Blog Archives

On Brexit and Normative Ethics

While it’s true that I’ve been, for some time, in a state of flux when it comes to ethics and how I view the world, I’ll admit that I still find myself slightly allergic to ends-oriented systems. I’ve the gut feeling, the intuition – as much as I might disdain them as quanta of ‘proper’ knowledge – that the necessary causal link between the action and the desired outcome just doesn’t hold up. Nothing so far reaching as a Humean denial of the whole apparatus, I simply can’t put to rest anxieties cropping up from the unknowable nature of the future. We can at best guess at what our choices will result in, and that doesn’t cut the mustard for the big decisions.

That all said, recent political events here in Britain have (further) shaken my confidence in Kantian, maxim-based deontology. Tomorrow marks the day of referendum on whether or not to leave the European Union, riding under the rather facile portmanteau ‘Brexit.’ Appropriately, I would imagine, the vote is closed to Europeans living in Britain, but, and this I don’t quite understand, it is open to Commonwealth citizens who’ve been living in the country for the requisite period. Thus, I am faced with the three choices – Brexit, Bremain (and you thought the former was a neologistic nadir!) or abstain.

"But this is our country!" "Do you have a flag? No flag, no country!" - a great man

“But this is our country!”
“Do you have a flag? No flag, no country!”
– a great man

The run-up, while it has grown a bit tedious of late, has energised public discourse in a way that one doesn’t often see in usual elections. Perhaps this is explained by the largely-populist nature of the Brexit campaign – the likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have for several weeks now been resorting to dog-whistle, and in some cases blatant, racist tactics to stir up opposition to the EU. The existence of UKIP as a party is based on the hindbrain vapours of a slice of the populace, and proof of this has only been reiterated over the last few weeks. But, depending on the day, the Leave side surpasses that of the Remain in the polls, so there is more going on here than just abject bigotry. Some portion has to be chalked up to the dismal, dirge-like nature of the In for Britain campaign, a campaign who have relied almost entirely on the tactic of economic fear mongering, delivered up by panels of rich business people, moneyed luvvies, and pompous bureaucrats – the very elites that set the average punter’s blood to boil.

There is, also, a principled reason to exit the Union. From its start, it has been and continues to be an inflexible, undemocratic monolith catering to the needs of multinational corporations. While some worker’s rights, some environmental and safety standards, some crumbs from the tables of our fiscal superiors are codified by the EU, every tangible gain for workers has come through struggle, as is ever the case. The EU, for all its vaunted protection of European citizens, has been systematically eroding the rights of workers for decades. One need look no further than the South of the continent for that, where the ongoing punishment of Greece looms particularly large. The EU, and its destriers, the IMF and the ECB, are not our friends. We would do well to be rid of them.

We would, that is, if their absence wouldn’t leave us even worse off. The country has a unipolar economy directed entirely towards finance, and most of that focussing on funneling money into Frankfurt. The Tories, though it has been amusing to watch this referendum split their party most acrimoniously, are still in power, and any arguments that we will be better positioned to argue against TTIP, to redirect the funds we send to the EU to shoring up the faltering NHS, are belied by that. We have no unified Left-opposition, as Corbyn/McDonnell continue to allow the Parliamentary Labour Party Blairites to run wild, and the radical Left remains in complete disarray, suffering delusions of mass insurrection every time George Galloway or Alan Woods feel dyspeptic. No, leaving the European Union in present circumstances would sink the economy of Britain (we’ve already seen sizeable fluctuations in the pound’s exchange rate, and there are rumblings of a second Scottish independence vote to come, should Leave triumph) and it is ever the working classes that suffer most acutely in such situations.

Returning to ethical concerns for a moment, my quandary becomes a bit clearer – can a maxim, in its successful execution, reflexively undermine the purpose that animated it? I’m not unaware of the irony here – that I should start by saying I’m wary of ends-oriented systems, and then problematise deontology by soiling it with the mere possibility of results. However, I still feel as if there is more to it than that, that this hangs more on Kant’s own formulation – to will the success of an event is to will the means for it – and if there is something mangled about those means, surely this is a problem. I suspect that the issue could be dodged by reframing – maxims are meant to be simple, categorical affairs, and the presentation I’ve provided here – even if boiled down to handy slogans like ‘Avoid acts resulting in Class collaboration’ or ‘Do not undermine the emancipation of working people’ – is incompatibly complex.

There are, of course, cogent criticisms of the maxims and, despite what Kant thought, their tendency to snarl one another and themselves. If the above count as proper maxims, this then looks like one of those cases. If not, then this particular snag is avoided, but at the cost of leaving us wondering how we build a useful system out of the infinitesimals maxims would surely be reduced to, to avoid fouling themselves up.

Whatever the fall-out of these systematic concerns, the fact remains that this is a no-win scenario. At best, we have lose-less and lose-more on the table before us, and, in the interests of damage control, I suspect I’ll be voting, with clenched teeth, for Bremain tomorrow. In the interim, I’ll try to dig out my copy of the Groundwork, and tighten up what is, I admit, a rather sophomoric interpretation of the situation.


Value Ethics; or, At Home in a Foreign Land

Greek *and* Latin, because Authority.

Greek *and* Latin, because Authority.

I’ve been working away at the Nichomachean Ethics for a while now – put on hold after it was shelved during a thorough tidy, I’ve dug it out and am attacking it in earnest.

As I think I’d mentioned elsewhere, I did for a long while, at least the first years of my demi-adulthood, count myself a Kantian, or at least a Deontologist. There was something comforting about being able to point to an absolute, a well-supported base that could be universally applied. As I was to learn upon closer examination, i.e., a reading of the First Critique (catalyst for the emergence of some mental health fun I’m still working through)i, the whole system collapses if you take a loosely Judeao-Christian God out of the equation. Rather than standing up by the strength of its own architectonics, its rigid formulae, the compulsion of the dicta was surrogate. The whole apparatus was an empty vessel, and, without the Holy Ghost animating it, sits lame and inert.


An attempt from earlier in the summer, featuring maybe the reason it didn't stick.

An attempt from earlier in the summer, featuring maybe the reason it didn’t stick.

I cannot accept a god of that sort, and so I find myself sealed off from the enjoyment of an ostensibly airtight ethics. I don’t know that that precludes Deontology altogether, but it is difficult to move from a preset group of universalised principals without an external force to lend them power. If the system itself doesn’t provide the validity, it has to come from somewhere. This is one of the strengths of Utilitarian systems – built from the ground up, they don’t really need the universality of a Deontic system – you set your assumptions (which is where the problems start) and then the whole thing skips along. Historically, those assumptions have been mistaken, and the apparatus is invariably too clumsy to actually grasp the nuances of the world itself, but at least there is a pleasing mechanistic coherence about the whole thing.

So, top-down Deontology doesn’t work for me, without God at the crank making sure it keeps running it’s simply empty. I’m not especially interested in a Utilitarian ethics – I have an intuition-level distaste for it, which I’ve shored up in a post-hoc form several times, but should really take the time to chew on. What then of Value Ethics? Fine grained enough to get a hold on the world, and doesn’t seem to need external authority. So far, so good.

The trouble, and this was something I noticed in my initial skim back in uni, is that so much of, at least what Aristotle’s formulation presents, is prey to the rankest of societal relativism. I realise that it would be anachronistic to project our own standards of logical rigour backwards, but there exist many fundamental assumptions in the Nichomachean Ethics that simply don’t pan out when you get beyond folk-wisdom. Declaring virtues to be a known element to “all men” works nicely if you’re talking about a single population, within a limited time-frame and geographical spread, but, as we know from experience, what one society takes as patently obvious is the far edge of the alien to another.

It’s not a novel complaint, by any means. I guess I’m just left a bit disappointed that it collapses so readily into relativism. Mind you, it’s not as if the take-away portion of the system – the pursuit of eudaemonia, that human flourishing produced by valorous conduct – could be anything other than a very specifically, societally bound affair. I suspect it’s directly related to how nuanced and fine-toothed the approach is that it gets so thoroughly tangled in individual cases.

Alongside concerns about Kantian Deontology, it was also in preparation for reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s works (his earlier, Marxist works) that I took on the re-reading of Aristotle. It’s interesting, then, that he confronts this issue of cultural relativism in After Virtue. The way out is a fallacy, its true, but this is a messy world. In defence of Value Ethics, MacIntyre and others admit that there is a significant problem with cultural relativism. So too, they say, does every other form of Normative Ethics. Worse they, in fact. As much as Virtue Ethics may be mired in cultural concerns, Consequentialism and Deontology have it just as bad – the generalised goals of Consequentialism, every time, are chosen within the blinders of a culture. The best Deontic system, as I’ve already said, had a massive deity-shaped crutch. Tu quoque, but at least Virtue Ethics owns it.

One of the more attractive elements of MacIntyre’s position, from what I’ve read of it, is the onus on humans-as-members-of-communities. MacIntyre’s position from the outset is to reject the individualist thrust of modern (Renaissance/Enlightenment forward) ethical systems. By situating humans in relations with one another, in something more robust than mere actor/acted upon, we arrive at a better way of conceptualising proper behaviour in society. For what it’s worth, this dovetails with the common-sense approach to ethics – no one, no honest person, would say that American society owes nothing to the victims of slavery, or genocide. And yet, no one of my generation has owned slaves, or driven Native Americans off their land. Clearly, we believe in some degree of historical culpability – “I am born with a past, and to cut myself off from that past in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships,” MacIntyre says. I suspect the ways in which this aligns with my politics to be readily evident.

I’ll finish the Nichomachean Ethics, and I’ll grab MacIntyre’s After Virtue, as well. I guess I’ll just have to get used to having a more bounded, localised ethics. I’m not sure what metaphysical baggage I’ve loaded myself with, yet, but I’ll wriggle out of it without too much trouble – I still fly the flag of the Vienna Circle, even if it is 2/3 in self-mockery. It’ll be a shame to not know that I’m always right, categorically, anymore though.

i. More so the difficulty of the text and what this meant for me as a scholar – the whole God thing I’d gotten over half a dozen years before.