Morality and the Social World: Objectivity, Realism, and Normativity

by Jared Yarsevich


Moral realism occupies a precarious position in contemporary philosophy. It carries the notable distinction of drawing the opprobrium of both hard-nose naturalists and libertine relativists. Uniting erstwhile enemies such as these is quite the feat and is undoubtedly symptomatic of deep conceptual flaws. But then again, maybe the multi-front assaults indicate an inner strength that merits the attention. Maybe moral realism occupies that rare philosophical space that requires what Wilfrid Sellars calls “stereoscopic vision” in order to properly comprehend. Such vision takes insight from both the scientific and the manifest images of the world. The resultant image will be lost on those who cannot see the forest for the trees, and on those who can’t see the trees for the forest, but it allows the rest of us to reclaim a world in which both trees and forests exist. Less metaphorically, moral realism emerges into view once we embrace the anti-reductionist, realist lessons of post-positivist philosophy of science and apply them to insights from Kant and Wittgenstein. The non-reductionist, naturalistic moral realist asserts that just as tables and chairs are real and objective, despite not playing any role in fundamental physics or in any of the special sciences, moral principles are also real and objective. Like tables and chairs, morality is part of the Manifest Image. Yet, distinct from medium-sized furniture, morality exists as part of the social world. The metaphysics of morality, therefore, are closer to that of the metaphysics of money or nation-states than to that of tables, quarks, or genes. In this essay, I attempt to: 1) demonstrate how some popular arguments against moral realism fail; and 2) provide a positive account of what a naturalistic moral realism could look like.


Arguments against moral realism often invoke morality’s apparent mind-dependency and a distinction between objectivity and reality. I maintain that some types of mind-dependency do not disqualify things from being real, and the distinction between reality and objectivity dissolves at certain levels of description. To demonstrate how this can be the case, let’s begin by considering the case of money. Without a doubt, the US dollar did not exist prior to humans existing. And unlike bridges or buildings, the US dollar will cease to exist once humans are extinct (if not before). Therefore, the US dollar is mind-dependent in the sense that its existence depends on specific human beliefs, actions, expectations, and practices. Despite this mind-dependency there are, nonetheless, objective facts about money. It is objectively true that I currently have $1,000 in my bank account but sadly false that I have $1 million. This kind of objectivity, in turn, reveals a sense in which money is quite mind-independent too. I can’t just will a million dollars into my bank account. Money’s existence, therefore, is dependent on a collection of mental states but independent from the mental states of any particular individual.

John Searle introduces a helpful distinction between ontological objectivity/subjectivity and epistemological objectivity/subjectivity. Money, like all social entities, is ontologically subjective since its existence depends on mental states, but epistemologically objective since the standards that determine the truth or falsity of claims about it are independent of any particular individual’s mental state. Given the combination of money’s ontological subjectivity and epistemological objectivity, it makes it very difficult to sensibly deny the reality of that money. Money is real in the sense that it’s “out there” independent of any particular individual’s mental state. When we have certain complex physical and social configurations, which involve persons, their expectations, and institutions, we have money; real money. The upshot is that the reality of money, and the social world in general, is attached to its epistemological objectivity. At the level of explanation for the social and moral world, decoupling the concept of reality from epistemological objectivity makes little sense. It would be tantamount to affirming the truth that $1,000 is in my bank account, but denying that the money is real. This would be simply nonsensical. Demanding ontological objectivity as the criterion for social reality is to mistakenly apply the ontological standards of other more fundamental levels of reality to the social world. It’s a reductionist category error. Just as we don’t want to apply the standards of quantum mechanics to questions about inflation, species, or mental states, we don’t want to apply the standards appropriate for medium-sized physical entities to questions about money, nation-states, or morality.

But is money an adequate analogy for morality? Moral non-realists often favor the analogy with math and show that the objectivity of math is not sufficient to demonstrate the reality of numbers. Mathematical realism, however, is not a good comparison. Mathematical realists do not claim that numbers exist at the social level. Mathematical realists argue that numbers exist prior to and independently of human existence (i.e. numbers are ontologically objective in Searle’s sense). If something is claimed to be ontologically objective, then its reality can be decoupled from its epistemological standards. But naturalist moral realists do not argue that morality is ontologically objective (albeit non-naturalist moral realists do). We argue that morality is real yet socially constructed, like money or the boundaries of a nation, not like numbers (allegedly) or quarks.


But now for the hard part. What is the nature of morality such that it is social, ontologically subjective, epistemologically objective, and possesses categorical normativity? I contend that morality is constitutive of practical reason (a la Kant), understood as a meaningful social practice (a la Wittgenstein). [1] Morality refers to the rules “out there” (outside of anyone’s particular subjective beliefs or desires) that make meaningful, rational, social interaction possible. As rational agents, we understand ourselves to act for reasons. Reasons comprise our first order-beliefs and desires that are accompanied by higher-level principles with which we endorse those first-order beliefs and desires. Reasons turn mere events into actions. For the purposes of explicating my account of normativity, let’s call the activities involved in human action the reasons-giving game.

In order for anyone to participate in the reasons-giving game, one must first presume that the interlocutors, including oneself, are agents (i.e. reason-responsive). My utterances and bodily movement only convey meaning under the presumption of a shared linguistic community of reason-responsive agents. If I fail to make this presumption of agency, reasons disappear, and we’re left with flailing and noise. Therefore, within any meaningful, rational linguistic practice lies the implicit rule to treat oneself and others as capable, reason-responsive agents. In other words, if I’m participating in the reasons-giving game, I must treat myself and others as ends-in-themselves (creatures with the reflective capacity to endorse certain beliefs and desires and not endorse others). Failure to do so undermines reason-giving itself. Just as moving one’s pawns all over a chess board willy-nilly undermines the movements as chess-moves, disregarding others as having reasons and ends of their own undermines my own behavior as meaningful, reasonable action. If one is committed to continuing a game of chess, one must acknowledge objective rules that give meaning to certain movements but also constrain one’s movements; if the rules were not objective then each player could use their own subjective rules; but that wouldn’t be chess, nor would it be much fun. Likewise, if one is committed to reason-responsive rationality (personhood), then one must acknowledge even deeper, more general, objective rules that constrain behavior but provide for the logical possibility of meaningful action in the first place.

But for moral realism to obtain, the moral principles “out there” must have categorical normative force; if they aren’t categorical, we merely have hypothetical, culturally relative truths. One might agree that the rules of chess objectively apply to and constrain behavior for those assenting to play chess, but also observe, correctly, there’s no rule that compels one to play chess in the first place. The normativity of chess, therefore, is hypothetical. Its force only applies when one chooses to bind oneself to the rules of chess. For morality on the other hand, the force, allegedly, applies to everyone regardless of their particular desires or commitments. I maintain that it’s not because there’s an external force that compels one to play the reasons-giving game; rather, the categorical nature of morality arises out of the difficulty of opting out of the reasons-giving game. Anyone participating in the reasons-giving game, like chess, is subject to its constitutive rules. The key difference is that for someone to opt out of the reasons-giving game is for someone to opt out of one’s personhood, understood as rational, meaningful agency (i.e. acting from reasons). The normative force of morality, then, comes on pain of irrationality and meaninglessness.

I suppose one could say this account still merely gives us a hypothetical imperative: individuals are only compelled to follow moral rules insofar as they commit themselves to the reasons-giving game. But that retort misunderstands the categorical claim made by morality. No one suggests that moral obligations are truly universal in the sense that they apply to rocks, trees, gerbils and galaxies. They’re categorical in the sense that they apply to all rational agents. For individuals to truly opt out of the reasons-giving game, their lives would need to mimic the characters from Lars von Trier’s The Idiots. These individuals are not responsive to reasons; their utterances and motions do not convey meaning; they’re pretending not to be rational agents. If they were truly successful in their idiocy, they would fall outside the kingdom of ends (i.e. they would not be moral agents). But the pretense is difficult to maintain. Fully functional humans are, indeed, rational agents capable of responding to reasons. We are, therefore, already subject to the normativity of morality because the rules of morality are the most general rules constitutive of reason-giving.

Now this account of morality is quite abstract and may appear to be too far removed from practical decision-making to actually serve as a practical guide (although it rules out genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, etc). But this is where actual politics and Rawls’ idea of public reason enter the picture. In order to fill in more precise moral obligations, we actually have to express our agency and deliberate together, constrained by the principles of our moral equality established by the categorical imperative already discussed. The results of deliberations under these (approximate) conditions then become objective, real obligations. Moral truths are constructed (like all of the social world) out of reasonable agents attempting to find principles that all similarly situated agents can endorse, or at least that no other similarly motivated agent could reasonably reject (Scanlon). Despite their construction, moral principles are as real as money and the rules of chess. [2] But unlike chess, moral rules apply to all similarly situated rational agents. In essence, morality is really “out there” and discoverable through a combination of observation, rational reflection and deliberation.

Jared Yarsevich has a MSc in Philosophy from the London School of Economics, a Masters of City and Regional Planning from Georgia Tech, and a BA in Economics from North Carolina State University. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.


[1] My account of normativity is highly influenced by Christine Korsgaard’s The Sources of Normativity, yet, is distinct from it. For one, she doesn’t claim to be a moral realist (although I think she should).

[2] If one denies the rules of chess are real, then one must also deny that touchdowns and balls and strikes are real. It would be a commitment to claiming that Nolan Ryan hasn’t ever really struck anyone out or that Deep Blue never really beat Kasparov.


  1. The law against smoking a joint in public is as real as the rules of chess. You smoke a joint in most places and you’ll be arrested.

    Still, the laws against smoking a joint and the laws in general are a human creation and can be changed as can the rules of chess and the currency (the French franc no longer circulates for example). So too with the moral rules: what is considered immoral today can be considered moral tomorrow and vice versa. Moral rules only have the force that society backs them up with and when society changes, so do the rules. If people buy into those rules and internalize them in their conscience, great, but that hardly means that the rules are somehow objective.


    • I’ve tried to argue there is a rule that applies no matter what anyone thinks: if you act for reasons, then you must presume the agency of others. This rule is constitutive of reason-giving; if you don’t presuppose this rule, then you’re not giving reasons. The social nature of meaning places everyone on equal standing relative to their own reasons. If I’m going to engage in meaningful behavior, I must endorse some set of publicly defined ends. But if it’s true for me, then it’s equally true of everyone. Furthermore, if my reasons have value to me; your reasons must have value to you. I could fail to recognize these facts or just flagrantly ignore them, but that doesn’t make the facts go away. In this sense, they’re objective and apply to us whether we recognize them or not.


      • Thanks for replying, but we seem to be coming from different planets. In general, I see that moral rules come first, then the reasons appear to justify them. In most cases the rules come from a religious sources and now that religion convinces fewer and fewer of us, they’ve added non-religious reasons.

        Moral rules seem to represent the interests of the majority of people in society or at times the most influential members, those who are capable of imposing their values on the rest. Sure, there are moral rules that no society could operate without, rules against murder or against theft or against treachery, but when we come to moral rules regulating sexuality, they vary depending on a tremendous quantity of factors.


  2. You talk about rationality as a basis for morality, but I am going to push you off that.

    First, morality must have some physical existence. For any moral act, there must be some pattern written out into the arrangement of physical objects, otherwise how could people agree on it? When multiple people independently witness a moral act, how can they possibly agree upon it if there is nothing out there that they are seeing? It cannot be purely mental, and it cannot be by accident.

    Second, non-rational agents use these patterns. There are various examples of animal behaviour (even plants!), protecting family or community groups, sharing resources, communicating (not lying), that in humans you would call moral. Yet, since they are not rational, you would be forced to disclude from counting as moral. That seems wrong: it creates an arbitrary discontinuity in your model.

    Third, why would the techniques humans use to think imply anything about the way some other thing should be treated? What happens when some aliens arrive and tell you that you are of inferior rational status, and so do not count as moral subjects, and so they are free – by your own justification! – to abuse you?

    “No one suggests that moral obligations are truly universal in the sense that they apply to rocks, trees, gerbils and galaxies.”

    Maybe you need to consider moving toward that! It might immediately seem crazy, but if you think of morality as essentially about the logic of multi-agent/object systems, maybe it can provide grounds for you to argue with those aliens.


    • I agree with the physical patterns part. Where I think humans part ways with other animals, is that we alone seem to have the capacity to reflect on our first-order beliefs and desires and generate higher-order, more generalized principles. Whereas other animals react directly to their urges, we can reflect and ask, “Should I act on this urge?” By having this capacity, we are forced to answer by endorsing some principle that provides a reason for our action. It is this style of endorsement and reason-creation that make us moral agents (i.e. responsible for our actions). Creatures that can’t reflect and endorse their behavior with higher-order principles aren’t moral agents in this sense, but that doesn’t mean they don’t possess moral value or shouldn’t be cared for. As part of our rational reflection, we can recognize that other species feel pain and experience trauma, and we should try to avoid that when possible.

      When the aliens arrive and give us reasons for their domination over us, they’ll be acknowledging our moral agency by the very act of giving us reasons. “Ha!” I’ll say with smug satisfaction, knowing they’re immoral hypocrites as they vaporize me.


  3. Thanks for the essay! It doesn’t really intersect that much with what I’ve said with regard to moral realism/objectivism, insofar as everything I’ve said is directed towards ‘realism’ and ‘objectivity’ as they are understood as technical terms in philosophy. In an ordinary language sense, I am a realist about morality, though also, likely a subjectivist. Still working through some of the technical minutia.


    • I thought I was employing them as technical philosophical terms. For ‘realism’, I’m following Richard Boyd’s “How To Be a Moral Realist,” and Cornell Realism in general, whereby things are real, even unoberservables, insofar as they play a causal role in our best explanation of some observable phenomena. Causation for them is non-Humean and domain-specific (i.e. causal relations differ in physics, biology, psychology, economics, etc.). I focus on how theoretical entities such as money, rules of chess, and rules of meaning/rationality play crucial roles in explaining what we observe in the Manifest Image. I also depart from the standard Cornell Realist accounts by introducing Searle’s bifurcation of objectivity.


      • I am a moral anti-realist, if what is meant by ‘realism’ is the standard philosophical idea of mind/conceptual scheme independence. That doesn’t strike me as being in tension with anything you’ve written here.


        • But it is in tension. Conceptual schemes are held by individuals. I’ve argued that money, the rules of chess, and my account of morality exist regardless of any individual’s conceptual scheme.

          I’m also trying to show that the mind independence requirement for realism is too blunt a criterion. It eliminates from the discourse of reality too many things that affect our lives. Employing an a priori rule that asserts reality is only that which is mind independent ignores the lessons of naturalism. Naturalism tells us we should be skeptical of such a priori claims and instead use a posteriori standards that we find better fit the observable world. We empirically discover that different methodologies and standards explain the world successfully at different levels or within different domains of inquiry. Attaching reality to ontological objectivity might be appropriate at the level of physical objects, but it doesn’t follow that we must use the same standard when explaining the social and moral word. I tried to show that decoupling reality from epistemological objectivity at the social level just doesn’t make sense.

          Lastly, aren’t all the entities within the Manifest Image somewhat dependent on the perspective of minds? If we ignore our human perspective, we’re left with just quarks or the universal wave function. I thought you’ve been arguing for a metaphysical pluralism that avoids scientistic reductionism and includes the reality of the Manifest Image.


          • It may very well be that the technical conception of “real” in philosophy is a mistake, but that isn’t one of the targets in the Prolegomena.

            And yes, of course, everything in the Manifest Image is mind-dependent in the technical philosophical sense.


  4. So confused by so much here. First of all;

    “They’re categorical in the sense that they apply to all rational agents”

    What exactly is a rational agent? Is it synonymous with a person? How are they to be identified?

    “… unlike chess, moral rules apply to all similarly situated rational agents”

    What does similarly situated mean and how is it to be discovered? Is a homeless person as similarly situated Bill Gates?

    Moreover, why do people disagree with numerous moral questions? To take one formal example, rational bayesians are supposed to have their priors converge over time if they are being honest. But this does not seem to be the case with morality. Is there are reason morality does not display this convergence?

    “… (although it rules out genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, etc).”

    How? Thousands of years of slavery existed because there were no rational agents until middle-class Academics came about?

    I realise there are several technical issues here that I may not be understanding, but I still think there is an awful lot of assertions here that need some kind of explanation.


  5. Sadly, the logical slip (common to all Kantian argument) occurs here:

    1. “If I fail to make this presumption of agency, reasons disappear, and we’re left with flailing and noise. Therefore, within any meaningful, rational linguistic practice lies the implicit rule to treat oneself and others as capable, reason-responsive agents…”

    Sure. But then,

    2. “…In other words, if I’m participating in the reasons-giving game, I must treat myself and others as ends-in-themselves (creatures with the reflective capacity to endorse certain beliefs and desires and not endorse others).”

    The “ends-in-themselves” comes out of nowhere here, logically speaking. if it means “as creatures with value”. But if it doesn’t mean that, then the problem is simple: when I torture someone, I treat them as an agent: I know they have desires and purposes and can respond to reasons, and so I torment them to get whatever I want (I understand that they will respond to the reason given by pain). It is 100% consistent with (1) to wantonly torture people, to treat them and their desires as having no intrinsic *value* whatsoever. In other words, highly evil people are perfectly capable of acknowledging that their victims are reasons-responsive. The trick is to show how this involves some kind of contradiction, which I’m afraid you haven’t done (this isn’t your fault, no-one has done it).


    • I agree this is the biggest challenge and I appreciate you pinpointing the weakness so clearly. Let me try my best to flesh out the contradiction. For anyone to claim they act for reasons, they must endorse some end. If they don’t endorse an end, they will either not act at all or their movements cannot be construed as action; the movements will be completely devoid of reason and meaning (flailing and noise – pure heteronomy). By endorsing an end, the end has value for the agent. If we accept this, it follows that any creature that reflectively endorses some end creates value for itself. This may appear to make value relative to each agent’s own end, as your torturer believes. But value arises from the act of reflective endorsement, not the content of the end. Your torturer fails to recognize that his ends have value because they have been reflectively endorsed, just as his victim’s ends have. The fact of value is a high-level, general fact that is not agent-specific. If one agent has value, then all agents have value. While your torturer recognizes that both he and his victim are agents, he contradicts himself by acknowledging that ends matter in his case, but not in the case of his victim.


  6. Strongly argued, but unpersuasive.

    I read a Kantian foot being squeezed into a pragmatic shoe, and it ain’t fitting well; seams popping all over on close inspection. Avalonian, for instance, noticed one. “While your torturer recognizes that both he and his victim are agents, he contradicts himself by acknowledging that ends matter in his case, but not in the case of his victim.” That’s only a contradiction if one assumes that rationality always inevitably leads to the same conclusions distributively (ie., reason will lead to the same conclusions for everybody). That’s a fundamental implication (and unstated premise) of the Categorical Imperative. It’s the ace up Kant’s sleeve, giving the Imperative much of its power in argument; but it’s a card that can’t be played, because it’s unverifiable and experience and history mitigate against it. The expected move here is ‘cultural diversity,’ but let’s try a more direct approach: Assuming your view, that the torturer appears to contradict himself ought to mean something. Presented to the torturer it ought to cause him to pause and reconsider. But we know that’s not true. We should be able to present it publicly as poisonous worm in the heart of any ideology the torturer may profess that he uses as justification – and we know historically that doesn’t work. We ought to be able to leverage it as condemnation of those who don’t care for justification other than their own pleasure, like rapists, domestic abusers, or mass murderers; but we don’t condemn them for their contradictions, but for the harm their acts cause others. In other words we don’t care about their rationality, and condemnation of their lack of ‘moral compass’ really has to do with their lack of empathy and disregard for other’s rights, their lack of a sense of responsibility to the larger community (at which point we find ourselves in the cultural diversity issue, after all, since the larger community is diversely defined in different cultures).

    The problem seems to be that you want what you call “naturalistic moral realism” to do the same work as deontological moral realism, by squeezing deontology through a perceived back-door in Sellars’ Manifest Image, by way of Wittgensteinian game theory of language. Social objectivity will never equate with, nor stand in for, ‘mind-independent reality,’ even if we agree that social objectivity functions to generate a ‘mind-dependent’ reality, our shared social reality. The reason should be obvious: Social reality is always a negotiation between the individual and the cultural norms shared with the community as a whole. In the West, this negotiation tends towards the adversarial – conflict is always possible, and dependent on emotional response as much as reasoning. The rules are never set until they enter law-books, and even then they can change as individuals reconsider their personal and collective interests and pursue these politically. Imagine a game with rules re-negotiated every so often, not because they are inefficient somehow, or even unreasonable, but because a number of the players are simply unhappy with them. We have rules and even laws enforcing assisted handicapped access to public buildings not because lack of such access is itself ‘unjust,’ since, indeed, the handicapped are free to either negotiate access without such assist or learn to live without access all together. Such assists simply make them happier, and contribute to the sense of social well-being on the part of their friends, family, and supporters.

    There’s a difference between ‘what reason demands’ and ‘what a reasonable person would agree to.’ (It is something like, though hardly the same as, the difference between the standard ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ in criminal cases, and that of ‘weight of the evidence’ in civil courts.) The latter depends on intuition, feeling, acknowledgement of the tensions between individual desires and social norms, knowledge and understanding of body language and of possible ‘hidden agendas,’ a grasp of basic rhetoric (however primitive), etc., etc. One might complain that this is asking too much of common ‘language games,’ but in fact such language games are merely part of the social soup in which we swim. They are the alphabet noodles that make the over-cooked chicken fun to eat.

    “The normative force of morality, then, comes on pain of irrationality and meaninglessness.” Have you not read Camus’ The Stranger? I mean, if so, so what?


    • From one former punk rocker to another, who’s barmy now?

      You correctly observe:
      “That’s only a contradiction if one assumes that rationality always inevitably leads to the same conclusions distributively (ie., reason will lead to the same conclusions for everybody). That’s a fundamental implication (and unstated premise) of the Categorical Imperative. It’s the ace up Kant’s sleeve.”

      I guess I wasn’t as straightforward as I could have been. I was trying to make that assumption explicit by leaning on Wittgenstein. Reasons are not private mental entities. The meanings of linguistic concepts are thoroughly normative; and normativity is thoroughly social. A reason, like any rule, cannot be something that applies to an atomistic individual without the possibility of it applying to others that meet publicly defined criteria. I think you might agree with this since you say, “Social reality is always a negotiation between the individual and the cultural norms shared with the community as a whole.” I agree! But if we generalize our community to include all persons (all reason-responsive agents), then we DISCOVER the norm that gives meaning to “reasons,” “persons,” and “agents” is, in fact, the Categorical Imperative! In order for any of these terms to make sense, we must endorse some end with a universal (generalized) principle. Only by doing so can we justify that a particular end is worth doing (i.e that it has value and we have a reason to act). The community of agents, therefore, all have the shared reason to respect and value agency itself and, hence, the agency of others. And because this norm is a necessary presupposition of having any reason/end at all, it holds regardless of whether the individualized agent recognizes it or not.

      You also say, “we don’t condemn them for their contradictions, but for the harm their acts cause others.” Again, I agree… because agents matter. But for the sadists who say, “I don’t care about the well-being of others; I only care about myself” we justify our coercion of them by pointing out their contradiction. The justification is not only an attempt to convince the sadist of reason, that rarely works, but more importantly, it’s an attempt to share the reasons and justifications with the wider community. Reason is an expression of our moral equality; it’s part of what we owe one another as equal participants in a shared social reality.

      To conclude:

      White youth, black youth
      Better find another solution
      Why not phone up Robin Hood
      And ask him for some wealth distribution


      • I’m not a Hume expert by any means but his affirmation that “reason is and ought to be only the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” always made sense to me.

        You have this strange concept of what reason is, which I suppose is Kantian, but for most of us reason is the way we calculate how to get what we want and what we want can be very frightening. Eichmann used his reason to calculate how to send millions of Jews to their death. No, Eichmann wasn’t a sociopath: just read Hannah Arendt’s excellent book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, where she quotes an Israeli psychologist who examined Eichmann that Eichmann is more normal than he or she is. I live in Chile and during the Pinochet dictatorship the Chilean Army tortured and disappeared thousands of prisoners and when we see the human rights offenders on trial for their crimes, almost all of them are normal, reasonable men who used their reason to invent new forms of torture to extract information from their victims.

        Liked by 3 people

      • Jared,
        “But if we generalize our community to include all persons (all reason-responsive agents), then we DISCOVER the norm that gives meaning to “reasons,” “persons,” and “agents” is, in fact, the Categorical Imperative!” Of course the Categorical Imperative was waiting in the wings; hence my initial response. “if we generalize our community to include all persons” – however, we don’t. That is one of the problems with any moral realism. I had a sharp lesson in this from an Evangelical who insisted that the instructions in the Sermon on the Mount only applied to relations with other believing Christians. In practical terms, culture by culture, most moral realism is only ‘generalized’ within a particular community, a particular ethnicity, a particular national or ideological group. Kant’s ethics were taught in German secondary schools throughout the late 19th, early 20th Centuries. It would not surprise me if Eichmann could recite passages from the Metaphysics of Morals by heart. But of course Jews weren’t German; they weren’t recognized as agents. So there was no contradiction in using reason to eliminate them from European life.

        Of course you want reason always to lead in one direction, which will ultimately reveal that all humans are equally agent and must be treated as ends in themselves. Very noble. But as any theorist of rhetoric can remind you, all reasoning depends on premises, especially those unrecognized or not admitted. which may have no reasonable foundation at all. Even Aquinas recognized that his ‘proofs of God’s existence’ required a prior act of faith, and so were of limited power to convince. The trick then is to get one’s adversarial interlocutors, not only to surface hidden premises for possible debunking (which is only of limited persuasive power), but actually to change those premises for him or her or them selves.. That requires appeals to, even manipulation of, the emotions; for “logic and reason never convince” (Whitman).

        Rorty made something like this point in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (and elsewhere) and it’s the backbone of his own ethical theory, that ethics begins in solidarity with one’s own community, and then must be expanded ever wider with greater inclusivity,

        You don’t really answer two of my main points: First, that shared community norms are malleable politically, that politics is indeed the process of making and remaking those norms as time goes on, given the changing personal and collective interests within a community. (If the Categorical Imperative could be universalized, then – oddly in a manner similar to that of eliminative reductionist denial of personal responsibility – politics would be unnecessary – an implicit hope of Kant’s later writings on, eg, the possibility of ‘universal peace’ or his hope for the social sciences0) Secondly, in regards to the ‘sadistic’ torturer example, rather than answer my point, you really simply re-iterated your own. “we justify our coercion of them by pointing out their contradiction” – I’m sorry, but ‘I want to see this son of a bitch dead because he killed my sister!’ is not a justification of anything other than outrage; and the court’s justification is that the sadistic murderer poses a threat to the community; ‘contradictions’ need not apply. (Interestingly, your position suggests that we care about such persons individually, we value their reasoning capacity. And we don’t. You write as though their redeemable; the majority do not care if their redeemable or not. I still as a matter of humanitarian principle, oppose capital punishment; but I’ve ceased to argue the matter. For the present the majority have made up their minds. Interestingly, the arguments against capital punishment have rarely taken a line predicated on possible redemption, in either the psychological or religious sense, but largely on the premise of our own sympathy for other human beings, our own unwillingness to end another’s life. You may argue that we are recognizing the agency of the convicted; but I had sympathy for my dog, and still had to put her down last year. I don’t remember considering her agency in the matter.)


  7. My friend and teacher, poet Don Byrd, once said to me, :”nobody could really want to slam dance in a mosh pit.” Being a punk rocker, I replied “f you, that’s exactly what i want.”

    We punks are “the flowers in your dust-bin, the wrench in your human machine.”

    I;m sorry, you’re just wrong.

    “What are you rebelling against?
    “What do you got?” (The Wild One)


  8. Jared,

    Hello from Atlanta!

    I want to register my admiration for your explanation of the Kant-inspired view here. To render it plainly, faithfully, and synoptically enough to promote cogent pushback is no small feat. Much of that literature is mired in unthinking jargonizing. (Since debates about Kantian constructivism loomed large in my graduate department, no one emerged without an education in such matters. Plus, Kant’s philosophy of mathematics is one of my preoccupations. So I have an inkling of the way Kantian jargon can frustrate genuine understanding.)