What is the question of ethics?

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Answered by: Michael, An Expert in the Christianity - General Category
The question of ethics is the question of the relationship of humanity to nature, and to itself. If history has shown us anything, especially the recent history of the 20th century, it has taught us that these relations are in a less than ideal condition, to state it mildly.

In The Dialectic of Enlightenment Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno would suggest to us that the condition we find ourselves in can be directly related to a particular type of thought that was brought about by Enlightenment thinking. It remains for us an open question whether this is a fair assertion, or if perhaps this line if inquiry misses something. As such, an attempt at thinking through their critique of Enlightenment thinking, particularly of some of the work of Immanuel Kant, and that thought’s relation to our current situation is in order.

This inquiry will attempt to focus on the possibility of humanity changing its relation to nature, the other, and the self. Further it will examine the possibility of the concept of Enlightenment thinking, and whether there might be found alternative modes of thought and reason, which would perhaps lead us down very different historical paths. Finally, it will examine the possibility of a true primacy of reason, and whether perhaps this is problematic.

I would start this inquiry into the critique of Enlightenment thought conducted by Horkheimer and Adorno at the very beginning, for it is there that it is usually best to begin, and there I find the possibility of some immediate problematic lines of thought. I start with a textual reading that raises some questions: “Knowledge, which is power, knows no limits, either in its enslavement of creation or in its deference to worldly masters…Technology is the essence of this knowledge.

It aims to produce neither concepts nor images, nor the joy of understanding, but method, exploitation of the labor of others, capitol” (Dialectic, pg. 2). As my questioning begins, I note here that one of the themes that I will be calling into question is that of change, specifically the idea that the human subject has changed and can and possibly will change over time. This I see as a fundamental principle that is self evident to these two thinkers and many before them (for indeed could one conceive of a concept such as the Ubermensch without such an outlook?).

Turning back now or more appropriately continuing on with our textual passage, the first question that arises in context for me is why is knowledge power? Why is knowledge utilized in just this way? I don’t know that this question is ever adequately addressed in this work, yet it is a fundamental and decisive one. The question presupposes a certain outlook, which is, namely, that knowledge could be utilized in different ways. And indeed the passage we are looking at seems to imply just this.

Set against the use of knowledge and technology for exploitation of others for capitol gain is the idea that knowledge could be used for the production of “concepts, images, the joy of understanding.” However I see this as immediately problematic in that in order to utilize knowledge for exploitative ends you need it to produce concepts, images, and even the joy of understanding is subsumed under exploitative ends whether voluntarily or involuntarily.

A proper understanding of this question, it seems to me, involves the laying out of two fundamental world views. On the one hand there is the understanding of mankind and its relation to nature as fundamentally static; it has been the same from the time the first man drew his first breath until the period at the end of this sentence. On the other hand there is that worldview which understands man as fluid, as changing over time, and thus by definition his relation to nature is equally fluid and variable.

If one takes the first viewpoint it seems the question of whether mankind could utilize his reasoning capabilities in any capacity other than the one which he has hitherto is heavily weighted. Essentially the suggestion that this is variable is extremely problematic. The other viewpoint it seems must necessarily assume that as man is flexible in his relationship to himself and nature his ability to utilize reason must be equally elastic. Further, it seems that it is only out of such a view point that one could ask the question that I have posed, namely why mankind has utilized his reasoning capabilities in the manner in which he has, as opposed to some other manner, and when this is done, more problems arise.

First, this question finds no answer, not in the text here under examination anyway, and I would assume nowhere else either, or they would draw upon such a source. Secondly, such thinking claims to follow only the thinking of the history of the West as is claimed many times in the text. But this implies some obvious assertions. The first assertion is that there is a part of the world that has developed outside of the history of Western thinking, and in one sense this is true. However much one would object that at this point in the developmental history of the world Western thinking has come to dominate the rest of the world, there are some things that are problematic with such an objection.

First, though I am no expert on Asian thought, I don’t know that any one would make the claim that the thought process of an American and a Chinese person is basically the same. There seem to be some fundamental differences. However, it is their sameness that seems to be important here. The essential distinction seems to be not the ends to which reason is applied by both cultures, but rather the means used to bring about those ends. The ends remain the same in both cases. One fact brings much light to bear upon this question and it is simply this: no example can be found of a civilization, society, tribe, culture, etc. which has not, to some degree or other, attempted the domination of nature. And this may have less to do with mankind itself then we would like to think.

It may be the very nature of the whole problem of morality and ethics that mankind puts himself at the center of everything as subject to object, exalting himself above all else. However whether one does this or not, the fact is that mankind is in a deadly struggle against nature, and that is something that mankind cannot change. When a pack of wolves closes in slowly, encircling you in the final moments before they rip out your throat, your relation to nature is constituted for you. You have very little say in the matter. Here perhaps is a key to the problem of the utilization of reason. Perhaps in this life or death struggle we see that the question is already problematic. In such an instance it seems quite clear that it is not so much a question of whether or not reason will be used in one way as opposed to another, but rather perhaps that reason will be used to dominate nature, or it will not, and the wolves rip out your throat.

Then again there is an element to this that we should probably take note of. I say that mankind is in a deadly struggle with nature, when perhaps I should be saying was, at least in relation to Western culture. There may still be examples of cultures who are engaged in such a struggle, but for us the immediacy of this very serious element of our existence has been so far removed as to have perhaps lost its weight in relation to our thought. We who have reaped the ultimate benefit from the utilization of reason to dominate nature so completely that it no longer threatens us at all can now from that comfortable position question the means that were utilized to effect those very ends.

From this vantage point we can ask questions such as, might there not have been another way for us to engage nature? But I propose that we can only ask such a question from within a space in which nature is not allowed to approach us at all on its own terms, only on ours, or more appropriately, in which we approach nature as we see fit, and nature is no longer allowed to approach us at all. What weight can such a question really have within such a space? I think we must keep this more primordial relation to nature in mind as we move forward in that it reminds us in the most lethal and fundamental terms that there is necessarily only one fundamental relationship between our reason and nature. Reason will be utilized to dominate nature, or nature will kill us. There is the utilization of reason in just such a manner as Horkheimer and Adorno are here criticizing, or there is death, and that is all. This dichotomy can and here must be rephrased for us to continue into a more fundamental insight into the human.

In the most fundamental way, to utilize reason in order to live is selfish; to give into nature, and more importantly the other, and promote its well being over your own life is selfless. In constantly choosing, throughout its history, life, the human has walked the path of selfishness. Whether this can be labeled here good or bad, good or evil, is not yet the point. The point here is that the whole history of mankind screams out to us that given the choice between the advancement of its own subjectivity and the deferment of that subjectivity to anything else, the former will almost always win out over the latter. This is a crucial point in relation to ethics as such, and in relation to Kantian thought which draws much criticism from Horkheimer and Adorno.

I have already thought through briefly the problematic structure that Horkheimer and Adorno seem to be operating within, whereby they criticize Enlightenment thought as one type of Reason among others thus implicitly rejecting this type of thought in favor of some other type as if another is available to us. However, if this is not the case, then their criticism of Enlightenment thought is problematic and here I look at this in relation to Kant’s work. First it must be stated that I do find Kant’s work problematic, just not perhaps in the same way that these two thinkers do. As I see it, they are quite right in pointing out that Kant’s enlightenment thinking, placing reason above all else as if the human could choose to exalt reason above everything else that makes him human, is problematic.

I would carry it further and claim that it is simply not possible. However, it is not as if Kant did not recognize this as problematic himself. He says, “Thus the question ‘how is a categorical imperative possible?’ can be answered so far as we can supply the sole presupposition under which it is possible-namely the idea of freedom…But how this presupposition itself is possible is never open to the insight of any human reason” (Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, sec. 461). For Kant’s moral theory to work practically, it must be presupposed that men can use a free will to exalt reason above all their other drives and instincts, and this includes that which we talked about earlier, namely man’s drive to exalt himself above all else. However to do this is to die, and thus for Kant’s moral theory to operate in a practical sense, in the sensible world, the greatest sacrifice possible would be, or at least could be, called for.

It is a question whether there are or ever have been any men willing to live like this. However we can state with some confidence that most men do not. Thus what we have is a twofold utilization of reason in Kant’s ideal sense. Use it to dominate nature yes, but also to dominate one’s self. Throughout history, the former is done probably almost without reflection, the latter abandoned also without reflection. For it is perhaps not such a big step to lump one’s fellow human beings into the category of that which must be dominated; indeed all one would have to do to fall into such a category is threaten the subjectivity of one with enough power to enslave, and that would be the end of it.

Enter the National Socialist Party. Of course, it is easy to jump to the most extreme example in relation to this, but there are others. However, the point being made here is quite straightforward. The categorical imperative is an ideal model, and theoretically perhaps flawless. However in a practical sense it requires man to subjugate himself to the other, and if it is the case that this goes against the very essence of mankind, the categorical imperative is impossible. Thus one can only be disappointed in it, call it perverse, if one were to actually expect this theoretical model to translate as flawlessly in the sensible world as it does in the intelligible one. But such an expectation is not necessarily Kant’s fault, thus the notice at the end of his work. Rather it is the fault of the naïve reader.

We can see quite easily the primacy of other driving forces at work within humanity that trump all reason. The text of Horkheimer and Adorno are full of them, and I can think of one very fundamental example. This example is of further interest because of its strange and seemingly paradoxical nature. Within a creature which places its own subjectivity above all else, we find that one of the most striking needs that it must satisfy for itself is that of a social structure. However one aspect of this relationship may provide a key insight here, one that makes it perhaps less paradoxical. For if not for the relationship of the self to others, over whom would the self be exalted?

One needs others to subjugate in order to glorify one’s self. But there seems to be more then simply this aspect. For the approval of others, for the camaraderie and companionship which is essential to the human as human, one will sacrifice much. This I find true in my own experience. Despite the fact that contemplating and discussing philosophical issues is one of the things in which I take great pleasure, and indeed a great part of who I am as a person, placed within a social circle that places no value on such activities I sacrifice that part of who I am in order to be acceptable to the group.

This drive, perhaps more than any other, trumps reason, individually, and increasingly on a social scale. As reason and thinking in any form other than scientific and pseudo-scientific thought increasingly come to have no weight and no significance in Western culture, those who attempt to bring any type of “outside” thought into such a culture will find themselves from the outset on the wrong side of a power relationship. I have a friend who has decided that friends and family should not discuss religious, philosophical, or political topics, and thus refuses to engage them. That is an incredible amount of power. And of course the point here is that as long as the choice is between pursuing such lines of discussion and ending that social contact, reason for the most part will lose out to friendship. It is not reasonable to expect human reason to trump the drive for social relations.

It is doubtful then whether we can call the critique on the question of ethics carried out by Horkheimer and Adorno on Enlightenment thought entirely honest. It is probable that the title itself, or more appropriately, a labeling thought at all is a misnomer. It implies distinction between varying types of thought where there may not be any, setting up a false dichotomy, the reality of which vastly outdates any Cartesian thought, even the Greeks. It may be that all we really have is mankind intrinsically and perhaps in some respects necessarily selfish, faced with a natural world which opposes itself to him whether he would have such a relationship to it or not. It may be that “Enlightenment thought” is simply another myth. Reality is where we are. If there is an alternative, perhaps it is only death.

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