Originary thinking provides an anthropological grounding for Kantian morality, as expressed in the fourfold formulation of the categorical imperative in Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, as well as for the supreme Kantian distinction between the a priori and the empirical. The categorical imperative, whether expressed as the necessity of treating all human beings as ends or of acting so that the principle of one’s action may be willed as a universal law, is a metaphysical formulation of the “moral model” of the reciprocal exchange of representations in the originary event. The world of representation is the real locus of Kant’s a priori, and this world is that of the deferral of violence before being that of the representation of worldly objects.
At the same time, originary thinking both explains and transcends the ahistoricity of Kantian morality. The passage from conflict to peace that is inaugurated by the sign is recoverable as an event in a potential history only insofar as it is grounded in the “timeless” reciprocity of the scene of representation. The peace that succeeds real or potential mimetic crisis is not mere stasis but reciprocal exchange, whose symmetry establishes a temporality invulnerable to mortality, understood as the result of human violence. But the moral model, even in the originary scene and its ritual reproduction, belongs to the world of representation rather than that of reality; to seek to realize it in the world is (as Kant well understood) to commit a category error analogous to affirming the possibility of drawing a perfect circle on a blackboard.
Both the formulation of the Kantian categorical imperative and its exemplification in the quasi-universal rejection of any communally imposed or de jure asymmetry among adult humans suggest that already by the late Enlightenment, and certainly today, an ethical consensus has been established that condemns any formal obstacle to the reciprocity of the moral model. Bourgeois democracy accepts this model as directly operative in political situations, which are to be decided in an exchange of representations. In contrast, it is generally acknowledged that the various attempts between 1789 and 1989 to impose the moral model not merely as the formal basis of human interaction but as the basis of economic exchange were unsuccessful; politicizing the general economy in order to universalize economic power only concentrates this power in the hands of politicians.
In market society we may distinguish three kinds of collective decisions: economic, political, and ethical. Participants in the market can only submit to the judgment of the marketplace. Although the outcome of a political debate (say, among legislative representatives) is determined in much the same way as a market price, the individuals charged with reaching this outcome (and, ultimately, those they represent) are each presumed to have taken a position on the issue at hand and, as a rule, to maintain it even after the matter has been decided. Yet whereas political decisions, although based on principle, are typically subject to quantitative compromise, ethical decisions are of a discrete or “binary” nature. The amount of a tax or the breadth of application of a regulation are matters for negotiation in a way that, for example, abortion rights are not, even if the nature of the political process imposes the negotiational model on the latter as well as on the former. Because ethical decisions are based on conviction, even if this conviction must be subordinated to an overall principle of democratic rule (which in a constitutional system is not simply equivalent to majority rule), we do not immediately accept contrary decisions as defining a new ethical reality, merely a political one. Nevertheless, we know that, in the long run, a society’s political decisions and its ethical convictions will tend to converge; it is for this very reason that struggles to impose one’s ethical viewpoint are so dramatic.
Let us briefly examine, for the sake of concreteness, a few contemporary moral issues: abortion, the death penalty, human cloning, animal rights, and, by way of contrast, slavery, still practiced in some corners of the world.
Until the last few decades, there was virtually no public sentiment for legalizing abortion, even among those who engaged in it. Like prostitution, abortion was considered as at best a necessary evil, a recourse in an emergency but not a socially legitimate activity. Today, this has radically changed. The virulence of the abortion controversy (which now seems to be subsiding) would appear to belong to a transitional moment between a society that at best tolerates abortion and one where abortion on demand, under a varying set of restrictions, is considered a fundamental right.
The very nature of this controversy–but we will see that all real moral controversies share this nature–makes the application of Kantian formulas impossible. Proponents of abortion insist that a woman be treated as an end and not a means, but for their opponents, the fetus too is a human being who is treated not even as a means but as a mere physical impediment or “parasite” within the mother’s body. The crux of the debate is the human status of the fetus, and this is precisely what no moral formula can determine. The same arguments that justify the abortion of the not-yet-human fetus can be extended (as they are by the infamous Peter Singer) to justify infanticide.
From a moral perspective, the triumph of abortion on demand in Western societies is more significant than the arguments either for or against it. Given the continued dissatisfaction with abortion even within the pro-choice majority, we should anticipate future medical research with an end to alleviating it, whether by means of post-conception contraceptives (the “morning after” pill), providing an artificial womb for the aborted fetus, or some presently inconceivable technique. Controversies such as this one tend to lead to “dialectical” syntheses because the moral model, however differently interpreted, is shared by both sides.
Similarly, the categorical imperative cannot tell us whether or not to support the death penalty; executing someone is not treating him as an “instrument” any more than putting him in jail. The arguments adduced on both sides of these questions invoke ad hoc principles such as “the sanctity of human life” or “a woman’s right to control her body,” that cannot be assimilated to Kantian maxims of morality. As is often noted sarcastically–by both sides–“the sanctity of human life” tends to be interpreted in opposite ways in the two controversies; those who oppose abortion tend to support the death penalty and vice versa. This suggests, not that general moral principles are self-contradictory, but that are useless in real-world cases; principles that are truly universal are by definition agreed upon by all and consequently compatible with both sides. Reasoning from principle can be of use only in a hypothetical situation so complex that only the moral philosopher can discern the hidden incompatibility of moral principle with one side or another; outside of the philosophy classroom, it is doubtful that a single historical case can be found where moral philosophy has proven of greater value than common sense.
Another ethical question is that of human cloning. Few have expressed approval of creating cloned people (although this may change when, as seems inevitable, such clones appear); today’s controversy is between those who support using cloned embryos for therapeutic purposes and those who consider the creation of an embryo merely for the benefit of others a condemnable use of another human being as an instrument. The crux here has much in common with the abortion controversy: should a cloned embryo, like a first-trimester fetus, be considered a full-fledged human being? Likewise, in the matter of animal rights, the controversy once again is not over the ethical treatment of human beings, but over what creatures should benefit from (some of) the rights human beings accord themselves. What “rights” has a chimpanzee, a dog, a snake, a tree? I find the notion of “animal rights” absurd, but whether the animal has rights or is merely protected by human laws, the degree of this protection cannot be deduced from a universally held moral principle.
In contrast to these hard cases, we may point to slavery as a matter to which moral rules obviously apply. But, precisely, in advanced countries, at least, there is no controversy over slavery–nor over human sacrifice, polygamy, or genital mutilation. As late as the nineteenth century, slavery was defended by arguments of racial inferiority that we no longer consider acceptable. Today, the principle of equality before the law, which consecrates the moral model of universal reciprocity, is universally accepted; the legitimacy of slavery is not affirmed even by those who practice it.
Moral principles, as we have seen, are useless in deciding ethical controversies. Yet because we are all obliged to take positions on ethical issues, we are faced with the necessity of formulating a “provisional ethic” for originary thinking.
Since the fundamental aim of human culture is the deferral of violence through the reciprocal exchange of representations, the fundamental rule of our provisional ethic must be to act so as to extend and accelerate this exchange. In contradistinction to utilitarianism, which evaluates an action by the quantity of happiness it is expected to bring, originary thinking evaluates it by its capacity to expand the exchange of representations, and, negatively, by its capacity to arouse resentment, the sentiment of non-reciprocity that forecloses reciprocal exchange.
Applied historically, this rule of thumb makes understandable both the existence and the abolition of slavery, which at its inception broadened the overall conversation more than executing prisoners of war, but which no longer performs this function when labor is contracted by parties formally equal before the law. A more useful application of the rule is in assessing the moral value of movements of dissent. Insofar as those previously silenced must shout to make themselves heard, such movements broaden the dialogue, but once they become institutionalized, the shouting threatens to drown out the voices of others.
The uncertainty of our assessments of the long-term effects of a given decision on the reciprocity of human relations forces us continually to reevaluate any exclusion of individuals or groups from the social dialogue for the sake of the communal whole. (Consider, for example, the transformation in the status of homosexuals over the past few decades.) Whatever general rules we apply in such cases, they can have no more than provisional value. Appeals to traditional guarantees of transcendence can serve at best as stop-gap measures in times of panic. The human community must continually renew itself by regenerating and enlarging, in ever new and unpredictable circumstances, the exchange of signs through which it defers its own violence.