Sunday, December 11, 2011


Most of us are post-Kantian when it comes to morals. The idea that there could be moral knowledge prior to experience—because consistent with reason in advance of experience—is less and less useful as an explanation for why we ought to be moral. Immanuel Kant was a product of a world that thought denial of bodily desire was the beginning of being-ethical, a Patriarchical/religious worldview that no longer has much clout. Moral Obligation on this view is the idea that doing something has to be difficult, even in opposition to your desires—although of course, one could become the type of being that only desires fulfilling what one has the duty to do. Kant would have us become fully subjected to the agency of moral law.

According to Richard Rorty, and I think he’s right, the very idea of ‘moral’ is the issue. For when we follow the trace of ‘moral’, we end up with Kantian signifiers that prescribe rules for any experience to come. No matter what you ought to do X, even if you don’t want to, and especially even if you can think of reasons why you shouldn’t.
The attentive reader will note that if one should do X it follows that there are only reasons for doing X. But that’s the issue. We can think of reasons why we ought to lie some of the time, reasons that we should not tell the truth, indeed, reasons for disregarding our Kantian duty to do X, come what may. But if we posit two uses between ‘ought’: OughtK and OughtH, it would seem that we have the beginnings of a genealogy of ‘should’, or a genealogy of ‘ought’, that may alleviate much confusion, and perhaps, explain why Kant’s views are only partially intuitive. That is, if Kant is using normal terms (should, ought, permissible) to talk in a way that is bizarre, we shouldn’t expect anything less than disagreement over terms. Just because Kant provides an explication of moral obligation, doesn’t mean his explanation is what we commonly think about moral obligation. (But how Kantian should we be?)
On the topic of our moral obligations, it would seem that on a Kantian construal there can be no difference between my obligation for my partner, my dogs and my friends, and the neighbor in the street that calls for my help, “calls” by way of being in a situation that demands action, whether through a ‘look of pleading’, or simply by way of the context—that may or may not presuppose a look of pleading. But this way of thinking about obligation, this Kantian way of thinking about obligation, fails to meet our moral intuitions because we do not feel obliged to help just anyone. We tend to think that morality has to be possible, and it would be simply impossible to meet the needs of humyns in the world at the expense of our privileges. Otherwise Peter Singer asks, how do we explain that we still have accumulated capital? If we were Kantian, perhaps, it is morally obligatory to will poverty upon ourselves in order to balance the right to resources.
So we are not Kantian.—That is, we tend to reason already, weighing consequences of behavior, pros and cons. For instance, we may feel obliged to hand some money to the persyn in the street that asks, or we may rationalize our way out of the guilt-look—the felt obligation of the look—by saying to ourselves, typically of course, “X will simply waste that my money on drugs.” This ability to reason, one way or the other, means, as Rorty would say, that there is no Truth in Morality, just rightness relative to a particular moral identity.
The question for us is whether we can say it is always wrong to do X about any act X, or whether this view can only mean the imposition of a moral code from one identity to another that doesn’t agree. There are a few candidates, of course. One is rape. And perhaps we can explain our intuition that rape is always wrong by the more general Kantian principle that it is always morally impermissible (One always shouldK not) to treat another X as a means rather than as an end. Is the wrongness of rape simply a misunderstood view that can be clarified by of moral relativity? Or, alternatively, is moral relativity simply a description that excuses oneself from listening to reasons?
If I try to articulate the inherent value of this animal’s interest to our decisions, it would seem that the right to say ‘I disagree’ is buttressed by moral relativity. A good reason for refraining from doing X can only be the objection from an Other whom is (or would be) affected by our action; and animals have never demonstrated an objection and thereby an end that must be considered prior to our actions. It seems the same excuses could excuse one from considering the inherent value of wild-spaces, and the inherent value of the earth. The earth has never spoken and said, “Fuck Off, Stop Raping Me”—so we rape the earth, taking resources to build skyscrapers, urban sprawl, and useless technologies that only serve the purpose of demonstrating hierarchy to poor communities. More than that, however, just existing in Industrial Civilization is a collective matter of Rape. So either our views of raping Mother Earth are misplaced, or we have to renegotiate what it means to be children of the earth, whereby we are taken care of by our true Mother. (And if it turns out that our notion of morality ought to be considered in an arbitrary way, whereby we scope moral obligation to suit our humynist purposes, perhaps we want to say instead (un-arbitrarily) that we do use each other because we take care of each other. More to follow...) 
Presently it is as though we have Killed our life-source again and again; so we ought to be ashamed. So, just as we can tune ourselves off from feeling the desire to alleviate some of the suffering of others in our midst, those that are close, those that oblige us, those that ask, so we tune off our ability to concern ourselves with being concerned, heeding the pains in the Other, whatever the Other.
The weight of responsibility that we have collectively can only be alleviated by the pragmatic choice to distinguish between direct and indirect responsibility, or, at most, between non-humyn animals and animal others, or again, between those and the earth. But why should we accept these arbitrary demarcations, these lines that we draw in the sand in order to give sense to the limits of created-good, as though ‘the Good’ should not be restricted by the Better? If the Good is restricted by the Better, we cannot call it best. 

In my non-novel view, there can be no un-arbitrary view of moral obligation, unless we accept that Kant was only talking about those that can speak and give reasons, rather than any other that can look and demonstrate pain--present to us the destabilizing figure of the face. More precisely, we have to begin to ask whether there is anything to be said about the Kantian intuition that ‘we should never treat X as a means (whatever the X)’. Maybe there isn’t something wrong with the opposite in some contexts (draw your lines) so much as there is something wrong with it in every context. Who knows? 

As for me, I think using an other for ones' purposes is always a problem, unless, of course, the other is using me and both parties are open to each others' usings. A mother permits the use of the child for consumption purposes. Presumably this is an earth ethic of Care.