Earlier this year, I exchanged emails with Professor Allen W. Wood after sending him a copy of the page proofs for Chaos Ethics which I described as “the least Kantian book of Kantian ethics thus far written”. To my surprise, Professor Wood got back to me with some interesting challenges to my ideas. This is the first of a three-part edited version of our exchanges.
Allen Wood: I haven't had time (nor will I) to read all of your provocative, lively, engaging, and erudite book. But I have looked at parts of it. I am pleased by the way it engages with Kant and Parfit, as well as my own work. I appreciate your quotation from Anscombe, with whose moral and political views I generally strongly disagree. But her quoted remark about consequentialism seems to me right on target.
[The 1958 quote referred to is as follows:
...the point of considering hypothetical situations, perhaps very improbable ones, seems to be to elicit from yourself or someone else a hypothetical decision to do something of a bad kind. I don't doubt this has the effect of predisposing people - who will never get into the situations for which they have made hypothetical choice - to consent to similar bad actions, or to praise and flatter those who do them, so long as their crowd does so too, when the desperate circumstances imagined don't hold at all.]
I have made a similar (analogous) point myself about something else (which may be related): I think that most instances in which people invoke the true proposition that moral principles have exceptions are cases in which they are trying to rationalize violating a moral principle in precisely a case where they should not be violating it. More generally, moral truths are more often used to justify wrongdoing that moral falsehoods, because if they are misapplied, they make good rationalizations for bad conduct. The most important truths are often the most easily abused. It is a common mistake made by non-philosophers in reading moral philosophy, especially the moral philosophy of the past, to react only to the rhetorical force that some assertion might have for us (for instance, the way it might be abused in some present-day political context) rather than considering what it actually means, and whether it is true. Thus to argue that some principle P is a bad or false principle because it has been used by Nazis, terrorists (or whoever your bugaboo happens to be) is in general a bad form of argument. This point might even be turned against Anscombe, if she were to use the common abuse of consequentialist reasoning as an argument that consequentialism is false.
Chris Bateman: There are definite problems here, and difficult ones to iron out! I learned a lot thinking about your "ends justify the means" argument [i.e. that all means are by definition justified by the ends they aim at], which is indisputably correct – and indeed, I had a go at refining this particular objection. My alternative "the goodness of ends cannot justify the immorality of means" seems to me an improvement (and obviously Kantian), but I feel it could be snappier!
Allen: I note that you even read my footnotes, to the extent of having caught me in one footnote from 1999 - a dismissive one about Lévinas – that I now regard as hasty, regrettable and based on insufficient engagement with his thought. It may be that further acquaintance would lead me back to the same dismissive conclusions, but I now think there is more to his views than I appreciated in 1999 and that I shouldn't have written what I did. My consolation over the years is that this was buried in a note in the back of the book, which few people would read. You have, at least to a degree, deprived me of that consolation. Some people will have the persistence to seek out my precipitous remarks, and even report them. I am at least glad that you do so in a way that makes me look moderate compared to Badiou, who himself is flatteringly presented in your book.
Chris: I always read footnotes – and yours are far more interesting than many philosophers! I have found a wealth of treasures hidden away in the back of your books... Although you may not appreciate this particularly ‘find’, I was glad of finding someone who would say aloud what many analytic philosophers think when facing Lévinas. I have to say, I dread to think what is going to be thrown back at me in the years to come! Perhaps it is best not to think about it...
Allen: I don't want to try to engage with all, or even very many, of the deliberately controversial things you thrust at us in this book. But I do want to dispute – as not only mistaken, but also too easy – the association of law with conservatism or the right and chaos with progressive politics or the left. I think we leftists have the correct take on law, seeing it as arising from reason rather than tradition, and capable of correction without relinquishing its authority.
Chris: I may need to stress that this association is more complex than a simple 'conservative = law' and 'liberal = chaos', since many aspects of the liberal political traditions (and especially in the U.S.) are deeply engaged with Law. Although this is how I introduce the concepts, the complexity of the concepts build slowly across the chapters so that it is only by the end that what I am gesturing at with 'Chaos' (and 'Law') is clear.
Allen: I am myself not in favour of chaos at all. I see chaos as simply the result of confusion and error. I do defend uncertainty and an awareness of our own fallibility. But that is not chaos. Conservatism can easily lead to chaos. Of course I may be taking the term ‘chaos,’ in your use of it, too literally. You are defending chaos in order to be provocative, and when someone does that, they usually have a more complex thought than the provocative word would normally suggest.
Chris: I am well aware that you have no truck with 'chaos' of any kind – but again, I think the concept of moral chaos I am defending is defensible, and actually inherent to virtue ethics. But key to my argument is that an excess of either Law or Chaos is always problematic, and one needs to be conditioned with the other.
Allen: 'Conservative' itself is a problematic term, especially in this period and in the U.S. One might associate it with a tendency to caution, taking responsibility for the consequences of your actions, believing according to the evidence, reluctance to embrace untried solutions too hastily, and wanting to preserve things as they are if they have proven to be the things that work best. But none of these traits characterize our self-described political 'conservatives' at present. Our self-described conservatives are really impetuous radicals, who substitute a simplistic dogmatic ideology for evidence and use it to rationalize any kind of corrupt or unwise scheme that seems to fit it.
The only things associated with the word that do characterize them is a stubborn tendency to defend unjust privileges and a bigoted and dogmatic defence of traditional superstitions. Conservatism in the present day U.S. sense leads directly to chaos, and this is not good. Conservatism leads to chaos when it confronts conditions under which traditional superstitions, entrenched privileges, and even excessive or misplaced caution or what you erroneously think of as responsible behaviour, result in "blowback" and conditions the conservative cannot have contemplated.
Chris: I believe I discuss the problems of 'conservative chaos' under the discussion of drone assassinations and recent unjust wars, in which I recognise a highly immoral chaos emerging from conservatively-motivated foreign policy... My goal is to recognise some forms of chaos as moral and some forms of law as immoral – not to give a free ride to either, and also to suggest that the Realm of Ends is unobtainable without this recognition.
This discussion continues in Part II: Tolerance next week. The opening image is Turmoil by Vitor, which I found at his site, The Fractal Forest. It is used with implicit permission of the author, who retains all rights to this image.
Chris’ first book of moral philosophy, Chaos Ethics, is out now from Zero Books, while Allen Wood’s twelfth on the subject, The Free Development of Each: Studies on Freedom, Right, and Ethics in Classical German Philosophy is out now from Oxford University Press.