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« Four Naturalistic Strategies in Accounting for Ethical Claims | Main | The Logic of Action »

Brandom's Ethical Strategy

Continuing with Robert Brandom's Reason in Philosophy: Animating Ideas, the ethical strategy which he adopts in the second half of the book builds on the classical notion of the good life as in what is most conducive to human flourishing, what is good for human beings as human beings. Brandom adopts this conception of ethical valuing and grounds it in his more basic claim that epistemic capacity stands on normative activity, i.e., that knowing that is a species of knowing how. Taking this from the Kantian conception of knowledge as a function of human capacities, of the conceptual structures we have, and the latter as instances of how we relate to statements (recognizing their inferential dimension in terms of what they authorize and obligate us as language speakers to do), he goes on to suggest that this normativity runs all the way down. He makes the further distinction between sentience and sapience, arguing that sapience, which is what we have, rests on but qualitatively changes the underlying sentience.

Sentience, he suggests, is the state of having sensations, sensory information, feelings -- of being aware. Sapience is the state of having the capacity to conceptualize and so think about the things we experience as sentient creatures. At least in the case of creatures like ourselves, he argues, sapience, which he describes as fundamentally normative (a matter of learning and following rule-sets) rests on the sentience we have but radically alters its nature. Hence, he concludes, determining what is the good life for humans must rest on discovering what is good for sapient creatures, not just sentient ones. From this he rules out the idea of merely physical pleasure, however happy it may make an organism, as the right sort of objective for a sapient creature to pursue. What is good for humans as sapients, then, cannot be such things. What then?

He argues, and here one might suppose some special pleading appears to have entered into his calculus, for the life of the mind and, specifically, for philosophical inquiry as the highest sort of good at which humans might aim. To live a good life is to exercise one's sapient capacities most fully and in a way that is maximally satisfactory to sapient creatures. For Brandom, it is the life of the mind and, specifically, the life of the contemplative mind as lived by philosophers. And here, one is tempted to say, he has gone astray in accounting for whatever it is that we think morally good for he has failed to offer a means by which those who are not so blessed (with conceptual capacities) can live the right sort of life. More he has not shown how living such a life or pursuing it leads us to what we generally take to be morally good choices.

If moral valuing is about doing the right thing vis a vis other creatures in the universe, and surely that is what it seems, intuitively at least, to be about, then Brandom at this juncture has left a great gap in his account. It cannot be enough, from a moral perspective, for any of us to live our lives like philosophers in order to be ethically better off. What of those who cannot do so? Are they without any moral capacities of their own? And how many moral judgments as we find them in our daily lives really seem to rest on the belief in the desirability of living like a philosopher?

Admittedly I am still not finished with the book (it's quite dense and abstruse) but it seems to me that, at least vis a vis a moral account, he is off the track.

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