Sunday, February 04, 2007

Against Nussbaum

Aristotle apparently had the nerve to believe in the existence of a function of man: to exercise rationality at its best. I say this because it seems more a matter of temerity than courage. Not only does it seem absurd and arrogant; it is also unnecessary. This, however, is not the focus of these lines. Rather, I intend to reject Nussbaum’s interpretation of Aristotle’s claim.

Nussbaum intends to explain why, for Aristotle, human nature is ethically relevant, and how this relates society with practical reasoning. Why should I, when thinking what to do, consider anyone else but me? Aristotle, through Nussbaum, replies:

“Deliberation takes place not in a vacuum, but in the polis.”

This seems an acceptable truism. Nussbaum, however, offers other answers too:

(a) “Prior to deliberating, I identify myself as a member of a certain group,”

(b) “(…) deliberation starts from a conception of human being”

(c) “Aristotle realized … the importance to ethical deliberation of a theory of personal identity.”

I believe (a) and (b) are mistaken, and the source of much one-sided normative confussions that build, first, a hierarchical structure between the individual and the group, and, second, locates the latter prior to the former. (c), however, seems obviously true: to determine what X should do it is necessary, at least, to presuppose an X.

It does not follow from (c) that anything like (a) or (b) must be the case. Personal and group identity and deliberation might be simultaneous achievements, and (c) still be true. Furthermore, (a) and (b) are false. Unless no deliberation is required to become a member of a group of rational beings, it is impossible to identify oneself as a member of such a group ‘prior’ to deliberating. Thus, (a) can only be true if human groups are not necessarily groups of individuals that engage in moral deliberation. This is simply not the case. As for (b), unless the concept of human being does not presuppose notions like ‘rational’, ‘deliberating’, and so on, it is impossible to have a notion of a human being without understanding what it is to be rational and to deliberate. Thus, (b) can only be true, if human beings are not necessarily (or essentially) rational, and so on. This, says the orthodoxy (Aristotle included), is false.

This is not to say that the community is irrelevant for the individual’s deliberation. I think it is relevant, and even necessary; but not because of what Nussbaum says (Fichte has a better account). Personal identity is NOT prior to deliberation. The community is NOT the starting point of the individual. And there is no point in making hierarchical distinctions between one and the other.

It might be better if we leave aside the arrogant dream of determining what the function of man is.