Friday, 22 June 2012

Kant doesn't care if you're happy

We've talked before about Kant's categorical imperative and his idea of duty. One of the reasons that he was so radical is that he disagreed with one of the central principles of classical philosophy: that there's a link between happiness and ethics: that the way of life which will make us really happy is also the way of life that's really ethical. It wasn't just that ethics won't make you happy, but that happiness actually got in the way of ethics: sure, you helped some old guy across the road, but if you did it even slightly to make yourself feel good, it's worthless as an ethical action. Did you play with your children? Fine, but if you did it because you like them, or, heaven help us, you enjoy playing games, you might as well not have bothered. The converse is that, however terrible the effects of your actions, as long as your motivations are right, you're good. Morality becomes radically interior: all about what's going on inside me, with very little interest in how what I do affects the world around me. On the plus side, Kant recognised that we were never going to become ethically perfect in his sense of the word: we'll never reach a point where all our actions are perfectly disinterested and entirely without selfish motivations. There are down sides, though: can you guess what they might be?

According to Matthew Sharpe, one of the less obvious problems with Kant's ethical system was pointed out by Max Horkheimer, a German philosopher and sociologist. He argued that the way Kant opposed duty and pleasure went along with the ideology of capitalism. By making morality all about our internal motivations, Kant shifts the focus away from questions of economics and sociology and makes it difficult to challenge existing systems. His internalisation of morality is a depoliticisation of ethics: I don't care what impact buying a banana has on people on the other side of the world, because I only care about why I bought the banana. I don't care about banker's bonuses, sweatshops, the class system, poverty or injustice because all I care about is me and my inner life. I think that I'm not interested in politics, but actually my moral code is deeply political because it actively discourages me from getting involved in politics.

Roland Boer wrote a great post recently about why ethics is always political. You should go read it.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Which came first, the individual or the social?

We're settling into a rhythm now: Milbank talks about the next historical movement of 'secular' thought, we think, ah, now we're really getting to the birth of secularism, and he says haha, no, actually they're totally dependent on theology still. So that's the essence of this chapter, which deals with sociological thinkers from Malebranche to Durkheim. Honestly, I struggled a little here, both in terms of caring and understanding, as half the people Milbank talks about I've never heard of and the other half I've never read: apologies in advance if that makes this post less sensical than its predecessors.

So, 'sociology' emerged as a discipline which, unlike the political economists or the liberal thinker who thought that the basic constituent of human society was the independent individual, saw 'society' as a basic fact to be reckoned with and accounted for. One of the basic problems of political and social thought is the question of the relationship between the individual and society: do individuals construct society or does society construct individuals? Sociology was an attempt to answer this and, surprise surprise, Milbank thinks they basically nicked their fundamental assumptions from theology. The really sneaky thing, on Milbank's account, is that the early sociologists didn't just steal their ideas from theology, they then pretended that those same ideas were not theological, and used them to explain theology. The cheek!

Milbank locates the origins of sociology in the thought of Joseph de Maistre and Louis Jacques Marie de Bonald. Both of them draw in turn on the thought of Malebranche, who basically thinks that human beings can't possibly create anything new, and so all new ideas have to come directly from God. In de Bonald and de Maistre, this becomes the idea that it's God who holds the collection of individuals together by directly creating social institutions like language, writing, the family and political sovereignty. 'The social' isn't something that humans have made, it's entirely dependent on God.

Next up is Comte, who basically thinks he's doing away with God, although actually he leaves the basic theological structure of de Maistre and de Bonald's metaphysics intact. Comte thinks that it's not God but religion which holds the random collection of individuals together into a society. But the essence of religion is basically the celebration of humanity: what we worship isn't actually God but a mythologised version of 'humanity'. Eventually, Comte thinks, this will evolve into a more explicitly humanistic, secularised sort of religion; but it will still, essentially, be religion.

Then comes Durkheim, whose version of the 'God' figure holding the social world together draws on Kant, whose categorical imperative means that freedom paradoxically means that we should be obedient to a general ethical law. But even though Durkheim talks about the way that all our knowledge and laws and so on are socially constructed, he still basically assumes that there is an Absolute Transcendental Truth out there, keeping everything in place. He still (sort of) believes in God.

So, basically, the problem with sociology is that it assumes that things like society, law, politics, are just given, universal, basic facts of society as if they'd been magicked into being by God rather than constructed in complicated, messy and historically variable ways by human beings. Sociology relies on some (dodgy) theological assumptions that have been dressed up as if they're Science. And worst of all, for Milbank, is that sociology looks at human society throughout the ages, and sees that all human societies involve sacrifice. Because it can't conceive of such a 'basic' social fact being changed, it can't understand the way in which Jesus radically transforms the notion of sacrifice, making a peaceful society possible, and so one of the basic assumptions of sociological discourse in general is that humans are basically violent towards one another and unable to play together like good children. Sacrifice, violence, war and crime are just there, inescapable facts.

The real problem, Milbank thinks, lies in the attempt to try to resolve the chicken-and-egg question of the individual and society. But it's a problem that just can't be resolved: every individual action is formed by society and forms society in return, and so any 'science' which takes the social whole rather than the individual (or vice versa) as the basic fact is screwed from the outset. The only way to deal with the question is to tell stories about it: historiography is necessary but social science isn't. Did Milbank really just argue that the entire discipline of sociology is pointless? I think he did.