The philosophical discipline of ethics is, in my view, the intellectually most daunting field in the humanities. The central problem has been identified by David Hume in his “Treatise of Human Nature”, published in 1738, and is resumed by this paragraph:
“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.”
Know as the “is-ought problem”, the change of register implied by going from a descriptive mode towards a prescriptive one, poses the question on what to found the latter. There is a necessary recourse to something non-descriptive, a system of values that cannot be stabilized by the scientific method and is therefore necessarily a terrain for permanent struggle. Value systems are, however, by no means random but deeply embedded in historic process and while the conflictual nature of the “ought” cannot be dissolved, the contents of ethical debate can be treated as just another “is”, i.e. a field of discourse that can be described and analyzed. While the specific answers we give to Kant’s question “what should we do?” may well be products of long and hard reasoning, they are nonetheless developed against the backdrop of long-standing “networks of significance” (Geertz), that is, culture.
Having grown up in a German-speaking country, living in France but also following and participating in the globalized English-language sphere of discourse, it is hard not to be amazed by the striking differences in how recent developments in technology and digital culture are framed and appreciated. I have recently attended the “Web 2.0 Politics” conference near London and in a sense the experience had the quality of an epiphany. From the perspective of a drifter like me, culture (defined in national or linguistic terms) can sometimes look like a vast assembly of automatisms and reflexes. Coming from the outside, we cannot help but see how little in culture is actually decided upon and how much seems to be simply received. This is especially true when it comes to intrinsically shifty areas like ethics and political reasoning. What struck me at this conference was how certain words seemed to pass through what one could call “automated moral preprocessing”, which would allow filing very complicated and ambiguous concepts very quickly into neatly labeled boxes, largely divided into “good” and “bad”. This is very effective because it speeds up the reasoning process and bridges the rift between “is” and “ought” without much effort. A concept like “participation” for example gets preprocessed into the “good” box and can then be used as a general-purpose moral qualifier for all kinds of technological and cultural phenomena. Online services that allow people to participate can suddenly be called “democratic” because “participation” and “democracy” are commonly filed together. This is the moment when my Germanic “me” comes to spoil the party and points to the fact that pogroms and lynch mobs are in fact quite participatory activities. The little Frenchman that has secretly taken up home somewhere in my wetware adds that “populisme” is a permanent danger to true democracy and that only strong institutions can guarantee freedom. Catholicism’s heritage is a profound mistrust in human nature. These are perhaps nothing more that worn clichés, but in my case the effect of multiculturalism is a permanent cacophony of competing automatisms that disables the “good” / “bad” preprocessing that so much of the current Web 2.0 discourse seems to fall victim to.
We seriously need to get back to understanding ethics – and as a consequence politics – as deeply troubling subjects. The usual suspects of French philosophy have become household names but their principal lesson has been washed away like the famous face in the sand: that critical thinking must look at the ground it is built on. That doesn’t mean that normative arguments should be excluded, quite on the contrary – a new Habermas is direly needed. It could mean though that Hume’s bafflement at how the “ought” suddenly seems to spring out of nowhere should trouble us, too.