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Hippocratic Realism: nils carborundum illegitimi?


1. Introduction

Emancipation, or positively evaluated rational transformation of given conditions of social being, is an integral part of Critical Realist philosophy of ontology in the social sciences. The generic form of depth realist emancipation (an explanatory critique) is set out by Bhaskar in Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation, and may be expressed as:

The empirical establishment of theory T shows belief P about object O to be false (illusory, inadequate, misleading), whose inference is a negative evaluation of the status of O in terms of its relations to P and a positive evaluation of action directed at the removal of that relation as a transformation of O. [ 1 ]

Though, this account relies in no small way on the supposition that it makes no sense to believe something if it can be shown to be false, a desideratum still remains. Since transformation by agency of structures, whose constitution cannot be reduced solely to that agency, is a practical activity with possible costs (physical hardship, stress, conflict, financial loss, possible restrictions on career advancement etc.), the movement from ideologically unbound consciousness to activity which proceeds from that consciousness cannot be deemed automatic in all cases. Put another way, our reasons may be causes of our actions but no single norm of reasoned action need hold sway - an acknowledgement of the costs of activity may inhibit action from what we now consider to be true (though truth remains here a ceteris paribus good). In one sense, of course, this is a rather trivial point since Critical Realism subsumes this issue (in a way that, for example, the Habermasian reconstruction of Freud, under the rubric of pathological social forms in Knowledge and Human Interests, does not) under problems of stratified social relations and relatively intransitive structure, as well as, in terms of the tetragramically intimidating Dialetic, power² relations.[ 2 ] In another sense, however, this point speaks directly to the ontology of motive, or more accurately, the configuration of realist ethics or moral theory - why is it that we do otherwise?

Incorporating moral theory into philosophy from an ontological problematic is one of the central challenges of the emancipatory potentials of Critical Realism. The main forays into this field derive from Bhaskar and Andrew Collier and it is on the lather's work that we focus. We address the relation between moral theory and ontology from Collier's proposition that good inheres in being - it has worth. It is this objective worth which links emancipatory critique and actual moral systems, providing an ontological configuration of the latter. Here, the genuine emotive understanding of the cause of harm leads to the desire to alleviate that cause. Because of the resemblance this entails to the 'first do no harm' dictum of medical practice we refer to this position as Hippocratic Realism.

We wish to explore two arguments here. First, that the logical status of the alleviation of harm casts doubt on the manner in which Hippocratic Realism justifies the good of being, and hence, how one might bridge explanatory critique and moral theory. Second, that even if the good of being should be upheld in Hippocratic Realism, as is, as a practical contribution to moral reasoning within context dilemmas, the approach stills lacks necessary content. This latter point leads us to the possibility that one aspect of such content is precisely to specify how emancipatory critique relates to the status of belief i.e. is falsity always an ill? Inter alia both arguments one and two illustrate the need for specifications in order to counter Post-structuralist critique of the problems which arise from them. For the sake of clarity we begin by briefly setting out the Hippocratic Realist position.

2. Hippocratic Realism

In Chapter Six of his Critical Realism Collier shows how Bhaskar crushes Hume's guillotine deriving an ought from an is in accordance with the emancipatory potentials of explanation provisionally set out above. [ 3 ] Given that one believes what one holds to be true and that one's reasons for acting proceed from such beliefs, a Critical Realist account of social ontology, in terms of dualistic yet analytically separable agency and structure, implies a potentially transformative role for altered belief i.e. a reconstruction of practice from a movement towards real explanations of the causes of events within society is itself causal. To use a simple example, one may initially resist giving money to the homeless from the belief that a) They are not genuinely homeless but confidence tricksters b) They are idle, drunks, addicts etc. However, should it be shown through depth realist explanatory critique that homelessness and its perpetuation are the result of a complex causal chain where the individual is enmeshed in forms of relations which constitute a significant constraint on their opportunity to be otherwise, one may a) Be more inclined to offer them ad hoc financial aid on an individual basis b) Pay closer attention to political debate concerning resolution of the problem, placing pressure on one's MP or changing one's voting behaviour c) Volunteer time or money to homelessness charities where resolutions in b) are seen to be a long-term matter. Explanation then, has resulted in an ought from a reconsidered is causing one to act otherwise, the wider ramifications of which, in terms of structural elaboration, remain unspecified (as they must in an open system).

In Being and Worth Collier extrapolates this philosophy of social ontology argument concerning normic behaviour into the realm of moral theory (meeting, inter alia, the problem of motive) by transposing a morally indicative human disposition from the supposition that truth is a ceteris paribus good with implications for what we believe and how we proceed.[ 4 ] That disposition is defined as, where intentional harm can be avoided or unintentional harm is revealed we either alter our actions or acknowledge that it is desirable that we do so. This disposition indicates for Collier that there is an underlying moral sensibility to the human condition which implies an ontological antecedent to particular moral discourses of given societies. That antecedent is a commitment to the worth of being:

It could be called a pre-moral good in that morality is based on it. Morality presupposes ontological good and consists in loving it in due order, and - very largely - in fighting off threats to ontological good.[ 5 ]

It is, in these terms, a moral analogue of Bhaskar's reconfiguration of the Kantian communis sensus.[ 6 ] As we have said, because of its resemblance to the 'first do no harm' dictum of medical practice, we refer to it as Hippocratic Realism. Collier develops this position with reference to the conatus (the tendency of being to persist) of Spinoza and Augustine's sense of the inherent good of being. Collier argues that moral principles of conduct entail a matter of true belief or a sense of a correspondence between sensibility and reality in much the same manner as any other aspect of conduct. To cause harm to being then becomes a product of deficient forms of correspondence.[ 7 ]

In terms of such deficiencies, harm to being entails two possible dimensions. First, in a simple transposition of explanatory critique, harm can be seen as an inadvertent or improperly understood consequence of (in)action. In terms of our previous example, the growth of homelessness may result from small C conservatism with its ethical commitment to individualism and self-reliance. On the one hand, one may have a situation where tax increases become a political liability. On the other it may follow that the possibility of a policy commitment to social justice is undermined. The consequence may be an elaboration of structural predispositions within societies towards homelessness by the reduction of welfare safety nets - a matter which becomes apparent when other factors come into play, such as an unexpected and rapid rise in interest rates following a long housing boom, generating both negative equity and mortgage default problems. Here, explanatory critique of the causes of harm implies an adjustment of both one's vision of social reality (methodological individualism) and its ethical or moral principles (self-reliance).

Since the subject at issue is inadvertent harm it does not always follow, however, that a reconstruction of correspondence implies a qualitative change in one's ethical or moral principles, merely the conduct to which it adheres. One may, for example, be a committed pacifist and/or socialist who is abruptly made aware that one's saving and consumption patterns foster particular forms of dominations and oppressions around the world. The bank holding one's current account and which manages one's pension fund may invest heavily in authoritarian regimes, one's favourite confectionery may be manufactured by a company which sells over-priced dehydrated milk in countries with insanitary water supplies, one might buy under-the-counter videos which, in addition to their dubious gender politics, are distributed by companies used to launder money from various international slave and narcotics operations etc. Here, one remains a pacifist/socialist but the inadvertent harm identified from one's (in)action is still a matter of significance in terms of its correspondence to those principles and, as in our previous example, holds out the potential for things to be otherwise i.e. a change in conduct (an ought), but one where there is no significant change in one's moral principles.

In both of these examples, it should be emphasised, the argument is configured by Hippocratic Realism's juxtaposition of a commitment to the worth of being (whose inverse is harm) and the potentials of Critical Realist explanatory critique. The significance of this ontology of moral theory becomes more apparent when we consider the second (more overtly Spinozan) dimension of the issue of harm to being in terms of correspondence, that of a deficient emotive comprehension of known outcomes. Consider, for example, an argument made by the chief economist of the World Bank, Lawrence Summers, in an internal memorandum of 1991.[ 8 ] Summers provides a number of reasons why highly polluting industries should be encouraged to relocate to poorer nations. If one measures health costs in terms of income foregone there is a net saving in the concentration of pollution-producing industry in low income locations. Higher income countries, furthermore, with greater leisure consumption and longer life expectancies, can demonstrate a 'greater' demand for a clean environment since quality of life (according to an income measure) is more highly valued in such countries and, in any case, its populous are more likely to live to ages where such problems as the carcinogenic effects of pollutants are liable to be felt. Finally, if one considers that many poorer nations are 'underdeveloped' they have greater current capacity to absorb pollution than currently 'developed' countries.

It takes no great perspicacity to see that there is a terrifying yet authoritive (terrifying because it is authoritive) logic at work here which indicates that it is to everyone's benefit that the industrialised nations export their sources of environmental degradation. The fact that the poorer nations are not necessarily assumed to be consuming the products of those industries (or at least not in equal proportion) is irrelevant. Sound economic reasoning still points towards a net gain. The salient point here is that Summers is clearly very aware of the nature of the product (heavily polluting industry) under scrutiny and its effects (ill-health, reduction in quality of life etc.) but is still committed to an act which he knows will cause harm. Significantly, the argument does not entail any core discussion of strategies for the reduction of harm (reducing pollution) but rather its transferral according to some highly dubious rationality of its notional cost. According to Collier's position, the failure here is one of the genuine cognisance of rationally understood decisions and consequences.[ 9 ] Bureaucratic distance causes Summers to lack an emotive understanding of the reality of harm to being. Should he be made more viscerally aware of that harm his position, it is supposed, would be quite different. He must in some sense be made to know what it is to experience the consequences of sharply reduced breathable air and drinking water quality, the restructuring of local employment and land use patterns, the reduction in bio-diversity and density. Once this (though Collier resists the term due to reservations concerning its connotations)[ 10 ] empathy is effectively inculcated, explanatory critique necessitates he acknowledge the desirability of pollution reduction rather than its transfer.

What Collier's argument holds then, is that explanatory critique in a moral context may entail, in addition to its identification of the real relationality of (misapprehended/unanticipated) harm, a requirement to establish the real in an emotive way, or, more accurately, portray the emotively real with a degree of intensity sufficient to cause one to alter one's conduct. What is at stake is:

[A] question of having a better - more lively, fuller, more accurate - conception... If one does not feel constrained by this conception, the belief is not a genuine moral belief.[ 11 ]

To draw this point towards the significance of Hippocratic Realism's notion of a commitment to the worth of being, the bridge between moral theory and explanatory critique entails a moral ontology beyond that instantiated in the actualism of current conduct and principles. Explanatory critique not only seeks a correspondence between given principles and conduct but also subsumes preferred correspondence under the governing possibility of an ontologically predisposed good which inheres in being. Moral realism is therefore, both an identification of the real relationality of the moral dynamic of given structures of social relations, where critique of its deficient correspondence is potentially transformative, and also, in terms of that inherency, something from which an immanent moral critique can proceed. We address the stability of this bridge, after a brief considerations of the benefits of Hippocratic Realism, in 4. below.

3. The Power of Hippocratic Realism

One major strength of Hippocratic Realism is that it does not default to forms of actualism or irrealism in the determination of what is a moral judgement or what constitutes a moral discourse. Warnock summarises three influential positions in traditional moral discourse, in the tradition of English analytic philosophy, into which we may read these errors:[ 12 ]

  1. Intuitionism: moral judgements are self evident - it makes no sense to deconstruct the essential properties of such judgements since, for example, to define good is to refer to some synonym or aspect of it, good is simply good.

  2. Emotivism: moral judgements are matters of purpose and effects. Morally posed reference to some action or entity produces a qualitative change in attitude in the recipient of that reference. For example, a favourable description of A given to B influences B's attitude. A moral judgement is thus, contra 1, not a (ding-an-sich) fact but an effect, a persuasive act or issue of influence.

  3. Prescriptivism: influence in 2 is replaced by guidance as the mediating concept of moral discourse. Here, the reasons for a given judgement become significant since to suggest a course of action is to explain why one should conform to it.

In 1. the essential problem is a conservative actualism. Current principles are what they are and cannot be subject to scrutiny. In 2. the problem is irrealism since the status of a moral principle, as entailing some referent beyond its arbitrarily posed purpose, is lost. In 3. the problem is once again actualistic. The real reasons for any form of guidance (x constitutes good, do x) may not be those that are given (entailing for example, Austin's well known differentiation of excuses and justifications).

Whether or not one chooses to reprise such arguments in terms of the varieties of Idealism which creep into Rawlsian justice or Rortian pragmatics, it should not be difficult here to see the potential fruitfulness of linking moral theory to explanatory critique in terms of issues of a correspondence that ties into a depth realist account of social ontology. Hippocratic Realism, by seeking such a link, is innately critical (from the position of harm) of given forms of societies' disparities between conduct and principle and of principles in themselves. As such it speaks, as one might expect from its analogue status viz. the communis sensus, to an Enlightenment ethos - as Kant put it, 'every rational being exists as an end in himself'.[ 13 ] But it is not in itself a denial that, as MacIntyre argues, rights are historical products and thus not necessarily universal in either time or space - though it is a denial of that strand of utilitarianism which argues that rights derive solely from the positive law of the state.[ 14 ] Furthermore, it need not be taken to imply that, no more than equal means the same, there is a single necessarily valid moral system good for all cultures. At the same time, in seeking to tie real consequences to causation encompassing moral principles, prefigured by a commitment to being, it allows for a certain kind of critical universalism. It seems to provide a means to avoid, in essence, the moral relativist implications of Gellner's verdict on cultural relativism (liberalism at home, conservatism abroad).[ 15 ] The statement that good conduct varies by culture presupposes some relationally corrigible distinction between good and bad whose implication is moral diversity not moral relativism.[ 16 ] One is thus, in principle, allowed a heuristic consistency (which such relativism lacks) in making such statements as:[ 17 ]

Finally, that consistency does not in itself imply moral determinism since the corrigibility of any given social situation cannot in itself be taken to mitigate against traditional moral discourse problems of context dilemmas. Rather it grounds the possibility of meaningful rumination on, and dialogue in terms of, that context.

Consider the position of our committed pacifist/socialist. S/he volunteers to do aid work and is, say, assigned by a charitable organisation to teach English at a teacher's college in China in the early 1990s, something for which she is given a months cursory training. S/he finds the regime's human rights abuses (forced sterilisation, arbitrary internment and execution etc.) reprehensible but expects that his/her work will contribute (as the charity suggests) in some small non-political way to the lives and opportunities of a populous who are, by his/her point of view, essentially victims. After a few months in China s/he discovers from personal experience, from other volunteers, and from permanent regional staff of the charity that a) Students are assigned to the college and many have no interest in studying now or teaching thereafter. b) That the college was reluctant to accept his/her posting, since a foreign English teacher requires special facilities, and raises inconvenient problems of surveillance of and security for him or her. c) That if the college had wanted an English teacher it could have easily afforded to employ a better qualified one. d) The charitable organisation for which s/he works gains a great deal of funding from the British government since its efforts raise the profile of Britain in China and provide a wedge for business interests. e) As a result of that funding the organisation is putting more and more of its resources into teaching in China (at the expense of farming and engineering projects elsewhere). Meanwhile, s/he develops a number of friendships at the college amongst some of the staff (perhaps exiled to this backwater college for their participation in the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989) from which a fulfilling exchange of ideas seems to proceed. S/he is thus faced with a classic moral context dilemma of what is to be done? Does a fulfilling exchange of ideas and making a difference in the lives of some students offset other factors?

Here, the very identification of those factors, in a meaningful way, is itself a kind of perturbative explanatory critique. S/he must consider the causal reproduction of dominations, of which his/her structural location is one portion in a larger totality, and weigh this versus the positive possibilities, at a smaller scale, held out by the alternatives (the 'otherwise') contained in his/her agency, licensed from that structure.

Hippocratic Realism's way into this problem is to set out the possibility of explanatory critique of the real relationality of the volunteer and to address this as a problem of the worth of being. What flows from this, in terms of Hippocratic Realist tenets, is that in any real world situation - abstracted here as a context dilemma - the problem of harm becomes a complex problem of scenarios of relative harm from given possibilities of (in)action in any given structural location. The argument itself is extendible, according to Collier, in terms of hierarchies of being. Wo/man, for example, has greater being than a tree. Thus, though, ceteris paribus, one must be committed to the preservation of the being of a tree (as preferable to its negation), should it be a choice between saving a tree or a wo/man, it would be illogical (indeed immoral) to choose the tree (more on this in 5 below).

The salient point is then, that relative harms from (in)action may generate difficult empirical problems, but the acknowledgement that they are problems subject to critical scrutiny seems to offer, at least at first reading, a way round problems of pessimistic judgmental relativism or conservative reified judgmental monism. As Adorno & Horkheimer argue, in dominations, a critical philosophy sees 'only the lie that there is no escaping it.'[ 18 ] Hippocratic Realism is, to its credit, then, at the very least, laudable as a commitment to the grounding of moral discourse viz. this dictum.

4. How Stable is the Bridge Between Moral Theory and Explanatory Critique?

We have tried to emphasise in the previous sections how the insertion of a moral realism into the emancipatory potentials of explanatory critique relies upon the core dictum of the worth of being. Crucially, in Hippocratic Realism's critical universalism, the move is made from Spinozan conatus (the tendency for being to preserve itself) to the (Augustinian) objective good of being from which one reads the imperative (subject to a corrigible real relationality) to preserve and foster that being. The problem here is the logical status of the imperative. As a post facto supporting insight it relies, as Collier himself suggests, upon the absence of a cognition of real relational and emotive production of harm.[ 19 ] This is suggestive, in terms of the strategy of argument, that it doubles up as a predicating general statement from which the good is adduced. The tendency is thus secreted as an ontologically predisposed compass, as one characteristic of the human (by which the truly cognisant being will interact with other being, in terms of the good of that being, both human and non-human). The strong inference here would be an implication of precisely the kind of Platonic essentialism Collier seeks to avoid. The weak inference points to an essential ambiguity concerning the status of the potential of being and thus of the quality of good inscribed within truly cognisant conduct.

To reiterate the core point here, though the imperative is heuristically convenient, it is difficult to see how it can be transcendentally adduced in, say, the manner of a depth realism of nature from fruitful experiment, or of societies from the agent-structure problem. If it cannot be so adduced, as it is, it becomes a narrower a posteriori matter from which it is problematic to reconstruct an a priori to moral theory. Its bridging function to explanatory critique must then come into question.

A few counter-factual contextual examples serve to make the point. Remembering that what is at issue here is that when truly apprehended we reduce harm or acknowledge that it is desirable to do so, consider the role of the Roman games. Gladiator contests, restaged battles, mass executions etc. constituted a source of public fascination, excitement and entertainment from around 100 BC to 400 AD and relied precisely on the audiences capacity to identify with the protagonists.[ 20 ] The public spectacle involved here lacked all but the most cursory relation to punishment unlike, say, Foucault's account of Damiens the regicide in the opening pages of Discipline and Punish, and thus cannot be easily categorised in terms of either emotive misapprehension or some sense of deficient cognisance of cause. Rather, according to the Roman commentator Seneca, the gladatorial games were a moral and social lesson intended to reinforce the precept that compassion was a weakness.[ 21 ]

Similarly, one might ask in what sense the harm of war might be deemed always a conflict between real constraint, forms of unintended consequence, absence of real emotional cognisance etc. and a transcendent human moral disposition? Has war always been despite our moral identity of the good? It is difficult to see how Alexander might have been unaware of the harm to being entailed by his conquest of the known world, since leadership in warfare lacked either the physical or conceptual distance of its modern forms. Moreover, mitigating this harm in terms of an inadequate relational correspondence between action and principle - a sense of some kind of public discourse of minimum harm/maximum benefit to being from a justly prosecuted war, a greater good etc. is deeply problematic. As reasoned action it occurred under some structure but it seems highly speculative to suggest that its moral dynamic entails either a failure of emotive comprehension or unanticipated or misinformed consequences.

The suggestion here is not that moral systems were lacking, nor that barbarism is a defining characteristic of the Classical world, nor, conversely, that an acknowledgement of the worth of being is solely a product of modernity (much of Christian theology and Bhuddist doctrine etc. attest otherwise) but rather to suggest that to interject moral realism-explanatory critique in terms of the worth of being, as currently posed, adds no necessary value to our understanding of the moral dynamics of given events in history. Again, what this speaks to is a problem of the logical status of the good of being. Clearly, Collier is aware that actual moral systems have not always incorporated the good of being, yet it is curious to suggest that given conduct has not comprehended the good and has, therefore, not been constrained by it, since this suggests that such action is amoral in a fashion whose feedback loop is the self-establishment of good - moral action would flow from its genuine cognisance. The test here is less transcendental adducement from pervasive phenomena than simply tautology. On the one hand, it makes no sense to suggest that there is no genuine acknowledgement of harm, on the other it would be dubious indeed to produce some kind of taxonomy of historical pathology from such a conclusion.

Now consider also the more contemporary situation of Billy Ray, whose cattle ranch is occupied by three persons recently escaped from a local prison where each was serving a sentence for murder, commuted from death to life. Billy, his wife, their kids, and his in-laws are subjected to three days of horrifying abuse. Billy witnesses all the abuses to which he himself is not subject and is the only surviving family member when the police finally overpower the three and liberate the house. By the law of the land in which Billy lives he has the right to confront those who tortured him and murdered his family, to make a deposition to the court demanding retribution, which may be, at his discretion, one of the highest degree, and, if he so chooses, attend or partake in that final act (execution). Billy chooses to exercise his right to revenge, the court hands out a guilty verdict and sentences the three to death, Billy himself throws the switch by which they are terminated by lethal injection.

Now, in the narrowest sense, much as in our Lawrence Summers example, Billy is fully cognisant of what he is doing. However, unlike, Summers one cannot argue that he lacks an emotive-cognitive understanding of the harm to being he is committed to from a moral precept of revenge. He has a very powerful understanding of what it means for a human life to be terminated yet remains committed to that act and, perhaps takes some satisfaction in it. One may argue that he may not care about the wider implications of his acts because he is, presumably, traumatised by recent events causing his moral compass to misalign, but that the state, however, should not be legislatively sanctioning murder. Several points follow. First, it is difficult to see how one might establish whether an individual's moral compass has misaligned from some naturalistic human tendency, since s/he is always instantiated within some moral system and within some context within which context dilemmas of moral discourse are constantly arising (the relativist issue might thus re-emerge). Second, to argue that the state should regulate deviations from a commitment to the worth of being is to transfer the salient characteristic from the human to structure (whose problem is that though the good of being may have relational properties, since being is relational, its object status cannot be disposed of, from Hippocratic Realism's approach, in given structure, without undermining its pervasive function).

Of course, one might provisionally rescue the situation by arguing that this is simply a context dilemma where execution is the smallest harm, and thus a moral good, preserving a commitment to the worth of being whilst reformulating revenge principles. Let us say that the three are beyond reform, that the cost of keeping each in isolation may be taken directly from the subsidisation of local hospitals and that keeping each alive for another thirty years constitutes the loss of three intensive care beds with, say, a loss of fifty lives over that time. Yet to do so is to abstract from Billy's motive and cut-off structural debate from other possibilities (higher taxation for the moral good of preserving being).

Again, one might counter that explanatory critique may re-extend that debate, but this does nothing to reconcile the problem of the source and function of the worth of being in moral theory. It may lead one to argue, for example, the pros and cons of execution as a deterrent, producing perhaps a conclusion that there is no such relationality and that reform is therefore preferable. But this outcome does not require the added value of an ontological prefiguration viz. the worth of being. Nor does the argument that the transfer of worth (contra harm) to structure is a tacit acknowledgement of its status as a characteristic of the human, because structure is a human reproduction, resolve the problem since this leaves the door open for a reduction of the complexity of moral discourse, indeed social forms at large, along physicalistic or psychologistic lines.

To drive the point home, what is at stake here is the bridging function between moral theory and explanatory critique i.e. the stability of moral realism. What we are arguing is that an antecedent worth of being expressed in terms of the desire to alleviate harm cannot be sustained as is - ambiguously laced into transcendental philosophy as a characteristic of the human - in quite the way Hippocratic Realism suggests. A certain adjustment or respecification is required to prevent a Post-structuralist (perhaps Foucauldian ethical) wedge being driven between realism and moral theory. As it stands, Hippocratic Realism secretes a particular and untenable sacred into the profane, and does so in a fashion from which a Lyotard or Rorty might, from the strong inference above, argue that the wider Critical Realist claim to represent an anti-foundational absence of some deus ex machina, avoiding a fideistic fait accompli to real world problems from philosophical antecedents, is over-ridden by a hidden god in the form of fetishised being, a deus absconditus. This would indeed be unfortunate given the significant potentials we have suggested for Hippocratic Realism in section 3.

What we would suggest, from the weak inference above, is that Hippocratic Realism requires an initially more restrictive account of the worth of being. Being may well be real but the worth of being is not in itself objectively real. The difference is one between the appreciation of being as being (where the good is the cultivation of the same) and the inherent good of being. Its moral status is less the prefiguration of moral systems of given societies than a creative opportunity, becoming real because it is realised. Its potential might emerge with emergent wo/man (since its acknowledgement must always be a subset of an intentional being, and often of highly exceptional beings - Jesus, Muhammad etc.) but it is not a necessary intransitive a priori, rather it is a possibility that must be grounded in specified emergent structure (as opposed to configuring the emergence of its moral dynamics). As motive (why we do otherwise) it remains the touchpaper between intentional reflective agents and improveable structure in any emancipatory potential. But it must be made, widely socialised, and sustained, not secreted and invoked. Though it may seem perverse (in a grandmother and egg-sucking fashion) to offer a proto-Marxist adjustment to an off-shoot of Critical Realism, argued by a Marxist philosopher, Marx's critique of Feuerbachian species being (Gattungswessen) seems relevant here. For Feuerbach, species being was the realisation of wo/man's unity with nature, both intelectually and emotionally, for Marx species being is the practical formation of potential in given situations.[ 22 ] I don't wish to suggest that Collier is unaware of the difference between the two, but in the Hippocratic Realist approach fostered in Being and Worth, the subtle difference and its implications for the production of an ontology of moral systems, is, at the very least, smudged.

5. Increasing Philosophical Entropy?

Yet if a certain caution is required in the specification of the quality of good in terms of the potential of being (as related to truly cognisant conduct), a greater courage is required in suffusing the quality of good with positive content, for this is precisely where moral theory stands or falls. Without that content, a moral theory of being (whatever its potentials) must remain deficient in its practical application to any given context dilemma. At the moment our only guide is that:

  1. All being is inherently good.

  2. Some being is to be preferred to other being, in terms of its level of being, if the choice is necessary (the wo/man and tree example).

If we restrict ourselves for the moment to a), by say, staying within the species, the problem of relative harm, as an imperative to act, flowing from the good of being, can conflict with our sense of justice. This is particularly so if one starts from a de facto problem which has emerged from a previous failure to deal effectively with a real relational problem. Let us say, Britain, Japan, the US, and Russia, against good economic and environmental arguments, have continued to use Nuclear power whose waste products provide a significant disposal problem. Even if, viz. some explanatory critique, the states in question were persuaded to stop today, the problem would persist because the inherent danger to being will persist for thousands of years. As things now stand in Hippocratic Realism, it makes sense from a position of relative harm, to relocate that waste to an isolated, geographically stable, and sparsely populated area. The British government actually suggests the aboriginal homelands of Australia. The salient point, however, is that, even where the real relationality of harm is apprehended through explanatory critique, it may be possible to produce a similar outcome to the Summers argument if no intervening elements are incorporated into a positive moral realist system.

If this seems like a barbarism which relies for its force upon the quantification of issues of being, that is because it is. The aim is not to endorse such a position but rather to illustrate the significance of what is lacking. If we incorporate b), there is no reason why a logic of being cannot result in a Soylent Green planet, maximising people at the expense of alternative varieties of being. Hippocratic Realism's initial response to this point is that:

[T]here are rather few goods apart from money that it even makes sense to maximise, and ecologists have pointed out that maximising behaviour in general, as opposed to satisfysing behaviour - seeking enough - is a source of danger to the environment.[ 23 ]

Yet this, in the absence of substantive content, is to throw the problem back on the sustainability of expansions in higher level being, which is essentially to tacitly reincorporate expansionism in terms of social functionalism. If technology enables a given level of population to be sustained (producing say ample food from processed bacterium cultures in vast factories, perhaps genetically modified to recycle and clean the air during the process) at the expense of alternative land use there is no content argument, as things stand, why this should not be so. One might argue that at no point was any individual choice to negate a lower order being necessary but, on the one hand, this in itself demands some account of necessity (and harm) which must entail positive moral content, and on the other, it may be that sustainable technological modifications are as much a response to previous (though now understood) deficient correspondences where there is no apparent moral impetus to genetically reproduce the species we have driven to extinction (to use the language of Dialectic, a choice between 'absenting the absence' of trees and 'absenting the absence' of people cannot be reconciled in terms of hierarchies of being purely from a non-qualitative notion of satisfysing).

The beef, so to speak, in moral realism, must be in this content because this is where the work is done which limits the otherwise rational (and rationalised) possibilities which flow from the simple ascription of variable inherent good to being. This in a sense ties in with the core point in 4. it is how we proceed in ascribing the good which is truly significant, at least beyond the internecine conflicts of philosophy. This is by no means to suggest that such conflict is irrelevant, after all if one's reasons for acting are part of emancipatory critique, deficient philosophy must be opposed as potentially causal.[ 24 ] Yet it seems a little too convenient to simply state, as Collier does:

There is more to the ordering of beings as objects of love than the mere assignment of an ordinal number. There is a qualitative aspect to it. The sort of love that we ought to feel towards animals absolutely precludes torturing them or confining them in spaces where their natural movement is impossible, even if human interests in medicine or food would be served by such treatment. This qualitative aspect is precisely what would need to be spelt out in order to derive any concrete moral prescriptions from this theory of the good. But I shall have achieved enough in this book if I make it seem at all plausible that beings as being is good and that the ordered love of being is the essence of ethics.[ 25 ]

The lack of such content, as must be clear from the possibilities set out above, affords the opportunity for another Post-structuralist wedge to be driven into the Critical Realist system. A Foucauldian would have few reservations concerning the implications of power in Hippocratic Realism (a power/knowledge - though we would obviously resist the implication of a knowledge constituted object) in what could all too easily be inferred as a brutishly instrumental Enlightenment ethos.

Of course, to argue substantive content will hardly deflect such criticism (though it may cause it to shift feet), but this seems no reason not to bite the bullet and argue for a speculative ethics of positive moral realism. One major issue that such a realism must meet head on is whether its content, rather than simply dovetailing with ontological realism, as has been suggested so far, may modify it (a quantum logic where A+B = B+C but whilst B=B A¹C). One thorny issue here is whether all falsity is in some sense an ill. Consider for a moment the conflicts which arise from how Critical Realism must tend to view spiritual and tribal existence. Critical Realism, with the possible exception of Margaret Archer's work (and perhaps the tendencyin From East to West), is clinically secular in terms of its vision of social being. As such, explanatory critique must tend to place a low value (bear with me on this) on spiritual and tribal existence in terms of the veracity of the belief systems to which they adhere. Its moral realism therefore, appears to require a way of reconciling some sense of falsity in belief and some sense of the appreciation of the good of being of the modes of existence to which those beliefs are a necessary relation - since one cannot inform an individual via explanatory critique of the falsity of belief without transforming practice (to, as the phrase goes, shine light on magic). I have no wish to argue that such modes of existence are in any way more authentic, nor that they may not include dominations (gender, class etc.) amenable to critique, nor indeed that the usual Critical Realist caveat that emancipatory logics must be internal and need-awareness based to be operable do not apply, but rather to indicate that the problem of conduct in regard of another's belief entails a possible moral element which cannot be reduced to the veracity of that belief (which does of course assume the falsity of spiritual belief). The implication here, in terms of the point we have been making viz. positive moral content is that, without such content, an ill/falsity axis of belief viz. a given mode of being seems dangerously conducive to a supporting role to quantified moral context dilemmas of the type one might encounter viz. the storage of nuclear waste on aboriginal territory. On the one hand, the land is not genuinely alive. On the other, the aboriginal belief system and mode of existence relies on that falsity and is therefore an impediment to their real interests. If their existence is not truly located within the land then that land can be commodified (perhaps as a transitory stage in the transformation of commodified relations).

Now, this is by no means a suggestion that Critical Realism is intent on a knowledge or cultural imperialist agenda but rather, as we have already noted, to highlight the implications and significance of moral theory. As Collier indicates by his statement on animal cruelty (ft. 25), one already holds that things are wrong (to hark back to Warnock, on a purely intuitive level no Critical Realist would endorse the export of nuclear waste to aboriginal lands). But that is insufficient for a reflective moral philosophy of something. The suggestion is then, that one requires a positive content to moral theory, one aspect of which may be to address (or at least compartmentalise) the status of falsity, ill, and conduct in terms of the appreciation of being (a good). Put another way, we may not be, as philosophers, reducible to some grimly Vulcan caricature, but without moral content there may be something of that logic in how Critical Realism is received.

6. Conclusion

What arises from this discussion is that the problem of motive within a moral theory configuration of Critical Realism remains at issue. This is not a matter which demands backsliding to pessimistic Post-structuralism, but it is a matter which demands specification in order to counter such a tendency. It might be that part of the problem may well reduce to no more than a moral theory alpha to well known omega social science problems of discourse i.e. conflict in terms of judgmental rationality and commensurability in terms of substantive moral content. But over and beyond that, there seems at least the possibility that added value is required from moral theory in order that Hippocratic Realism uphold its portmanteau qualities viz. Critical Realism.


1. p. 184. R. Bhaskar Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation (London: Verso, 1986).

2. See M. Archer Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)

3. A. Collier CriticalRrealism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar's Philosophy (London: Verso, 1994)

4. pp. 35-37, A. Collier Being and Worth (London: Routledge, 1999)

5. Being and Worth, op. cit., p. 77.

6. See, for example, p. 81, R. Bhaskar The Possibility of Naturalism (Brighton: Harvester, 1979)

7. See Being and Worth, op. cit., pp. 1, 3 & 6-8.

8. See p. 65, D. Harvey The Environment of Justice in A Merrifield & E Swyngedouw The Urbanisation of Injustice (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1996)

9. See Being and Worth, op. cit., pp. 18, 25-26, 40, 53 & 56.

10. Being and Worth, op. cit., p. 19.

11. Being and Worth, op. cit., pp. 57-58.

12. G J Warnock Contemporary Moral Philosophy (Basibngstoke: Macmillan, 1967)

13. Cited p. 49, S. Lukes Individualism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1973)

14. See p. 76, A. MacIntrye After Virtue: a study in moral theory (London: Duckworth, 1990). Also pp. 501 & 523, J. Bentham Anarchical Fallacies pp. 489-534 in J. Bowring (Ed.) The Works of Jeremy Bentham (New York: Russell & Russell, 1962)

15. See p. 76, A. Sayer Realism and Social Science (London: Sage, 2000)

16. pp. 155-156, R. Harré & M. Krausz Varieties of Relativism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996)

17. See p. 287, J. Tilley 'Cultural Relativism, Universalism, and the Burden of Proof' Millennium Vol. 27 No. 2 1998, pp. 275-297.

18. p. 243, T. Adorno & M. Horkheimer Dialectic of the Enlightenment (London: Verso, 1997)

19. See Being and Worth, op. cit., p. 17.

20. p. 23, A. Palmer 'When the Blood and Guts Were Real' The Sunday Telegraph May 14th 2000.

21. It is perhaps worth mentioning that at the core of stoicism lies a position antiethetical to Collier's i.e., the pursuance of apatheia or immunity to feeling (replaced by self-control). See Lucius Seneca, Letters From a Stoic (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969)

22. See, for example, pp. 37-44, A. Callinicos Marxism and Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985)

23. Being and Worth, op. cit., p. 69.

24. See Chp. 1, R. Bhaskar Plato Etc. (London: Verso, 1994)

25. Being and Worth, op. cit., p. 78.

Copyright © 2001 Jamie Morgan

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