees historicity as a theme of human existence inseparable from the possibility of realizing an ethics (where ethics means the possibility of creating a theory that explains what I ought to do). Thus, the analytic move to offer a conceptual story is left at an impasse, yet that is not the only impasse here. Moreover, this move to account for historicity and seeing ethics as determined by cultural forces also confronts the possibility of some Continental authors that see their work in light of emancipation, such as maybe Critical Theorists or Marxists themselves. The Continentals seem required to explain why some normative emancipation is better than the cultural status-quo. Whatever the complaint may be, the normative force driving any emancipatory analysis requires moral justification. Moral justification would seem, then, be needed, and traditionally, I find only analytic ethics concerned solely with why I find certain actions, policies or events morally valuable. Thus, the Continentals at large are largely at an impasse too.

Where does this leave me? Well, I don't know. I don't have an answer of how to incorporate an appropriate understanding of historicity or cultural critique into ethics without transgressing the limit of one side of the Analytic/Continental divide. If I were to venture a guess, then incorporating historicity might involve (amongst other things), the habituation we find in Aristotle and hermeneutic problem of practical wisdom in general. In one sense, such a response will lose precision in action-guidance, though it is arguable whether or not content of action-guidance was ever a strong feature of moral theory anyway, and that action-guidance would be more sensitive to the framework of its historical origin. Thus, a return to the Nicomachean is in order at least if the beginning ruminations on my part can sketch a response to the concerns of both traditions in ethics.

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