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The Critique of Institutions September 18, 2010

Posted by Andy in Foucault, pedagogics, philosophy.
Tags: , , , , ,

The popular, textbook version of Kant’s ethical thought often goes as follows: morality is doing one’s duty, and doing one’s duty amounts to following good rules of behaviour. Good moral rules are not the same as good prudent rules in that they are not slave to some other function, they are good in themselves. Good rules are also good for everyone. So to solve a moral problem, you have to make up a good rule, see if it can be universalised and retain its logic, and then follow it.Fair enough. I don’t think it’s a great account of Kant’s second critique, but it will do as a simple schoolbook formulation. What bothers me is the applications given of rules that cannot be held with logical consistency. For example, can I formulate a law that allows me not to repay money that I owe? Well, if I and everyone else neglected to repay my debts, then the entire system of debt would crumble apart like dry earth. So rules about money must imply sustaining the institution of money.

This strikes me as fallacious. It is only to the extent that we approve of the institution that we can use it as a touchstone for our moral judgement. Categorical imperatives that submit to the authority of institutions are no longer autonomous. They in other words have to call into question the terms into which they are put (debt, institutions, manners, etc.).

I was given a cutting example of this before summer when I was marking several groups of school pupils. When I saw pupils get marks that did not represent their capacity, I experienced it as a deep tragedy. I could have cheated the school, tampered with their marks, and repaired the system. But doing so would undermine my belief that the individual teacher should not be given that power. There are no doubt a large number of jerks in this business. But giving just marks at all assumes that I sign up to the idea that people’s lives should be conditioned by their performance at the age of 19. It is a long shot. In any case, I could not determine what I should do without going quite some way in analysing the institutions of which I formed a part.

This experience gives me two thoughts: firstly, I really did experience the possibility of effective moral deliberation. I did not cheat on this occasion, but I did disobey school and national rules on other occasions, trusting in my own moral certainty. Secondly, why has Kantian ethics so rarely resulted in systematic institutional critique? Even the best example I can think of of such a critique based on Kant’s principles – namely Foucault’s work – claims not to be ultimately interested in institutional critique, but in individual ways of life, and grass roots relationships.

But maybe the critique of institutions we are most familiar with (i.e. based on the traditions of social thought like Weber and others) are actually based on Kant but aren’t telling us so.


1. Andrew Brower Latz - September 19, 2010

glad to see you back, Andy.

2. A White Chupacabra - September 20, 2010

maybe apply Kantian principles to your phony zionist pals Kotzko and Co.

hint–they fail, being much closer to like Rahm Emmanuel than Immanuel.

3. Andy - September 21, 2010

You’re quite right, Adam doesn’t really strike me as a really authentic Zionist. Neither he nor I are likely to be especially worried about being called unKantian either.
I’m not especially interested in ungrounded accusations on this blog.

4. Patrick Waldron - October 28, 2010

Andy, I read your summary of Foucault’s last lectures and I have to thank you for making your notes available. I also want to ask, is there any way to find out what is in the last volume of the History of Sexuality? Thanks, Patrick

5. Andy - October 28, 2010

Well, Foucault does talk a little about what he wants to continue work on in the 1984 lectures, but there has been some debate as to how complete the “final” book of the history of sexuality was. Carrette thinks it was just at the copyediting stage.

What we know is that volumes 2 and 3 look nothing like the projected volumes 2 and 3 (described in volume 1). I can’t see much in his work that could have been worked into some magically patristic volume 4. And most of his work does tend to be mirrored in the “Dits et Écrits” of the time.

The short answer is: no, you will have to refer to the physical archives in France (which you won’t be allowed to make public reference to). The long answer is: look at what he was writing at the time, the lectures he gave, the articles he wrote, and you’ll see a fairly consistent line of thought about where he wanted to get to from the philosophy of late antiquity: namely the moral sciences of early modernity.

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