Ethics after Kant? After Descartes?

I just finished reading Roger Pouivet’s exceptional and intriguing book (along with its provocative title) After Wittgenstein, St.Thomas. The following are some initial comments, questions, concerns (focused primarily on ch. 5 entitled “The Will”, since I found it most immediately interesting). One should note that we’ve just started reading primary texts of Wittgenstein and haven’t yet read any of Aquinas. This makes it more possible that I am completely wrong).  Nonetheless:

Two figures of modernity who pick up the discussion morality in influential ways are Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant.  Both of these philosophers put forward a dualist philosophy of mind in which thought and action name two different kinds of reality (immaterial and material).  Thinking occurs in the immaterial reality of the mind.  Knowledge (of the good) therefore also occurs in the mind.

From this perspective the value or morality of an action is not judged by its origin—the will.[i] Here Pouivet brings up a key question: “Can we observe willing?[ii] Or, perhaps more importantly, can we judge willing?  Both of these questions seek to move us beyond Descartes and Kant.  With Wittgenstein and Aquinas, Pouivet urges us to consider a different philosophy of mind in which the questions of morality and ethics are not limited by the Cartesian dualism (maintained, if not exploited, by Kant).  Wittgenstein’s example of rummaging through a drawer, realising one has forgotten what one was looking for, and remembering that one was looking for a photograph, describes how willing is not autonomous or somehow occurs a priori to action.[iii] In other words, “my will cannot be understood except in the context of what I do, as interpreted (after the fact) by me or someone else.”[iv]

My suspicion is that if we follow through with Wittgenstein here, the morality of an act must be judged (or interpreted) with an understanding of will and action, mind and body, as composite. That is, a voluntary movement is not caused by the will; rather, the will is “constitutive of our voluntary actions.”[v] Willing is acting.  But even in light of this Wittgenstinian/Thomistic philosophy of mind, some questions remain: what is moral action?  And perhaps more importantly, how is it narrated if not within a Cartesian dualist or Kantian categorical imperative framework?  The following quote from Pouivet is nascent with a post-Cartesian ethic:

“An action is voluntary because it is a certain type of action, directed toward a (teleological) end and thus presupposing certain types of beings capable of such goal-directed action, and not because it has an internal, reflexive, and volitional cause.  The will is less the name of a type of internal causality proper to a certain faculty, than a disposition attributed to beings whose actions can be described in a certain way, for example, in a way that would not be appropriate to a description of a stone, nor extendable to a dog except analogically.”[vi]

In short, “character precedes moral deliberation.”[vii] Perhaps Wittgenstein and Aquinas don’t go this direction, but I’m nonetheless interested in pushing this notion of “teleological description” [viii] in terms of Christianity.   Discipleship could be narrated as action directed towards a variety of teleological ends: the cross and resurrection being a particularly strong example here because of the total annihilation of any explanation of cause and effect in the relationship between the death and resurrection of Christ.


[i] Roger Pouivet, After Wittgenstein, St.Thomas, translated by Michael S. Sherwin, O.P. (Indiana: St.Augustine’s Press, 2006), 77.

[ii] Pouivet, After Wittgenstein, 78. Emphasis is the author’s unless otherwise noted.

[iii] Ibid, 79.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid, 79,81

[vi] Ibid, 81. Emphasis is my own.

[vii] Chris K. Huebner, A Precarious Peace: Yoderian Explorations on Theology, Knowledge, and Identity (Scottdale: Herald Press, 2006), 167.

[viii] Pouivet, After Wittgenstein, 80.

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5 comments on “Ethics after Kant? After Descartes?

  1. Lexi says:

    Sounds like MacIntyre 🙂
    I recently discovered a chapter in Milbank’s “Theology and Social Theory” which you may find helpful in addressing your thoughts on theological teleology. He takes it in a bit of a different direction than you’re thinking of, but the questions he raises are worth considering. Also, try looking up “telos” in a Greek concordance – the idea seems to pop up quite a bit in the New Testament!

  2. Kampen says:

    I know, right? Except that I haven’t come across MacIntyre explicitly eschewing us of our cartesian habits. Maybe I’ll revisit some MacIntyre for my term paper. I like his work a lot but I never really got into him last year. Which chapter in Milbank?

  3. Lexi says:

    You’re right, at least explicitly, MacIntyre is more concerned with Kant than Descartes because of his categorical imperative. Even so, you might some “eschewing” in chapters 4 and 5 of After Virtue…which really is just a good book and should be read in its entirety :). As for Milbank, it’s chapter 11: “Difference of Virtue, Virtue of Difference.”

  4. Kampen says:

    Essay = “Eschewing Cartesian Habits: Wittgenstein, MacIntyre, and Milbank.”
    Although, Aquinas will be a significant figure in this class too…but I guess I don’t necessarily need to include him.
    Did you write on Mac. in T&T last year?

  5. Lexi says:

    Nice. It’s kind of fun to experience this class vicariously.
    Nope, I didn’t actually write on MacIntyre in T&T, but both he and Milbank figure prominently in my thesis.

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