Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
Degree Granting Department
Charles Guignon, Ph.D.
Lee Braver, Ph.D.
P. Christopher Smith, Ph.D.
Stephen Turner, Ph.D.
Aristotle, Virtue Ethics, Individualism, Existentialism, Nihilism
The guiding question of this project is, "Why does it count as a critique of Heidegger that he does not defend a particular moral position?" A standard criticism levied against Heidegger is that, since he has nothing positive to say about post-Enlightenment moral theory, he has nothing to contribute to moral philosophy, and this marks his greatest shortcoming as a philosopher. Why is there a demand for Heidegger, or any other philosopher, to theorize about morality, when we do not have this expectation for, say, aesthetics, theology, or various other regional domains of human life? Why should we expect Heidegger to theorize about what humans must be like in order to care about and engage in moral thought? Answering these questions involves an extended discussion of ways of understanding ethics in Western philosophical thought, as well as, Heidegger's own view of ethics.
I begin with a detailed exposition of the paradigmatic shift from premodern ethics, as it is based on an understanding of ethos (a form of life with its practical and normative dimensions), to modern conceptions of ethics based on Enlightenment (1750-1850) individualism and the fact-value distinction. This account of the history of ethics in philosophy attempts to demonstrate that the transition to modernity is marked by a schism between Being (ontology) and Ought (ethics) which makes any post-Enlightenment justification of ethics impossible (and helps us see why Heidegger always scoffs at the project of working out an ethics). My primary goal is to prove that Heidegger's appropriation of Aristotle's thought not only challenges the underlying metaphysical assumptions of mainstream moral philosophy, but also shows us a way back to the unity of ethics and ontology. My claim is that Being and Time is an ethics in the same way Nicomachean Ethics is an ethics: both are based on an understanding of the human ethos and attempt to show what is characteristic of a life that is structured by the "ought." This argument sets the stage for uncovering the underlying presuppositions governing two prominent objections raised against Heidegger: the existentialist and nihilistic critiques. I find that these critiques are grounded on the assumption of "ontological individualism." In contrast to this individualistic ontology of the social world, I argue that, for Heidegger, individuality is not an ontological or biological given; rather, it is a relatively rare accomplishment of members of a linguistic community. What is important, in Heidegger's view, is that the ethos is the ontological bedrock of ethics. The ethos does not offer us universal principles or morals rules of the kind modern morality seeks, but it does provide paths, ways of being, and possibilities for living meaningful lives. In the end, all we have are understandings of life in certain domains (art, religion, love, etc.) that provide character ideals that, together with meaningful goals and projects for the whole of our lives, make possible a flourishing ethos.
My secondary goal is to demonstrate that Heidegger undercuts the uncritical presuppositions of much of mainstream moral philosophy and provides an alternative account of ethics that picks up the stick from the other end. I formulate my thesis as an extension of the recent scholarship on Heidegger's work, arguing that Heidegger's emphasis on the human ethos puts forth a proper way of dwelling and Being-at-home within the current of the historical essence of a community. What is original about Heidegger's post-humanist ethics is that it denies the modern Being-Ought distinction and calls us to be ready and prepared to be claimed by Being. Refusing to give an absolute position to anthropomorphism, Heidegger's ethics serves as an attempt to specify what it is to be fully human in the sense of being a respondent who receives an understanding of Being and has to own up to the task of being claimed by Being. If I am correct, then it is a mistake to judge Heidegger's ethics according to whether he succeeds at formulating a list of responsibilities, rights, and obligations of individuals. Whereas modern moral theory is concerned with providing impartial and value-free guidelines and principles for individual behavior, Heidegger is asking about the conditions for the possibility of transforming how one lives. This puts the burden of proof on those who think there is something important about moral theory. The onus of proof rests with those who want to claim that a right way to be human exists and that there is an absolute, unchanging, timeless ground for understanding the right.
Scholar Commons Citation
Altman, Megan Emily, "Heidegger and the Problem of Modern Moral Philosophy" (2015). Graduate Theses and Dissertations.