Saturday, October 3, 2009

Intuitions and Ontotheology

The use of intuitions in moral philosophy, and whether or not the ontotheology of our day and age has any relation to the claim of intuitions and their independence in moral theorizing constitute the limit and power moral theorizing has for us. I've been in recent discussion with a number of people in the Continental tradition that eschew straight up moral theorizing. Instead, they regard moral theorizing as a product of an age, a certain history. For moral theorizing to have any intellectual purchase, therefore, it is important to inquire into its possibility and limits. The threshold of this limit can have an impact over the whole field of moral theorizing which to a certain extent is too large a term to have any significant sense for us. As such, I take my cue from Ross, and want to narrow the focus on Ross' intuitionism. In so doing, I will draw together some themes from Heidegger that challenge the common deontological assumption about morality's independence, and test the waters concerning the historicity that informs so much of the Continental tradition influenced from Heidegger onward.

In the first sense, this question is like many others that I have posed in the past, namely, about the phenomenology of our moral experience and all its facets from the beliefs to justifications we have for them. In another way, it is different since "intuition" is reserved for Ross in a very limited sense. For Ross, there is some issue at stake in a situation that has value. For instance, we might say that if I am not paid for services I have provided, or the customer feels I haven't done my service adequately to warrant payment, what is at stake is the integrity of my service. Did I truly do it right to warrant payment? If I didn't do what someone paid me to do, then that would be the wrong-making property of the situation, and the customer can withold payment. If I was true to the service provided, then the wrong-making property is in the customer lying about why he will not pay me. Thus, we have moral intuitions that recognize higher-ordered properties of situations and how, initially, to know what we ought to do.

Another important point about intuitions is that they are not incorrigible for Ross. Instead, they are comparable to other duties we may have, and they are defeasible because of this comparability. For instance, if I have promised to meet a friend for lunch and my wife is suddenly struck ill, I can realize by critical reflection that one intuition to honor my obligations of my wife trump considerations of a friendly lunch. Moreover, there is no infallibility in our intuitions. Critical reflection may amend the status of our immediately recognizable intuitions to do my duties.

Now that these two features of moral intuitions are generally known, I think we should switch it up to some Heidegger. For Heidegger, an ontotheology means a historical constellation of intelligibility that the current metaphysical presuppositions of the time condition exactly how we understand aspects of our place and being in the world. For Heidegger, this means that historical influences of various stages of metaphysics determine the expressibility of the human experience. This means that once a metaphysics determines what is, then this will delimit what anything is (I should mention the overwhelming exposition of an ontotheology is indebted to Iain Thomson's work). Let's try to give content this idea by looking at the history of ethics for a clue.

Some might think that the formulaic constructions of moral philosophies like Kant and Mill exemplify some aspect of our modern age whereas before a language of virtue reigned supreme. These two thinkers share something in common, the fact that they wanted to boil morality down to one basic principle from which all else would follow. Once we have the secret philosophical principle, we can determine all matters of right and wrong. This sounds very much like the ideal of the Enlightenment science which tried to grasp the ideality of the world through reason. Perhaps, the fact that the Enlightenment defined the age as one in which men would autonomously aspire to control nature through reason might have bearing as to how morality was understood. Something is missed in this age about morality.

If Heidegger is right, the history of Western metaphysics determines different type of epochs that determine the limit of how exactly we can understand the world, including morality. Of course, we can have some disagreement about what ontotheology holds true for metaphysics right now, whether or not we find ourselves thinking being is no longer asked, or that scientific-technological utopianism governs our epoch is open for discussion. I don't care either way; it's only if Heidegger is right that the historical status of the world is thus determined by a historical understanding of metaphysics that affects moral philosophy.

For Ross, this would mean that the intuitions we recognize as the wrong-making property are actually products of the type of historical epoch we are living in. Moreover, if we possess these inherited intuitions about morality, then the independent ability for moral theorizing to arrive at a way to decipher the concepts of right and wrong are overdetermined by ontotheologies, that is, we couldn't tell one way or the the other what makes actions right or wrong in moral theorizing since moral theorizing is determined by the historical understanding of metaphysics. Instead, what I call moral intuitions, in turn, might just be granting value and legitimacy to a historical product. Morality might be arbitrary because of historicity. Ultimately, this undermines the independence of ethics to suggest a criteria of why certain actions are wrong and right, and this is what I desire from a moral theory (and Ross for that matter).

So, I leave this blog entry in aporia. Does anyone think I have set up this problem in an accurate way? What possible solutions are there for ethics' independence in light of Heidegger?


Anonymous said...

As Heidegger might say, go back and read Aristotle for fifteen years or so.
Then read some Heidegger.
I make a point of reading him everyday.
For Heidegger, we can agree, the written word is vastly inferior to the spoken word, and even language (itself a "being") is suspect.
In ten years or so it might make perfect sense.
All the best.

Carbondale Chasmite said...

In relating two theses together for a philosophical problem, it makes little sense to suggest going back and reading Heidegger without first suggesting what is I have missed. Secondly, the fact that you read him everyday does not entail that you have some greater understanding of ontotheologies without first arguing the point that has been missed. If you want, abstract the claim of an onto-theology from Heidegger and relate it back to the content of moral intuitions. There are other ways of arguing this same point. We could just object to Rossian intuitionism and argue this same point from a historical relativism about how our moral intuitions are conditioned, or brought about. We would have the logically equivalent objection, amounting to the same thing. Yet, we can take a cue from Heidegger, though--putting into contact a way of framing this relativism charge about moral intuitions in a way that puts various philosophies into contact in a striking way. Heidegger makes historicity relevant to all types of philosophizing, and this would affect moral philosophy in some way. Wouldn't it? Take how ethics is normally construed.
We might be so inclined to think that history no longer matters when moral philosophers like Nagel or Kant assume a certain timelessness about ethical inquiry in which ethics is independent conceptual attempt to bring about a theory that explains why actions are morally right/wrong, and why we should find moral considerations authoritative. This "independence" from history largely makes ethics a look naïve or overly simplistic for any Continental thinker that assumes historicity. Immediately, Gadamer and Heidegger come to mind, so does the later Husserl. This historicity would have claims about how exactly certain intuitions take shape given the hermeneutics of the age, that is, the ontotheology specifically at work in which a moral agent has a moral intuition.

You’ll notice that the modern period thinks of morality only in terms of actions. There is no language of virtue, and vice for that matter. Why is it that morality has moved to be thought of in terms of the law/rules and not virtues/vices? Is it any wonder that these rule-generating moralities (i.e. both consequentialism and Kantian deontological theories) become more popular with the rise of the state or even the success of a new Enlightenment science? Heideggerian ontotheologies could very well spell the limit of ethics’ claim of independence.