Brandom and Ethics

March 26, 2011

A few posts back I emphasised that we shouldn’t understand ‘normativity’ as specifically related to ethics – ethical norms are just one species of norm. Which norms we judge to be ethical ones and which ones we don’t is itself a normative question – one that different communities of practice will answer in different ways. (And, of course, the category of ‘ethics’ as we understand it is not a historically constant one). All that said, I want to talk a bit about questions that at least partly fall under the scope of ‘ethical theory’. Again, I’ve never studied the philosophy of ethics (the bits and pieces I’ve looked at in the field always struck me as sort of wacky, though that doesn’t mean much), so this is all relatively amateur. It also probably falls in the ‘personal blogging’ rather than the ‘actual proper theory’ category, so you may have to bear with me.

So: what can we get out of Brandom’s work in relation to ethical theory? (As I say, this stuff is not carefully thought- or worked-through.) One obvious answer to that is a secular account of the sources of normativity. It’s not uncommon for people to assert that the source of norms must be, basically, magical in some way. Brandom’s work shows how it’s possible to give an account of normativity – an account that is not relativist, or nihilist, and that does not fall victim to the might-makes-right issues attendant on the set of theoretical positions that Brandom calls ‘regularism’ – that explains norms entirely in terms of social practices (broadly defined), which can themselves in principle be understood naturalistically. Brandom’s theory doesn’t require us to understand normativity this way: if we believe our norms find their origin in the divine, there’s nothing Brandom’s work can do to refute the idea. But Brandom’s work does show that we don’t need a supernatural or non-naturalistic understanding of norms in order to be entitled to an idea of normative objectivity – life will not lose all meaning if there turns out to be no God. In this respect Brandom’s work falls squarely in the “I have no need of that hypothesis” tradition of secular theory.

More than this, though, Brandom’s work gives us a very detailed, micrological account of the actual practices by which norms are instituted. I want to explore, in a somewhat scattered way, some of the things this account can tell us about ethical (or, I guess, meta-ethical) matters. I guess I’ll start a new post to begin.

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