Issue Six

Published by: Eli Kanon

Reviewers: Amelie Benedikt,  Dean Geuras, Eric Gilbertson, Vincent Luizzi,  Russell G. Moses, Jonathan Surovell, Issac Wiegman


“Guilt and Consistent Moral Progress in Relation to Environmental Ethics” by Jonathan Lollar

“I think, therefore I do?” by William Alexander Hernandez

“A Foucauldian Postmodern World” by Tyrell VanWinkle

Guilt and Consistent Moral Progress in Relation to Environmental Ethics

Jonathan Lollar

Texas State University


It is often stated that guilt plays a significant role in the way one chooses to act. This paper works to outline case studies in which the role of guilt in one’s decision making is called into question. Focus will be given to guilt in relation to an individual’s moral progress toward environmental action. It briefly discusses a possible definition of moral progress through habitual action, as well as discusses the important ways in which guilt relates to concepts such as judgment and shame. Different sources of guilt will be identified, and then their effectiveness in creating consistent moral progress in an individual will be accessed. Self-recognized moral failing, harm, the perception of others, and inaction are all acknowledged as sources of guilt, however, they seem to be implausible as causes of consistent moral progress in the individual. Empathy is then explored as a source of guilt that would more likely accomplish the goal for moral progress.


Guilt often plays a role when thinking about how to act ethically toward nature. This essay seeks to highlight some of the sources of guilt and their relationship to more consistent moral progress. Consistent moral progress in this context refers to the ability for one to apply moral change to a particular situation in a reliable fashion. Though consistent moral progress may not be perfect, it should still strive for more long term results. This paper will first highlight sources of guilt regarding: self-recognized moral failing, harm, the perception of others, inaction, and empathy. Each of these will then be defined and evaluated with respect to consistent moral progress. Finally, a case will be made that empathy is the most plausible source of guilt that has the ability to facilitate consistent moral progress toward nature.

The objective of this paper is not to decide what acts toward nature are moral or immoral. The case studies used in this paper serve only to illustrate the areas in which sources of guilt can be seen.[1]

Moral Progress

Moral progress within the scope of this paper is one that should be viewed on an individual level. The ways in which one interacts with nature should be viewed as current status of character for that person. As characteristics “develop from corresponding activities,”[2] the ways in which you interact will either raise or lower one’s character. Upon realizing that a certain interaction with nature is undesirable, one should strive to move towards making a habit out of more desirable corresponding activities. If one is able to institute such a habit, it would then raise the current status of character for said person and constitute moral progress.


Guilt can come from many sources. However, a common feature of guilt is the judgement of a prior action. All types of guilt are contingent upon judgement (both internal and external judgements) for an action that has been committed. Guilt can be external; being judged by your neighbor for the act of running over their dog and thus feelings guilty when confronted or judged by your neighbor (i.e. the external source). In this case the judgement would come from a failure to adhere to a certain social standard, namely that we ought not to run over another person’s dog, and one would feel guilty about their action. Guilt can be internal as well. One can judge oneself for the act of running over their neighbor’s dog and failing to adhere to a personal standard.

Though they often coincide, guilt is meant to be distinct from shame for the purposes of this paper. Simply put, shame is stating “How could I have done that?” Whereas guilt would ask “How could I have done that?”[3] Shame is directed at the self and guilt is directed toward the action committed. This essay focuses on the actions committed because of the association guilt has with “repair”[4]  or making up for previous actions. The idea that guilt is conducive to a reparative process (whereas shame is associated with withdrawal) makes it more relative to the aim of the paper, which is moral progress.

Guilt Stemming from a Recognized Moral Failing

It is not uncommon for one to feel guilty about an action that would be regarded as immoral or wrong, but what of cases where there is no wrongdoing? A simple case, for instance, would be to imagine a wealthy businessman. This businessman, Mr. Haberdasher, owns a series of parks that he has had built within a large city. Though the city pays him a large sum of money for these parks, Mr. Haberdasher is not as wealthy as he wishes to be. In fact, he is quite greedy and currently has his eye on a mansion that sits atop the highest hill in town, but as of now cannot go and spend the money. He is one day approached by the CEO of a strip mall who wishes to purchase the land surrounding one of the parks, as well as the land the park sits on. The plan is to pave over all of the land in that area and place another mall. The money received from selling this park would cover the cost of the mansion exactly. He announces his decision to sell the park, to the dismay of many in the city. Mr. Haberdasher responds by stating, “Well, if you’ve seen one park, you’ve seen them all,” and proceeds to sell the park. After the park is sold, he begins to feel guilty.

Many would agree that there was no wrongdoing here. Mr. Haberdasher had every right to sell something that he owned and was more than welcome to benefit from it. Why then is guilt felt here? Rosalind Hursthouse would claim that the feelings of guilt do not come from the act itself, but rather if “getting into those circumstances in the first place itself manifested a flaw in character.”[5] A flaw in character for this case would be greed. Wanting to accumulate a mansion and more wealth is what caused Mr. Haberdasher to make the decision. It may also stem from selfishness, or a lack of humility. By selling the park, which served many patrons in the city, Mr. Haberdasher put his concerns for more wealth before the benefit the community gains from having the park.

Aristotle states that “that the median characteristic is in all fields the one that deserves praise.”[6] Greed, in this case, would be an excess. Whereas apathy towards the self would be a deficiency. The mean that would deserve praise in this particular situation would be one of a more selfless nature, or simply by realizing that there is utility outside of the self. Placing all of utility in the self (greed) or no utility in the self (apathy) would be flaws in character for this case. Mr. Haberdasher places the relation of utility towards himself above all else and shows a flaw of character.

For the source of guilt to be one that stems from a recognized moral failing, as is with this case, it seems as though consistent moral progress would be likely. Learning of our character flaws would often facilitate self-reflection and change, however it is important to point out where this guilt is directed. The guilt is directed inward and is concerning the harm done to the self or your character, rather than toward the community (which includes animal residents) no longer benefiting from use of the park. The utility the park had for Mr. Haberdasher was seen as more important than the overall utility granted to park goers and animal residents. If confronted again by a similar offer for another one of his parks, Mr. Haberdasher may choose not to sell in a reparative effort associated with previous guilt. However, it would be in an attempt to prevent further moral failings rather than a recognition of the utility of the park (and if so, only as an indirect duty[7]).

In a case such as this, though a degree of moral progress is shown if Mr. Haberdasher is to refuse any future offers for his parks, it is unclear as to how sustainable this moral progress is. If the utility of the parks to its human and non-human community is not considered, it is not as plausible that the utility of things to communities outside of oneself would be considered until there is yet more harm to your character. Guilt which stems from a recognition of moral failure then may not facilitate consistent moral change.

Guilt Stemming from Harm

A common source of guilt comes from causing harm to another individual. Consider a case in which you walk through the grocery store and accidentally running over another patron’s foot with your buggy. You no doubt will quickly apologize at the sight of your victim hopping up and down, holding their foot. Due to your guilt from harming the individual, it is likely that you would tread more carefully throughout your trip (and possibly future trips) at the grocery store. It is quite plausible for consistent moral change to come out of cases of direct harm.

It is quite often, in cases of environmental ethics, unclear who or what is being harmed. Take for instance: buying a magazine that cuts down endangered rain forests, driving a gas guzzling SUV (especially in cases that are not necessary, i.e. joy rides), buying factory farmed meat, using pesticides that contain DDT, or buying concrete made from sand mining operations in India.

Though there are harms in these cases, it is unclear which you directly contribute to, if any at all. By buying the magazine or going for joy rides in your gas guzzling SUV, you are contributing (in some manner) to global warming. Reducing CO2 absorbing trees and destroying the habitats of animals certainly cause harm in some way, but can the magazine you bought be attributed to one tree in particular? Can it be directed to an indigenous creature that was displaced from its habitat or died during the cutting down of a specific tree? Can you trace the CO2 from your SUV’s exhaust directly to its place in the atmosphere and the hole it creates? It is implausible to say yes.

The same can be said for each of the examples given. It seems unclear then why guilt stemming from a harm principle would facilitate consistent moral change in these cases. Regarding the grocery store analogy, the direct cause and effect are seen by the perpetrator. The guilt comes from the ability to perceive the part played in the harming of another individual. Without seeing which factory farmed cow your hamburger comes from or which penguin the DDT in your pesticides reached, it becomes easy to forget the part one plays in the harming of the environment or its many parts. It becomes too difficult to tie one’s actions to a particular case of suffering. Mishka Lysack states that “our awareness of the magnitude of the problems, combined with the inadequacies of our response, cedes to increases in our emotional experience of fear, grieving, and anxiety.”[8] This feeling of inadequacy or despair simply results from not seeing any effect of your actions. Environmental studies, according to Lysack, have shown that:

…Increasing numbers of people may simply withdraw from any advocacy or political involvement around ecological issues. As the gap between the scale of collective action needed to address the environmental crisis, and the actual response on the part of political and institutional leadership shrinks to disheartening proportions, our sense of immobilization is exacerbated. This sense of disempowerment then doubles back on itself, further inhibiting the possibilities of timely and decisive action. As a result, a collective ecological fatigue sets in, effectively constraining our ability to collectively respond to the challenges that we are facing.[9]

In the absence of an immediate reaction to your own endeavors, it seems unlikely that any consistent moral change can be made.

Charity organizations often do attempt to put a face with the harm. Organizations like the ASPCA have their commercials cycle through a menagerie of abused or hungry animals in order to make appeals to viewers at home. This is an instance where, despite not seeing the effects of your donations, you are still able to see, in some manner, the object that is being harmed. Some organizations will even send you pictures of a recovering animal or, at the very least, written updates. This would in some sense make one feel as if one is seeing the results of their charity and perhaps fixes the overall problem addressed in this section.

However, this does not seem to translate into consistent moral progress. Out of the nine types of charity,[10] only 10.50 billion dollars (or roughly 3% of the total given) was given to environmental or animal based charities.[11] There is a low probability of these efforts working, despite the attempt to show the impact that you make. It is also shown in a study conducted by Guidestar that 50.5% of organizations receive the majority of their donations during the holiday season (October through December).[12] Network for Good reports that 31% of all charitable giving happens in December.[13] Even if one is to be part of the roughly 3% that donates to environmental issues, regardless of immediate results of one’s actions are seen, it is likely that charitable activity will not continue throughout the year. Rather it will happen only in the last three months, or more likely in December. This act of offsetting only in a minor portion of the year would not qualify as moral progress under the definition given in this paper

Guilt Stemming from the Perception of Others

Guilt can also come from how your peers perceive you. Peer pressure is no doubt a powerful force when it comes to the way that we react to the world around us. It is not always the case that one would follow a bandwagon or be negatively influenced by peer pressure. People are quite often swayed by peer pressure in more positive ways.

Consider a case where you are floating down the San Marcos River with a group of friends. You have brought a cooler filled with canned and bottled drinks for the journey, and over the course of float you and your friends have drunk most or all of the beverages. Carrying the cooler with trash inside of it seems like a hassle, so rather than placing your empty cans back into the cooler, you attempt to sink your cans to the bottom of the river. A friend turns around to find you attempting to sink your first can, and seeing their look of judgment toward your littering, you refrain.

Here we see a clear positive impact of peer pressure. The perception of yourself in the eyes of your friends is not worth compromising in order to sink a few cans in the river, no matter how convenient it seems at the time. Guilt is coming from external judgment in this case. The judgment is directed toward the act of littering rather than toward what characteristics you may or may not possess, and is distinct from shame. This is largely how we learn morality as children. Recall a time in which you didn’t want to wait until after dinner for your desert, so you simply go into the refrigerator or climb onto the counter to obtain a snack. All is well until you are caught by your parents, and at this point are taught very sternly about consequences. The eyes of your parents (and others) then become a deterrent for certain behaviors. Your parents would be judging the action you committed, rather than judging you personally. It seems, unfortunately, unclear how well these values translate into cases in which one is alone. This is because often “the goal is not to actually be moral, only to be seen by others—and to see oneself—as moral.”[14] Without the judgment of your actions from your parents, there seems to be little incentive to refrain from specific types of behavior.

Daniel Batson conducted a study to show evidence of what he calls moral hypocrisy[15]. The experiment was simple, a participant is put in charge of assigning tasks to themselves and another participant. There is a task with positive consequences (each correct response in the task would grant the participant a raffle ticket to earn a prize of $30) and a task with neutral consequences. The participant is told that the other person will not be aware of who was in charge of assigning the tasks. Without any prompts about the moral way to delegate the tasks, 80% of participants gave themselves the assignment that would reward them with the raffle ticket. However, when asked directly, only “1 of 20”[16] participants stated that this was the correct thing to do.

Once left alone, half were asked to assign the tasks in private and the other half were asked to flip a coin to assign the tasks. In the absence of perception by others, 90% of the former group assigned themselves the raffle oriented task. While in the latter group, “of those that did flip, 90% also assigned themselves the positive-consequence task, a significant deviation from chance.”[17] This study shows that while left alone, personal benefit most often will outweigh what one would believe the right thing to do is.

It does not matter whether assigning oneself the better task is morally problematic or not. What matters is simply that the participants stated the correct thing to do was to give the other person the better task. By believing this was the more acceptable choice, it showed they only felt obligated to state that during their interviews. Whether the participants were lying about what they believed the best course of action was or they were simply stating what they believed the questioner wanted to here, the importance here is that there is some sort of hypocrisy being acted out. This hypocrisy becomes especially important to this case when it occurs during the absence of observation.

In the case of littering in the San Marcos River, you are well aware of the negative consequences associated with littering before setting off. Perhaps a friend or employee at the business that rents inner tubes warned you of the effects of litter in the river. In either case, if you were to find yourself separated from the group and you are floating all alone, the likelihood of sinking the cans in the river increases significantly. If the perception of others, or simply the system of reward and punishment based on peer pressure, is the driving factor of your action then it “invites the inference that one does not value being moral as an ultimate goal.”[18] Acting morally or correctly in this situation would merely be a tool in which one would obtain a reward, namely acceptance in the eyes of your peers.[19]

Much like the case of guilt stemming from a self-recognized moral failing, the harm that befalls the river is only relevant in an indirect way. The direct harm to be avoided is one done to oneself in the eyes of one’s peers. By placing importance on the approval of onlookers over your self-benefit only when being watched, it seems implausible that consistent moral progress would remain while alone, due to the study done by Batson. It is then implausible that guilt stemming from the perception of others to be enough to facilitate consistent moral progress.

Guilt Stemming from Inaction

Often times one may feel guilt due to the recognition of an area in which action could have been taken, but wasn’t. A common response to this recognition is the desire to make up for the behavior.

Imagine a case in which you are attending a public lecture at your university in order to obtain extra credit. A prominent scientist takes the stage after a short introduction and begins to make her way through a slideshow about global warming. As she passes on more and more evidence about the worsening situation of the climate, you begin to realize that you simply have not been doing enough, if anything at all, to help alleviate your carbon footprint on the world. You quickly resolve make up for your action and, after an internet search, you find a charity that plants trees to donate to. After your $100 donation vanishes from your bank account, your guilt is lifted and you feel relieved.

This practice can be referred to as offsetting. John Broome characterizes offsetting in this way:

Offsetting your emissions means ensuring that, for every unit of greenhouse gas you cause to be added to the atmosphere, you also cause a unit to be subtracted from it. If you offset, on balance you add nothing…If you successfully offset all your emissions, you do no harm by emissions. You therefore do no injustice by them.[20]

It remains unclear how offsetting will contribute to consistent moral progress, even if no wrong doing is involved. This is largely due to its consequential nature. Offsetting is contingent upon there being an unacceptable action (or in this case an inaction), as well as the self-recognition of the unacceptable behavior. It is also too difficult to access one’s carbon footprint in any precise fashion in order to adequately offset the damage later. There is a possibility that one would make an attempt to offset one’s carbon footprint but simply fall short without ever knowing it, thus failing to make moral progress despite the act of offsetting.

Offsetting is perhaps inadequate for consistent moral progress because it implies a system in which one can continue to act in an unacceptable manner so long as one later offsets. If the $100 donation to charity indeed “offsets” your previous behavior, what is to keep you from engaging in future actions that will require offsetting? The type of moral integrity needed for such a system to stave off such behavior is rare. Batson states that in situations when “it is possible to obtain the self-benefits without actually being moral,”[21] those chances are taken. It is likely that one would continue to act undesirably for self-benefit now, and attempt to offset later, which would not halt the undesirable behavior and would show no moral progress.

Broome does believe that one would be making moral progress by offsetting their carbon footprint, however two objections can be raised here. One is that it just too difficult to accurately assess one’s carbon footprint. This makes it just as difficult to calculate just how much one needs to do in order to offset their carbon footprint. The second objection is that this paper is concerned with the act itself in this case. The definition of moral progress for the scope of this paper is one in which characteristics develop from certain activities. To counteract these activities, one must make a habit of the corrected behavior. By acting in the undesirable manner more often than the actions that create the offsetting, the degree of moral progress (if any) can be called into question.

Offsetting is also dependent on perception, or self-recognition, as with previously outlined cases. Your action would then stem from finding out that a wrong has occurred, or by perceiving oneself in a manner that does not seem adequate to the standard to which you would hold yourself. This again makes any harm done to the environment that is being offset merely an indirect duty.

Guilt Stemming from Empathy

The final source of guilt to be explored is empathy. Empathy is generally characterized as the ability to understand or experience the emotional state of others through their own point of view. It is something akin to saying, “I can see why this action would upset you or harm you in some way, so I should refrain from doing this action.” Empathy can be a powerful source of guilt due to the understanding of the relationship that one has with the victim or potential victim. When one is able to “not only categorize victims into groups but one can also categorize oneself as a member of a group,”[22] it becomes possible to manifest feelings of guilt at the recognition of a harm done to a member of the same social group or moral community.

Suppose that you are a member of the 4H club. You learn to care for cattle from birth through the remaining stages of life. Throughout this process you gain a sense of respect for the cows that are under your care. It also becomes clear that this admiration for the cattle is one that goes beyond mere recognition of their utility. After the necessary amount of time has passed, it has now become time to sell off the cattle to the appropriate slaughterhouses. You are well aware of the fate that awaits them, and you begin to feel guilty about the process.

The guilt in this situation stems from the empathy that you have for the cattle. There is a recognition that the cattle are victims in some sense, as well as a recognition that the victim is a part of your own group (or at the very least a part of a nontrivial relationship). Another dimension to this is one of empathic injustice.[23] It is clear from this case that you are in a privileged position in relation to the cattle. You have gained many benefits to your life and academic career from the raising of your cows, however, the cows themselves are highly disadvantaged in this relationship. This recognition of the injustice (good fortune for the self vs the misfortune for the cattle) regarding your relationship eventually manifests itself as guilt.

The recognition of such a relationship is essential. It is often difficult to act ethically towards something it is something we cannot “see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.”[24] It is often difficult to love or understand things that one would recognize as an “other.” These ideals can more easily be cultivated in a relationship with something that you view as part of your social system or moral community. It isn’t enough that you are able to recognize that the cattle are part of a social system that you both reside in. In order to act ethically towards the cattle, you must also learn to discover their inherent value by cultivating love and understanding for them.

Empathy is not simply a source of guilt under this model, but it is also a motivation for certain ethical behavior. Hoffman states that:

Empathic affects are congruent with two of Western Society’s major moral principles—caring and justice—both of which pertain to victims and beneficiaries of human actions. Empathic affects may therefore provide motivation for the operation of these principles in moral judgment, decision making, and behavior. The integration of empathy and moral principles may thus provide the heart of a comprehensive moral theory.[25]

It then becomes probable for the 4H student to cease his or her behavior after recognizing not only the empathic injustice, but also by merely recognizing that a member of the same social system one subscribes to has been harmed in some nontrivial way and recognizing their inherent value. It becomes increasingly plausible for consistent moral change to be achieved.


Guilt stemming from empathy then seems as though it possesses a crucial difference from the other sources of guilt outlined in this paper. Guilt stemming from a self-recognized moral failing, harm, the perception of others, and inaction, all seem to have a focus on the perpetrator. In the case of a self-recognized moral failing, the duty to the deer in your social system is merely indirect. The motivation for one’s actions in this case is based in a harm to their character, not the harm done to the deer.

In cases of harm to those we cannot see (as environmental issues often operate in this manner), there seems to be little motivation for consistent moral progress. It is too difficult to tie one’s actions to any particular case of suffering and makes the actions seem trivial.

Where cases are based on the perception of your peers, it can be inferred that one would only act morally so long as the perception persists. In cases where the perpetrator is alone, it becomes unlikely that the moral change would continue rather than actions that can facilitate one’s own benefits.

In the case of inaction, though offsetting may effectively erase any injustice done, it seems implausible to say that the previous actions would cease if they are able to be erased at a later date. Moral progress cannot be achieved if the actions in question are allowed to continue.

All the previous cases seem to be ones in which the inherent value of the victims is not considered, but more importantly, not recognized. Empathy implies a recognition of the inherent value of potential victims, as they are members of one’s own moral community. Allowing things to be part of one’s moral community grants the ability to act ethically towards it. Empathy, as it has been show, is also a motivation for behavior regarding certain principles. It seems plausible that empathy is important in facilitating consistent moral progress regarding action toward nature.


Guilt is often the motivation behind ethical environmental action. However, when looking into the various sources of guilt, it seems unclear as to how effective guilt is as a motivator for a sustained ethical lifestyle regarding the environment. It has been shown that in cases of guilt stemming from a recognized moral failing, harm, the perception of others, and inaction, that it seems less plausible that one would undergo such long term moral progress in their environmental action. In the case of guilt stemming from empathy, it seems more plausible that consistent moral progress will be seen due to the recognition of the inherent value of the environment (or the parts of the environment being acted upon specifically) and its place in the same moral community as oneself.

End Notes

[1] It is also important to note that this essay will not be discussing whether guilt is a sufficient justification for action. I acknowledge that this may be an important distinction to make, but it is not within the scope of this essay.

[2] Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics,” trans. Martin Ostwald, (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1999), 1103b 21-22.

[3] Laura Barnard Crosskey, et al., “Role Transgressions, Shame, and Guilt among Clergy,” in Pastoral Psychology, vol. 64, no. 6, (2015), 785.

[4] Crosskey, et al., 789.

[5] Rosalind Hursthouse, “Virtue Theory and Abortion,” in Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 20, no. 3, (1991), 243.

[6] Aristotle, 1109b 23-24.

[7] Tom Regan, “The Case for Animal Rights,” in Defense of Animals, ed. Peter Singer (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 180-181.

[8] Mishka Lysack, “Environmental Decline, Loss, and Biophilia: Fostering Commitment in Environmental Citizenship,” in Critical Social Work, vol. 11, no. 3, (2010), 49.

[9] Lysack, 50.

[10] The types given include: religion, education, human services, health, arts/culture/humanities, environment/animals, public-society benefit, foundations, and international affairs. Giving USA, “Giving USA: Americans Donated an Estimated $358.38 Billion to Charity in 2014; Highest Total in Report’s 60-year History” (2015).

[11] Giving USA.

[12] Chuck McLeans and Carol Brouwer, “The Effect of the Economy on the Nonprofit Sector” (Guidestar, 2012), 4.

[13] Charity Navigator, “Giving Facts.”

[14] Daniel C. Batson, “What’s Wrong with Morality,” in Emotion Review, vol. 3, no. 3, (2011), 231.

[15] Batson, 231.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Batson, 232.

[19] Ibid.

[20] John Broome, “Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World” (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012), 80.

[21] Batson, 232.

[22] Martin L. Hoffman, “The Contribution of Empathy to Justice and Moral Judgment,” in Moral Development: Reaching Out, ed. Bill Puka (New York: Garland Publishing, 1994), 169-170.

[23] Hoffman, 170.

[24] Aldo Leopold, “A Sand County Almanac,” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949), 42.

[25] Martin L. Hoffman, “Empathy, Social Cognition, and Moral Action,” in Handbook of Moral Behavior and Development, ed. William M. Kurtines and Jacob L. Gewirtz (New York: Psychology Press, 1991), 275.

Work Cited

Aristotle. “Nicomachean Ethics.” Translated by Martin Ostwald. Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, 1999.

Batson, Daniel C. “What’s Wrong with Morality?” In Emotion Review, Volume 3, No. 3, 230-236, 2011.

Broome, John. “Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World.” W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 2012.

Charity Navigator. “Giving Facts.” Accessed May 29, 2016.

Crosskey, Laura Barnard, John F. Curry, and Mark R. Leary. 2015. “Role Transgressions, Shame, and Guilt Among Clergy.” In Pastoral Psychology 64, no. 6: 783-801.

Giving USA. “Giving USA: Americans Donated an Estimated $358.38 Billion to Charity in 2014; Highest Total in Report’s 60-year History.” Last modified June 29, 2015. Accessed May 29, 2016.

Hill, Thomas E. “Ideals of Human Excellence and Preserving Natural Environments.” In Environmental Ethics 5, 211–224, 1983.

Hoffman, Martin L. “Empathy, Social Cognition, and Moral Action.” In Handbook of Moral Behavior and Development, edited by William M. Kurtines and Jacob L. Gewirtz, 275-281. New York: Psychology Press, 1991.

Hoffman, Martin L.  “The Contribution of Empathy to Justice and Moral Judgment.” In Moral Development: Reaching Out, edited by Bill Puka, 161-175. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994.

Hursthouse, Rosalind. “Virtue Theory and Abortion.” In Philosophy and Public Affairs, Volume 20, No. 3, 223–246, 1991.

Leopold, Aldo. “A Sand County Almanac.” Oxford University Press, New York, 1949.

Lysack, Mishka. “Environmental Decline, Loss, and Biophilia: Fostering Commitment in Environmental Citizenship.” in Critical Social Work, Volume. 11, No. 3, 48-66, 2010.

McLean, Chuck, and Carol Brouwer. “The Effect of the Economy on the Nonprofit Sector.” Guidestar, 2012. Accessed May 29, 2016.

Regan, Tom. “The Case for Animal Rights.” In Defense of Animals, edited by Peter Singer. Oxford: Basil Blackwell: 13-26, 1985.

I think, therefore I do?

William Alexander Hernandez

University of Houston

In The Sources of Normativity, Christine Korsgaard argues that what people should do depends on what people think.  Korsgaard claims that “A view of what you ought to do is a view of who you think you are” (Korsgaard 1996, p. 117).  I will argue that there are possible problems with Korsgaard’s claim.  This paper has two objectives:

  1. Analyze Korsgaard’s argument.
  2. Argue that practical identity is not sufficient in order to address the normative problem.

I will proceed as follows: first, I will lay out Korsgaard’s argument concerning practical identity and normativity.  Korsgaard makes the following claims regarding human beings.  Korsgaard claims that the problem of and the solution to normativity lies within human consciousness.   Human consciousness has a reflective structure that makes us think about whether or not we should act upon our desires.  The reflective structure forces us to make laws for ourselves.  People are autonomous.   People give themselves certain laws or commands concerning what they should do.  These commands are expressions of practical conceptions.  Our practical identity determines which of our desires we can take as reasons for acting on them.  In the second section of the paper, I will argue that Korsgaard’s claim is problematic for the following reasons.  First, there is a hermeneutical problem.  Different people can interpret their contingent and essential identities to mean different things and thus interpret what they ought to do differently.  Second, people might not be autonomous.  That is to say, an individual might not govern himself or herself.

Section One: Korsgaard on Human Beings and Normativity

Korsgaard makes the following claims regarding human beings and normativity.  People have normative problems.  Korsgaard states, “And we have normative problems because we are self-conscious rational animals, capable of reflection about what we ought to believe and to do” (Korsgaard 1996, p. 46).  People are rational animals with the ability to think about their desires and actions.  The ability to think or, more precisely, to reflect on our desires is what brings about the normative problem.  For example, I have a normative problem because when I am compelled to do X, I can still ask myself, must I really do X?  So my reflection brings about a normative problem.  However, Korsgaard also suggests that reflection is the solution to our normative problems because it “forces us to have a conception of ourselves” (Korsgaard 1996, p. 100).  Reflection forces a person to have a general description of identity, that is to say, a practical identity.

The reflective structure also forces us to make laws for ourselves.  People can make laws for themselves because they are autonomous.  People can choose certain practical identities.  Korsgaard states, “Autonomy is commanding yourself to do what you think it would be a good idea to do, but that in turn depends on who you think you are” (Korsgaard 1996, p. 107).  In other words, people give themselves certain commands or laws based on their notions of their identities.  For example, what I should do depends on my practical identities or who I think I am.  What I should do does not depend on an eternal factor, such as, God’s commandments.   A person gives herself her own laws.  People are autonomous because their laws are not imposed by an external factor.

The laws that people give themselves are connected to their practical identity.  That is to say, what a person ought to do is connected to that person’s practical identity.  Korsgaard suggests that people may have several conceptions of themselves.  For example, a person can have a conception of herself as a student, employer, etc.  However, not every practical identity or conception of a person has practical force.  In other words, not all practical identities force a person to act.  Korsgaard states, “you may stop caring whether you live up to the demands of a particular role” (Korsgaard 1996, p. 120).  In other words, not all contingent identities command equal force upon a person.  Not all practical identities compel people to do X.  People can choose which of their contingent identities to subscribe to.   For example, a university student can stop subscribing to her conception of being a university student.  Consequently, the student would no longer be compelled to write papers and to read books such as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov or Apuleius’ The Golden Ass for a class.  Thus, not all contingent identities spur a person to perform certain actions.

Moreover, a person has the ability to endorse or reject his/her desires depending on his/her identity and whether the desire passes a test.  People should act upon the desires that pass a certain test.  Korsgaard writes, “The test for determining whether an impulse is a reason is whether we can will acting on that impulse as a law. So the test is a test of endorsement” (Korsgaard 1996, p. 108).  In other words, I have the ability to endorse or reject certain desires depending on my identity and whether my desires pass the test.

Moreover, a practical identity gives a person reasons to do certain actions.  For example, the reason why I should not do X is because not doing X is a command that I gave to myself in virtue of my practical identity.  If I do X, then I would lose my practical identity.  According to Korsgaard, practical identity can allow me to turn my desires into reasons.  For example, if I endorse my desires after reflecting on them, then I would have “reason” to act on my desires.  On the other hand, if I reject my desires after reflection because they do not coincide with my identity, then I have an obligation not to act on my desires.   Korsgaard writes, “Practical identity is a complex matter and for the average person there will be a jumble of such conceptions. […] all of these identities give rise to reasons and obligations. Your reasons express your identity; your nature; your obligations spring from what that identity forbids” (Korsgaard 1996, p. 101).  In other words, my practical identities give me reasons or obligations for me to act on certain desires.  Practical identities give rise to obligations and reasons.  As such, practical identity is necessary in order for me to have reasons to do X.  Korsgaard states, “It is necessary to have some conception of your practical identity, for without it you cannot have reasons to act. We endorse or reject our impulses by determining whether they are consistent with the ways in which we identify ourselves. Yet most of the self-conceptions which govern us are contingent” (Korsgaard 1996, p. 120).   In other words, I endorse or reject certain desires depending on whether these desires coincide with my practical identities.

However, Korsgaard claims that people have an essential practical identity.  The essential identity is our identity as a human.   Korsgaard states:

If this is right, our identity as moral beings—as people who value themselves as human beings—stands behind our more particular practical identities […] Most of the times, our reasons for action spring from our more contingent and local identities. But part of the normative force of those reasons springs from the value we place on ourselves as human beings who need such identities. In this way all value depends on the value of humanity; others forms of practical identity matter in part because humanity requires them.  [Korsgaard 1996, p. 121]

We have an essential or necessary identity.  The identity of being part of humanity or a member of the Kingdom of Ends lies behind other contingent identities.  For example, I have an identity as an employee.  Such an identity may compel me to do certain things like show up to work on time.  However, such an identity is contingent.  But what is not contingent is the identity that I have as a member of humanity or as a member of the Kingdom of Ends.  Korsgaard states, “Our other practical identities depend for their normativity on the normativity of our human identity—on our own endorsement of our human need to be governed by such identities—and cannot withstand reflective scrutiny without it. We must value ourselves as human” (Korsgaard 1996, p. 125). In other words, our moral identity, that is to say, our identity as a member of humanity or as a member of the Kingdom of Ends is a necessary condition that enables us to posses other practical identities.  So we take our identity as a member of the Kingdom of Ends as being normative in order for us to have reasons to act. The ultimate source of all reasons or values is humanity itself.  Moreover, the value of the essential identity of being a member of the Kingdom of Ends is implicit in the contingent practical identities.  Korsgaard adds, “And to the extent that we cannot act against them without losing our sense that our lives are worth living and our actions are worth undertaking, they obligate us” (Korsgaard 1996, p. 129).  In other words, I cannot act against such an identity.  Korsgaard states, “Again, in so far as we regard ourselves as Citizens of the Kingdom of Ends, those laws are one we have reason to accept. Citizen of the Kingdom of Ends is a conception of practical identity which leads in turn to a conception of the right” (Korsgaard 1996, p. 115).  In other words, our identity as members of the Kingdome of Ends plays a role in normativity.

Section Two: Arguments against Korsgaard

I will argue that practical identity, which determines which of our desires we can take as reasons for acting on them, is not sufficient in addressing the problem of normativity.  Practical identity is not a sufficient answer to the normative question because people can have the exact same identity and can still interpret what they ought to do in radically different ways.  Different people can interpret their essential identity, of being a member of the Kingdom of Ends, to mean different things and thus to interpret what they should do radically differently.  This could lead to a contradiction within Korsgaard’s view.  The contradiction is that if person A and person B both have the same exact identity, but person A interprets his essential identity in a different manner than person B, then person A and person B should do different things even though their identities are exactly the same.

I will present several examples in order to clarify that practical identity is not a sufficient condition to establish what people ought to do.  People can interpret their essential identity to mean different things.  People can interpret the “Kingdom of Ends” or “humanity” in several different ways.  For example, Adolf Hitler and Mahatma Gandhi both interpreted the meaning of humanity in different ways.  Hitler valued himself and humanity in a terrible manner because he interpreted “humanity” in a specific way.  Hitler did not treat Jewish people as ends, as Korsgaard suggests, because Hitler did not consider Jewish people to be people.  Hitler interpreted them as “devils,” that is to say, as evil entities.   Hitler viewed Jewish people not as human beings but as viruses of the nation.  In a letter to Herr Gemlich, Hitler refers to the Jewish population as the “tuberculosis of the nations” (Hitler 1919).  In Mein Kampf, Hitler refers to Jewish people as “rats” and “parasites” (Hitler 1998, p 278).  In other words, Hitler did not conceive the Jewish population as people but as viruses and animals. As such, from his perspective, the Kantian maxim to treat people as ends does not apply to Jewish people because they are not real people.  Moreover, Hitler believed that he was doing something good for the greater humanity and that everybody should act as he did.  As such, Hitler would pass the Kantian test because he would want everybody to do what he was doing, that is, to get rid of certain people.  On the other hand, Gandhi valued himself and humanity in a different manner.  Gandhi did not exclude Jews and other people from his views of the population of humanity.  Thus, Gandhi did radically different things from Hitler.  People can have an essential identity, and interpret their essential identities in very different ways.

Moreover, in the 1700’s and 1800’s in the United States, white men interpreted humanity in a specific manner.  They interpreted minorities and women as property that belonged to their owners.  Consequently, white men treated women and minorities in an inhuman manner because they believed that women and minorities were not on par with themselves.  In modern times, some people interpret a fetus as a human.  On the other hand, some people interpret a fetus as not being a human.  Therefore, how we interpret the Kingdom of Ends or humanity can change from person to person.  This suggests, I think, that practical identity is not the only source of normativity because people can interpret their essential identity to mean different things.  Thus, practical identity is not sufficient in providing us with a story concerning normativity.  The problem is that people can interpret “humanity” or the Kingdom of Ends to mean different things.

If people can interpret humanity or the kingdom of ends in different manners, then people can also interpret their contingent identities in different manners as well.  For example, different people could interpret their identities as fathers in different manners.  One person could interpret his identity as a father in a literalist biblical manner and another person could interpret his identity as a father in a non-literalist biblical manner.  If a person interprets the Bible in a literal manner, then that person will interpret his identity as a father in a specific manner.  He will believe that as a father he should beat his child because the Bible says so.  The Bible says, “A rod and a reprimand impart wisdom, but a child left undisciplined disgraces its mother” (Proverbs 29:15).  In other words, a father could believe that his identity as a father requires him to beat his child.  This father would believe that he should beat his child with a rod because, according to the book of Proverbs, it would give the child wisdom.  Moreover, this father would believe that this law should be universal because the Bible says so.  On the other hand, a person can interpret his identity as a father in non-biblical or non-literalist biblical manner, which could mean that as a father he should not beat his child with a rod.  This person could interpret his identity as a father to mean that he should never do physical harm on his child.  This suggests that how people interpret their identities can dramatically change and thus what people should do would have to be radically different.  So it would be okay for the first father to beat his child with a rod and at the same time it would be okay for the second father not to beat his child.  This suggests that two different actions that are radically different could both be okay.  The first father would believe that every father should use the rod because the Bible says so and thus the law should be universal.   While the second father would believe that using a rod to imposed wisdom on a child should not be a universal law.  Thus, people’s interpretations of practical identities could lead to contradictions.

Moreover, if Korsgaard is correct in her views of human consciousness as the source of normativity, then it would be difficult to prove to Hitler and the Nazis that what they should do is not kill the “unwanted” people of society.  Hitler believed that he was doing something good for humanity.  It would be difficult to prove to Hitler that he was doing something wrong because his interpretation of humanity was distorted.  Hitler did not just have a contingent identity that was bad. Rather, he viewed the essential identity in a specific manner.  So the problem lies in determining what exactly does “humanity” mean?  What does it mean exactly to say that we are part of the kingdom of ends?  Who is allowed to be part of the kingdom of ends?

My second argument against Korsgaard is that people are not autonomous.  People do not always impose laws upon themselves.  Rather, cultures and societies can impose the laws upon people.  In India, for example, society imposes the label of “untouchable” upon certain groups of people.  Untouchables are thus not allowed to interact with so-called “ordinary people.”  The identity of untouchable was not a law or an identity that was imposed by the individual.  Rather, society or culture gives certain people their identities.  Additionally, a few decades ago in the United States, women and minorities were not autonomous.  Women and minorities were seen as second-class citizens and as such they were not allowed to do certain things.  Women were not allowed to participate in the democratic process.  As such, women could not command themselves to do what they thought would be a good idea to do.  Moreover, in modern times, some people are still not autonomous.  In some cases, people do not command themselves to do what they think is a good idea to do.  Rather, commercial corporations, such as McDonalds and Nike, and the main stream media tell people what they ought to do.  These corporations spend millions of dollars on advertisements in order to tell people what they ought to do.  So in some cases, corporations command, so to speak, people to do what they think it would be a good idea to do.  As such, certain people are not autonomous.  Some people do not put the laws upon themselves.   Society and large corporations can be the law givers.  Culture imposes laws upon people.  Consequently, society and corporations can tell certain people what they ought to do.

Section Three: Conclusion

In conclusion, Korsgaard argues that people have a reflective structure within their consciousness.  When a person has a desire to do X, that person can reflect on whether he should do X.  We need reasons for acting on certain desires or impulses. The reflective structure forces us to make laws for ourselves.  These laws are expressions of our conceptions.  People could have several identities; however, they also have an essential and necessary identity. Our practical identity determines which of our desires we can take as reasons for acting on them.  I have argued that Korsgaard does not offer a complete story when it comes to normativity.  Her argument is incomplete because different people can interpret their essential and contingent identities in several ways.  Korsgaard does not account for a hermeneutical problem concerning identities.

Work Cited

Hitler, Adolf.  Jewish Virtual Library.  2016.’s_First_Antisemitic_Writing.  

Hitler, Adolf.  1998.  Mein Kampf  Houghton Mifflim Company.

Korsgaard, Christine.  1996.  The Source of Normativity.  Cambridge University Press.

 “A Foucauldian Postmodern World”

Tyrell VanWinkle

Austin Community College-Round Rock

Michel Foucault provides an empirical account of power in regards to the shaping of discourse. Historians often propagate their interpretation of the history as an objective and universal understanding of the world. For Foucault, the knowledge peddled is that of the bourgeois or traditional interpretation. He sought to show that knowledge and power were intertwined, ultimately producing given interpretations of history. The information that is gained examining humankind as the subject of study is then used in order to form specific discourses that govern what is permissible through guiding practices. Those instituted rules for what is the norm and what is deviant is called normalization. This process starts with the ‘subjectification’ of human being, which is the placing of humankind at the center of institutional studies. Humankind becomes both the observer, the scientist responsible for analyzing said object, and the observed, which is the object about which the scientist seeks to gain information. This information is then utilized through power structures and disciplinary techniques to discern the formation of discourses and the rules that apply to them.

Instead of adopting the view of an historian, Foucault looks at institutional events through the methodology of archaeology. Foucault proposes that those traditional views held by historians are not objective and unbiased, but rather are a result of the dance done between power and knowledge. The power discourses within a given period of time are examples of the credible views of those with expertise. Those discourses become knowledge based on the projection of views discerned as correct by institutions that are considered the experts. Archaeology seeks to pinpoint the different ideologies, prevailing perceptions and practices that surround the permeating knowledge or ‘truth’ constructed by institutions. It is important to know this relationship between power and knowledge is symbiotic. Just as power is able to claim expertise of a given subject, upholding and enforcing institutionalized interpretations as fact, knowledge is able to produce power. Through observation, information is received and produced about a subject which is, for Foucault, tied to creation of a praxis. Foucauldian theories are then bolstered by his use of geneaology; the analysis of history that examines former time periods in an effort to find turns or discontinuities that illuminate the origination of these thoughts and ideas responsible for the development of particular institutional practices.

Practices of subjectification and normalization are noticeable when looking to Foucault’s view of the Victorian regime where certain rules on discourse of sex are created by the Christian Church. Questions of who may speak about sexuality, to what degree, and when it should be spoken become established by this institution. Due to power relations, the Church was seen as the expert and the judge of such matters and their view of how discourse was to take shape; instead of being an interpretation it became knowledge to be propagated by the state. It is important to allow the concept of subjectification to resurface when understanding the production of knowledge. With the example of the Church, the object of study was of course humankind; the institution sought to outline man’s participation in sex. Here man became an object under observation by man which provided a space for capability of the expert opinion to produce knowledge on the discourse of sexuality.

With considerable work done by Foucault to uncover the role that power plays in society, especially in the formation of discourse, it becomes rather apparent questions of utility might arise. This does not necessarily refer to the questioning of the ability for such knowledge to be useful, but instead how it ought to be incorporated in the political theatre. Unfortunately, although in regards to this question Foucault does the masterful job of analyzing and producing knowledge about power and domination in its relation to discourse, he lacks a proposition as to what a world beyond might look like. That is to say, what a world that acknowledges the role of power might look like. Of course, it must be understood that Foucault does determine it necessary to analyze and uncover the powers at work that produce societal discourses or the rules upon those discourses. Yet, this still leaves much up to the imagination of the individual when attempting to positively change a community in such a way that it might allow for Foucauldian theories develop connected practices. One finds a lack of direction when considering how to shape a society so that it may provide refuge from the negative implications of power or even earnestly attempt to rid the world of these issues altogether. Does one try to de-legitimize institutions’ ability to use power in such a way? Is society supposed to create a hospitable space that rids the possibility of deviance? Maybe there should be an acknowledgment of the way discourse and power are institutionally intertwined so we may attempt to discover the most justifiable rules for engagement.

It is not the purpose of this paper to provide a meticulous political framework that outlines the exact rules that any community should hold. In fact, there will not be a conclusive political theory that ought to be adopted whatsoever by the end of this paper. Instead, this paper seeks to describe Foucault’s alternative interpretation of human institutions and the postmodern alternative set of goals for a society to endorse in acknowledgment of Foucauldian theories regarding power and its relation to discourse. Specifically, the two main subjects will be the subjectification and normalization of man. Foucault’s methodologies, the existence of normalization, and his view of subjectification will not be defended in this paper, but rather will be utilized in the way Foucault articulated them. Furthermore, because the purpose of this essay is to speak about how to make use of the tools and information Foucault provided, there will be little discussion about the process of producing such knowledge about power. Information employed in “History of Sexuality” will serve to analyze what a society might value if it were to attempt to exist as a solution to potentially negative power discourses.

Before the work is done to conjoin Foucauldian theories of power and knowledge with a possible conception of politics stemming from them, it is necessary to provide an empirical basis of Foucault’s political critique. That is, to produce an allusion accurately embodying Foucault’s description of power and knowledge and the relationship they share. For this purpose, his analysis of the Victorian regime stemming from the 1700’s within “History of Sexuality” will be called forth. Foucault first calls into question the establishment of sex as a power discourse. As opposed to discourse engaged in by happenstance, this would be discourse that exists natural and organically, discourse has become a separate outlined praxis. This event marks the possibility of such a discourse to become saturated with rules and regulations, that is to become repressed. Foucault himself explains:

The seventeenth century, then, was the beginning of an age of repression emblematic of what we call the bourgeois societies, an age which perhaps we still have not completely left behind. Calling sex by its name thereafter became more difficult and more costly. As if in order to gain mastery over it in reality, it had first been necessary to subjugate it at the level of language, control its free circulation in speech, expunge it from the things that were said, and extinguish the words that rendered it too visibly present. And even these prohibitions, it seems, were afraid to name it. Without even having to pronounce the word, modern prudishness was able to ensure that one did not speak of sex, merely through the interplay of prohibitions that referred back to one another: instances of muteness which, by dint of saying nothing, imposed silence. Censorship. (Foucault, 17)

Foucault highlights authors such as Sanchez and Tamburini as they were a testament to writing that emphasized the increasing amount of discretion used when dispensing information about the activity of sex. (Foucault, 19) Such meticulous concern and observation of the individual in its relation to sex was produced by the continued need for confession. As Foucault articulates:

This was partly because the Counter Reformation busied itself with stepping up the rhythm of the yearly confession in the Catholic countries, and because it tried to impose meticulous rules of self examination; but above all, because it attributed more and more importance in penance and perhaps at the expense of some other sins- to all the insinuations of the flesh: thoughts, desires, voluptuous imaginings, delectations, combined movements of the body and the soul; hence-forth all this had to enter in detail, into the process of confession and guidance. According to the new pastoral, sex must not be named imprudently, but its aspects, its correlations, and its effects must be pursued down to their slenderest ramifications. (Foucault, 19)

Here marks the imposition of man into the seat of the object as well as the examiner of the self. This allows the abstract understanding of knowledge in its formation of power to be seen. There is an institutionalization of the need for penance; theistic requirements propagated that formulate the practice of confession and impose it as the traditional view of how individuals ought to act. Regardless of the reason as to why the act is necessary, that information contributes to the formation of practices accepted by a society. The state gains power from the knowledge they hold about the subject in their relation to spirituality. Conversely, it also introduces the relationship via powers ability to obtain knowledge. The fact that the bourgeois knowledge of spirituality has been accepted as fact prompts a return to the notion of expertise. Instead of it being a belief that individuals hold as subjective interpretation, the Church was viewed as the expert and thus its opinion is propagated as fact or ‘truth’. Altogether the new pastoral arrangement has become normalized; the articulation of sexual discourse has been situated into categories of permissible and impermissible which allows for man to subject himself to observation, the fear of that deviance.

In order to expand the understanding of how this knowledge created power that expanded from singular institutions within a society to a state itself, one must look to the movement from the seventeenth to eighteenth century. The regulations around sex remained institutionalized by Christian institutions even as they are today in the present, but crucial consideration must be placed upon surrounding institutions and practices developing around them. With Christianity, there was a specific power play enveloping humankind; increasingly, there became the need to adhere to such rules, if one did not they were seemingly refusing and disobeying God’s will. (Foucault, 23) Whether for justified and sensible reasons, the creation of such notions of deviance was consciously willed in order to create the need for constant confession. Exposing oneself to observation and the entering of the private life into that of the public concern becomes commonly accepted; all for the sake of acting in consistency with some notion of moralism. In the Christian’s case, to act as a good Christian. Of course the Christian pastoral doesn’t necessarily walk a path that will bleed into power discourse of the state, although it’s considerably likely. Foucault, in examination of the eighth century, notices that this moralist demand for practices of observation explodes into even more institutions or cells of society. The economic and political concern of population articulated issues such as “life expectancy, fertility, state of health, frequency of illness, patterns of diet and observation”. (Foucault, 25) Foucault goes further to explain the link between this growing concern over population and its relation to the discourse of sex:

At the heart of this economic and political problem of population was sex: it was necessary to analyze the birthrate, the age of marriage, the legitimate and illegitimate births, the precocity and frequency of sexual relations, the ways of making them fertile or sterile, the effects of unmarried life or of the prohibitions, the impact of contraceptive practices- of those notorious “deadly secrets” which demographers on the eve of the Revolution knew were already familiar to the inhabitants of the countryside. (Foucault, 25-26)

This is linked to the capability of power and wealth to be attained based on the population of a state; a great society was not created through the Socratic and Aristotelian notion of outstanding and virtuous individuals, but rather linked to rules governing the discourse of sex. (Foucault, 26) Again, the community demands for observation of the individual, for them to govern their private practices in regards to calculated conceptions of the common good. This fusion of the discourse of sex into other institutions and other mechanisms within society produces the necessity of policing. Policing is the state’s articulation of power in regards to snuffing out or eradicating deviance. Techniques are used by the state to encourage and discourage any practices not consistent with or contradictory to normalized practices in the name of common and greater goods. Looking back to both the Christian pastoral and the new found political and economic power discourse of sex, it is an undemanding task to see the role smaller institutions of the society play in establishing the discourse and practices thereby of the state.

Painstaking analysis of any power discourse still prescriptively asks the question, why does this matter? What valuable information is produced by understanding power relations between knowledge and the power of institutions as well as the state?  Foucault extracts the implications of these power relations proposing a positioning of humans into a sphere of biopolitics. Biopolitics, or biopower, is the power gained over life of the individual; the power stemming from influence that state and institutions have over the regulation of life itself. This is opposed to the concept of politics that gain power over death, which is the ability for a sovereign to exercise discretion in deciding if one should die. Foucault analyzes that power over death was “exercised in an absolute and unconditional way, but only in cases where the sovereign’s very existence was in jeopardy”. (Foucault, 135) One can draw parallels to the Hobbesian notion of the Leviathan where a state could act in any way to sustain survival, thus forming a reactive power that lived in a defensive paradigm.  Power over life is much more proactive; where the right over death could only be exercised in certain instances, the power over life is always imposed in the name of a greater good and for the betterment of society.  The development of such a power exists in two forms:

One of these poles- the first to be formed, it seems- centered on the body as a machine: its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls, all this was ensured by the procedures of power that characterized the disciplines: an anatomo-politics of the human body. The second, formed somewhat later, focused on the species of the body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes: propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity, with all the conditions that can cause these to vary. Their supervision was effected through an entire series of interventions and regulatory controls: a biopolitics of the population. (Foucault, 139)

Foucauldian politics constitutes such power negatively based on its ability to bear ill fruit. This new form of power invigorates the power of the state, extraordinarily expanding its ability to shape into the horrors of the millennium. Racism, even Nazism, became possible with this new form of power over the individual:

Racism took shape at this point (racism in its modern, “biologizing,” statist form): it was then that a whole politics of settlement (peuplement), family, marriage, education, social hierarchization, and property, accompanied by a long series of permanent interventions at the level of the body, conduct health, and everyday life, received their color and their justification from the mythical concern with protecting the purity of the blood and ensuring the triumph of the race. Nazism was doubtless the most cunning and the most naive (and the former because of the latter) combination of the fantasies of bloodand the paroxysms of a disciplinary power. (Foucault, 149)

Although when looking at the Christian pastoral formerly described, one may ask how such a conclusion is reached. The answer is plain and exposed if the processes of normalization and subjectification are newly observed. When humankind is positioned in the place of the object as well as the examiner, depending on what the successful power regimes embody, potentially any practice can be accepted. With racism, institutions such as the home, school, and public social institutions propagate layering of races into groups with different privileges based on supposed rational thought. These ‘experts’ relentlessly traditionalize their interpretations of the world and profess the common good. In terms of eugenics, the claim to fame was one of cleansing, attempting to create the most pure and efficient race (roughly). If institutions in power propagate such views they can become knowledge as seen with the Christian pastoral. Once this is the case, given practices and techniques of self-examination, humankind begins to police themselves into conformity. The sovereign is able to also benefit by utilizing such ‘expertise’ in order to press their own policing of the body yielding possibly horrendous consequences.

With Foucauldian theories of power and knowledge fleshed out, the final job is to propose a conception of society that one might hold if it wants to exist in acknowledgment to them. Primarily, the goal of this proposition is to challenge biopolitical power. That is, to prevent the state and institutions from existing in definite solidified fashion; to attempt to provide immunity for biopower’s more ominous unwelcome possibilities.

In order to challenge the biopolitical power a state and its institutions hold over a society, it is required to understand the origination of norms propagated by institutions. The process of power and knowledge is the process in which these norms are constructed, but at the same time they always reflect some sort of axiological value. The pastoral outlined within this paper as well as the political problem of population both align with propositions of value. What a society deems important outlines how individuals ought and ought not act; they are responsible for the policing techniques and practices that exist as a biopolitical power. Martin Hagglund in his analysis of Jacques Derrida, another French philosopher of Foucault’s generation wary of the institutionalization of cultural norms, displays the process of accepting certain conceptions and how that ultimately results in exclusion of other interpretations which ultimately forms what is constituted as an accepted practice or deviant behavior:

Thus, a rigorous deconstructive thinking maintains that we are always already inscribed in an “economy of violence,” where we are both excluding and being excluded. No position can be autonomous or absolute; it is necessarily bound to other positions that it violates and by which it is violated. The struggle for justice can therefore not be a struggle for peace, but only for “lesser violence.” (Hagglund, 82)

This is exemplified by the relationship between norms and deviant behavior. Where norms are the constituted rules and regulations on particular discourses that breed a specific set of practices, deviance can be seen as the irreparably excluded position. Take discourse of sex, when there is a rule such as to not speak about exploits of the flesh around children, this norm creates deviance which is any position excluded by the practices endorsed. Here norms and deviance have an uncanny reflection of the nature of axiological claims; Foucault would likely agree with this due to his own analysis of normalization that reflects traditional moralism constructed by institutions and enforced by the state as well as by the individual.  The conclusion here is that there may not be a way to avoid biopower if a society wishes to created practices upon its axiological alignment.

However, this does not mean a Foucauldian-inspired society is lost, in fact this gives us the first step in realizing such a construct that would likely demonstrate how one would discern between permissible and impermissible power discourses. For example, when looking at Nazism, it is a simple task to see Auschwitz as a reflection of the society that failed, an example of the horrendous atrocities that can prevail from statism. Regulations upon discourse of race or speech to prevent such practices like Nazism or racism as a whole likely are seen as justified. This is based on our conception of what is valuable and what practices are welcomed. Inversely, Foucault’s animation of problematic power discourses such as the repression of sexuality resulting from the seventeenth century Victorian regime should not be forgotten. It highlights the importance of questioning traditional axiological ‘truths’.  A modern example of power discourse that likely ought to be dissolved is the way in which gendered discourses are regulated within society. Many female scholars tirelessly work on illuminating the different institutional practices that work to exclude the incorporation of the female identity. Ultimately, it is important to realize that though all axiological conceptions may not be worthy of retaining, as long as communities hold on to them and seek to create practices in conformity to these values, they will exercise biopolitical power.

Though acknowledging an axiological values importance in the political theatre is key to dismantling the domination that states and institutions hold over discourse, there is more work to be done to assure the bourgeois interpretations do not become the will to ‘truth’. For this, the second step comes from the nature of power discourses. Namely, they are subjective. This is different from subjective in the sense that they subject humankind to the center of observation, rather it is the notion of that norms and knowledge produced within a society are relational and biased. As discussed previously, Foucault’s work is based around the understanding that information or knowledge peddled by historians is not absolute fact. Instead, they are interpretations based on the interdependent relationship of power and knowledge. The importance that a society places on this relationship is seen by the role of the ‘expert’ opinion that drives a state’s and institution’s ability to create knowledge accepted as ‘truth’. If it is acknowledged that these opinions and interpretations are biased, there is an opening to those discourses lost to specific power regimes.  When thinking about normalization as a reflection of axiological values of a given time period accepting relativism is even more important. This is primarily the case because there is constant political and theoretical debate about the ethical. Even if one accepts theories of morality that attempt to become transcendental, in the sense that they are superior to all other moral theories, the theory is in reality subjective. Until it becomes infallible, it is only, at best, justified as a single interpretation pitted against many others. Additionally, unless it is infallible, there is the possibility this specific perspective is a result of specific power relations resulting in a particular philosophy as reasonable. Simply put, a society must be open to accepting reasons to reject, and in some cases completely alter, power discourses.

Finally, it is of utmost importance that the institutions as well as the state become hospitable to the subjective claims. Even if society accepts interpretations as relational, the traditional or currently accepted interpretation can retain the throne based on exercised power. There has to be a system or articulation of institutions along with the state that allows for constitutively ‘other’ perspectives to enter. If given information about the subject is modified into practices it marks the construction of a particular power discourse; in other words, allows for specific rules and regulations of a given discourse to be solidified. If an institution is open, any alternative perspective ideally would have the chance to justify itself without facing baseless exclusion.

When examining gendered discourse it becomes apparent how problematic close systems can be, as Sandy Langford-Mckinnon shows in her analysis of psychological institutions and the effects on female discourse:

The psychological combines with the physiological when the emotional nature of women is seen as leading to their being susceptible to the stresses of the competitive world– i.e., the male-dominated institutions. Freud’s advice was that women should “withdraw from the strife into the calm uncompetitive activity of…home.” Male doctors, by accepting and implementing the normalizing practices of the non-medical society, were among those who encouraged this exclusion. (Langford-Mckinnon, 31)

Here, information gained concerning the female body is used as a reason to regulate their ability to participate in specific realms of society. If women or men wish to challenge the ‘truth’ concerning the alleged emotional nature of women it becomes apparent open institutions are increasingly important. This can also be useful in exploring the necessity of a society that acknowledges the relative and subjective nature of interpretations. The perception of women as emotional as opposed to rational, thus creating the dichotomy of reason versus emotion, becomes increasingly difficult to challenge if viewed as indisputable fact.

A society seeking to incorporate Foucauldian theories of power into societal practices will surely have their work cut out as avoiding statism and processes that lead to statism, such as subjectification and normalization, is a complex task to complete from within a state. This paper is not extensive enough to create such a framework, instead, it describes the post modern archeological methodology that is precursory to any successful assimilation of Foucauldian theories into practice. First, we acknowledge that as long as any society endorses certain values over others, there will necessarily be the creation of that which is accepted and that which is considered deviant. Instead, in order to avoid statism, we endorse the acceptance of the subjectivity of conceptions on a given issue, since any axiological position creates normalization. We must heed the possibility that even if we accept another subjective conception is equally or more justified, there is still the possibility of bias opinions becoming the objective standard. This danger exists when institutions become closed off to those with alternate conceptions and thus are not hospitable to the thought that alternatives are externally justifiable. Because of this, we find it necessary to create open institutions that accept criticism and let alternative conceptions plead their case fairly and adjudicate practices as well as attempt to determine what knowledge ought to be accepted. Overall, although Foucault gives no articulation of the range of alternative conceptions a society may wish to adopt, he does guide us towards realizing a post-modern society by becoming informed by Foucauldian theories of power.


Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Vol 1: An Introduction. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1980. Print.

Hagglund, Martin. Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life. Stanford, Callifornia: Stanford University Press. 2008. Print.

Langford-Mckinnon, Sandy. Unmasking Foucault’s Discourse: Foucault’s Exclusion of the Exclusion of the Female In His Discourse On Power. Austin, Texas: The University of Texas at Austin, 1989. Print.


~ by texasphilosophical on August 6, 2016.

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