Political ethics. The necessity of a metaphysical foundation

L’articolo che propongo agli amici di Briciole filosofiche è una breve, ma acuta riflessione di filosofia politica. L’autore, Mario Padovano, mostra la necessità, anche per l’etica politica, della scienza metafisica: ogni discorso politico e sulla politica non può, infatti, prescindere da alcune verità morali e non può far a meno di alcuni valori che permettono la piena realizzazione della persona. Ciò vuol dire che ogni serio discorso sulla politica non può che mostrare l’esistenza di una certa gerarchia di valori che permette all’agire etico/giuridico/politico di non scadere nella retorica di una mera ideologia del consenso e/o del successo [Giovanni Covino].


Our age that, from the philosophical point of view, we can start from the dogmatic assumption of the principle of immanence and belonging, especially with Cartesianism and its epigones, is also characterized by the separation between ethics and politics, or on the contrary of a reduction of ethics and political ethics to a relativistic political doing, that is, to a vision of political science with Machiavellian practices, as devoid of any foundation in being of the same human nature and of the different natures of individual things.

In other words, we complain about the contradictory and always materially inconsistent lack of a radical metaphysical justification of the political-ideological choices, especially of the contemporary age. Contemporary epoch is characterized by the weak thought of a Vattimo, a Rorty, a Derrida, which seems to be the final consequence of the subjectivism opened by modernity, when the skeptical doubt was paradoxically intended to put it in a system with, precisely, the Cartesian “cogito” taken as the starting point of philosophy and science, that is, as “primum cognitum” instead of the “ens” and the truth of immediate appearance of things in their own reality to the knowing subject.

The principle of immanence and the consequential impossibility of a coherent ethical and political doctrine

What is the principle of immanence? The principle of immanence is the human foundation of truth and therefore a supposed principle of being in the horizon of human knowledge possible. In other words, it is the assertion that all knowledge starts from pure human thought without a prior object and that this object is given by human consciousness itself, independently if one then moves to the front of empiricism or rationalism. It still means that not the being of things is a measure of human reason but on the contrary that human reason is a measure of things, that being is reduced to being known. In this sense, it is well understood that an objective truth of things is no longer admitted to which follows the logical truth of the human intellect that conforms to them and from whose immediate knowledge draws other truths as the conclusions of a reasoning, but that everything is given and created by human consciousness. It is not a simple return to Protagoras. It is to make relativism as the starting point of the system of science itself. However the principle of immanence is in itself contradictory because at the same time it assumes that there is no real object given to thought and that pure thought without an object is object to itself. But if the initial thought is without any object, how can thought itself be understood, that it is presupposed to be thought of nothing, pure cogitation? It is doubt, the question, without any object on which to doubt, regarding which to ask. This reality must be partially already understood before the reasoning proper, ie it must be learned, and precisely because it was realized, from a simple apprehension, from perceiving itself. The fact is, however, that most of the philosophers of modernity have made this principle the foundation and the horizon in which their respective systems move. Some of these thinkers are Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Marx, as well as all the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century have in the background this principle which is a totally atheistic affirmation.Analysis of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx

A first fracture between ethics and politics and therefore between metaphysical and philosophycal anthropology already exists with the Italian writer Niccolò Machiavelli who, with his affirmation that the (next) end justifies the means, relativizes the notion of justice in the choice of means and above all of the same end that in politics, according to him, cannot be anything else other than to maintain the power from part of the “prince”, of the political man. Machiavelli wrote two major political works: the “Principe” and the “Discourses on the First Deca of Titus Livy”. He in some way counteracts the model of a political science that by life’s practice, which presupposes a teleologically founded ethic, becomes a mere technical capacity to conserve power. Everything in his politics is subordinated to the pure abomination of the tyrant, and virtue is no longer considered as the adequate means to reach the ultimate end of the human nature in itself, but as the technical competence of the politician to reach, maintain and extend exclusively his power. The denial of metaphysics and of a metaphysically founded political ethic is also found in Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes states that experience is always fallacious and that “civil philosophy”, as he calls it, must be modeled on geometry (T. Hobbes, Leviathan, chap.IV). However, at the same time, Hobbes admits as the first truth of his political system that man is by nature invincibly in conflict with other men (Homo homini lupus), as stated above all in chapter XIII of Leviathan. As much as Hobbes tries to deduce the necessity, then, of politics and the need on the part of man to have to live in society, even here we can establish a strong criticism: if man is by nature necessarily in conflict with other men , in what way can one admit at the same time that he must live with others to safeguard his life? It becomes impossible because man should change his nature and become non-human, or we can say that no pact (social contract), such as that described in the XVII and XVIII chapters of Leviathan, as well as impossible, it does not remove the underlying conflictuality and therefore it turns out to be politically useless.

John Locke on the one hand distances himself from Hobbes by affirming that the natural condition of men is of relative peace, on the other hand he maintains that political society (Commonwealth) is indispensable for the inconveniences of the state of nature such as abuses and disputes. But this is already a contradictory starting point because it is like affirming that at the same time human nature presents itself in perfect peace and with some controversy, with some conflict. If in Hobbes the political society becomes impossible to admit it because it is impossible for beings by nature in conflict with each other to reach a pact of peace, in Locke it becomes impossible because it assumes that the state of nature is already a perfect existential situation. Locke does not distinguish in human nature the tendency to good that can also be fallible and therefore, as Aristotle taught, the necessity of sociability by itself, and therefore falls into the impossibility of explaining the existence of conflicts. Since Locke was a nominalist empiricist for him the term nature cannot mean the real essence of a thing as a principle of operativeness towards its ultimate end, but it only means a state, a contingent situation of existence. On the other hand, Locke’s nominalism is the most profound cause of the real impossibility in which the English philosopher finds himself able to found political science and the ethics connected with it. In Locke we cannot speak of the “political body” as intended to allow the achievement of human perfection, the “good life” in the moral sense of the term, but of a political action that aims exclusively to guarantee certain external conditions that allow the enjoyment by men of some of their rights, without thereby demonstrating the moral necessity of admitting such rights. Once again the principle of subjectivism reveals all its groundlessness and inability to construct a justified political ethics. Locke’s individualism lacks the foundation of political society because, due to gnoseological nominalism, it is impossible to trace back to a precise internal purpose of human nature. Denied this intrinsic finalism, the political society has no more way to justify the necessity of its existence because an antithesis has come between nature and politics, there is no more continuity between nature and politics. Now politics is seen only in a utilitarian sense. But even here we can ask ourselves: without a metaphysical foundation, in an objective and universal philosophical anthropology, how can we establish the same criteria for a possible usefulness of any political action?

With Machiavelli, the path that leads to the crisis of the very idea of ​​”human nature” opens. Human nature is no longer a prior metaphysical principle which only needs to be acknowledged and then be able to act accordingly, but it disappears because it is stated that in man there is nothing that addresses his historical and social being. We find this basic idea in Rousseau and in Marx himself. For Rousseau the term nature is taken only as the whole of material entities. Yet the French philosopher does not disdain to speak of freedom, equality, and other rights which, however, do not find any justification, just as his doctrine of the << volonté générale >> is not at all justified and intelligible. In fact the general will should be for Rousseau the regulative principle that must guide the common life. But it cannot be explained why it must be so if there is no human nature that guarantees its necessity. In this sense the general will of Rousseau is similar in arbitrariness to the categorical imperative of Kant’s “Critique of Practical Reason”.

The same affirmation of the non-existence of a human nature in itself already defined independently of the historical-social reality is taken up and taken to its extreme consequences by Marx and Engels. For these thinkers, as is written in German ideology, for example, man is only a social product. In this way, however, it should be noted that man then finds himself alienated in society. And then as a first point we note that to say that man is a social product by nature and that he does not have an already given nature means admitted surreptitiously that this predefined nature exists: being a social product in fact. And this is materially inconsistent. As a second point we note that if man’s being depends directly on social conditions, it is unthinkable that man can change the world, the world will always change man. So the whole ideology of the class struggle falls on deaf ears, because in order to free itself from the slavery of the society in which it lives it should transcend this society. But if man is by nature a social product, it is evident, following historical-dialectical materialism, that he cannot do it. Once again the denial of the human capacity of a metaphysical reason leads to insuperable contradictions, aporias, paradoxes.

The fact is, to conclude, that we can say that from the gnoseological immanetism it follows at the same time the absolute individualism of Max Stirner, for example, and the absolutization of political power as in totalitarianisms, because the denial of the capacity of the human intellect to reach the natural law and the principles and causes of being as being leads to the affirmation, which is intrinsically violent, of the tyranny of pure arbitrariness. And this shows once again how nihilistic relativism is destructive.

Mario Padovano, OP

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