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- To abstract is to intelligibly reduce an object to the properties essential to it; the properties that remain constant over varyingly constituted cases, standing as common among the manifested multitude of the instantiated object(s) concerned.
1.1. The most abstract is that which can withstand no further reduction.
- At its most abstract, politics concerns two types of relation: (i) the intersubjective which concerns the distribution of power and initiative between situational agents and patients, from the individual to the individual or group thereof, and (ii) the interobjective, which has to do with the interplay of forces between the group and all that does or can environ, affect or interact with it, whereby the group is objectified as independent from the individuals comprising it.
2.1. The abstract structure of the parameters of such relations and their qualities thereof are the domain of ethics.
The emergent capacities of the group
- By default, an aggregation of individuals provides for certain options that would otherwise not be readily available to the individual, eminent among which is the division of labour. Not only does it enable or facilitate the survival of the species, but — and perhaps most importantly — it furnishes the means to economise on the scarcest of resources: time.
3.1. For a person time is scarce due to the innate opportunity cost involved in every action; ‘opportunity cost’ being, in essence, a temporal arrangement of acts susceptible to the person’s influence. Opting for act A in time 1 may preclude the choice of B in time 1, while rolling over its possible selection to time 2.
3.1.1. Mortality merely provides a rigid framework within which such choices may be made. Its absence, i.e. a state of immortality, would not, in and of itself, eliminate opportunity costs. It would remove the robust terminus, not the fact that choosing involves forgoing.
3.2. The division of labour stands as the cornerstone of any prospering society. Without it, each individual would have to accommodate all human needs or wants by themselves, from the essentials such as food, shelter and clothing, to goods of leisure, art, science etc. Given that there is a finite amount of work a person can output in a single day, there would practically not be enough time in a workday to cover them all. For such a situation to be somewhat sustainable, the labours necessary for survival would be offered priority.
3.2.1. In contradistinction, the separation and systematisation of tasks fosters specialisation and roundaboutness in production; conduits to more efficient methods of production. By optimising operations, newly available work may be directed away from activities that hinge directly on survival, such as in the creation of implements that can, once finalised in form, become part of productive processes to ultimately deliver greater returns for each unit of labour and so on (such as resources spent to produce a machine which is then employed in a more sophisticated/efficient line of production). As a result, the gains in time increase as the specialisation deepens and broadens — as efficiency improves (notwithstanding diminishing returns).
3.3 Such is an indication that the group has the potential of realising states of affairs outside of the individual’s limited scope. Simply put, if left completely isolated in a civilisational vacuum, an individual would require several human lifetimes to even have the slightest of chances of making the advances in knowledge and developing the totality of interoperating factors that underpin the publication of a single blog post on the internet.
3.3.1. It is courtesy of the group’s emergent capacities that an individual can channel their vital force to tasks that extend beyond the bare minimum for survival. The fruits of a person’s labour are to be attributed both to their own industry/ingenuity and to the group’s effective modalities of interpersonal conduct.
The noetic presence of the group
4. The individual is immersed in and operates as part of a greater whole, being capable of enjoying — and making contributions to — the civilisation that springs from it. For our purposes, the question must be: is such an expanded array of possible modes of living to be attributed to the group as such? Is the range of outcomes a group renders achievable part of an ontic object’s potentiality? In other words, are such phenomena as the division of labour properties germane to an entity that subsists independent of — or in addition to — the individuals that comprise it?
4.1. First on the metaphysical distinction between objects (for more see here and here): noetic objects exhibit change — or the lack thereof — in accordance with how they are thought, while in contrast ontic objects exhibit change — or the lack thereof — in themselves, independent of how they are thought. The former are discernible through the faculty of the intellect, the latter through the faculties of sense.
4.2. If the group were to have an ontic presence, its existence would not be heavily predicated on interpersonal modes of conduct whose quality is influenced by — and remains subject to — how they are thought. The group would persist in its given state even if all of its members were to agree on its annulment. So unless the group as such could indeed act on its own, concerted inaction of all interoperating individuals forming a group would equal the complete lack of action within that case.
4.3. Then there is the fact that the group as such is not graspable through the faculties of sense. Contrary to complex material constitutions, where both the parts and the whole are susceptible to the faculties of sense, the group as such is not empirically verifiable. This makes it more likely that ‘the group’ is a noetic object, tantamount to the notions that inform interpersonal conduct. The understanding of ‘the group’ is an encapsulation of the concatenated modes of relation among interoperating individuals, who, in being together, achieve results outside of each one’s particular reach.
4.4. If interpersonal modes of conduct do determine the presence and peculiarities of the group, and if they do involve judgement instead of being mechanical, then the emergent capacities of the group derive from explicit or tacit agreements between individuals. They are not inherent to the group qua group. New possibilities, such as the division of labour, are not to be treated as properties of an independent being’s potentiality, but as an ad hoc delineation of functions among those involved; functions that could theoretically be performed by each of them.
4.4.1. By ‘agreements’ we mean convergence of conception between objects of thought and their properties thereof (although formal covenants do also partake of this).
Given truths and instituted facts
- What sustains the coherence of the group is its shared commitment to an interweaving web of given truths — aka rules/norms — that can be or are standardised and prioritised within a historical-cultural context as instituted facts. By that we suggest that their noetic presence is concealed or obfuscated, them being perceived as having transfigured into — or always been — ontic objects.
5.1. A given truth is a common belief in the universality of a certain thesis. Its truthfulness rests in its ubiquitous adoption, while its status as ‘given’ is reinforced by social sanction on the deviant. For example, in some cultures, it is a norm to remove one’s hat while in church. The thesis could be: “one must remove their hat while in church”, which would rather be indicative of “it is true that one must remove their hat while in church“.
5.2. Instituted facts are essentially given truths that were exalted to a higher level of significance. They represent deep seated evaluations underpinning the very design of the political order. For instance, if by tradition a person is bestowed with a certain role of performing a specified function within the group and if that involves the claim of the role itself granting the ability to be a direct representative of a deity, then the assumption is two-fold: (a) that said deity is actual, and (b) that the representation springing from the role is real. What renders these assumptions factual is their institution as such, i.e. the definition within a historical-cultural context that they are correct beyond any doubt and are to be given a greater significance within the polity.
5.2.1. For the sake of precision, it should be noted that there is a distinction to be made between “said deity” being true and “divinity as such” being actual. The former concerns a certain conception of what could be the specifics of the divine. The latter is the broader issue of whether there is divinity altogether.
5.3. Intersubjectivity may thus produce and be guided by ideas that are or may be exogenous to some or all of the persons actually involved, should they passively assent to them; exogenous in the sense of not having derived from themselves, but passed on to them, such as by their ancestors or the established political order. This represents a form of alienation from the underlying factors of the relation’s quality, for in being objectified, the given truth or instituted fact is insulated from critical analysis and protected against scrutiny, all while remaining a driver for certain political developments with clear material ramifications.
5.3.1. As regards ‘objectification’, consider the following: whether correct or wrong, no ethical judgement is meaningfully passed on, say, the fact that apples are attracted to the ground or that water evaporates once its temperature increases beyond a certain degree — gravity or evaporation is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’. Similar is the ethical treatment of noetic objects that have undergone reification. If it is taken as a universal and necessary constant that the given truths/instituted facts in force are the only ones there are and can be, there shall be no alteration to them for as long as that presumption is upheld.
5.3.2. Relations formed in this light reveal an historical-cultural shift towards ideocentric heteronomy, which can potentially deprive the persons involved from moulding their intersubjectively constituted world to their specific needs, demands or aspirations.
Doubt as a vector for autonomy
- A dubitative attitude can lead an individual to question, and eventually dismiss, such given truths/instituted facts as mere expedient fabrications. Perhaps they were functional in a certain context, yet they continue to permeate, penetrate or underpin a certain political status quo, with all the implications this has.
6.1. At its core, doubt is the state of mind that searches for the what is true, rather than the who. In practical terms, it is the kind of approach that distinguishes dialogue from persuasion. The former can give rise to a truth that is originally not held by either party to the discussion. The latter features a preconceived proposition that is to be offered to others in tact by means of shrewd argumentation (or coercion).
6.1.1. Doubt for its own sake is the opposite of a dubitative attitude, for it presumes the valorisation of doubting as its ultimate telos. Its intention is to remain doubtful, not to identify the what is true.
6.2. To be doubtful, is to be dialectical. By ‘dialectical’ we refer to a couple of inclinations: (i) to engage in a discussion with the willingness to find or to approximate a truth you may not initially hold, which conversely implies the eagerness to be found mistaken if that provides a conduit to a greater truth, and (ii) to remain aporetic and zetetic vis-à-vis your very self should a certain [pro]position be espoused.
6.3. For the dubitative attitude to take full effect, the individual must also partake of two other virtues: boldness and honesty. In being bold, the individual is prepared to express their thesis without fear and hesitation; which is essential if the what rather than the who of the truth is to be pursued dialectically. While in being honest, the individual is overt as to their intention of investigating the truth, rather than willing to resort to dubious, mendacious acts that would aim at yielding personal gains at the expense of the dialectical enterprise.
6.4. Dialectic, boldness and honesty are an inseparable triad of interpersonal virtues for autonomy. Their application extends beyond the sphere of the individual, for the very notion of ethics is couched in terms of relations. An absolute self placed in a vacuum has no intersubjective extension, no ethic. The outward effect of a widespread adoption of said triad of virtues, provided they do not become their own end, is a shift from heteronomy to autonomy. Given truths and instituted facts cannot escape a dubitative inquiry, unless they enjoy the operation of a double standard.
6.4.1. The qualitative aspects of relations then fall in line with whatever ad hoc consensus the intersubjective exercise in dialectics may yield. In terms of politics, it stands for the realisation that whatever rules, norms or institutions inform or govern the distribution of power and initiative within the polity, their metaphysical status is noetic and, hence, their given quality is subject to endogenous modification/revision.
Autonomy is not a good in itself
- That a polity may be autonomous in the sense here outlined is not equivalent to it being good and its outcomes just. Within the context of dialectics a certain conclusion will be reached; a conclusion that may be evaluated anew. In the meantime, it may not be truthful or as close to the truth as it could be within the case’s constitution.
7.1. Notions of ethics such as ‘good’ or ‘just’ are determined by the criterion used to evaluate them. For ethical value to be estimated, a proximately objective benchmark is needed. Either such a benchmark is ontic, which means that ethical rules are ‘out there’, or it is noetic, and hence must be formulated intelligibly. If the former is the case, the ontic constant will be susceptible to the faculties of sense and be empirically verifiable. If the latter is the case, the criterion shall be a product of abstraction, deduced from the common in the multitude among instantiated object(s) designated as relevant to the definition in question.
7.1.1. To advocate the ontic status of ethical rules, one must prove them empirically and, additionally, must provide a falsifiable claim as to why they do not apply mechanically or, in other words, why there can be wide discrepancies between effective ethical systems. If, say, one argues that X is an ontic ethical value compelling one to uphold a certain duty, they need to furnish proof as to why X or the alleged duty it engenders can be completely — and systematically — disregarded by interpersonal modes of conduct that treat X as false or irrelevant to their outlook. Why doesn’t X have the same intellect-independnet force of gravity or evaporation mentioned earlier? Why is X subject to dismissal, while the others are not (provided the appropriate natural state)?
7.1.2. As for the noetic status of ethics, the gist of the examination stems from the realisation of their application within relations of politics. The multitude of manifestations is then examined intelligibly, to identify abstract patterns that can serve as proximately objective benchmarks for viable/practical foundations of effective ethics. Whatever sort of differentiation may be discernible over varyingly constituted cases, is omitted, leaving all that is common as constitutive of the concept. For example, to claim that all humans have a right to Y, is to tacitly suggest that ‘human’ is an abstract pattern (the common in the multitude) and that this is used as a [proximately] objective benchmark to validate a certain claim, i.e. the right to Y.
18.104.22.168. While humans are ontic, this example of an ethical benchmark is not. It is well known that ‘human’ has not always and everywhere been a basis for ethics and, by that token, it may seize to be once again. For the ethical benchmark qua noetic object to become effective, it needs to be formulated rationally, i.e. for the abstract pattern to be discerned. If, however, it were ontic, its rational conception would not be a necessary condition for its application. Gravity/evaporation were and are in force regardless of how or whether we thought and think of them.
7.2. The same can be suggested for science. That a given scientific conclusion has been formulated is no reason to elevate it to the status of an absolute, inviolable given. Science being a dialectical exercise at its core may also find ways to transcend and then revise what was once the perceived terminus to [scientific] inquiry. For example, determinism was once held by the scientific community as the overriding truth of the universe. With quantum mechanics becoming an integral part of the broader enterprise, probabilism seems to be gaining traction as the more likely overarching truth (suggested reading: Farewell to determinism by Marko Vojinovic at the University of Lisbon). That too may change as research progresses.
7.3. In light of the above, an heteronomous setting may contextually represent a more optimal state of affairs as seen from the perspective of the persons involved. The difference between an heteronomous and autonomous setup is not in its actuality but its potentiality. An heteronomous order is more likely to remain robust to a range of reformist impulses. The opposite is most likely the case for an autonomous order.
7.3.1. If we were to use the quest for truth as a benchmark, autonomy would seem a preferable choice as it enables verification/falsification in ways that heteronomy does not and that is its comparative advantage in seeking the truth. However, there is no ‘objective’ reason to use that particular one as a benchmark. Interpersonal conduct may as well be inclined to cling on to the benefits of functionality and effectiveness at delivering material results, even if their foundation is an outright lie. For instance, property rights are a given truth of a capitalist society; a thesis that might be completely misguided at parts or in total. Still, that is no reason to dismiss the complex web of relations germane to capitalism, if it is intersubjectively treated as a preferable option to alternative forms of organisation. Capitalism can be ‘good’ if examined in light of the functionality benchmark; it may be branded ‘bad’ if seen under the scope of the dubitative attitude.
Anthropocentrism and concluding remarks
- Should we be presenting politics/ethics as solely intersubjective we would, nolens volens, be presuming an anthropocentric worldview. The initial reference to interobjective relations is meant to indicate that such outlook is not considered holistic — it does not regard all ontic objects as central to its system, but only some of them (viz. ‘human’). A politically ordered group does not exist in a void. It is environed by objects external to it. Hence, where there can be discretion as to the relation/interaction with all that is external, there are ethical themes to be contemplated.
8.1. The examination of the interobjective magnitude could broaden the horizons of effective politics, removing human from its epicentre. In such a wider context, intersubjectivity is not to be demoted in terms of its significance. Interpersonal modes of conduct retain their cardinal importance in the lives of the persons involved. The interobjective magnitude introduces an additional set of parameters, relevant to intersubjective modalities where it concerns their external ramifications.
8.2. Nonetheless, the ethical factors of an anthropocentric and the more holistic, object-centric approach are expected to exhibit substantial discrepancies in their qualities (and the perceptions stemming therefrom). A given range of values underlies the claim that “human shall exploit nature for their development”; which is profoundly different from, say, “human is to develop while respecting nature’s constraints”.
8.2.1. Granted the aforementioned, politics’ interobjective aspect shall be considered more fully in a future essay (so in case you aren’t already in sync with my updates, you might want to subscribe via RSS and/or follow me on twitter @prot_stavrou).