The Rational Animal?

Kicking off the Speculative Heresy/Inhumanities blog event, the opening piece comes from Pete Wolfendale of the prolific and always fascinating Deontologistics blog. Pete’s piece is not only an excellent introduction to the issues, it also frames the questions beautifully, as well as contributing Pete’s own unique answer to the norms/realism relationship.

The aim over the next couple weeks will be to post up a new contribution every other day, thereby giving time for each post to generate some debate. We’ll be accepting submissions as the event continues, so feel free to send along contributions to speculativeheresy[at]gmail[dot]com or inhumanitiesblog[at]gmail[dot]com.

The Rational Animal?

Pete Wolfendale

The overarching theme of the discussion to which this piece aims to contribute is that of the contemporary demand for realist ontology. This demand is powerful, but vague, and  many different responses to it are emerging. However, we can point out a defining feature of this contemporary demand: not only must we aim to think the Real, but we must recognise that humans (and thus we who think) are part of the Real, and all that this entails. There is further disagreement on exactly how this is to be understood, but there is at least one point of convergence: thinking the human as part of the Real involves denying it any kind of privileged role in constituting the Real. This contemporary demand for realism thus involves a denial of the classical privilege accorded to man within the history of philosophy, it aims to remove man from his central role as that around which the world turns.

The context of our discussion is thus a certain demand about how we must understand the world, but what the discussion aims at is more specific. It aims at uncovering the consequences that this demand has for how we must act within the world. Specifically, we have been posed four questions:-

  1. What is the relation between ethics and ontology?
  2. Can ethics and norms be grounded in something real?
  3. Does a realist ontology require the suspension of any ethical imperatives?
  4. Are nonhuman actors capable of ethical relations?

We will try to tackle these questions in this order, such that the discussion of each question may build upon the previous one. However, we will combine our examination of these questions with another theme, which hopefully will shed light upon them. This is the status of the classical definition of man, handed down from antiquity: man is the rational animal. The problematic character of this definition will show itself to be deeply entwined with the matter at hand.

1. Ethics and Ontology

In order to understand the relation between ethics and ontology, we first need to understand what they are individually.

Ethics, as it is most broadly conceived, deals with the question of how we should act. It can be debated as to whether this should be restricted to how we should act as individuals, or whether it includes how we should act as a group (this could be thought of as part of the distinction between ethics proper and politics). Moreover, it is often debated as to whether the former should be restricted to how we should act in relation to others, or whether this should be taken to include how we should act in relation to ourselves (which is sometimes taken to be the distinction between ethics and morality). We won’t take a stance on either of these issues, as they aren’t relevant to the overall argument. For now, ethics is simply concerned with what one should do.

Ontology, as it is most broadly conceived, concerns itself with what is. However, it is important to distinguish ontology’s concern with what is from science’s concern with what is, and there are several different ways of cashing out this difference. Regional ontology aims to provide a basic set of types of entities, properties and relations, which a given science can use to work out what is within its domain. However, the contemporary demand relates to what Heidegger initially called fundamental ontology, which is not restricted to any given domain, but grounds the practice of regional ontology in all domains by giving an account of what entities, properties, and relations in general really are. My preferred way of cashing this out is by saying that whereas science concerns itself with what is, ontology proper concerns itself with what ‘what is’ is, thus with the very structure of the ‘is’ itself.

In discussing the relation between ontology and ethics, we are concerned with the impact that a new ontological orientation has upon ethics. We are not concerned with the broader question of what, if any, affect ethics has upon ontology. Leaving this aside then, we can delineate roughly two ways in which it would be possible for ethics and ontology to be related:

1.  The Weak Relation: Through its impact on science, ontology could indirectly affect our understanding of what is, and thus also our understanding of what we can do. It can thus raise new ethical questions about what we should do, even if it does not necessarily help us in answering them. For example, regional ontological revolutions in biology have opened up questions about species identity and evolution which have lead directly to ethical debates over transhumanism.

2.  The Strong Relation: Ontology could directly affect our understanding of what we should do, by providing an account of what any of the fundamental notions involved in ethical claims are (e.g., right, wrong, value, action, permissibility, responsibility, etc.), be it through regional or fundamental ontology. For example, giving an account of the very nature of value would play an important role in debates surrounding the inherent worth of human and other forms of life.

Now, the first of these possibilities seems unobjectionable. The second possibility is more problematic. The real issue here is whether the contemporary demand for realism, and its corresponding de-privileging of the human rules out the second possibility, by undermining the reality of these fundamental ethical notions. It is important to note that what is not in question here is whether or not there are ethical truths. There seems to be some agreement on this. The question is rather whether ethical truths describe the Real in any meaningful way.

2. The Real and the Rational

This brings us to the second question: can ethics and norms be grounded in something real? As above, this can be interpreted in a weak way, to which the answer is an unproblematic yes. For instance, questions about environmental ethics must definitely be grounded in some understanding of the environment as it really is. The stronger interpretation of the question is what we’re interested in: Does ethics describe the Real? Are norms part of, or derived from part of the Real?

The answer to this question lies in understanding the root of the various fundamental ethical notions mentioned above. We will limit ourselves to the notions of action and responsibility, insofar as these underlie the very notion of what we should do. Firstly, what distinguishes an act from a mere occurrence is our ability to understand it in rational terms. A genuine action is something that aims at an end. That end is a state of affairs that is to be brought about by the action, or a proposition that the action is supposed to make true. Secondly, a responsibility is a commitment to bring about some end, although that end may be a conditional proposition, as in the case of rules for action. Responsibilities thus need to be understood as reasons for action. Moreover, one cannot have a responsibility if one is not capable of understanding that responsibility. What this means is that one cannot be responsible if one is not capable of grasping the content of the commitment (the proposition to be made true) by deploying it in practical reasoning (e.g., being able to infer that a commitment to climb Everest involves travelling to Nepal). There are many tricky issues involved in working out exactly how much understanding someone must have of any given commitment in order to be responsible for it, but at minimum, we can hold that to be treated as responsible for anything, one must be able to be treated as rational.

The notion of rationality is thus foundational for ethics. We can thus propose an interesting way of deciding whether the strong relation between ethics and ontology holds. If it is a matter for ontology to describe what rationality is, then it holds, but if the essence of the rational is not part of the Real (and thus not a matter for ontology), then neither is the essence of ethics, or its specific content. A complete proof is impossible here, but we will endeavour to give some reasons why the latter view is correct, and what the consequences of it are.

The first important point to make about rationality is that to be counted as rational is itself a matter of being treated as responsible, albeit in a very specific way. To be counted as rational is to be responsible for what one says and what one does, or more specifically, for providing good reasons for what one says and does. Ultimately, being a rational entity is a matter of engaging in the process of giving and asking for reasons, and this is something that is itself governed by norms. For instance, if one admits that one holds contradictory theoretical commitments (e.g., that Pete is an only child and that Pete is an uncle), then one has a responsibility to abandon one or both of them. So, one must be counted as rational to be counted as responsible at all, but being counted as rational is just being counted as having a certain fundamental set of responsibilities, without which one couldn’t have any others.

Counting someone as rational and counting someone as responsible are thus of the same kind. They are attributions of normative status. Normative statuses are social statuses, they are roles and scores that we take on insofar as we are involved within a certain practice. Being a rational subject is analogous to being a goal keeper in a football (or soccer) match, and having a particular commitment is like having a yellow card. Now, both attributing a normative status to someone and ascribing a property to something are kinds of predication. This does not mean that normative statuses are thereby real properties of things, not all predicates are genuine properties. The arguments we can have about what a given property is (e.g., hypoglycemia), and whether a given thing possesses it, have a fundamentally different structure from those about what a given normative status is (e.g., a commitment to climb Everest), and whether someone occupies it. In essence, there is nothing that the normative status is that can be described in non-normative terms. The commitment to climb Everest can only be cashed out in terms of other commitments (e.g., going to Nepal), and the status of being a rational subject can only be cashed out in terms of the particular responsibilities it involves.

In short, rationality can only be described in normative terms, and the normative can itself only be described in normative terms. This reveals the problem with the classical definition of man: the predicates ‘rational’ and ‘animal’ are disjointed, they cannot fit together to constitute a real essence, because rationality is not a real property. We can thus see that being a rational subject, and thus being an ethical subject, is entirely independent of being human. Humans are an unprivileged part of the Real (like zebras, microchips and leptons), but the social roles that we ascribe to one another are not (at least not in the way that we take them to be qua social roles, but this is a longer story).

3. Deflationary Ethics

Let us turn to the third question, in light of the provisional answer to the first two: Does a realist ontology suspend any ethical imperatives?

Given that on the above account, ontology should not institute any ethical imperatives, it is safe to say that the only ethical imperatives it can suspend are those posed on a faulty ontological basis. For instance, any ethical imperative based upon a theistic cosmology, or some other kind of metaphysics of intrinsic value would be undermined. This is not because this kind of realist ontology re-conceives the nature of the ethical or of value, or because it obliterates them, but simply because it is deflationary with regard to the ethical pretensions of ontology.

4. Rationality and Animality

Finally, we can turn to the fourth question, taking into account all we have said above: Are actors capable of ethical relations?

The straightforward answer to this question is a resounding yes. However, the issue is more complicated. We might be able to come up with a whole host of different ethical relations, but for now we will restrict ourselves to a fundamental, and importantly asymmetric one: having responsibility for.

In principle, there is nothing preventing anything from being in the second place of the relation. We could have responsibility for sheep, for unborn babies, for the global ecosystem, for Goldman Sachs’ stock price, etc. Whether we do have such responsibilities, and what the precise content of those responsibilities are is not a matter of any special ethical properties those things possess, but a matter for argument about the responsibilities we have in virtue of the normative statuses we occupy and the statuses those things have in our practices, argument that can nonetheless also involve facts about the real properties those things possess.

On the other side of the relation, it is not possible for anything to have a responsibility for something else. As pointed out above, in order to be responsible at all, one must be able to be counted as rational, and not just anything can be counted as rational. However, it is possible for things other than humans to be counted as rational subjects: we can imagine aliens, artificial intelligences, and evolved animal species that could so qualify. Nonetheless, there are conditions under which they can qualify, even if these are not clean cut. We won’t say anything more about these conditions, as this is a complicated matter. However, at the very least, insofar as we can treat something as a rational subject, we should do so.

This leads us to a different kind of ethical relation, which is perhaps even more fundamental: having responsibility to. This is distinct from the latter relation, because the occupant of the second place has some kind of authority to assess our enactment of that responsibility. For instance, in making a promise to someone, I give them a certain amount of authority in interpreting the conditions of fulfilment of the promise (not necessarily a complete authority, but this is another complicated matter). As such, the occupant of the second place must themselves be a rational subject, because just as rational subjects alone may bear responsibility, so they alone may have authority.

All of the fundamental responsibilities that we have as rational subjects are responsibilities to, and moreover, they are responsibilities to all other rational subjects. The gambit of Kantian deontology, discourse ethics, and other such transcendental approaches to ethics is that we find the ground of the ethical in these rational responsibilities. This is not to say that we find all of ethics here, just that this should be ethics’ starting point. However, this does tend to indicate that we have a privileged ethical relation to rational animals, over and above non-rational ones, but, as we have seen, this has nothing to do with humanity as such.

9 thoughts on “The Rational Animal?

  1. Pingback: Rational Animals « Deontologistics

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  6. The problem with rationality is that it does not apply to the world at large. I get what you are saying. Philosophy fails people because it does not inform them of the necessity of regarding human emotion and taking that into account. Regardless of what philosophy tells us, there are people involved here and the people must be considered. They have feelings, ideologies, and beliefs that differ from other people but relate in a a very important way. That is where I think Corporate America is able to pull one over on us – they steal from and build upon the emotions that people have but are not allowed to validly express because of the nature of our society at large.

  7. Pingback: Brandom and Ethics « Deontologistics

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