I was out of town at a conference this past week, and spent the weekend getting caught up on some grading and helping out at UMD’s outreach day (called Maryland Day), but I saw this post by Levi and thought it might be a good one for me to add/respond to. So here goes.
In the post, Levi begins to address the question of normativity from his Machine-Oriented perspective. How do we account for norms? How do we ground them? The problem, it seems, is that in spite of thousands of years of philosophical effort, we have not been able to come up with a single, all-encompassing normative principle. Kant has his categorical imperative, Mill and the Utilitarians have their pleasure principle, Aristotle has his virtue ethics, and so on. Further complicating the matter is the question of how to treat other cultures that have a completely different basis for normativity (I’m not going to address the neurological issues Levi raises because it’s not my area of expertise, and I haven’t had time to fully think it through). Do we treat them as somehow less than human? Simply uneducated or uncivilized? If we adhere to the principle of cultural relativism, then we can’t do so – we have to treat all ethical systems as fully legitimate ethical systems even if we don’t agree with them.
So where does normativity come from? On what can it be grounded? I think Levi is right to look to ethnography for the clues. In fact, I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot lately as well. Over the past semester, I’ve been taking a class – through the entomology department, oddly enough – on animal ethics. We read most of the chapters from The Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics. It was interesting to me, because the class took a completely different approach to animal ethics than I’m accustomed to. Most of the animal ethics readings I’ve done have been in the post-structuralist vein (most notably Donna Haraway), and the approach in this book was very traditional philosophy – attempting to reason out the appropriate ethical principles by which we can measure our actions. The early chapters took a particular approach – Kantian, Utilitarian, or Virtue ethics – and attempted to extend the ethical boundaries to animals. Later chapters explored more specific issues, and ultimately addressed practical ethics. There was a great deal of agreement between all of the authors, but also a great deal of disagreement, and some that were way out in left field. What all of them had in common, though, was the search for this universal (and transcendent) ethical principle – even with the recognition that such a principle can never really be expected to be found. Interestingly, the professor was a Kantian, so most of our discussions ended back at the Kantian approach, but with some modifications by Christine Korsgaard to extend the ethic beyond the human.
I’ll not spend any more time describing or explaining the animal ethic approaches outlined in the book and discussed in class, because it’s not what this post is about. Instead, what fascinated me about this class, and what gets to the heart of Levi’s questions, is the process that we underwent in this class. From one perspective, we were attempting to reason out those fundamental and universal principles. From another, we were engaged in a performative discourse whereby ethical principles are formulated, contested, modified, rejected, or accepted. It’s a fundamentally local performance. And, looking ethnographically, we see that this is how all ethics are composed. Not through the discovery of some fundamental principle or universal ground, but through the process of discourse between subjects, though many different kinds of grounds are invoked to support or reject a particular ethical principle. In fact, over at ANTHEM, dmf has posted (I’m sure not coincidentally) a nice video of Daniel Smith arguing something very similar from a Deleuzian perspective.
From an empirical (ethnographic) perspective, ethics emerge out of discourse. But it’s not just discourse that gives rise to ethics or norms, they emerge from the confluences of biological, ecological, economic, political, spiritual, and practical factors. Some norms will be easier to accept than others simply because of our biological natures and the ecological contexts in which we find ourselves. But even those norms that are based in part on biology and the complexities of having to live and work together cannot be said to be universal. Take the incest taboo, for example. If any norm could be said to be universal, it is this. But the application of the incest taboo – most obviously in the definition of kin – varies enormously from culture to culture. Even this fundamentally biological principle can change depending on social, cultural, and environmental factors.
In other words, norms are generally agreed upon practices that allow us to live together in a heterogeneous world. There is no ground, only a tangled knot of co-existence, and the continual process of performing ethical discourse. In this way, norms are composed and recomposed over time and space. Obviously, this doesn’t tell us what norms we should follow, and, in fact, it can’t tell us that. Does that mean that anything goes? No, because norms are – must be – composed collaboratively and in relation to our biological and ecological contexts – in this sense, the discourse (taken broadly, and including non-human factors) is the ground, and it is this process and performance of discourse that bounds normativity within a particular social group. Does it mean that we can’t or shouldn’t intervene in the normative practices of others if we find them to be abhorrent? I would argue not, but it does mean that we can’t or shouldn’t expect others to simply and unproblematically accept our own normative principles. Changing others minds takes time and work, and in the process, our own normative claims are made vulnerable. The universal does not exist, it must be made, and it is always prone to failure.