Relieve the stress paper draft 3 24 02


Relieve the Stress!

Matjaž Potrč, University of Ljubljana,


Normativity comes in various forms and grades. Higher normative requirements lead to the wimpy situations where they correctly apply. Lower normative requirements allow for more robustness in their application. Exceptionless general principles put more stress in the hopper. But these principles do not actually guide our activities. The reason we quote exceptionless general principles as causes of our acts is epistemic and it is not metaphysical. Relieving the stress of general exceptionless principles as the supposed causes of our acts will lead to the recognition of their rich holistic background, upon which the normative authority of the particular may be recognized, and therewith the importance of the singular case.


Wimpy situations

These are the kind of situations where high standards of normativity apply correctly. Such tend to be the situations that are sometimes found in some quite artificial settings, such as the setting of a philosophical seminar. The following of wimpy rules is many times prescribed, but it is rarely followed in our actions. If the exercising of the general principle is followed though, it rarely feels right as an appropriate exercising of a moral act or decision.

            If you seriously ask the lady selling vegetables on the market: “Is there just one spatiotemporal world, or are there more of them?” her reply will either be stunned, or again she might try to lower the standards that you introduced. She will apply and interpret the case more smoothly to make it fit to the everyday situation into which she is involved. In order to effectuate this, perhaps she will reply ironically: “Mister, are you trying to tell me by your curious wording that the price of the vegetables is too high? But I tell you, the cost of producing skyrocketed lately, and then we are in the winter season where the prices are higher anyway. Also our government should do more to curb the inflation.” The good-hearted lady has applied Gricean conversational maxim to you, according to which she tries to interpret you as a rational being first. From this point of view and in the situation in which she finds herself your question appears to her as an irony. But she also tries to preventively lower higher standards that you might have had in mind in order to adapt them to the current situation where everyday standards as they are used on the market on the everyday basis apply. Anyway, lady’s criteria are more robust than are the ones that are used by philosophers.

            Consider that when you put the same question “Is there just one spatiotemporal world, or are there more of them?” as a teacher to your class audience, no such adapting of standards is needed as it was needed on the vegetable market. The audience already came to visit the session with the supposition that higher or different standards than these measured with the everyday environment will be employed in the situation. The expected standards are those that are usually used in the philosophy seminar.

            The setting of the philosophical seminar is indeed an artificial one and it uses quite other kind of standards as those that are used in most of everyday conversations. Standards in the philosophical seminar are high if you compare them to the standards used in these everyday situations. This is not to say that standards used in a range of the philosophical seminars do not vary. It is well known that some philosophical seminars prove to be very good, and that those are the ones that employ more demanding standards, as do some others of their kind. But in general, the normative setting guiding conversation in philosophical seminars are higher than the settings guiding conversation at the vegetable market.

            Moral normativity usually prescribes high requirements that apply to us, and those requirements may be formulated as general exceptionless principles, such as “Do not lie. Do not steal. Do not ever wish your neighbor’s wife.” Everybody or most of the people at least tend to agree with these principles. We certainly also have the tendency to condemn everyone that would be explicitly opposed to such principles. But unhappily, on the other hand, many people (not myself or yourself, of course!) and perhaps even most of the people have breached such principles and they have at least occasionally acted in disaccord with such principles.

            It is getting worse though. It seems that many people who have acted in accordance with exceptionless principles did not also entertain the right qualitative feeling about their actions that follow these exceptionless principles. Somebody following exceptionless general principles and making other people act according to them is an army officer. He certainly feels right in his position. But he does not feel right as a moral actor, for the simple reason that he is not a moral actor at the time he exercises and follows these general principles prescribed by the rules in an army. The moral decision comes to the soldier, as it does to everybody else, as he gets faced with a moral dilemma. And typically in the situation of a real moral dilemma where his deliberation is needed, he might many times not have the right qualitative or what-it-is-like feeling underlying the formation of his moral judgment if he will act according to the guidance of exceptionless general principles. It seems to be a general experience that a moral deliberator will not have an appropriate qualitative feeling involving the formation of his judgment how to act in the situation if he will form his decision on the basis of exceptionless general principles.

            One question that needs to be addressed thus concerns the discrepancy between the kind of automatic declarative willingness to follow general principles in moral deliberation, and between the generally agreed upon uncomfortable feeling when acting according to the general principles in the cases of moral deliberation.

It may turn out however that all this will be just a symptom showing in the direction that moral deliberation is typically not made following general principles, but that it is done on the basis of something else, such as forming a judgment in each genuinely complex and individual holistic situation and acting according to this judgment. The bet is here that this is what your feeling tells you and has to tell you about how you actually act.


General principles going along with higher normative standards

The example of the philosophical seminar is an appropriate one. For one thing, a philosophical seminar is the place where one usually deals with the general principles. Those principles tend to be abstract, but they are certainly simple, much simpler as the situations anyway to which they are applied. Just take the question “Is there just one spatiotemporal world, or are there more of them?” Attuned to the philosophical style, this question is undergrid by the hypotheses about the possibility that there is just one world, or again that there are many worlds. Whatever the right answer turns out to be, it also promotes the thesis that these general principles – the world should be one, the worlds should be many – apply to the situation of our world that is utterly complex. One could not even have formulated those principles if one would not abstract from the richness of the actual world. Once one would plunge oneself into the description of some of our world’s intricate details, the simplicity of the thesis would have to be abandoned.

            What we mentioned, namely “the world is one; there are many worlds” may be read as general principles or as a support for general principles. One puts the question then whether our world complies with the first or with the second principle. One also tries not to neglect the possibility that it does not comply with any of those just mentioned principles, and that the right hypothesis may accordingly be different from them. These general principles are certainly simple, as compared to the immense richness of the actual world, along with its different dimensions. And one may confirm that general principles go well along with higher normative standards, much better than this is the case with principles governing our different everyday activities outside the normative setting characteristic for philosophy.


Higher and lower standards

There is the platitude that should better be respected: you should act appropriately according to the circumstances you find yourself in. If you will dress in your swimming suit and try to swim in the bar, you might get in some troubles. Similarly you might get yourself some troubles if you drink a couple of whiskeys and beers and if you smoke cigar at the University swimming pool. Perhaps you may get away somehow if people grant you the behavior according to quite low standards. But you might get thrown out or escorted anyway.

            You put the stress on general principles as you formulate the question such as: “Is there just one world?” You deal with generalities and you try to abstract from all the richness of the situation in the actual world. This question is sensible under the application of higher standards such as those present in artificial settings of a philosophical seminar. Standards are higher then in respect to the everyday standards as those are used in the usual everyday situations. General principle such as the one presupposed by the theses “The world is one. There are many worlds”, may be itself stated as “There are possible general views about the world that we are able to announce in a simple manner.” Such a general principle then sets the score of discussion to high standards, and these are certainly higher as compared to the standards that are employed in the everyday talk allowing for more richness and complexity to come to the fore of the discussion. There is richness and complexity in philosophical discussion as well. But it rather concerns relations between concepts and hypotheses, and not the complexity of the subject matter discussed, such as the world and its contingent complexity that underlies our case in a metaphysical way.

            Let us now take a look at some really basic distinctions concerning the application of lower and higher standards. You look at the surface of the table. Is it flat? Yes. Now somebody invites you to inspect the surface of the table by the usage of a microscope. What is your answer now? Is it flat? No. You saw many bumps and hills with the help of microscope where you earlier observed what looked to be a flat surface of the table. What is the outcome? A contradiction: the surface of this table is flat and it is not flat. How to resolve the contradiction? It seems easy. Surface appeared flat as we used lower standards appropriate to the everyday talk. The same surface appeared not to be flat at the time we used closer means of inspection via the microscope. We employed tighter standards. The tension was resolved along with our effort through which we began to appreciate the forces involved into the change of standards.

            Now take a look at the exceptionless general principles that according to a widely believed consensus guide our moral actions. General principles offer simple hypotheses as reasons for our moral actions. These general principles are going along with high normative standards used in shaping of our question. But try to direct your look away from the coarse grain of the moral situation in which you have to accomplish your deliberation process. Adopt more fine-grained standards. In this case then it will not look so certain anymore that your moral deliberation and the ensuing action is guided by general exceptionless principles. The richness of fine-grained situation will begin to show itself. It will be possible for you to hypothesize that fine-grained considerations have lead to your moral deliberation. So if your act was morally right, it was not right because of general principles involved, but because of your intuitive grasping of the particular holistic situation.

            Is there some similarity between the table surface case and between the moral reason case? Surface case pointed to the difference between the lower and higher standards determining appropriateness of an assertion. A lurking inconsistency was resolved by the disentangling between two instances of standards, each of which was in place for a separate view that may be directed at the situation. The deliberation case is of a different nature. For it, high standards were just not right, although they tend to impose themselves as the hypothesis under the lights of which you have to look at the situation. The possible finer-grained look involves a hypothesis involving lower standards, and those seem much sooner appropriate as the candidates for reasons why you acted in the way you did. What can I tell you? They used to mention the difference between measurements made according to the standards employed by natural sciences, and between other proceedings that are perhaps needed for an account of the situations where matters of human deliberation and of human heart get involved. Pascal pointed out that geometry and reason have to adopt different standards.


Relieving the stress of the general pushes singular and particular into the foreground

We are talking about the stress exercised by normative principles involved. In the affairs of human heart, general principles tend to obscure some particular matters, such as these are taken care of by the literature and arts – at least to some extent. It may be almost a matter of definition that general principles tend to obscure some subtle affairs of human heart. For these are the general principles we are dealing with. Generality, it is sometimes claimed, came into existence for reasons of conceptual economy. You leave out the detail, and you obtain a general truth. Now from the perspective of the general truth, you may come back to some more detail from another advantageous angle, if this point of view happens to be needed.

            The general point is stressed where generalities get involved. This puts the attention away from the detail. Now, on the other hand, if you relieve stress from the principles, then the detail will have its chance to come into the foreground. The richness will crawl in. The holistic and complex intricate picture will emerge, steadily bringing more detail with it. Now as the particular will come into the foreground, there will not be much room anymore around for simple and simplified general exceptionless principles and hypotheses. And it may happen that in some areas, such as the area of our moral deliberation, we will not recognize any general principles anymore as the reasons for acing. It may be that the holistic attention with its presenting of an irreducible complex structure will show the particular case as having real normative power. If you relieve the stress that is put on the matter from the side of generalities, the holistic richness of the single case will come into the foreground.


Cases where putting stress away from the general principles shows more richness of the singular

Two cases will be given as an illustration now about how relieving of the stress exercised by the general principles leads to a presentation of a richer landscape of the singular.

The first example involves distinction between the ultimate and between the regional ontology, and between the accounts of truth that go along with each of these. The already formulated question about the existence of just one world or of many worlds is a question in the register of the ultimate ontology. It deals with the world as it ultimately is, without that any real attention to the details of the empirical world would be accounted for. If we ask about the truth concerning such world as it ultimately is, we will be talking about the truth conceived as direct correspondence. We are talking about the things that really and ultimately exist, such as the world. We are not talking about too many details. In fact, it will be consistent with the view of truth as direct correspondence to claim that assertions such as “The cup is on the table” are ultimately not about cups and tables, but about the world, which may happen to contain cups and tables. So cups and tables will perhaps not be acknowledged to have an ultimate existence, although the world will have its existence recognized.

The truth as indirect correspondence will not be necessarily about the ultimately existing world, but about the particular things, such as cups and tables, that will be recognized as items of the regional ontology, thus not as ultimately having their claim to the real existence. It may be that what ultimately exists is the world, but that the things referred to in the regional ontology do not exist in any ultimate ontological sense. These will be the things having to do with regional ontology and therefore they will not be recognized as the real ontologically grounded creatures, but rather creatures imposed onto the world by the conceptual powers of language and thought. According to such an approach of regional ontology, one will still be able to say about many things that they exist, affirming thereby something true. But this truthful affirmation will come about in the register of the indirect correspondence. So nothing will be ultimately really required to be there as we affirm truths about cups and tables. But truths will still be coming through, as truths according to the normativity of the indirect correspondence. Are there cups and tables? Of course there are. According to the standards of indirect correspondence. But indeed, is it true that there really are cups and tables out there? No. According to the standards of the truth as direct correspondence. Both truths may come through. But their standards certainly will vary according to the kind of normativity employed in them. The less strict standards of indirect correspondence will show greater richness and more singular detail. They will appear on the scene as we take away from our perspective the standards of the ultimate ontology. This is then compatible with a conception of truth as direct correspondence. Notice again that ultimate ontology is closer to the general principles, whereas regional ontology is closer to the rich detail of the singular.

            The second case about how relieving stress from general principles leaves more room for the richness of the particular may be given by the discussion involving generalism and particularism in ethics and in moral theory.

Generalism puts great stress on the importance and authority of general exceptionless principles as reasons and guides for action and moral deliberation. The reasons for actions are not only given by generalities. They may also be classified as certain kinds of reasons upon the recognition that they follow from certain patterns. Patterns are themselves provided by the fact that we deal with generalities. And generalities enable projectability, assuring therewith a reliable guidance towards resolving of the dilemma about how to direct one’s action. A simple directive tells the generalist that you have to act according to the projectability assuring general principles. Once all this is considered, it is also not difficult to see that high normative standards employed according to the generalism match the overall account of projectability, of patterns and of generalities.

Particularism to the contrary relieves the stress exercised by the general principles as it affirms the importance of holistic particular situations in which moral deliberation and judging gets exercised. In respect to the mentioned generalities, we have lower standards in particularism. The particular rich situation comes into the foreground then. There may be generalities around perhaps, but they will not have any normative authority. Projectibility and patterns will be substituted by the intuition. And this intuition will be more closely attuned to the specificity of deliberation involving particular circumstances.

            Stress is central to the normativity discussion. Of course you can put the stress on the particular. But in this way the stress will not be as requesting and encompassing, as it tends to be in the case where general principles are exercising it. Putting the stress on something or again relieving the stress may remind us on some mechanistic pictures, such as the picture borrowed by Freud from the hydraulic pressure description concerning the interchange between subsystems involving consciousness, the preconscious and the unconscious. But such a picture should be perhaps enriched in the direction of intractable multidimensional forces acting in our minds according to the hypothesis of Dynamical Cognition.

Putting stress away from the general will bring more rich detail of the particular into the foreground. But this move is rarely explicitly admitted in the discussion involving ethics. There, stress tends to be put on the importance of general principles for the moral deliberation. Because of the stress and the pressure exercised on the singular from the side of the generalities, confusion between the metaphysical causes and grounds for the moral deliberation with the epistemic causes or grounds for the moral deliberation may take place.


Particularism: normative authority of a single case

The main idea of particularism is that there may exist moral acting without that general principles would support it. Acts may be right or wrong, but they will be so without being right or wrong because of the general principles involved into them. They may be right or wrong depending on the holistic unrepeatable nature of complex cases where the judgment about their exercising is fallen in an appropriate intuitive manner.

            It turns out that the dilemma is wrong according to which there are just exceptionless general principles to support morality or again that there is no possible guidance of our moral acts. The way out from this too narrow dilemma, or offering of another alternative is proposed by particularism. It allows for forming of judgments on the background of rich non-codifiable holistic situations.

            Phenomenology of the one who acts is important here, and it is intertwined with the importance put on the intuition according to the particularism. Phenomenology gives the guide for discernment whether an act is right or wrong. It just feels to you that an act is wrong or that an act is right. This phenomenology of your acting is involved into particular holistic nontractable situations where you judge the rightness or wrongness of an act. The phenomenology of agency thus has a direct moral weight. This fact is not appreciated enough or not appreciated at all in the literature concerning moral agency. Studying this would bring us to a special branch and application of the Horgan and Tienson thesis about the phenomenology of human agency. It should be figured out though how the position here may fit into the overall conceptual branching of moral agency that they propose.

            How can phenomenology provide discernment in your judgment whether an act is right or wrong? If you try to answer this question by invoking general principles or tractable procedures, you will not have much chance to answer it. Neither general principles nor tractable procedures do really appreciate the role of the phenomenology. So phenomenology of moral agency should be related to another source, which is not a source involving general exceptionless principles or tractable procedures – to the intractable complexity of rich holistic situations in which you have to decide and act morally.

            It is a fact that moral agency and deliberation constantly happens in such holistic non-tractable situations and that it involves a specific phenomenology.

            Why this is not appreciated enough or not at all? Because there is no room for an integration of phenomenology into the accounts that build on exceptionless general principles or upon tractable procedures.

            Phenomenological datum that is again not appreciated sufficiently looks as follows: It just does not feel right to you on most occasions where you act on the basis of exceptionless general normative principles. Your what-it-is-like feeling does not approve your moral acts being right and also being guided by general exceptionless principles. To the contrary, it may much sooner feel right to you when you act on the basis of your judgment being fallen in the specific holistic situations in a particularist way.

            The reason we tend to override automatically our qualitative gut feelings is the constitution of our cognitive system. The information coming to the cognitive system may be complex, but it is immediately given and it tends to be chunked up into short surveyable accounts. The cognitive system then tends to give a report of the cause for the act, an account of the reason for acting, in similarly simplified terms. And general principles do provide the most appropriate story in simplified terms. Therefore there is the cognitive illusion which tends to offer general principles as causes or reasons for moral actions, despite that those are not real causes but just epistemic explanations of why the agent believes according to what reasons she has acted. 

            Because the role of phenomenology is not appreciated in judgment formation and in accounts of evaluation of moral agency, it is widely believed that only general principles are capable to provide reasons for agency.

            But if we just listen carefully to our heart, to what our phenomenology indicates to us, we can feel that we did not act because of the general principles. We acted because of the intuitive phenomenologically loaded judgment that we formed in the complex holistic particular situation.[1]





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[1] Thanks to Maja Lovrenov, Uroš Rošker and Vojko Strahovnik for discussion related to particularism and to Polona Meglič for some discussion related to the immediate concerns of this paper.