Sunday, May 03, 2009

Sunday morning Hegel

A couple of posts back, Buhallin commented:
For a while I've had a somewhat negative view of philosophy, and especially ethics philosophers, because I believe more and more that they don't examine the world to find answers, but try and create justifications for what they already believe. That is, Kant didn't start analyzing morality and eventually come to the conclusion of universalism - he started out believing in universalism, and began crafting arguments to support it. That seems horribly backwards to me.
I think we've all had this feeling in reading various philosophers -- Nietzsche certainly did -- and to the extent it's justified, it's a valid critique, tho not dispositive. A universalist sensitive to Nietzsche's criticisms might concede that philosophers "find" the conclusions to which they are predisposed, but add that, in the case of universalist philosophers, they happen to be correct as well. (To which N's response would be, "My dear fellow, it is improbable that you are not mistaken; but why insist on 'the truth'"?)

Philosophy generally has the problem of making sense of what we (think we) already know. We all think we have a good grasp of morality; it's the problem cases, where our rough principles suffer head-on collisions, that leave us turning to philosophers, who thus have a dual task: "saving the appearances" as regards everyday morality, while either solving the hard cases, or conceding that morality doesn't have all the answers.

Hegel of course ain't concedin' nothin. See his preface to Outlines of the Philosophy of Right:
However we look at it, the truth about right, ethical life, and the state is as old as its recognition and formulation in public laws and in public morality and religion. What more does this truth require, insofar as the thinking mind is not content to possess it in this manner that is closest to us? It requires to be grasped in thought as well; the content which is already rational in itself must win the form of rationality, so that it may appear justified to free thinking.
That's what we want -- a rational formulation (as opposed to a rationalization) of what we think we already know, on the theory that rational formulation will eliminate contradictions. We today can't be as optimistic about this project as Hegel was -- if arithmetic can't be proved internally consistent, what hope does morality have? But that's his project.

Hegel observes that most people (post-Newton) concede that "nature is inherently rational," but that the same can't be said of ethics. Skeptics then sound like skeptics now:
The spiritual universe is supposed rather to be left to the mercy of contingency and caprice, to be God-forsaken, and the result is that, according to this atheistic view of the ethical world, truth lies outside such a world, and at the same time, since even so reason is supposed to be in it as well, truth becomes nothing but a problem ...
To which every philosopher offers "his own solution," in what Hegel seems to regard as the philosophical equivalent of the plethora of diet books. Whereas those of us who shrug off philosophy, with the equivalent (to keep our metaphor) of "diet and exercise!", feel that "we know all about philosophy in general" and despise it at the same time.

Analyzing this position, it seems, will form part of Hegel's task in his book (I've not made it beyond the preface yet). Abbreviating his argument, those who claim that "truth cannot be known" make the individual and his "heart" the judge of what is ethical, a "superficiality" which leads to "hatred of law," for the individual "does not recognize [himself] in the law and so does not recognize [himself] as free there," law being an external and seemingly arbitrary imposition.

What's interesting here -- and I am noticing that any relation to Buhallin's original question may have been left far behind by now, or at best will take another post to elucidate -- is that Hegel insists his position is eminently practical:
since philosophy is the exploration of the rational, it is for that very reason the comprehension of the present and the actual, not the setting up of a beyond, supposed to exist, God knows where -- or rather a beyond, of which we can indeed say where it exists, namely in the error of a one-sided, empty ratiocination.
Since the latter is what philosophy's critics claim that philosophy amounts to, Hegel's aim cannot be faulted.

He goes on to note that "even Plato's Republic, which passes proverbially as an empty ideal, is in essence nothing but the grasping of the nature of Greek ethical life." This is important for Hegel, who expressly renounces "any attempt to construct a state as it ought to be" -- no utopia here. Rather, Hegel's goal is to reconcile the individual with the state, and presumably with ethics as well.

I am not expecting to finish the Philosophy of Right concluding that Hegel has succeeded, but it does seem his work is modern enough that it identifies the issue in terms that still hold good today.


  1. Ouch, that's some dense reading... I actually had to look up ratiocination.

    I guess the question at this point is whether the process really is empty. How much benefit is to be gained from philosophy if it's largely a matter of retroactive inspection? Analyze it from a utilitarian standpoint, if you will.

    Even if we have, at the end of the day, fully and thoroughly defined our ethics and morality, what use can we put that information to? Can it be used as a level of persuasion? A true definition of right and wrong? The starting point for a discussion of right and wrong?

    For the most part the last is, I think, the only actual practical use. The number of people who change their morality after reading Kant would seem to be slim, and even if we could impose such morality they all seem to break down in corner cases. But for discussions of morality, the definitions and reasons are wonderful places to start.

    So I guess in the end the major goal of philosophy is to support additional philosophy.

  2. I think that persuasion may be the ultimate value. That's what I thought was relevant in the Hegel preface -- reconciling individuals with rules that seem arbitrary but, in theory at least, can be shown to comport with their own sense of what's rational.

    Also relevant is the point that we shouldn't expect moral philosophy to demonstrate its cred by achieving surprising results. If someone "proved" that rape or slavery was really moral after all, by jove!, then we would take that as a flaw in the theory, not as an argument for rape or slavery.

    Richard Rorty for one was impatient with Hegel's style of philosophy, precisely on the grounds that it "persuades" no one and that our values change with our emotions, not with our reasoning. Hence a book like Uncle Tom's Cabin or Black Beauty has more "moral" effect than a shelf of moral philosophers.

    But I think that Rorty undervalued the importance of rational persuasion as an alternative to settling disputes by force. People like to feel reasonable; they are uncomfortable being shown that their beliefs are irrational; getting someone to support or oppose abortion by appeal to shared principles seems superior in some respects to doing so with, say, graphic photos of aborted fetuses or the corpses of women killed in back-alley abortions.

  3. I think it's possible that different people would be persuaded by different things. While you or I may dismiss the attempt at emotional persuasion represented by those photos, someone trying to use them obviously finds them persuasive and would therefore (IMHO) be more likely persuaded by such things.

    Maybe it's just the times, but I just don't persuasive leverage as being useful. People who are wishy-washy enough to be persuaded probably don't require anything as formal as Kant or Mills to accomplish it. Those who are set in their opinions aren't going to be persuaded by much of anything at all. The actual portion who are set enough to require solid evidence while still being willing to change is probably so small as to be irrelevant.