Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I Can Do No Other

I was reading - in bed: devotion to the cause I tell you - one of the early, pre-A Theory of Justice Rawls papers last night, entitled 'The Sense of Justice', and was struck by its explanation of a sense of justice in terms of guilt. The idea is, perhaps more commonly than I'm aware, that it is our capacity to form relationship both with others and to principles where failures to live up to the terms of those relationships generates guilt that accounts for and makes sense of our idea of justice and so our inclusion in the scope of principles of justice. In the absence of a sense of justice, we wouldn't be able to have those relationships; we might be able to have relationships of a similar sort, but since those relationships are marked by the way in which we conceptualise our failures to live up to their terms, we wouldn't be able to have them. Now, what's interesting about this is its foundation in guilt. People have been criticizing Kantianism for secularising - more and less successfully - the fiercely self-directed and often self-critical religious sentiments of mid-to-late eighteenth century Prussia for some time; it's been a persistent theme of Alasdair MacIntyre's writings, for example. For a Kantianly-minded philosopher to begin from guilt though, is perhaps rare. It's also revealing, because it makes it clear how central an ethic of responsibility is to Kantians, or at least Rawls. Unlike shame, guilt is only an appropriate response to something you're responsible for, so to make the capacity for guilt central to being a subject of justice is to make one's sense of responsibility, of having to bear the costs of your actions, central to being a subject of justice.

3 comments:

Paul said...

"For a Kantianly-minded philosopher to begin from guilt though, is perhaps rare."

Really? Given the deeply christian nature of Kant's ethical thought? And the huge place that guilt played in Kant's pietist upbringing? I'm not sure it is so surprising, when you look beyond the appeals to reason and think about where it all started.


"It's also revealing, because it makes it clear how central an ethic of responsibility is to Kantians, or at least Rawls."

You're going to have to explain the reasoning here. I don't follow why using guilt as a starting point "makes it clear" how central an "ethic of responsibility" is to Rawls. I assume this is in reference to Weber - but please, the reasoning needs to be filled in. I don't recall Weber's argument being based in guilt - and i'm not entirely sure why a preoccuption with guilt would necessarily lead one to an Eth of Res.

"Unlike shame, guilt is only an appropriate response to something you're responsible for, so to make the capacity for guilt central to being a subject of justice is to make one's sense of responsibility, of having to bear the costs of your actions, central to being a subject of justice."

Well, that's a nice Kantian, christian/post-Christian take on guilt.

For another, I strongly recommend Bernard Williams' Shame and Necessity. I find myself siding with Williams in the thought that the Greek, pre-Christian (pre-Kantian) conceptions of guilt were quite possibly a good deal healthier than ours...

Rob Jubb said...

'Begin from' doesn't mean that, and I suspect you know it doesn't. And if you think that the appropriate way to analyse all philosophical texts is to look at the personal and social conditions of their production, then Weber is going to start looking rather parochial, I suspect. So don't lets start playing that game.

Luther's 'I can do no other' is one of the central examples of an ethic of responsibility for Weber, if I've remembered rightly. That's not, no other can be done; it's driven by a sensitivity to the costs a particular person would have to bear, costs which given the way in which they are clearly not about losing face but about one's commitment to some principle or other, seem to me clearly to be best thought of as related to guilt. There's a strong internal link between guilt and responsibility; look at the description of guilt you quote - and remember that whatever else Weber may have been doing, paradigmatic cases of an ethic of responsibility are tied up with paradigmatic instances of the Christian/post-Christian idea of guilt Williams so dislikes.

Sarah said...

nice post...
i really like this...
very informative n important ideas.....

thnks...


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