Here are some thoughts from a twitter thread a little while back, which expand on some of the ideas in my post about moral logic. Here’s the initial thought:
I am deadly serious about this. I think ought implies can is as close to an a priori truth about the normative as one can find. However, it’s important to interpret it in the right way. It’s generally used to reason in the contrapositive direction: if one cannot fulfil a purported responsibility, then there is no sense in which one must fulfil it (i.e., can-not implies may-not).
There are two important corollaries of this: (i) that infinite tasks need not be seen as impossible and thereby non-obligatory, insofar as there is a finite procedure that can be indefinitely iterated (e.g., an infinite series: 1 + 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8… that converges on an ideal limit, namely, 2; this is Hegel’s true infinite); and (ii) that insofar as capacity is not static, there can be increased responsibility relative to increased capacity as easily as decreased responsibility relative to decreased capacity (‘with great power, comes great responsibility‘).
There is more that could be said about this, but I’ll restrict myself to the thread I used to elaborate the original tweet:
So, to be a bit less aphoristic, I think that there are two logical pillars of the moral universe: that ought implies can (normative pragmatism) and that the only valid inferences from is to ought are instrumental (normative anti-naturalism). This is the shape of the normative.
Everything else is downstream from these principles, because they express the essential structure of how we should reason about the normative commitments we undertake as autonomous agents, in light of the theoretical commitments we undertake as intelligent subjects.
In other words, they articulate the link between the theoretical and practical domains. And, crucially, they do so by delimiting the role of instrumental reasoning, without reducing moral, political, and even aesthetic questions to instrumental ones.
The normative is allowed its independence, without either disconnecting our normative ideals from our real capacities, or worse, inverting the relation between them and deriving the real from the ideal.
To put that in different terms, we have two distinct patterns of failure: reduction and disconnection, or naturalism and theology. Unsurprisingly, these are not necessarily incompatible.
They both tie the normative and the natural together, inferentially, the rest is mainly emphasis.
In this regard, it’s interesting to consider two arguments that have exactly the same form, but with radically opposed consequences.
On the one hand, there is Nick Land‘s recent argument for the normative primacy of disintegration or fragmentation on the basis of metaphysical claims about the fundamental nature of reality as reflected in cosmology (i.e., cosmic expansion will eventually isolate every local region from every other) and cladistics (i.e., modulo mongrels, evolutionary progress requires genetic isolation).
On the other, there is Donna Haraway‘s recent work for the normative primacy of integration or symbiosis on the basis of metaphysical claims about the fundamental nature of reality as reflected in ecology (i.e., populations of organisms within environment are interdependent insofar as their ecological niches are entangled) and biology (i.e., individual organisms are interdependent upon one another insofar as their metabolic functions are entangled).
I find the comparison between these examples fascinating for a variety of reasons. It’s no secret that those inclined toward one figure will likely outright despise the other, and those inclined towards them, even if there is much more affinity between the earlier work (e.g. ‘Meltdown‘ and ‘The Cyborg Manifesto‘). Moreover, these recent works have courted rhyming controversies: in Land, there is the spectre of Herbert Spencer‘s social darwinism and the eugenics it inspired, and, in Haraway, the ghost of Thomas Malthus‘s ecological economics and the population control measures it inspired. Neither thinker sees themselves as summoning such unwelcome spirits, but rather as finally dispelling them by extracting and digesting the bitter kernel of truth contained in each. Moreover, they each see themselves as championing some primal notion of diversity, be it genetic, cultural, or economic in character. The worst thing they can imagine is a dreary and everlasting homogeneity imposed on every organism on earth. The parallels don’t even stop there, as they both draw on cthuloid imagery in spinning their respective tales of a future, weirder post-humanity (cf. The Dark Enlightenment and The Cthulucene), liberated from the perennial constraints of sexual reproduction.
Nevertheless, the futures they envision are drastically opposed. It’s harder to imagine two sets of values more viscerally in conflict than those of clade-forming political neoreactionaries and kin-making posthuman humanists. It’s harder to imagine two worlds more radically at odds than the auto-catalytic teleoplexy of capital qua planetary intelligence, bootstrapping itself out of meat and taking flight towards the stars on a new silicon substrate, and the symbiotic ingression of humanity qua planetary custodian, tending its private garden and ultimately dissolving into whatever new Eden springs forth. If they are connected by some notion of primal diversity, then their interpretations of its significance are so far apart as to be almost unrecognisable to one another. What has gone wrong here?
I think that in each case we have a form of normative naturalism that eventually recreates theology: an all too convenient reduction of the ideal to the real that results in a tragic disconnection of the former from the latter; a disconnection that rejects the autonomous inhuman destiny of the human animal qua person in the name of some inescapable yet profound impersonal fate.
This is disappointing precisely to the extent that in their earlier work, both Land and Haraway were concerned to reject the legacy of normative naturalism implicit in the systems of categorisation (e.g., male/female, straight/gay, civilised/savage, human/subhuman, etc.) through which technocapitalist modernity divides, oppresses, and conquers the rebellious matter of the body politic. This is clearly present in ‘Kant and the Prohibition of Incest‘ as much as in ‘The Cyborg Manifesto’, though their interests and tenor are already quite different:
“For the purposes of understanding the complex network of race, gender, and class oppressions that constitute our global modernity it is very rewarding to attend to the evolution of the apartheid policies of the South African regime, since apartheid is directed towards the construction of a microcosm of the neo-colonial order; a recapitulation of the world in miniature. The most basic aspiration of the Boer state is the dissociation of politics from economic relations, so that by means of ‘bantustans’ or ‘homelands’ the black African population can be suspended in a condition of simultaneous political distance and economic proximity vis-a-vis the white metropolis. This policy seeks to recast the currently existing political exteriority of the black population in its relation to the society that utilizes its labour into a system of geographical relations modelled on national sovereignty. The direct dis-enfranchisement of the subject peoples would then be re-expressed within the dominant international code of ethno-geographical (national) autonomy.” – Nick Land, KCPI
“Cyborg imagery can help express two crucial arguments in this essay: first, the production of universal, totalizing theory is a major mistake that misses most of reality, probably always, but certainly now; and second, taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology, and so means embracing the skillful task of reconstructing the boundaries of daily life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all of our parts. It is not just that science and technology are possible means of great human satisfaction, as well as a matrix of complex dominations. Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves. This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia. It is an imagination of a feminist speaking in tongues to strike fear into the circuits of the super savers of the new right. It means both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, space stories. Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.” – Donna Haraway, CM
I could dissect these disappointments in more detail, but they are perhaps best summarised as pithily as possible:
On the one hand, Land travels an arc from solidarity in bantustan critique, decrying the political illusions of national sovereignty, to complicity in bantustan cosmology, demanding the proliferation of borders and walls in the name of exit and escape. All praise Gnon.
On the other, Haraway travels an arc from promethean anti-naturalism to tentacular naturalism, revealing that she would rather be a goddess than a cyborg after all, just not that sort of goddess; for situated epistemology will always triumph over wisdom. All praise Medusa.
What we have here is a weakening of normative naturalism that ultimately collapses normative pragmatism, albeit in two different ways. Both Land and Haraway permit themselves to locate the fundamental normative principle (diversity) within the metaphysical structure of reality itself, by way of some peculiar hermeneutics of natural science. The real disagreement over the nature of diversity then comes down to whether one gives primacy to competition or cooperation in one’s reading of the multi-layered palimpsest that is the history of life on Earth.
However, regardless of which fork one picks, one can simultaneously extract normative consequences for ethics and politics, while denying the possibility of anything like ethics and politics as we would usually understand it. For Land, it is impossible to say ‘we’ in any way that could possibly underpin some agreement upon normative truths, such that the absence of moral compulsion is the only such truth. For Haraway, it is impossible to say ‘we’ without expanding its reference to incorporate every causal system that might possibly be described as living, such that hyperbolic, ramifying responsibility to everything that exists is the only responsibility unique to those things that genuinely act rather than merely live. The normative is thereby foreclosed, but in a way that yokes us to some theological fate that erases our capacity for personal destiny, either collectively (e.g., global diplomacy) or individually (e.g., local autarky). One denies the possibility of making a moral demand on anyone else, while the other denies the possibility of challenging a moral demand made by anything else. We are condemned to the war of all against all, or condemned to care about everything in equal measure.
This, then, is the reward of normative naturalism: two formally indistinguishable terrible arguments with substantively different terrible consequences. This, then, is the logical moral: do not help yourself to normative metaphysics, lest you foreclose the possibility of normative discourse entirely, and the idea of personal autonomy along with it. There are no doubt better arguments for diversity in politics and epistemology, that may even have some interesting links to the logic of evolution, but if we want them to end elsewhere, they must begin elsewhere.