Monday, February 27, 2006

Activism and Exceptionalism

A useful note from an old friend, whose anonymity I will respect. Said person left a comment on the post about Bad Dog-morals, and the comment is worth reproducing here in full:

I'm not clear on what it took to get on your lists -- are these supposed to be the five most interesting books you've read in each category? Most influential? Most convincing?

Also, I think you miscategorize Nietzsche because you are conflating two categories into one, and two dimensions into one.

The dimension you say you are trying to get at is the dimension of "exceptionalism." For you, the perspective of believing humans are exceptional leads people to write books trying to define this exceptional sense of morality that they believe humans have, and explicitly or implicitly prescribe the actions that fall under their definition of "right." Rawls falls into this category, as do John Stuart Mills and lots of other classic ethical theorists (I don't remember Nozick, Gauthier, or Frank well enough, but they probably fall in this category as well).

At the other end of this dimension are people who don't believe humans are exceptional and (therefore?) write books explaning the origins of morality in historical terms. Your focus here is on "historical" in the sense of "evolutionary/biological," but to me the non-exceptionalism assumption might well also prompt people to write *cultural* histories of different ethical systems in the sense of an historian or anthropologist.

I think the best part of Nietszche's project is the cultural history of the Judeo-Christian ethical system, which is NOT the kind of thing an exceptionalist would usually be interested in doing. The reason you are tempted to lump him in the second category is because you see him making prescriptions and assume that that makes him an exceptionalist.

But that is where you are conflating two dimensions. The dimension of exceptionalism is separate from the dimension of, for lack of a better term, "activism." It is quite possible and consistent to reject exceptionalism and still make prescriptions in one's writing -- in fact, I dare say, your blogging is an excellent example of this. The goal of impacting others' behavior, including behavior in the realm of what we commonly term morality, through one's writings is not contingent upon the exceptionalism premise.

(NOTE: In a technical (but important) sense, all writings have activist projects -- the goal might be to affect the behavior of the committee making tenure decisions, for instance. But I'm using activism here in a much less inclusive sense of self-conciously attempting to influence the ethical norms of others)

Hence, I think that Axelrod and probably the other books you listed in your first set (I haven't read them) have non-exceptionalist, non-activist projects. Rawls (and probably some of the others in your second set) have exceptionalist, activist projects. But Foucault, me, non-exceptionalists who make policy recommendations, and (under some readings, at least) Nietzsche have non-exceptionalist, activist projects.

To which I say: What would Troester say to this, if he still blogged at all? I'm calling you out, man. I don't know enough deontological Kierkegarrdians to ask anyone else. A leap of faith on human exceptionalism? Or is "activism" a better way of thinking about it, requiring only a plasticity of moral sensibilities?

Or anyone else, for that matter. It just seems to me that this is a question that is amenable to answer, even wrong answers.


Nicholas said...

oh gosh...

I had pretty much the same uncertainty as your commenter on the first post, where it was just manifestly unclear to me what the distinction was supposed to be.

It seems like Rousseau might be a case which contradicts the general argumentative thrust of your correspondent: his story of how people get to be where they are is all about cultural context, but he still thinks there's an underlying moral sense which people have, and insomuch as Nietsche's really just playing Callicles in the Gorgias or Thrasymachus in the Republic, he still thinks there's an underlying sense of justice as distributive justice, and I suppose one could think moral claims could be built around that...

Having just read Axelrod, though (prelim studying already beginning), I must say that I didn't see anything in it which proved or disproved any proposition I might choose to hold about morality; it merely purports to show that we might have some instrumental reasons for cooperating with each other (but then, I've read Book II of the Republic, so I already knew that)

Nicholas said...

but to actually answer your questions to me... I am, in the first place, a bad person to ask, because, to put it into your terminology, I believe in non-evolutionary human exceptionalism, which makes it a leap of faith in the most literal sense. But 'activism' separate from 'exceptionalism' seems problematic, because if you're making prescriptive claims to beings which are not in any morally significant way different from mere animals, it shouldn't be surprising if you get a moral system that treats men like animals--not saying you necessarily will, but it's not clear that there's anything in the bare conceptual apparatus which prevents it. I think that should be profoundly unsettling, at the least.

As a philosophical matter, though, I'd say that there's a lot of value in using the 'as if' framing assumption: we ought to live in the world as if people really do have moral sense innately, and people can non-instrumentally act morally (i.e. accepting the 'exceptionalism' thesis), even if it's not true (and I think it is, but I'll save the disquisition on natural law theory for another time; I think this is also analytically distinct from 'activism' in the sense being proposed), because it seems to me that nothing's lost by making that assumption (some accuracy, yes, but how much is an open question), and it creates a world that's better in a number of senses--this is the sort of argument which is widely utilized in the human rights literature, for example.

Tarendipitous said...

You find the notion of a non-exceptionalist ethical system "profoundly unsettling" because it might lead to an ethical system that treats humans (I'm going to assume you're also including women, not just "men") like animals. I, however, find equally unsettling the ease with which moral exceptionalism apparently can justify all sorts of awful treatments of animals. The negative connotation of treating humans and animals with some semblance of moral equivalence obviously rests on whether you accept moral exceptionalism, hence making your argument not very convincing to many of us non-exceptionalists.