In this post, I take issue with Caputo's treatment of obligation in his Against Ethics, and I suggest (or hint at it at the very least) that Caputo is committed to a deeper phenomenological account of the origin of values. This is excerpted from a larger work, but I thought it would be fun to put here to get some feedback all the same.
I. Caputo on Obligation in Against Ethics
Caputo’s situation, he claims, can be likened to a man adrift “who discovers that the ground he hitherto took to be terra firma is in fact an island adrift in a vast sea, so that even if he stands absolutely firm he is in fact in constant motion.”[i] For Caputo, ethics no longer has a secure path to its promised safe passage, its privileges, judgments, and concepts that compel us towards the good. The net of these safe concepts is exposed by deconstructionism. The idea of obligation “is not safe, that ethics cannot make it safe, that it is not nearly as safe as ethics would have believe.”[ii] At first, one might read this claim as a reiteration of a concern about moral luck or the presence of contingency that could undermine moral experience.[iii] However, Caputo’s program is a deconstructionist attempt at understanding ethics. As such, understanding Caputo’s position will involve two features. We must locate the exact reasons he is against ethics, and that criticism turns on what he will say about obligation. Second, we must understand what grounds the deconstructionist critique of obligation.
Caputo thinks the experience of obligation is messy, not as safe as ethicists (or metaethicists for that matter) pretend. This messiness is not a claim about ethics and its objectivity. Instead, the accompanying certainty of some moral philosophies claiming objectivity is a stance. Caputo is resisting this stance. Ethics is built around methodological pretensions to universal truth employed to secure obligation as a knowable concept. Caputo is not the only one that is very skeptical about the claims of universality and impartiality built into ethics. Bernard Williams achieved hallmark fame in the analytic world for his critique of the very same methodological pretensions that Caputo may be talking about.
However, the problem with Caputo is that the lack of precision could amount to a number of things when interpreted back to those of us (even those of us that have tried to be philosophically ambidextrous) that work in ethics. Does resisting ethics here indicate Caputo’s resistance advocates a form of moral particularism? Is it a form of skepticism about decision-procedures? Impartial standpoints? I take his resistance to indicate all these things, but I am not going to shy away from his rather bizarre—if not completely uncharitable and inflated presentation of what ethics could be. For Caputo, this resistance against ethics is not motivated by reasons independent of presupposing the legitimacy of deconstructionism.
With this admitted presupposition, Caputo is also never really clear what he means by ethics throughout Against Ethics. Like Kierkegaard assuming ethics means a system of universal principles that admit no exception in his own writings, the sense of the term “ethics” finds resonance neither with Levinas nor Kant completely, yet they are also called into question by Caputo’s efforts. As such, I have decided to take the generality of “ethics” to mean any philosophical attempt to render the content of morality clear to us. In general, moral philosophy/ethics means a sustained philosophical attempt that codifies morality by generating action-guiding principles for situations where the answer is not entirely clear, ambiguous, and confusing. These principles are often regarded as decision-procedures. Decision-procedures that guide deliberation about morality are what makes “obligation safe.”
For purposes of clarity, Caputo’s critique is an anti-realist about both the access and knowledge about secure obligations (a metaethical critique involving metaphysics of value and moral epistemology) and this undermines any normative ethics to arrive at action-guidance (the normative critique). Since ant-realism about values is, initially, a metaphysical problem of values, I argue it’s best understood to take what follows along metaethical lines, and since I argue for a Schelerian solution to dissolve Caputo’s anti-realism, my use of phenomenology should also be understood along metaethical lines here.
II. Caputo, Obligation, and Scheler
As a long time scholar of Heidegger, Caputo reads obligation through the same factical givenness characteristic of Heidegger’s early analysis of Dasein. “Obligation is a fact as it were, not of pure practical reason, as in Kant, but of our factical life.” He continues and equates the appearance of obligations as prescriptives found in language. Even then, however “they do not succumb to reduction, that no one…is able to put them out of action, to bracket or suspend them. You may ‘redescribe’ them however as you wish but they still keep coming in, still keep arriving.”[iv] According to Caputo, obligations exist outside of phenomenological study, along with factical life as well.
Despite the massive demandingness of obligation upon my life, obligation itself is unavoidable. It cannot be avoided. Obligations occur beyond my control. “They happen to me.”[v] They occur without warning and constitute the field of my experience. Caputo writes,
Obligations do not ask for my consent. Obligation is not like a contract I have signed after having had a chance to review it carefully and to have consulted my lawyer. It is not anything I have agreed to be a party to. It binds me. It comes over me and binds me…Obligation is a feeling, the feeling of being bound (ligare, obligare, re-ligare), an element of my feeling (Befindlichkeit), but I cannot get on top of it, scale its height, catch a glimpse of its rising up.[vi]
Elsewhere, Caputo links obligation with feeling. “I cannot found or ground my obligations. I do not issue obligatory phrases; I receive them. I find myself under their spell; it is part of my Befindlichkeit.”[vii] In embracing Heidegger’s Befindlichkeit, Caputo has identified a self-contained ontologically constitutive category that has no order beyond its immanent manifestation.
On its own, obligation just happens, but it happens as an event of feeling. Like Gadamer’s ontology of play of the artwork, obligation possesses its own intelligibility as it unfolds in activity, constituting a language game all on its own. Obligation plays. “It plays because it plays. It plays without a why, without any founding grounds or great grounding founders.”[viii] This playing is the same self-concealing groundless ground that functions at the heart of Heidegger’s thinking. As Michael Zimmerman states, the meaning of being is equal to “the temporal-historical (and thus non-foundational) context that makes possible any historical epochal understanding of Being.”[ix] Here, Caputo draws on the mytho-poetic features of Heidegger’s thinking that agrees, at least in principle, with Caputo that there is no foundation, no Geist, no Logos that cuts “all the way down.”[x] Instead, every value-experience is singular and disclosive just like what Heidegger calls Eriegnis, which names self-concealing groundless ground that gives and sends the various understandings of Being that governs the various historical epochs that configure it.[xi]
Caputo entangles the sense of ought in feeling as a force that overpowers its experiencers. This affective (and evaluative) force determines both the obligation and the something that moves me to respond. Yet, even here the unity of sense and implicit claim of phenomenology can recover the unity of experience Caputo resists. Caputo is rejecting ethics, but in rejecting ethics, he is appealing to the explanation provided by moral experience itself. Even as an event, such unity is discoverable in moral experience without succumbing to the deconstructionist dismissiveness he maintains about ethics and what he calls “value theory,”
I do not hold “value theory” in high regard either, which is form me just more “ethics,” i.e., more metaphysics…I am not prepared to turn over the question of “obligation” to value theory. I do not regard the bond that binds obligation to disaster to be a matter of a “value” we should “hold” or a “claim” we “make.” Obligation is rather—this is what a poetics of obligations brings out and where it starts—a matter of being claimed, in which something has a hold on us, something that is older than us, that has us before we have it.[xii]
For Caputo, the skepticism of grounding obligation into a discipline called ethics is mistaken, and yet note the ambiguity about what “value theory” truly entails, naming it, labeling it, but never being exactly clear what he means by the term (just like ethics). Yet, in the following passage, we can see that skepticism of ethics is co-extensive with any attempt to ground the concept of obligation. All that Caputo tells us is that obligation comes to us, that it binds us, and we can never get on top of it. Obligation is based on its own power to pull us and attract us, to feel it working itself on us. Obligation is an event in feeling, but nothing more. So let me interpret the two co-extensive claims Caputo is arguing. On the one hand, ethics implies an untenable metaphysics and on the other hand, that untenable metaphysics corresponds directly to the fact that all forms of ethics cannot contain conceptually and explain obligations “just happening.” As he says later, “the element of obligation, by which I mean the space of obligation, where obligations happen—down low, well below philosophical conceptuality.”[xiii] Scheler’s phenomenology can accomplish these two tasks and properly articulate us to a more coherent phenomenological (participatory) realism about values.
Phenomenologically, Caputo blurs the boundaries of feeling and the boundaries of the value-contents given to feeling. A deconstructionist is thoroughly committed to the playfulness of language and exploiting the ambiguity of the articulated experience and the inherent openness language captures. For the deconstructionist, language does not refer to a stable mind-independent world, and the propositions about the world uttered by the philosopher are not universal, impartial and ahistorical. Accordingly, philosophical propositions, including those of ethics, are constituted by the historicity of an epoch, its various implicit assumptions and biases of culture and the author infect the ideal of objectivity. The fact that deconstruction works at the in-between the universal and individual might be a reason to find comfort in Heidegger’s destruction of metaphysics and why Caputo is looking to factical Befindlichkeit as a way of talking about obligation.[xiv]
Phenomenologically speaking, this complete openness can be resisted since the denial of the givenness of feeling does not negate the fact that something is given. Moreover, different forms of givenness demand their careful phenomenological discourse. As such, a phenomenology of value is different than a phenomenology of perception. For this reason, Scheler’s phenomenology can interpret the explanatory force of the given and the constitution of consciousness in the very experience treated here as “factical life.” Without intentionality in factical life, there can be no experience. Schelerian phenomenology opens us up to the immanent essences revealed in acts that constitute a person’s interconnection between act and objects. If that is true, then there is a constituting/constituted relationship here underscoring Caputo’s claim about obligation and ethics in Against Ethics. Caputo fails to dismiss the affective intentionality underlying his account. Put another way, Caputo blurs the phenomenological distinctness of obligation in its very givenness with the intentional feeling necessary to account for obligation’s transcendence:
Obligation has a kind of impenetrability and density that I cannot master that neither my knowledge nor my freedom can surmount, that prevents me from getting on top of it, on the side of it. Obligation transcends me; it is not one of my transcendental projects. If an obligation is ‘mine’ it is not one more there I comprehend and want to do, but something that intervenes and disrupts the sphere of I wants, something that troubles and disturbs the I, that pulls the I out of the circle of the same, as Levinas would say.[xv]
Caputo picks up on and articulates how value-laden personal life is. How easily do we let moral experience disrupt the congruence of a person’s desires, how disturbed we are by the entrance of moral values into the field of our own subjectivity! They come from on top, from the side, and are themselves, like substance in Locke, the I-know-not-what for Caputo. Yet to speak of values, Caputo’s efforts are an attempt to make the constitutive aspects of personal life more out of control, to give them a sense of mystery and allure beyond the coherence of meaning such constitutive aspects acquire in factical life and co-related to intentional feeling. This mystery is the fact of their givenness only. Since Caputo wants to find the manner in which obligation enters into experience in factical life, like Heidegger, Caputo stands on the fence of the very phenomenological givenness of factical life, but does not seek to get under experience anymore than calling for the excess of obligation’s givenness.[xvi]
Notice the move to disaster strictly after describing the ineffable movement of obligation and values that emerge in the event of experience.[xvii] Such a move involves thinking that obligations make demands upon us, but no values can contain the singularity of such disastrous events. And as such, we can find the whole of ethics wanting since no ethical system or coherent way to articulate the event’s givenness could be conceptually encompassed. Yet, why not think that the overflowing of value and obligation given in feeling acts might call for our response, but not quite delimit what the response needs to be? Certainly, we can have an ethics that responds to the demands of disaster and the Other without thinking that no such framework can be created or devised.
Had Caputo gone in a quasi-Levinasian direction, which admittedly is very similar to the Schelerian position that better explains why “obligation just happens,” Caputo would not be confused as to the merits of his disparaging tendency towards “value theory.” Caputo chooses, like Derrida, to avoid affirming ethical demands (or what he is calling obligation) to either a transcendence of the Other, or the infinity such transcendence implies.[xviii] Ironically, Caputo retained the power of phenomenological description of experiencing value with how he describes obligation, he just never sought the phenomenological ontology of value and obligation to be rooted in experience.
[i] John Caputo, Against Ethics: Contributions to a Poetics of Obligation with Constant Reference to Deconstruction (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1993), 3.
[ii] Caputo, Against, 4.
[iii] See Martha Nussbaum’s Fragility of Goodness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) for the view I have in mind about how vulnerable our moral lives are from external threats outside of our control.
[iv] Caputo, Against, 25.
[v] Caputo, Against, 7.
[vi] Caputo, Against, 7.
[vii] Caputo, Against 25.
[viii] Caputo, Against, 25
[ix] Michael E Zimmerman’s “John D. Caputo: A Postmodern, Prophetic, Liberal American in Paris” in Continental Philosophy Review, 31 (Spring 1998): 195-214. Here, I cite p. 8 of the online version.
Retrieved from: https://www.colorado.edu/artssciences/CHA/profiles/zimmpdf/caputo.pdf
[x] Caputo, Against, 234. The foundationless commitment that surpasses its own limit is what Caputo describes as “deflection” on p. 231. He borrows this term from Professor Foti in making sense of Heidegger, and I wonder if the term is fittingly ironic as I gauge Caputo’s entire Against Ethics.
[xi] Clearly, a form of moral particularism, but such connections will have to wait.
[xii] Caputo, Against, 31.
[xiii] Caputo, Against, 72.
[xiv] Caputo, Against, 72-74 for a complete description of how ethical claims are double-bound to speak about individuals universally in a discourse (let alone metaphysical discourse) despite the particular nature of being a proper name and individuated. This commitment to the indeterminacy of language itself is an attempt to preserve the uniqueness of individuals and not do violence to a being’s particularity very much like Derrida attempts in Violence and Metaphysics. The interesting irony is this section of the book is to do justice to individuals can be sustained in Scheler’s ethical personalism as much as it can be in Levinasian ethical demand of the face-to-face encounter of an-other’s radical alterity.
[xv] Caputo, Against, 8.
[xvi] While one might want to say that it could be a phenomenological point that obligation is akin to Levinas’s self-other relationship in which the alterity of the other captivates me infinitely, constantly demanding of me I acknowledge and respect the other, I hold off on that point since while I cannot make it in the manuscript here, Scheler’s notion of the Holy, the value of the person is as infinitizing in its very structure. Obligation is not as infinitizing as the other, and Scheler’s hierarchy of value-rankings can give us a more nuanced account of what particular calling is being given. The excessive givenness is, therefore, not its own form of givenness here as one might think of the alterity of the other in Levinas or the excessive givenness of God in Marion.
[xvii] See for instance Caputo, Against, 27-30.
[xviii] Caputo, Against, 18.