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Philosophy on LJ
Ethics, Ontology & The Grammar of Moral Insight 
18th-May-2006 11:34 pm
mercury
Moral insight must be distinct from theoretical insight, because even if I provide you with a deduction of the morally good from first principles, it doesn't follow that you'll accept the good and act upon it. Therefore, in order for moral insight to guide my action, the insight must include moments of demand and approval. In other words, in order for some moral insight to be good for me, I have to be able to feel the demand of that good, and I have to approve it as normative for my action. But insofar as approval is antecedent to it being good for me, moral insight is not knowledge, since what is true is true for everyone regardless of whether or not he accepts it.

Nonetheless, what you approve in moral insight is necessarily available to discursive articulation, and that articulation makes a claim to knowledge. For example, if you approve the categorical imperative, you also approve an account of agents as autonomous beings, you approve of the difference between such a being and a mere thing, and you know how to respond on the basis of that. Hence, moral insight must be a form of knowledge.

As we have already seen, the good makes a demand on the self, and the self feels this demand, i.e., he is passive before it. But at the same time he actively affirms the good. Both moments are necessary in order to have moral insight, i.e., for me to encounter something as being good. Approval therefore has the structure of "taking to be…" in the sense that I take something to be good for me or I do not. But this is the same idea as Kant's apperception principle, which states that, in order for some performance in a broad sense to count as a performance for me, I must potentially be aware that it is "this" act that "I" am doing. Part of what it means to perceive or judge or believe is that I am co-aware that I am the agent doing it. Ordinarily, apperception remains recessive. As Schelling says, in acts of ordinary knowing, the knowing itself vanishes into the object, and it is the work of the transcendental philosopher to retrieve the subject's acts of knowing from out of their identity with the things known. (System of Transcendental Idealism, p. 9.) This "vanishing" into the object is a necessary precondition of knowledge insofar as an objective account of the world requires us to put aside, as far as we can, the subject's contribution to knowledge. The more conspicuous the subject's spontaneous contribution to knowledge, the more that contribution eclipses the object of knowledge. We have to "forget" ourselves for the sake of knowledge. But part of the naturalistic thesis is that we also forget the forgetting. We forget that the muting of the self and its contribution in knowledge is actually an accomplishment of the self. When the recession of the subjective is forgotten, we get reduction and finally elimination.

But this points to a crucial contrast between theoretical apperception and practical apperception. If the object of theoretical insight is subject-indifferent, then the practical apperception concerns precisely the standing of the self with regard to the good. Moral insight constitutes the relation between the self and others with regard to what ought to be done. Where the self is muted in theoretical insight, it is conspicuous in moral insight.

The good can only exist through the self taking it to be determinate for the self. Without approval, the good would be wholly indeterminate and could never be anything to me. But a good that is nothing to me is no good at all. What makes the morally good a good is that it determines action; if it doesn't determine action, then it itself is not a determinate good. Therefore, the actuality of the good is tied to the moral performance which governs it and makes it possible.

But who I take myself to be in part determines who I am. The conception of agency the agent gives to himself in part determines what that person is as an agent. In relating to the world, I give to myself a conception of the self which carries a conception of agency with it.

Let's try an example. We're all "liberated," modern subjects here. We can choose to take a job, we can choose to go to France, we can choose to drink red wine or white wine or beer, we can choose to listen to this music or that, we can choose who we sleep with or marry, etc. I relate to the world this way, so I take myself to be a free human being, or at least one who is free to pursue his pleasures if he wants. My happiness or my sadness is determined by how I respond to the fact that I'm a creature with impulses and desires and goals, often of a conflicting nature. All of this belongs to the idea of being a libertine.

Part of who I conceive myself to be, as an agent, is a product of my approval of a version of the good. In order to conceive of myself as a "liberated" person, I have to approve of the goodness of happiness and the badness of Puritanism or my girlfriend's parents killing her (and/or me) if they find out she had sex out of wedlock. And it is only through this approval that the self first constitutes itself as a self. This is why Heidegger says that Dasein is "distinguished by the fact that, in its very being, that being is an issue for it." (BT, H12) I must determine myself in one way or another in order to be. What traditional moral philosophy took to be merely formal Heidegger takes to be a deep existential structure of the very possibility of there being human beings inhabiting an intelligible world at all. This is what it means that Dasein's being is "care" [Sorge]. We also saw last time that, when Dasein comes up against the enigma that it is in Angst, it has the ethico-existential choice of taking up responsibility for the truth or fleeing it. Such an interest is co-extensive with Dasein's existence.

So the self becomes a self by performatively realizing or failing to realize some conception of the good. This isn't just a concept of the good; it's a factual choice, and it presupposes that the self has felt the good and has approved it. No self emerges without always already having chosen itself in such a fashion. This means that, before there is theoretical reflection, there is an act, and with regard to this act which serves as the condition of possibility of the self, the self must always remain in cognitive deficit. (This is how Schelling interprets the relation between act and reflection, too, in his 1800 System. The philosopher can attempt to dialectically reconstruct the acts whereby the self becomes a self, but he can never really catch up, and so his constructions are always in some sense "artificial.") So moral insight founds the self.

Now remember what we said before. The self is largely recessive in theoretical cognition, but there is an explicit choice involved in moral insight. The choice/act/performance is what makes moral insight possible. If this choice isn't performed, then there is no moral insight. The good is nothing to me. So the self and the good that founds it aren't necessarily there all the time in full force. It could be there in a matter of degree. Now if moral insight is available only when it is chosen, and if choosing moral insight is coextensive with choosing the self, then it follows that, where the good is mitigated, refused, or indefinitely deferred, the good can be obliterated, and the individual can become as if it were merely a walking version of the recessive self of theoretical cognition. If moral insight founds the self, then vice withers the self and the good.
[I]t is not every sort of judgment that is destroyed or perverted by pleasant and painful experiences; not, e.g., judgments such that the sum of the angles of a triangle is or is not equal to two right angles, but judgments about what is to be done. For the originative cause of an action is the purpose for which it is done; but a person who is corrupted by pleasure or pain ceases at once to see that this is a cause at all; for vice tends to destroy the authority of the originative cause. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1140b 13-20)
There is no ethical good without approval and performative actualization of it. Actuality precedes potentiality. Whether one participates actively in the work of ethics takes priority over whether or not the good exists in some abstract, indeterminate sense. But if the good is mitigated, refused, or indefinitely deferred, then the self cuts itself off, not just from the good, but from the form of object-relatedness required by moral insight. In other words, the world begins to appear as though there were no place for the good in it. It is only by means of approval and affirmation that the good exists. Such approval and affirmation places being under the condition that the good is possible in it. Ought implies can. This is why ethics has ontological significance.
How must a world be constituted for a moral being? I would like to give wings once again to our physics, which is otherwise sluggish and progresses laboriously via experiments.

This way -- if philosophy furnishes the ideas, experience provides the data, we get that grand physics which I expect will come in future ages. It does not appear that the current physics can satisfy the creative spirit, such as ours is or should be. ("Oldest Programme for a System of German Idealism," written in 1796, probably jointly by Holderlin, Schelling, and Hegel one night when they were lit.)
If genuine moral insight is possible, then the moral subject has no choice but to see the world as the kind of place in which the good is possible. That I ought to do something implies that it is possible for me to do it; if it is impossible for me to do, then I can never make it my maxim. But if moral insight is impossible, then the world appears more and more like the kind of place in which the good cannot appear. It begins to look curiously mechanical and dead. (More on this later.) Therefore, moral insight into the good, the choice of the good and the performance of it, and revealing the world as a place in which the good is really possible, all imply and are implied by one another.

[This one is a hodge podge of a few things. Mostly it's from Dieter Henrich's "The Concept of Moral Insight" as glossed by Bernstein in the intro to his book on Adorno. But I tied it in with Schelling, Holderlin, and Hegel, along with the Heidegger stuff on ethics on I wrote about earlier.]
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