Technology and Justice: The Philosophy of Authenticity and Democratic Theory

By Matthew McManus
2013, Vol. 5 No. 10 | pg. 1/10 |

"The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world, everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen: in it no value does exist-and if it did exist it would have no value. If there is any value that does have value, it must lie outside the whole sphere of what happens and is the case. For all that happens and is the case is accidental.

What makes it non accidental cannot lie within the world because if it did it would be accidental. It must lie outside the world." - Ludwig Wittgenstein, Prop 6.41.

Wittgenstein's somewhat mournful comment on ethics reflects a fundamental problem facing modern ethical theory. Ethicists are still confronted by the traditional questions that have plagued them since the ancients. What does it mean to act, and to act well? How do we determine which actions are those which are moral, and which fall outside this sphere? And how do we negotiate the priority of all of these questions?

These, and many others, are questions of philosophical inquiry whose answers have tremendous ramifications. However in the modern philosophical context, which has been marked by declining religiosity and even a belief in rationality, they have been cut adrift from the context out of which they developed, searching for a foundation which is not forthcoming. At the same time, there is a paradoxical resurgence of interest in universalism within the international legal context and the discourse of human rights, which at this point lack a firm a philosophical foundation.

Unfortunately, many of these movements appeal only to prudential arguments at best, and abstract pleas for the realization of human dignity at worst. Yet many of these notions, such as that of the innate dignity of the human being, possess an intuitive power which cannot be dismissed easily. In the absence of certainty for such intuitions it may be helpful to first ask: what are the power dynamics and systems of knowledge in our modern world, and what are their relationships to concepts of morality in general?

My aim in this work is to sketch, in broad strokes, an idea for a method of both assessing these dynamics and, ultimately, moving beyond them to provide a philosophic foundation for those moral notions I will suggest are attractive. By necessity, this has meant starting primarily with an analysis and critique of modernity and its normative content. While this is hardly a novel idea, I have attempted to contribute originally to the discourse of modernity, as Habermas characterizes it, by suggesting how a reconceptualization of temporality, and a reexamination of time's connection to language, would allow us to better understand the nature of systems of knowledge, in both their inter-penetration and dispersion.

Inspired by thinkers such as Martin Heidegger and David Bohm, I argue that the concept of development within systems of knowledge, henceforth called paradigms, would be better understood were we to embrace a broader, organic concept of time— more like a self-sealing system than the Newtonian train. I ascribe to this notion the Heideggerian term of an "ecstatic" concept of time.1 Within paradigms, the notion of a goal or endpoint can powerfully affect the generation and evolution of the paradigm itself.

One prominent philosophical example is the way in which ideal theories of the state in Communist theory were considered not simply a goal to be striven towards, but the inevitable endpoint of the dialectics of history. A less esoteric modern example might be the way in which modern physics strives to fit the requirements of a Unified Field Theory, or Theory of Everything as Stephen Hawking characterizes it, where all the components which shall make up this theory are known in advance.

Figure 1

This notion of ecstatic time in which the future requirements of paradigms have as much of an impact on their development as rules established in the past is analogous to the way in which nano technology systems dictate necessary developments from a notional future to past information structures.

The concepts we have of knowledge and our methods of understanding it would be altered somewhat by this premise. Precisely, I will show how these paradigms of thought are insufficiently self-reflective, which has profound consequences when it comes to understanding the world, and ultimately, acting upon it.

An examination of language is key to understanding these consequences, as language both represents and maintains the particular notions and internal rules of a paradigm.

The result of paradigms being temporally closed and maintained though language has been that modern moral notions remain unsupported by an adequate philosophical underpinning, and have evolved largely in theoretical abstraction. Unfortunately, the temporal closure of these systems means that even genealogical or deconstructive methods are unable to guarantee what I consider a sufficient degree of interiority and reflection to establish a proper starting point for developing and prioritizing ethical principles.

Most critical methods are unable provide any firm alternative to the instrumental rationality we associate with many knowledge systems without engaging themselves in contradiction or un-considered pure subjectivity. Thus, while many of the critical theories, such as those of Foucault, Kuhn, and the wonderfully funny Zizek, are extraordinarily useful in diagnosing what could be called the spiritual ailments of modernity and knowledge, few have given a powerful or consistent antidote. I feel this is especially true of the post-modern critiques of reason traditionally understood; which is somewhat ironic given that the majority of this work may be characterized as just such a critique.

However, I will argue with Habermas that what may be needed in the world today is not less, but rather more, reason—so long as reason itself is re-conceptualized. To criticize a knowledge system is not to say that knowledge in and of itself an evil, but only that what has constituted knowledge to this point has been insufficiently realized to this point.

Reason must be sensitive to its own limitations if it is to overcome what Kierkegaard correctly characterized as a chimerical redoubling, in which a conclusion can be affirmed only by returning to the unconfirmed foundational rules and endpoints from which the line of reasoning nominally commenced or were developing towards. Modern theoretical examples of the implosion of reason's ambitions can be seen in Kurt Godel's incompleteness theorems and the Quine-Duhem thesis.2 More importantly, this difficulty is especially true with respect to ethical systems and questions of their validity.

I have attempted to provide the starting point for just such an ethical system by roughly sketching what I call a principle of authenticity. This principle is to provide an orientation for our ethical pathology which is, initially at least, content less and atemporal. This is to avoid the problem of anterior justification which Kierkegaard correctly detailed. We can see this difficulty in many prominent works of ethical theory, whose conjectural limitations disallow them from seeking metaphysical or meta-ethical justifications for their postulates. A principle of authenticity would fix its starting point in moral psychology, and hypothesize that individuals must begin at the meta-level of conceptualization by orienting themselves to questions of ontology and the nature of objectification.

However, this is not meant to be carried out in isolation. Rather, with Habermas, I hypothesize that communicative rationality within an ideal speech community would be more likely to carry out this project in an authentic way. Because it is carried out communally it will also avoid concerns leveled against liberal ethics that individuation and breaking from collective world views is alienating and disorienting. The aim of communicative rationality, as Habermas himself conjectured, is to tie individuation and understanding through dialogue to a process of sociation. I will end by hypothesizing more ambitiously about some hypothetical features of a political society which might be derived from a principle of authenticity. In this, I will proceed primarily by explicating through contrast. I will conduct a brief examination of the political theory of John Rawls, which speaks very prominently to the issues facing modern society, and explore how an authentic political community might incorporate certain features of Rawlsian theory, for instance his two principles, for different reasons than he gives and with different institutional conclusions.

Like Habermas, I hope to show how an authentic political community could attain a harmony between the cognitive life-world and institutional system of citizens by engaging and reducing the depth of epistemic pluralism through an ontologically oriented inter-subjective dialogue. Once this has been achieved, I believe achieving a consensus on important issues of morality and justice would be more feasible.

A full principle of authenticity would tie these disparate strands of moral theory into a comprehensive framework, where the weaknesses of each variable are mitigated and harmonized within the theoretical whole. Although this work by necessity falls short of such an ambitious goal, the hypothesis presented here forms the foundation of future theoretical development toward this end.


When the world exists for us not as Being, but as object—as objective reality— it paradoxically constitutes both a valuing and a devaluing of the world. It is a method of understanding wherein value is posited on the world, through what Hegel would call a manifestation of will, Nietzsche "value -positing," and Heidegger most ominously "enframing." The world is valued and thence given a quantifiable, unitized structure necessary for the utilitarian purpose of conceptualization and manipulation.

This is an intellectual valuing, even an objective valuing (in the Hegelian phenomenological sense) but it is value prescribed and never necessarily value in-itself. Indeed value, as a word alone, cannot be objectified in an analytic sense, as even Popper admits. In themselves, values do not become apparent, cannot be made apparent to us except through us, which has serious consequences for the establishment of any ethical code. This includes positive codes with universalist intentions such as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

We cannot say at this point that value exists in the world as fact, especially when we are still on what Heidegger would call the way to thinking, as well as the way to authenticity. Value is and remains transcendental. When a human concept which has given birth to everything which has hitherto been highest is revealed as unknowable and inaccessible to all common methods of thinking, including traditional reason, we are faced with a crisis. Value, in public policy and in the political realm, is now frequently and mechanically ascribed through a process of measured utilitarian calculus.

Stepping back even further however, we see that this involves the exclusion of man himself from being prescribed value. Man is elevated to the ultimate arbiter of value, when paradoxically he may have none which he ascribed to himself. The value of man can no more be known than any.

This is hardly a new conclusion. Since Plato, Western Thinking, while not trivializing man, suggested that he was part of a higher destiny even than any human rights code today would suggest. This was a destiny which could not be assessed or accessed through the ordinary object-valuing of everyday thought. Plato's idealism, Christianity and even the absolute pantheism of Spinoza have all been attempts, at one point or another in Western thought, to place what is transcendental ahead of man as the ultimate source of value. It was from this transcendental source, of course, that we derived our value.

But with Bacon an alternative paradigm arose, one in which man was conceived as the source of value. This shift marks the beginning of what Heidegger would call the "instrumentalization" of man, nature, and Being, as "standing reserve." The world was conceived in a new way, as consisting of purely material units. Each of these could be transformed because each unit was categorically distinct from the rest of the world, a knowable entity in and of itself.

This anthropocentrism altered the course of Western thinking—particularly when it became combined with the rise of new scientific paradigms such as Newtonian physics and Daltonian chemistry (as traced in Thomas Kuhn's book the Structure of Scientific Revolutions). The disengagement of the "material" from the "spiritual," the "lower" from the "higher," "transcendence" from "happiness" has become a hallmark of the modern age and modern thinking. Yet it is also concurrently true that, should this disengagement continue or accelerate, modern thought runs the risk moving only further away from authentic thinking.

But modern thought cannot be characterized as simply being progressive and under our strict control. Rather, the paradigm of modern thinking, with its systematization and establishment of artificial values, manifests itself as power in everyday life and discourse, power which prevents a broad interpretation of both epistemological and moral issues because of its structural limitations. Thinking today is being perfected. It is being processed, refined and directed by knowledge/power, in such a way that each person can be allotted their share of cognition.

Thinking is taken for granted very much as a refinable technique. One needs only look at how the Rational Actor model is applied to public policy; a model which is very much reflective of a Chicago School assessment of all resolvable problems ultimately being economic, and therefore solvable only through quantification and assessment of comparative costs and benefits. All other problems can only be contentious. Thinking, like knowledge and valuing, has become instrumentalized. It has cycled from what was once encompassing and revealing, to what is increasingly purposive and self-framing, animated artificially.

Because of this, it is difficult to even think creatively of society today—to understand society's impact on consciousness as knowledge/power. Society can be and is characterized in a thousand different ways by a thousand different thinkers, but we cannot grasp it as both an organic whole and in its displacing ennunciative formations if we continue to think about it according to the thinking of the past, the thinking which configured our orientation to where we are in the first place. Society does not just exist as something "present" in a temporal sense. This is a narrow way of conceiving it. It does not exist merely as a physical or local structure of norms and values for the present day, which we can extricate ourselves from by choice or mere will power. Undoubtedly, it exists through and with us; indeed the social is one of the greatest realities we inhabit. But this does not mean that society is something which exists in the "present" as we linearly understand time.

We tend to think of the world as a space/time grid, with the category of space having equal priority with the category of time. Ironically, the traditional division of these categories into Space and Time, best articulated by Kant, is not how most people even conceive of the world practically. Man thinks himself forward in time as a sort of stretching—a projection of self towards the future. But this is only possible with reference to a "where." Man projects himself forward in space/time, anticipating a reality of oneself in a sequence of "heres" which necessitates a unity of both. But it is important to note, that the space/time grid is still conceptualized linearly as a projection from a primordial point. In this sense, even unified with space, space/time is still Aristotelian in essence. It is this understanding of time which makes difficult an understanding of society as something very real, but not necessarily "present."

Society is a web which transcends the linear model of time as "now" points, and even the modern, unified concept of "here" points. It is transcendental, persisting mainly through language as what is unconscious within us—but developing organically according to the inevitable preconditions it establishes into a future set by both its own history and endpoints. Time must be viewed ecstatically to understand the social, as a collapsing of moments and history into a singular point, the past inevitably manifesting itself in the present towards a future, guided by bi-directional teleologies. Viewed "presently" the webs of thought, the "spirit" of the community (to quote Hegel), manifest as power, most notably as and through knowledge/power. Society is a mentality whose values—scientific and other—are passed onto us, crystallized, divided and maintained by language and, more broadly, discursive structures.

Language is not the mediating realm which reconciles the subject with an object to produce a thesis, as Humboldt conceived it. Language is, in many senses, the artificer of both the subject and the object. Man enters into language, not because he is a "self," but because he wants to become one. He wishes to find a way to refine himself as an individual into a self by establishing an identity and a set of values which is articulable to himself and others. Our understanding of the "objective world," said to consist of positive facts which are testable empirically, is shaped in no small part by this activity of man and language. The values that man finds are not his own, but rather, because language is entered into conceived as a mere collection of terms rather than something to be reflected carefully upon, they are the result of paradigms of thinking, or ennunciative formations to quote Foucault, which are almost inescapable.

This shaping of man by language is not meditative. We are shaped in no small part according to the value judgments implicit in the very words which we use, words such as "rational" or "nature." Language is a type of power—and for the purposes of this essay power is the manifestation of social knowledge structures retained in the transcendental unconsciousness, the "spirit," of our community. They all—language, power, society, and knowledge-must be viewed in their idealized unity and practical categorical differences—what Foucault would call ennunciative realms within broader discursive formations. Language has no real sense to it (with the possible exception of expressing absolutes). A sentence only has "sense" in the context of every other sentence needed to express what has been lost in the appropriation of Being by particular words. Sentences are inter-categorical. We may be unconscious of this when we are speaking—but it is implied in every language game we engage in which has "sense" to us as subjects who know the rules.

In much the same way, to return to the original argument, values can be circular. Value-positing, in all its artificiality, cannot be understood without reference to other values which have been posited. Sentences are nonsensical, just as rights are. They are the refinement of ourselves according to values implied in words—values which we may feel we associate with by choice and which guide and frame our thinking. These values are indeed transcendental—existing in an ecstatic but evolutionary realm, and are therefore to some extent inextricable since they are never really understood in the "present" except as knowledge/power. To overcome this it is important that we develop a better understanding of the "essence" of power by understanding the relationship between time and language, since power, as what manifests itself in the "present" we conceive, is a hook we can grab onto and climb up to examine who we are and how we came to our position. And of course, how we can do better.

Power is what makes us refine ourselves as we do. The time may come when the paradigm of technological thinking encourages us to refine ourselves out of our own humanity. Documents such as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and the morals they articulate may be interpreted according to a framework which does not allow for difference—does not allow for meaningful discourse. Our language, our understanding of value, our articulation of ourselves not as "selves" but simply as units which possess rights only prudentially, will be insufficient for a new world in which globalization offers boundless opportunities and dangers. Even nationally the Harper government, by choosing to target micro-groups in the community, is pursuing a mechanical strategy of artificial heterogenization.

It treats the democratic process not as dialogical, but as a processing method, in which each group is allotted their share of government concern and asked to vote for their party. While purporting to respect difference, such a paradigm sees difference not as a matter of "selfhood" and dignity, but with the cold, calculations of a mechanism which wishes to do nothing but maintain its processes. This view, which is being adopted around the world, not only damages the foundation of "selfhood" and dignity on which human rights are based, but prevents a broader, more inclusive meta-ethics from being established by restricting each person's capability of manifesting themselves as individuals.

The processing of ourselves which goes on today, the purely material egoism, weakens the idea of the "self" as discussed by Christian and existential thinkers, as well as certain communicative theorists today. Individuals are selfish, but in a purely homogenized way. Power—which manifests the social in the present—disrupts the transition of the individual into a self. Our selfishness is manufactured by what is not ourselves—indeterminable causalities stemming from diverse but interconnected paradigms, both of which manifest through us in our technical way of thinking. It is a thinking which refines dignity into something mundane and yet which is frequently denied to others. We have yet to realize that being ourselves, being a "self," is often the furthest thing removed from getting what we want in the immediate sense. 

The decline of religiosity and the associated decline in meta-ethics and meta-narratives will make more difficult the establishment of a universal code of human rights. However, international law and universalism-as articulated and defined variously by thinkers like Kant, Habermas, Justice Jackson and Charles Taylor—coupled with an existential redefinition of the human being based on works by Kierkegaard and Heidegger and man's association with the Being of the World, may allow for a new articulation of rights founded and arising from an altered cognitive framework.

International law, because of what Habermas describes as its implicit "universalism" is reflective of a different way of thinking which may offer a way out of the modern paradigm. But structural changes are insufficient to enact real change—what is instead needed is a change in the way we think. To do this, the individual must reconceptualise time and the social into something which is not merely imposed in a "present," but which can be grasped and regarded in its transcendental wholeness. Viewed ecstatically, knowledge can be regarded and distinguished from thinking. Thinking must be viewed paradoxically: Thinking cannot be known without an answer to the question of Being, but the question of Being cannot be known without an answer to the matter and reality of thinking.

What is needed is not an answer to the right way of thinking, but the right way to thinking. This paradox represents an important summation of Heidegger's philosophy, especially by synthesizing his earlier work with his later pieces after the so called "turn." But more important, this paradox presents one with an epistemological possibility of viewing thinking in a new way, to begin the process of engaging in free analysis and debate as a "self." The technical distinctions between disciplines based on the Weberian model-between science, ethics, and aesthetics can be collapsed, or at least reconsidered, because they are interpreted as antimonious.

The social is ecstatic, and it can only be regarded in its entirety and in its unity as such, and therefore only the self-reflecting "self" can articulate values authentically. This is the communicative and ontological basis for a principle of authenticity. Alternately, our normal thinking, based on space/time, on "heres" still facilitates the cognitive manifestation of social paradigms as power which prevents an idealized free play of dialogue between "selfs." Instead, dialogue may only be a debate between units.

It is not that such thinking does not have its uses. To say otherwise would be crass. But we must move away from such thinking if a broader, more universalist understanding of rights and reality is to be achieved. There are many horizons which must be considered before such a task can be undertaken. Communicative action, as articulated by Habermas, is one of the ways individuals break down not only ethical, but more broadly, epistemic barriers. The breakdown of these barriers involves this reconceptualization of time and the social, and must therefore involve a new type of existential departure for man.

A principle of authenticity is expansive—it is the willingness of individuals, once epistemic barriers are broken down, to engage in a dialogue with man not narrowly just about man, but concerning Being itself. This dialogue therefore ceases to be even merely humanistic but becomes a dialogue with the nature of the world, in which man is not subsumed, but develops a broader understanding of his reality in a more authentic way.

This will, ideally, allow for a broad discussion concerning human rights in which human beings become capable of removing themselves from their situation and obtaining a new type of dignity as "selfs." Moreover, a willingness to engage in a dialogue concerning Being will allow for a creative and broad interpretation of man's relationship to his world, and the responsibilities and interconnectedness that characterize it when it is not defined simply as an atomistic "standing reserve."

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