Brandom's Ethical Strategy
June 3, 2014
Stuart W. Mirsky in Ethics, Kant, Robert Brandom, Stuart Mirsky

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.

Update on June 3, 2014 by Registered CommenterStuart W. Mirsky

I was pressed for time this morning when I did the initial post so I didn't have a chance to draw out what I think all the implications of Brandom's apparent approach ("apparent" because I've not yet finished the book) would be for the way in which we can account for ethics (i.e., for the moral valuing game). Although Brandom does not, in the chapter I had just finished (and refer to above), address how his focus on what is good for human beings (as in what human beings ought to pursue based on what they are, i.e., based on the facts) would yield familiar moral claims such as don't commit murder or don't steal or cheat or lie, etc., I expect he would adduce a Kantian argument in order to get to these. That is (and pending my further reading but in light of what I now understand of Brandom's approach), he would probably say that, given that the good life for a person is the one that most fully exercises (realizes?) his or her sapience, we would find in such full exercise subscription to the claim that no one's interest is, in principle, more important than anyone else's.

Thus, embracing the good of a rational way of being in the world (a fully rational life) we would also be obliged (given Brandom's insistence on grounding rationality in inferentialism which consists of recognizing and accepting a web of individual obligations and authorities or, as he sometimes puts it, entitlements, as manifested in our inclinations to act), he would likely maintain that, included in that fully rational life, is the recognition of others' interests as being no less significant, i.e., as being equivalent, to our own. This is a Kantian move, as I think Brandom would agree, though it is not one which, to my mind at least, could provide a solid basis for making moral claims of others. That is, even if we, ourselves, embrace this particular view (and it's not an outlandish one in an important sense), moral valuing implies authority of one's moral claims over others, that is, it implies that we are in a position to give them a reason (which, on its merits, they should accept) to act in the way our moral claim requires.

Yet the problem persists that the "highest" form of the rational life, which Brandom alludes to, that of doing philosophy in an exhaustive way (not just, say, as a dilettante), is highly specific to a small class of human beings and surely we don't want to say that only that class of humanity has the opportunity to live the good life as so conceived, and so be maximally ethical in their behaviors. Of course, Brandom wouldn't put it that way. I expect he'd say something like this: It's a goal toward which all rational beings, to the extent they have sufficient intellectual capacity, will choose to move because having sufficient capacity they would recognize this as being intrinsically part of being maximally rational and a rational being would want to maximize his or her rationality. But this then assumes that they already embrace that goal and that, to the extent they don't, they can't be brought to the point of doing so unless they are brought to the point of doing so. And this is an argument for "programming," not argument while even Brandom would agree that ethical discourse, being normative, is about giving reasons, not being programmed (even if it only means that the inclination to think thus is built into one's nature).

Given the above, and pending my further reading of Brandom, at this point it seems to me that he has simply failed to give a full account of moral valuing as such. He has, I think, correctly pointed out that knowing about things has a normative ground and that normativity goes all the way down in us. And this does have an important implication for explaining and justifying moral claims and judgments, and how they work, since they are clearly normative. That is, to account for moral valuing we need an explanation which analyzes and expresses moral claims in terms of what we do, and of what the entities we are do at a most basic level to produce our consciousness of this or that, including the moral claims we make and act on. But it does not seem to be enough to suppose that being moral (as in looking out for others' interests in at least an equivalent way with how we see to our own and, sometimes, even more than our own) can rest on recognizing a life of contemplative activity as the best life for creatures like ourselves and assuming that such a life implies, to the extent it is maximally rational, that we be prepared to subordinate our own interests to those of others. This last, it seems to me is the paramount, indeed the most critical, instance of the moral case. So far, at least, I don't see how Brandom's approach can get us there, even though I find a lot of what he says interesting and even consistent with some of the things I have been getting at myself in these discussions of moral valuing and the consciousness which characterizes our own mode of existence in the world.

Update on June 5, 2014 by Registered CommenterStuart W. Mirsky
Have finished Brandom's book now and am sorry to say that he did not go into any further detail vis a vis ethical questions, leaving me to speculate on where he would take this (perhaps in another book?). Basically it seems to me he has melded the venerable notion (first put forward by the ancient Greeks) that the determinant of what are good things for a person to do (the right ethical choices) is what is good for a person as a person, in the sense of what is most conducive to a person's capacity to flourish, to thrive. It is this kind of thing that humans should aim for because thriving is what humans want.

For Brandom, this seems to boil down to the life of philosophical contemplation (and THAT at an especially high level of abstract thinking if Brandom's own thinking on this is any guide) which leaves a whole lot of humanity outside the moral sphere except as aspirants, I suppose). But the whole point of moral judgments would seem to be about guiding everyone's behavior so leaving most of humanity out doesn't seem right.

I suspect that Brandom would conjoin this advocacy of the maximally contemplative life with a Kantian notion that to be fully rational (which, for Brandom, would arise from such a life as the one he recommends) one must act rationally, in all cases, and that rationality itself implies making no distinction between one's own interests and the interests of other rational beings.

Aside from the fact that rationality is a questionable foundation on which to build an edifice of behaviors when humans behave rationally in a wide variety of ways and that they do so in ways that are not always according to an inarguable consensus of what is rational to do, the same problem obtains, as above. i.e., that a large portion of humanity (perhaps the largest portion) is simply not equipped to think in such abstract and principled terms as Kant would have us do. So this again forecloses the opportunity to act rightly (according to the Kantian principle) for all but a very few of us.

So Brandom's apparent marriage of Aristotelian virtue ethics with a Kantian categorical imperative, seems unlikely to resolve lingering questions about the nature of ethics and its force.

On Truth

On a brighter note, Brandom's last two chapters do offer some interesting stuff. He addresses the question of what truth consists of and proposes that it's not about the mere correspondence of statements to certain states of affairs in the world but that it is a good deal more complex. Taking off from his argument that meaning and understanding essentially consist of knowing our way around a network of inferences (he calls his thesis, which appears to be a kind of Kantian pragmatism, "inferentialism"), he explains that developing the capacity to have concepts, which infuse statements with meaning and which take that meaning from the way they, and the statements in which they are embedded, can stand as reasons for (imply) other statements and be inferred from still other statements, he proposes that calling any statement "true" depends on how it fits into our inferential network. That is, recognizing the extent to which the statement is compatible with other statements and things we do (because making statements is also something we do) and incompatible with still others which do not count as "true," determines the extent to which we can call that statement "true". This is somewhat like a coherence theory of truth and has affinities with Quine's notion that statements take their meaning from the way in which they fit with other statements in a kind of vast, open ended and ever changing theory we live with and hold more or less.

But Brandom is at pains to make clear that he does not only mean coherence with other statements in the inferential network that determines our system of beliefs for he is finally a pragmatist in his approach and does not distinguish between statements and actions. As he puts it, for a statement to have meaning (and to be taken as true or false) it must be able to serve as a reason for other things we do and itself be inferrable from other statements which serve as reasons for it. And among the "conclusions" which any statement, to be a meaningful statement, must support are both other statements as speech acts and other actions we may do even when not done verbally. Thus the truth of a statement is determined by both the upstream and downstream relations that statement makes possible and among the downstream relations are relations to actions. Some statements lead to conclusions in the form of other statements and some also lead to, or only lead to, conclusions in the form of behavioral choices. Thus the effect of an action we may take as a result of the statement is also a contributant to our decision as to it's truth condition. In this way he preserves the pragmatic concept of truth of William James.

Most importantly, I think, is to see that his notion of truth assimilates it to what he appears to take as a more basic concept, that of goodness. So, on his view, one can describe "truth" or "true" as terms denoting the condition of being the statements about various objects of reference which are the better ones compared to their alternatives, i.e., which are, in effect, the good ones to choose! So claims of truth boil down to claims of goodness, in this case of a particular type, namely claims of goodness about the statements in question. Hence, the recognition that to speak of truth is to speak of how our words stack up on a scale of truth valuation, what truth values we ascribe to those statements and why. The good or better statements are those which fit better with the litany of all other statements which make up the manner in which we successfully interact with our world. Truth is just a species of goodness.

Other Matters

His last chapter takes up the question of linguistic complexity and here he lays out an account of four linguistic layers, each of which, he asserts must stand on the other in order to happen, with the most basic being the capacity to label (to tag or to apply what, in other quarters I believe, are called "logically proper names"). On that stands the capacity to describe which, he points out, involves the inferential network on which he believes meaning and understanding stand and where sapience first separates itself from sentience. Above describing he proposes stands the capacity to differentiate between free standing and embedded meanings (where sentential meanings become meanings within more complex sentential formulations which involve meta-linguistic activities) which allows increasing complexity in meaning to occur. The highest form, which he uses formal logical notation to explain (which I don't have access to on my keypad so I cannot replicate it except in complex English formulations which I will not even attempt here), he ascribes to Frege though he says many who read or interpret Frege have missed it. (He has some other things to say about Frege, by the way, including some interesting thoughts on sense and reference but I won't go into them here since they will only dredge up old arguments if attended to and fall on no ears if not!).

In sum, Brandom is very, very interesting though fairly arcane and complex in his thinking. I have just picked up Searle's Rationality in Action in the wake of finishing Brandom's Reason in Philosophy and I'm struck by the difference in the two works though both seem to have much the same subject matter. Where Searle's approach seems ad hoc, superficial and often just outright mistaken (he once again argues for irreducibility, in this case of the self rather than the mind), Brandom is deep and penetrating. Brandom actually gets at the mechanism (whether he is right or wrong) of understanding and meaning while Searle simply goes on about how meaning is a function of intentionality without giving an explanation of either meaning or intentionality. For Searle it seems to be enough to note that we have both. He seems to take both as irreducible givens, as if it's enough to name them in giving his account of how reason operates. Brandom, for all his faults and his tendency toward obscurity in his explication, offers an actual account of how meaning and understanding work, i.e., that they are the result of normative processes whereby creatures like ourselves develop the capacity to maintain and use inferential networks and then actually use them.

Well, for now I'll go ahead and finish the Searle book (as it seems to be the only one of his books I still have after the ravages of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 -- and, as luck would have it, the only one I had not yet read). If I think it's worth it, I may just write a bit on it here.

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