praxis precedes precepts

Cora Diamond and Rai Gaita have done more to make visible to us the profound groundlessness of our ethical judgement than any other philosophers I know. But the kind of 'groundlessness' they expose is not something that turns out to be a problem for ethics; it is not anything which ought to entail a revision, or inspire any kind of doubt about, our ethical judgements. It is a problem, rather, for a certain sort of philosophical aspiration. (The truth is: there was a fantasy of grounds and of a need for grounds; the fantasy is merely that, but thankfully the imagined need was merely that too. So, one might say, there really isn't any actual or significant or ethical groundlessness either.) This aspiration amounts to a wish to ground ethical judgement in ethical principle, or to see the shape of our empathic and reactive tendencies towards others - other people, and certain non-human animals too - as depending on, or when it is going well reflecting, the shape of prior, independently intelligible, ethical or rational principles. The vision they offer us is instead one in which our reactive dispositions to one another themselves condition or partly constitute both our moral understanding itself and our grasp of the meaning and applicability of any such principles to which we may make appeal. There simply is no measuring these diverse tendencies which spring from a disparate collection of instinctive and socialised dispositions against any set of moral rules or ethical standards; in one sense they are not intelligibly thought of as themselves right or wrong - any more than it is helpful to describe the standard metre in Paris (ahem, just imagine it actually exists and still plays the requisite normative role ok?) as longer or shorter than or exactly one metre. Praxis precedes precepts is the Marxist/Wittgensteinian mantra I'm coining here to summarise this train of thought.

Look, you just don't eat people, ok! Ugh! No! Yes, it's bad to do it - but it is itself a paradigm of such badness, not something that drops out of some independently understood general moral rule.  If regarding this you ask 'why?' in a sincere manner, the problem is probably not that, lacking a decent justification for not eating others, you risk casually scoffing the odd person pasty without the requisite baulk .... but rather that you are already a psychopath. The philosopher wants to help us feel more justified, grounded, reasonable, in our moral judgement - but to the extent that they invert the order of praxis and precept they risk, despite their best intentions, alienating us from our moral sensibilities. They risk - one might say, if one accidentally took or pretended to take them seriously - courting a moral catastrophe - in which we are no longer standing by and in our judgment, no longer simply embodying the form of moral sensibility in our assured moral stand-taking, but - rather like the obsessive who wants to derive and support what for them has somehow ceased being a certainty-in-action from and with certainty-of-memory or decency-of-evidence, but who in this cart-before-horse manner just makes things worse - instead imagining and feeling a need to be plugged by reason to justify why we should judge as we do. (That was a ridiculously long sentence. But it works. It expresses a clear thought. I promise.)

Here then is once again my master thought, the one I endlessly keep writing about, recalling, coming back to. It is: that the judgement of sanity vs insanity is itself similarly groundless. That psychiatry, especially the philosophy of psychiatry, but also academic clinical psychiatry and psychology, so often aims to find some principle to separate the sheep of sanity from the goats of insanity. But the principle is always hopeless, since it is either normatively inert (being a merely statistical norm, for example) or facile (since it really only applies to, and this since it tacitly presupposes that here we actually have to do with, the types of thoughts enjoyed by the sane). Sometimes these get cobbled together (as in definitions of delusion which mark it as culturally unusual (in, presumably, a statistical sense) and merely false or inadequately reasoned). And, my thought goes, the reason why the theorist  or clinician so inexorably indulges this desire to provide  or deploy criteria for true madness is both because of the unenviable responsibility in making the clinical judgement and because of what we might think of as a form of contamination anxiety (how can I be sure I'm not mad too?). If it seems dangerous to let loose mental health professionals on populations with nothing more than clinical judgement to guide them then - well, then perhaps we ought to give more thought to the non-operational finessing of practical judgement itself. After all, the thought could go, we are not in any magically better shape when it comes to our moral judgement itself of the possible ill that such necessarily unprincipled practice could inflict. Praxis precedes precepts applies, I'm suggesting, as much to the moral as to the clinical domain. Courage, good-heartedness, and casuistry are the names of the game.


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