You can learn even more about Christophe and his areas of study and thought by attending his upcoming Salon, “The Ethical Landscape.”
We formulate our lives through decisions, some of them heavy and some of them light. The perpetual burden of choosing how to exist can wear down on us if we slip into fantasies of going along for the ride rather than conducting it. We are jarred, in other words, moment to moment, with the ever important presence of choosing and becoming. Nonetheless, despite the obvious experiential evidence of the role of decisions through which we create ourselves and our society, there are many who deny the validity of ethics entirely. Some of these skeptics go so far as to say that morality is an illusion, a cloaked power grab, an irritant to an otherwise determined and nihilistic life. Against this tradition, I am hosting a Salon on ethics itself and wanted to paint a portrait of how one might wrestle with the casual skeptic as a way of generating a window into what kind of arguments may be animated during the Salon.
In response to the casual skeptics, people often deploy those intuitive case examples to highlight how obvious it is that ethics, or normativity, matters. These examples might include the way the Holocaust or murdering sprees repulse us. Yet the stubborn skeptic can remain indifferent in the face of these emotionally powerful cases. So the question I’m posing is whether there is a purely logical base to disprove the hypothetical skeptic’s case against ethics. There is, and I believe it’s fascinating. The basic formula of the problem is that someone can not give you an argument against normativity, and expect you to be persuaded by it, without assuming normativity. This is what I call the paradox of normativity. Let’s unpack it.
Underneath every argument, whether about normativity or any other subject, is the assumption of normativity itself. The assumption is baked into the idea that if the argument is sound and persuasive then one’s partner in conversation ought to accept it. The normative impulse is clear: a good argument deserves to be respected and accepted on the basis of it being a good argument. In the other direction, one could not formulate an argument for normativity without pre-supposing normativity in light of the previous reasoning. So the moment someone engages in an argument—and believes that the legitimacy of the point deserves acceptance—is the moment the normative world has been issued into existence. The true anti-normative contender should be bound to a kind of silence, or nonsense, in the place of engaging in a rational argument to dissuade you of normativity. Otherwise, they are simply refuting the very point they are making due to the fact that they are relying on the normative force of a good argument to undermine normativity itself.
The fact that someone respects the normative force of argumentation but not the normative force of anti-torture advocacy seems to me to generate a repugnant conclusion through their priorities. The repugnant conclusion would be that coherence and persuasion have value but human life does not. A natural extension of this would be that the calculating power of a machine has value but the experience of an innocent person is meaningless. Once someone reveals that this is their value system, rather than that they have no value system, their priorities can be criticized in light of the repugnant nature of the conclusions generated by them.
To conclude, when the skeptic about normativity comes at you with a sequence of seemingly all powerful arguments, just remember that in the very act of assuming that a persuasive argument ought to be accepted, they are revealing that they have a value system. The only question which remains is whether their value system, their ethics, makes any sense.
If this style of engagement appeals to you, or if you’d like to respond to the argument, you are warmly invited to join my Salon, “The Landscape of Ethics.”