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Can Utilitarianism Survive
a Normative Metaphysical Landscape?

Brandom’s Re-grounding of the Objective
in the Normative

by David Foss

With a subversion of the fact/value distinction, by its reorientation in terms of social practices, Robert Brandom has effectively called into question the ‘objective’ nature of all normatively relevant distinctions of ‘fact’. He has done so while providing an understanding of how such notions operate in an essentially dynamic (and developing) enterprise, and emphasized the self-cultivating character of expressive capacities, including the identification of objects a community will take as true. It should not be surprising then, in the midst of the ontological collapse of the Given, that moral theories which make extensive use of objective measure will find this thesis troubling. Utilitarian moral theory is particularly vulnerable, as its traditional manifestations have generally held as central the capacity to quantify across populations some objectifiable standard of value (even where the standard of value is held as an incommensurable multiplicity). But Brandom’s indictment does not stop there. The individuating conditions of actions themselves surrender their objective status. His view pervasively condemns any action theory[1] (moral or causal) to a condition of self-conscious normativity, although the actual use of objective or truth talk is still relevantly distinct from the use of social or normative talk.

To some extent, the effect of Brandom’s conceptual reconfiguration can be understood as rendering all talk of culturally transcendent value absurd. Indeed, he could be understood as suggesting that all talk of socially transcendent truth is absurd. But these conclusions will only be the case if we mean by culturally or socially transcendent those conceptual objects which require no cultural or social contextual basis. They will not follow if by transcendent we mean that class of objects which a culture or society simply projects beyond its members. Nevertheless, Brandom’s endorsement of a rather specific valuational strategy, with respect to the constraints social practices necessarily involve, appears strikingly inconsistent with precisely this point. A clarification of Brandom’s effort here, and how he might see no contradiction in his suggestion, will also help to clarify those elements of a more traditional moral theory (Utilitarianism specifically) that will still be tenable.

Brandom identifies two distinctive attitudes with which we apprehend the world. There is nothing genuinely novel in the distinction between the objective and social contexts; between the Realm of Nature and the Realm of Freedom.[2] But traditional responses to the distinction have tended to take for granted that the distinction itself is one of objective difference. Brandom reverses this priority, identifying this distinction as essentially social. The reconceptualization that this reversal involves places added emphasis on the nature of norms and practices in questions of freedom, ‘truth’, and descriptive enterprises. For Brandom: the objective/social distinction is social; the factual/normative distinction is normative; and the descriptive/evaluative distinction is evaluative.[3]

This reconfiguration has its grounding in an examination of the practices which constitute our language. The distinction between objective talk, where attention is placed on causal relationships, and normative talk, where attention is placed on translation (the making of observed phenomenon into species of our own), is essentially a language practice itself.[4] As such, it may validly be made the subject of either sort of discourse. Importantly, in either case, the distinction will be made a linguistic object, as subject to normative challenges as any. Insofar as a linguistic practice is a construct of a community and its members, so is this distinction, its boundary conditions, and its inferential role in the larger linguistic context.

There are important differences between the language of translation and the language of causes. Indeed, the differences are no less real than if the distinction were objective, even though these play out in markedly divergent ways depending upon the basis of their differentiation. Nevertheless, there are still some unifying characteristics to the language of truth, as well as to the language of value, under either framing:

... causal explanations can proceed atomistically, building up the behavior of a complex system out of independently describable behavioral elements. Translations, however, even in our extended sense, must proceed holistically.[5]

In a sense, Utilitarianism, essentially relying on the integration of atomic phenomena to statements of social value, by way of a maximization calculus, must use the language of objective/causal explanations. Utilitarianism, therefore, might escape the difficulties posed by the abandonment of absolute objectivity by submitting that all it is really concerned with is the value standards a given community takes to be objective at any given point. This even appears to avoid the added difficulty of determining the individuating conditions for actions or phenomena generally. Apparently all that would be given up would be the ability to perform a utilitarian analysis outside the context of a social practice. This would not necessarily prevent cross-cultural comparisons, as any comparison would essentially involve translation at its earliest stage.[6] But it would prevent extra-social determinations of moral value. This in itself might not seem a very troubling loss, especially if it reflects a realistic effort to take into account our situatedness in making valuational judgments.

Unfortunately, Brandom has done something more unsettling to the Utilitarian foundations. He has highlighted the dependency of the experience of value on the capacity of linguistic practices to communicate it. As he says, “Without a suitable language there are some beliefs, desires, and intentions that one simply cannot have.”[7] Utilitarianism, running on a model of a fixed preference base, endorses the status quo linguistic practice as a whole. Unfortunately, the linguistic practice, of necessity, is continually changing through the dialectic interplay of individuals and community, extending and shifting the boundaries of experience as novel expressions (in terms not only of novel sentences, but novel concepts, approaches, and valid forms of inference) are incorporated into the primary fabric of social discourse.

Having said this, it would seem that no standard of value could escape its articulated context, and even within such a context will necessarily remain subject to eternal revision, re-articulation, or (potentially) outright contradiction. It appears odd that Brandom proceeds in identifying a super-social standard of value, in the form of his endorsement of a particular form of practice:

Constraint of the individual by the social and political norms inherent in communal practices may be legitimate insofar as that constraint makes possible for the individual an expressive freedom which is otherwise impossible for him. [...] Political constraint is illegitimate insofar as it is not in the service of the cultivation of the expressive freedom of those who are constrained by it.[8]

If the measures of individual freedom are themselves social (albeit within the language of objectivity) how can such a distinction remain viable? This objection, I think, deeply misunderstands the point Brandom has been making. The notions of freedom, as the condition of being subject to the norms of a social practice, and the emergent expressive capacity essential to natural languages[9], do not appeal to standards of objectivity for their meaning or relevance. Like the option available to the Utilitarian mentioned above, Brandom need not be understood as making a claim external to a social practice framework. In fact, it is essential to his view that such a claim can only be made within such a framework. There does seem to be, nevertheless, a deep inconsistency involved in maintaining simultaneously a non-objective epistemic cosmos and a universal value attribution.

As was just mentioned, Brandom sees his criteria of legitimacy as functioning essentially within the framework of a social practice. In fact, the criteria is intended to function in any social practice framework (provided it is truly social) simply by, and in virtue of, it being just such a framework. As members of a community, the social practices we engage in and the rules they involve stand not only in a regulative relation to us, but serve to constitute who we are as a community and as individuals. This constitutive role can be understood on at least two levels. On the level of self-awareness — in the form of self-reflective discursive evaluation and explicit self identification — it is clearly true that any expression of identity will necessarily rest on the linguistic (and conceptual) tools provided by our social context. But a further meta-level exists wherein we find, as individuals, a set of constitutive mechanisms which must exist in order that we might be the sort of beings to enjoy a normative (i.e. social) existence. These mechanisms need not be understood as permutations of some fundamental notion of freedom. They are simply those attributes of cognition which enable us to engage in social behaviors. Their expression, in the inter-personal context of social practice, is in some way essential to being who we are. Such an expression, whether called freedom or being subject to social norms, develops interactively (or even dialectically) with the social practices themselves.

It is not the case that these mechanisms, or their expression, are somehow necessarily valuable. Brandom seems to be claiming that if we are going to engage in social practices — which will necessarily involve issues of endorsement, value, etc. — then it would be fundamentally inconsistent of us to deny the value of those very mechanisms which make the enterprise possible. The standard of legitimacy he proposes is grounded in the recognition that if any constraint is legitimate, it will be the one(s) which endorses the development of the basis (on a meta-level) of social constraint generally. A constraint which denies the viability of the individual expression of those essential mechanisms, undermines its own viability. This, it seems, is the basis of Brandom’s meta-valuational claim.

In this context, what kind of role could a revised Utilitarianism play? Could a valuational calculus play a role in issues of morality on a meta-level, or is it confined simply to a community which happens to take such methods seriously? At the very least, Utilitarian theory will have to abandon its claim that the valuational calculus objectively maximizes the Good (regardless of whether the “Good” or “standard of value” is understood as itself objective). Even in terms of comparative evaluations across practices, where the value standard is some sort of legitimacy function along the lines proposed by Brandom, it is not clear a valuational calculus will work. None of the standards will be objective, as any content to constraints embedded in particular legitimacy of practices will only be “revealed” (or more accurately “developed”) by the actions of the participants through time. Evaluations only seem possible a posteriori with respect to the practices in question. And this is troubling for a prescriptive theory which would like to endorse particular courses of future action.

In the end, Utilitarianism can get no further than any other moral theory concerned primarily with actions. It may be necessarily part of the normative practices of particular communities, but not necessarily part of the normative practice generally. Unless the theory is dramatically changed with respect its most fundamental precepts (such as abandoning a priori evaluation), it will remain simply a tool (albeit a powerful one) for intra-social evaluations. At least, this would be the case if, as it seems probable to suppose, Brandom’s suggestion were in some relevant way true.

Epistemology, Politics and Society
PHIL-783-01, Georgetown University
Spring 1992
(© David Foss, February 25, 1992)

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Last modified September 2, 1998

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