This Conference is jointly organized by Prof. Dr. Lucy O'Brien and Prof. Dr. Sebastian Rödl
Thursday, December 8th 2022, 4.30 pm – 5.00 pm
Both in ordinary parlance and in philosophical reflection through the ages, a core way of representing someone as acting well is to say that she is acting selflessly. Conversely, someone is represented as failing to act well when she is said to act selfishly. This way of speaking appears to be so formative of ethical thought that one may undertake to understand the tradition of reflection on the good as the attempt to achieve clarity with respect to this original idea: the idea of selfless action. For, the idea is puzzling, and may even strike one as mysterious.
It is puzzling because it seems that action, as a form of vital activity, returns to itself: animal action sustains itself. An animal acts in a way that conforms to the inner standard of perfection that resides in its life-form, and that, in this sense, is good, sustains itself, and sustains this way of acting. Insofar as human agency maintains any form of conceptual continuity with animal movement, it appears it too must return to itself, even while that to which it returns – and therefore it – may be something sublime and spiritual in a way that makes it discontinuous with the life of other animals.
Utilitarianism is a rather bland idea of selfless action. We proceed from the idea that every animal pursues pleasure, and that is, its own pleasure. In this way, its activity returns to itself. Yet we moral beings are to act so as to maximize pleasure overall. When I act from that principle, my action does not return to myself. It is selfless, one might want to say. So then people object and say: my projects are important, too. I cannot give them up for a program of universal pleasure maximization. If I do, I shall disintegrate as a subject of action.
Kantianism is perhaps more fine than this. Here action from practical reason returns to itself as that in which practical reason sustains itself. At the same time, what thus is sustained is universal, and thus it may be said that in acting from practical reason, I do not act for my sake; my action is selfless. Precisely for that reason, however, it is not clear in what sense I sustain myself in acting from practical reason. Thus, Kant himself feels compelled to say that I am justified to hope that, as I act well, that is, selflessly, something will come my way, and I will be accorded happiness in proportion to the selflessness of my action.
There is a difficulty not only with the idea that action is good as it is selfless. There is the converse difficulty in the idea that action is evil as it is selfish. For, this appears to imply that human action is evil precisely insofar as it participates in the general form of vital activity, and returns to itself. That seems to condemn the human being to evil; it seems to mean that human life cannot but be evil. And now it seems we must assert the goodness of life against the morbidity of morality.
All of these very just and fine reflections, however, have no power whatsoever to dislodge the authority that the original idea exerts over our practical thought that she who acts selflessly therein acts well. Whence the puzzle, and the mystery. The conference “Self-love and Evil” will be devoted to exploring the conceptual space circumscribed by the idea of good and evil, of self-love and love of others.
Thursday, December 8th 2022, 5.00 pm – 6.30 pm
Sebastian Rödl (Leipzig)
The good is an end, and since the good is in itself good, it is an end in itself: an end that is its own means. An end that is its own means provides for its own reality. Life satisfies this description; it is internally purposive, purposive for itself, and thus sustains itself. Yet it is more precise to say that it repeats itself: it returns to itself through the other. If we call what returns to itself a subject (or, in current anglophone discourse, a self), then subjectivity is negativity, namely, opposition. It is opposition, as distinct from difference, because it passes through the other, as distinct from a certain other. It is the other precisely as term of the return, or subjectivity. Forms of life, therefore, as they are forms of repetition, or return, are forms of negativity. I will contrast the negativity of natural life to that of spiritual life. The idea of evil captures the negativity of spiritual life. Its return is no return to something, spritiual life therefore not a life, but the life.
Friday, December 9th 2022, 9:45 am – 11:15 am
Edward Harcourt (Oxford)
Which Excellences? Human Excellence in Psychotherapy, in Moral Philosophy and in Contemporary Society
There’s a case to be made that psychoanalytic psychotherapy and so-called ‘virtue ethics’ both belong to a tradition of thought about the relations between human nature, human excellence and human welfare, a tradition that goes back to Plato and Aristotle. But the two inquiries ostensibly bring with them very different catalogues of human excellences. Psychotherapy is often either silent or dismissive of what it thinks of as moral virtue, while assigning huge importance to love and ‘object relatedness’; moral philosophy more or less does the converse, especially in its contemporary Christian or post-Christian manifestations. How are we to make sense of this fact? Can these catalogues of excellences be shown to be after all complementary? Or is someone making a mistake – for example, overrating the significance of moral virtue in a flourishing human life, or alternatively underrating it while overrating the significance of personal love?
Friday, December 9th 2022, 11:30 am – 1:00 pm
Katrien Schaubroeck (Antwerpen)
Evil and unselfing: Can Iris Murdoch support the theory of moral encroachment?
In The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts Murdoch writes: “It is a task to come to see the world as it is. A philosophy which leaves duty without a context and exalts the idea of freedom and power as a separate top level value ignores this task and obscures the relation between virtue and reality.” Reality is not a scientific but a normative notion for Murdoch, hence our perception of it is never neutral. This creates room and even support for the idea that the epistemic status of a belief may depend on the moral effort that went into coming to hold the belief, which is the thesis nowadays referred to as moral encroachment (Basu 2019, Atkins 2020). While Murdoch’s fascination for the unity of the good and the true mirrors moral encroachment theorists’ conviction that an agent’s moral and epistemic outlook are entangled, Murdoch and moral encroachment theorists are unlikely allies. The main reason is that Murdoch draws a clear line between morality and politics, between on the one hand the inner life that is subject to moral evaluation, and on the other hand power dynamics that are the subject of political discourse. Yet when we turn to Murdoch’s reflections on evil in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, we find resources that bring to bear her defense of unselfing as a moral virtue on problems of white ignorance, misogyny and other social injustices that drive the theory of moral encroachment.
Friday, December 9th 2022, 2.30 – 4.00 pm
Zdravko Kobe (Ljubljana)
Reason in Love: Reason, Love and the Self in Kant and Hegel
In Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel declared that people are better than they think and that those who claim that they always act selfishly simply do not know what acting is. He adds that only “a room servant of morality” puts the truth of an action in the inclinations that are necessarily involved. In the Philosophy of Right, however, Hegel praises “the right of the subject’s particularity to find its satisfaction”, relating it to Christianity, love and Romanticism in general. (In an analogue place, he introduces the concept of conscience designed to bridge the gap between the universality of reason and the particularity of an acting subject.) What may seem a contradiction stems from the fact that, in Hegel’s view, an action is not merely an attempt to objectify a given purpose, it is also an effort to construct her particular self and determine reason as such, which in turn involves an identification with a certain positivity, that is, a moment of love. Relying primarily on Kant and Hegel, but also Bourdieu and Frankfurt, I will try to explore the relation between reason, love and the self, between the particular and the universal (leaving, this time, evil aside).
Friday, December 9th 2022, 4.15 – 5.45 pm
Lucy O’Brien (London)
Self-Concern and Non-Selfish Well-Being
In our paper ‘Self Matters’ we argued (pace Setiya) that relating to myself as me provides, as such, a reason to care about myself: grasping that an event involves me, instead of another, makes it matter in a special way. Further, we argued this kind of self-concern is not simply a matter of seeing in myself some instrumental value for other ends, and nor is such self-concern to be confused with the neighbouring, but distinct, notions of egoism and selfishness.
An individual person can be the realiser of a property (humanity, beauty, wit, knowledge, moral worth) that is a good in itself. There are, we agree, no reasons, based merely on instantiating such universal properties that turn on their first-person character. If these properties provide the basis for universal reasons, then if some person instantiates the good of humanity, no one person, who recognises the good of humanity, has any more reason to act in recognition of that property than another who similarly recognises the good. Nor do we argue that there is some property that is good in itself that only I in fact have—my me-ness, separate from my humanity—and that this gives me an extra reason to be concerned about myself. My total goodness does not reside in the sum of my humanity, plus my me-ness. The value that underwrites self-concern is not a form of goodness in that sense. Nevertheless, an individual can have a concern for herself in virtue of being that for whom any action, plan, or object has a particular value, instrumental or not. These are reasons—based on my capacity to determine reasons in the setting of ends, and securing of means—that turn on their first-person character. The nature of my being, not as a means, nor as an end, but rather—as we put it somewhat poetically—as a beginning gives me non-instrumental reasons that turn on their first-person character.
In this talk we to want to look at the relation between our reasons for self-concern, as we understand them, and our concern for our welfare or well-being. We want to do two things. One, we want to argue that although self-concern should not be understood in a purely welfarist terms there are distinctively first-personal reasons to be concerned about one’s wellbeing. Indeed, the rationality of concern for my own wellbeing, turning on the fact that it is mine, and that I am the being I am, is, we want to argue, an implication of our account. Second, we note that Setiya’s scepticism about first-personal reasons for concern for my own well-being goes with an understanding of well-being as disjoint from those that flow, say, from ‘personal projects’, ‘relationships with others’ or indeed concerns with dignity or integrity. We are highly sceptical that concerns for my well-being even make sense separated from such other concerns. What Williams refers to as ‘the first Humean step - from the self to someone else’ is already built into distinctly human forms of wellbeing, and into mine as a human agent. We, thus, argue that a proper understanding of the nature of my self, and the basis of my self-concern for my well-being, shows such concern to be normally not selfish, and to be rationally pre-supposed by those concerns that turn on any universal reasons there may be.
Saturday, December 10th 2022, 10:30 am – 12:00 pm
Daniela Dover (Oxford)
Saturday, December 10th 2022, 2 pm – 3:30 pm
Christoph Menke (Frankfurt)
Law and Command. The Transcendence of Normativity
The talk will develop the distinction between law and command (Gesetz and Gebot) that Franz Rosenzweig has introduced and Eric Santner has explained, as referring to two opposite ways of understanding the mode of being of normativity. This difference or opposition refers to the way in which the normative is understood to be there, to be given, for the self. The law is the self’s own (that thereby becomes a “subject”), the command addresses the self from outside or above; it is irreducibly external or transcendent. That is the first step. In the second step, the talk will address the question for why it is necessary to understand normative commitment or obligation in terms of an external, transcendent command. The – seemingly – paradoxical answer is that only by submitting to a demand that is structurally “too much” for it, the self becomes (or even is) free. The transcendence of normativity is liberating.
Saturday, December 10th 2022, 4.15 – 5.45 pm
Tom Stern (London)
Schopenhauer and Nietzsche on Life and Evil
Schopenhauer identifies what is natural with what is bad. Human beings, he contends, are set up to want what is natural and good for the will-to-life – roughly: nature – which is also what is bad for us. Try as we might to ignore it, the best of us know this sometimes, on some level, whether through art, religion, philosophy, or rare moments of direct insight. And the consistent conclusion to this analysis is that we should work to annihilate ourselves, to eradicate individuality and indirectly, life itself, for our own good. This paper presents Nietzsche’s response to this framework, as mediated by other interlocutors. In some sense, Nietzsche aims at responding to Schopenhauer on his own terms. To be ethical is to side with life, once ethics and life are correctly understood. But in doing so, I argue, Nietzsche entangles himself in a contradiction which plagues his late writings. This contradiction has something important to tell us about arguments which deal in life and morality, whether it is to pit them against each other or to place them side by side.