February 22, 2013

Our actions have impacts, and before we take action we try to evaluate what impacts they will have. Will people be hurt by our actions? Will they be helped? Will our goals be furthered by a given action, or will they be hindered? What are the possible outcomes? What are the risks?

Before we take action we consider the great branching tree of possible future worlds, and try to evaluate which – if any – of the actions we could take will send us down a more desirable, less appalling path. We try to map the space of possibilities, evaluate the ways our own deeds can interact with that space, and, implicitly or overtly, we assign weights – of likelihood, and of preference – to different possible futures. We try to understand the world, so we can assess these weights appropriately: so we can map the possibilities accurately and well.

Sometimes — often — outcomes do not match our intentions. The world’s force may overwhelm our puny powers to change it. Our actions may have impact, but not in the ways we hoped. Most ‘tragically’ (in the sense, among others, that this is the formal structure that distinguishes tragedy as a literary form…) our actions may have the opposite effects of those desired: destroying that which we wished to nurture; advancing causes we wished to destroy. Our knowledge of the world was incomplete – we missevaluated the space of possibilities… or we evaluated it well enough, but an outlying possibility turned itself into reality, and the best-laid, most informed plans were undone. Part of what we evaluate, when we evaluate the space of possibilities, is how well we feel we know that space; how likely we are to be surprised.

Or we can refuse to consider the space of possibilities altogether – we can act on an internal sense of ethics; do what is ‘right’, in our eyes, regardless of consequence. The Brandomian metatheoretical apparatus I endorse has an account of such ethical judgements, in terms of the attribution of deontic statuses. To act ethically by some internally legible principle, without regard to consequence, on this account, is to act in such a way that one’s action will be approved by those judges (who are, perhaps, imagined) that one takes to be entitled to validly attribute such deontic statuses. In a sense, then, even this ‘inner ethical’ account is a consequentialist one, from a Brandomian perspective, but the consequences are attributions of deontic status (even if only your own attributions, to an imagined judge).

Of course, all ‘objective consequentialism’ can be re-embedded within an account of deontic attitudes, for a Brandomian phenomenalist approach. Thus, if we take the consequences of our actions to be the source of their justification, this is because we take the consequences of our actions to be the source of their justification – we, again, believe that those with the capacity to rightly judge our actions will judge them on the basis of an evaluation of those consequences.

So a Brandomian account need not be consequentialist in the broader sense – that objective consequences of our actions are the source of their justification. But it will always be consequentialist in a narrower sense – that the normative sanctions of deontic attitudes are the final source of ethical standing, and that sanctions are a real-world thing: consequences of actions. The latter narrow consequentialism becomes the former broader consequentialism if the perspectives we take to have the right to attribute deontic statuses only do so by means of their judgement of objective consequence.

Put more bluntly, without the Brandomian jargon (valuable though it is, in its precision): we think our deeds are good if others, whose thoughts and feelings we value, think they are good. Our ethics will depend on what judgements we value – and whose.*

Who are ‘we’, in this picture? Maybe an individual – the isolated bourgeois self, with its inner depths navigated an alienating world; or maybe a collectivity – of which there can be as many as there are social groupings available in this world of intricate loyalties and betrayals. Whether individual or collective, ‘we’ are divided against ourselves. But some groupings come more to the fore than others, due – in part – to ‘objective’ social factors. More on all that another day.

What about the substance of the judgements that guide action? Here we move from metatheory to theory – or at least from metametatheory to mere metatheory, if that is an improvement. In my mind – and I urge you to concur with me, bolstering our fragile community of agreement – those who rightly judge our actions judge them, in the main, on the basis of consequences. Consequences, in the broader sense, are the principal arbiter, the ‘in the last instance’ from which ethical evaluation principally derives. But those just judges of our imaginations – and, on occasion, of our reality – also have a sympathetic eye for the limits of human capacity; they, like us (since, for most of us, they are us) understand the constraints under which we operate – and while those constraints can never wholly eradicate the shame of an intention gone awry, or of a better impulse betrayed, they evoke pity and compassion in the eyes of those who judge our actions, and provoke dispensations of forgiveness. They know not what they do. The child is not blameworthy whose actions bring bad consequences; those acting under coercion are not blameworthy, for their actions are not their own. And those who act with greater understanding and responsibility, are still part of a web of possible consequences that is difficult to chart, and with limited capacity for their actions to hit home.

How do we navigate that branching tree of possibilities? How do we decide which actions are the right ones?


In recent months my reading time online has been preoccupied by political debates on the ‘left’, about the limits and virtues of ‘reformism’, ‘compromise’, ‘extremism’ and other such controversial values. Schematically (and I’m thinking about fights on twitter, now, to be clear) there are two broad positions that I see attack each other again and again: the ‘radical’ position, which sees the mainstream left as utterly complicit with the forces of reaction, and the ‘mainstream’ position, which sees the ‘radical’ position as a politics of posture – the performance of personal virtue, or ideological purity – rather than as oriented to any kind of realistic goal.

To be honest, my impulses, here, as readers may guess, usually lie with the ‘radical’ side of the fight. But ‘intellectually’ I find myself in a slightly different position, in that both ‘sides’ have more or less convinced me of the legitimacy of their critique of the other. (There are, of course, large, important, praiseworthy exceptions to almost everything I’m saying here – as I say, this is all very very schematic.) I’m persuaded, at this point, that significant portions of the self-identified radical left are centrally motivated by a desire for purity – a desire to escape the taint of compromise with the exercise of power (in the case of the critique that sees itself as always coming from the ‘margins’), or the taint of compromise involved in negotiating outcomes with others who do not fully share our politics (in the case of the authoritarians), or the taint of compromise with a degenerate bourgeois culture (in the case of the new fascist ‘left’), or some similar set of desires to separate self from tainted world. I’m also persuaded that most mainstream advocates of compromise – as mature, adult, realistic, sensible, worldly, considered, judicious, praiseworthy – are mostly just shills for power, whether they ‘mean’ to be or not. At best their imagination is limited – and I think culpably limited, given the privilege (and thus opportunity for education and reflection) typically associated with ‘mainstream’ status – by the limits of their social milieu; and those limits are in turn influenced by the sanctions against critical opinion effected by the power of the power elite. At (frequent) worst they’re just cynical propagandists. Or both, of course, and other things besides.

What to get out of these reflections? Well, firstly – though sort of incidentally – I’m increasingly persuaded that the ‘left-right’ way of thinking about political alignment is of sharply limited use; my remarks above could hardly be more schematic, but I want, in future, to spend much more time thinking and writing about political alignment in terms of substance – different substantive political goals; different organisational strategies; different motivating interests and affects; different social positions – these things can ‘fill out’ an attribution of political alignment much more usefully than any placement on a reified and often contradictory ‘left-right’ scale (that I still find myself using more often than not).

And, relatedly, I’ve basically convinced myself, as it were, at this point, that there is no intrinsic right answer to the questions ‘compromise or not?’, ‘revolution or reform?’, ‘work within the system, or aim to change it?’ etc. etc. – the questions that seem to guide these fierce debates I am a bystander to – these can only ever be answered contextually; and not just in the sense that (‘philosophically’ speaking) everything must be understood contextually, but in the much more concrete sense that these questions need to be evaluated afresh again and again, with changing circumstance.** I’m weary, for example, of complaints from the self-identified radical left, that charity workers, or social-democratic welfare programs, which save millions of lives and ameliorate suffering on a huge scale, serve “merely to prop up the system!”, etc. I see no reason to think that people with the in-principle commitment to total social and political transformation don’t end up with wholly reformist practical commitments very often indeed, because this is what – given their evaluation of the current state of the space of possibilities – they feel is most likely to be of concrete value, here and now. Nor do I see why intent should matter – if actions save lives and diminish pain, I’ll take them, regardless of ideological origin. At the same time, I see no reason at all to cater to the mainstream’s discomfort with ‘radical’ critique and contestation: the hatred directed at those who aim for more than the compromises currently advocated in the name of realism speaks – at best – to an intense narcissism, which cannot tolerate any sense that the ‘mainstream’ ‘left’s’ own compromises might not indisputably be the only rational and humane choice. At best. Putting aside more cynical and malign perspectives, of which there are plenty.

This ‘pox on both their houses’ attitude of mine is, of course, completely useless – its only real likely impact to insult people needlessly. That is not my intent; I am aiming just to think these things through, at my own snail pace, and, for some reason, in public.

Still, what I want to know – what I want to think about – is: what are our goals? What range of action is available to us? How does that range of action intersect with our goals? What are the likely outcomes of a given set of actions? How do we weight the possibilities, and how do we make our judgements on the basis of those weights? Interested in these questions both for myself, in my own ‘individual’ life, and as contributor to a set of collective enterprises.

Of course, my interest in or preoccupation with the politics of compromise, here, may in part be a consequence of my own shifting social position, and its demands. But not altogether, I think.

In any case – in my intellectual work – which is what this blog is for – I am mostly interested, when it comes to politics, in goals, not strategy or tactics. So I can continue to ruminate on these things somewhat idly while I pursue the intellectual project I’ve got going on here; these thoughts have no real consequences for the intellectual project I’m committed to. ***

* The bluntness brings a lack of precision here; but the crass point is worth making, and the more subtle version has already, I think, been articulated elsewhere on this blog.

** I’m aware, of course, that these remarks provide nothing that is new, and may already taken as given by many – though not, I am confident, all – of those participating in such arguments.

*** Though that intellectual project will remain on the backburner, as it has been, for months.


One Response to “Action”

  1. Christopher Eddy Says:

    Hi, Duncan,

    It is difficult to convey the depth of my respect for the position you have outlined. I endorse it as it stands, on the understanding that the consequentialism to which you appeal is subject to the limit defined in my response to your “Embodied Norms” post of March 26th, 2011.

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