Società editrice il Mulino
Paperback € 16,00
Reviewed by: Susi Ferrarello (California State University)
Staiti’s book is a very engaging metaethical investigation of naturalism in ethics (7). Here, phenomenology serves a twofold purpose. As it is in the nature of phenomenology, in this book, too, phenomenology is used as a method and theory. On the one hand, phenomenology’s methodological approach can provide the right ‘atteggiamento’ (attitude, 30) for addressing problems proper to naturalism, such as nihilism and the relative limits of physicalism (20-25); on the other hand, phenomenological theory in axiology, specifically in relation to the notion of material a priori (38), offers ideas in support of a “liberal way” (29) of interpreting naturalism and handling some of the thorniest debates in metaethics. This is especially clear when Staiti discusses the problem of moral intuition and perception and the behavior of axiological properties in mereological foundations (8).
What does phenomenology have to gain from this interaction? Staiti’s answer is that metaethics can help phenomenology to position itself in the contemporary philosophical metaethical traditions (9). Since metaethical problems are very close to the issues tackled by the phenomenological tradition, the two can help each other in the most problematic areas.
The book is organized into four chapters. The first starts with a description of naturalism, in general, and ethical naturalism, in particular. Staiti describes two aspects of naturalism: ontological and methodological. Methodological naturalism is based on and limited by the natural sciences and the scientific community that gathers around them (16). In this form of naturalism, the philosophical discussion is based on the solid ground of what can be proven by science. In doing so, methodological naturalism does not leave much room to discuss what cannot yet be proven. This problem also occurs in ontological naturalism. Ontological naturalism, in fact, focuses on the description of concrete entities; what is labelled as spooky (17) exceeds this category. For this reason, Staiti seems to welcome De Caro’s proposal of a liberal naturalism (19-20), which connects philosophical rationality to empirical sciences in order to revise scientific positions that would oppose the experimental nature of science and philosophy (20).
In ethics, naturalism expresses itself in the forms of physicalism and realism. In ethical physicalism, what matters for the ethical discourse is what we can ‘tangibly’ see; hence, in the case of a nihilistic solution what matters is Nothing, or, in the case of psychologism and expressivism, what matters are feelings and emotions. A naturalistic approach to the good leads the investigator to take into consideration only what exists in reference to the world (22). This form of naturalism in ethics tends to reinforce a moral psychology that limits the investigation to what can be proven as true and good from the perspective of the Geisteswissenschaften (sciences of mind). The other declension of naturalism in ethics is realism, which considers axiological properties as real entities accessible to the philosophical investigation. Similarly to the liberal naturalism proposed above, Staiti points to a liberal form of naturalism in ethics that would avoid a nihilist solution to ethical problems. In fact, the liberal version of ethical naturalism supports “the existence of axiological properties as natural properties accessible in the same way as natural properties” (25). In order to access these properties, philosophy needs to adopt the right attitude which seems to be best provided by the phenomenological method (31).
As we know from Husserl’s essay Philosophy as a Rigorous Science (1910), phenomenology discusses naturalism in a new fashion. The essence of one’s experience of a natural phenomenon cannot be reduced to a mere aggregate of physical or psychical atoms (in the case of scientific or psychological naturalism). Having experience means to refer to something that constitutes the object of my experience in the world (34-35). The natural phenomenon can never be the summation of its parts, but instead is the intentional content of a given lived-experience that we can access and describe through the reflective analysis of the lived-experience itself. Similarly to liberal ethics, phenomenology shares the idea of being able to access the axiological properties of ethical experience as much as its perceptual properties (37) as the two are bound together by a mereological foundation in which the results of the natural givenness is not mere summation but the supervenience of the relationship between its elements. Speaking to this, Staiti gives the example of Husserl’s notion of material a priori as an a priori model for explaining how the material axiological aspects of the experience stand in relation to a specific region of reality and its logical properties. For example, pain is a disvalue, hence what we know as torture is wrong as it produces this specific disvalue consequence in this region of reality.
Continuing on this road, the second chapter of Staiti’s book shows how the phenomenological attitude can lend itself to the understanding of the mereological supervenience of axiological and logical properties. Focusing on moral intuition and perception, Staiti shows how the natural entity of the ontological and methodological approach used in naturalism is explained in phenomenology as the intentional fulfillment correlated to the intentional essence. Referencing Audi, Staiti explains in great clarity how in Husserl, differently from Audi, the perceptual awareness of the correspondence between reality and experience (49) tends to distinguish experience from one’s lived-experience as this latter involves a reflective quality proper to the intentional act that escapes the mere representationalist point of view. According to representationalism, in fact, the sensorial multitude on which the perceptive experience of something is based is lived but not experienced—hence it is for us a mental representation of the direct perceptive experience. For Husserl, instead, ”the intentional relationship establishes that an act of perceptual awareness refers to a perceived object and this relationship is a phenomenal [manifestativa] and not representational one” (52). The direct perceptual experience is a phenomenal manifestation, while one’s lived experience has a phenomenological reflective quality that is missing in the spontaneity of the natural attitude. The correctness of the description of the natural phenomenon in ethics, as the scientist experiences it in a natural spontaneous life, does not amount to the representations of that phenomenon but to the intuition of the axiological properties pertaining to that ethical phenomenon as they are perceived in that intentional act. “The simple perception—seeing a lemon—will evolve, most probably, in the predicative perception ‘seeing a yellow lemon’ because the lemon is yellow. If I were to always sell lemons, therefore continuously exposed to their brightness of that yellow, probably it would not be its yellow so immediately apparent, but another property, for example the opacity of its skin that reveals that the lemon has not been treated with chemicals” (56). Any perception of axiological properties is a thematization of the intentional relationship that connects the individual to a specific region of that lived experience.
In chapter three, Staiti explains how the concreteness of what is perceived can emerge as a content that is congruent to what is perceived and intuited in the lived-experience of the subject. In fact, Staiti remarks, “in phenomenology, intuition represents the apex of an experiential process, that is, the congruence between the sense as it is thought and the sense as it has been actually experienced” (63). How this congruence comes together in the intentional content is explained through the notion of supervenience or mereological foundation. In phenomenology, foundation (Fundierung) describes a mereological relationship of parts and whole (81) in which a complex experience and its object can be analyzed according to their mutual inferences. In the case of a naturalistic liberal ethics, we want to ask ourselves “what kind of objects are the objects qualified in an axiological manner? What’s their structure? What kind of experience is the one in which objects of this kind are intentionally meant? (81).
To describe how the concreteness of the intentional content is shaped in relation to axiological properties, Staiti uses emotional acts (Gemütsakte). These acts can be described as those acts with which we refer to objects whose axiological properties we can clearly perceive—Maria loves Giulio, for example. Giulio is the positive object of Maria’s emotional act. As with any other intentional act, emotional acts are also constituted of a form (Maria loves Giulio, i.e. subject + verb + object) and a matter (what is in the act of Maria loving Giulio). Any matter is generally qualified by a position-taking with which we can tell whether the subject refers to reality (Maria loves Giulio, her partner) or fantasy (Maria loves Giulio, her imaginary friend). The position taken in emotional acts – such as “I love,” “I respect,” “I value” – need to be completed by the emotion that qualifies that position-taking and the objectivating acts that make sense of their content-matter (87). Maria loves Giulio because she knows Giulio (epistemological, doxic, logic position) or at least she can bring his matter to the predicative form—Giulio. The position-taking proper to emotional acts needs a logical layer for the emotional content matter to be brought to the fore. If this layer is missing, what remains is a motivational necessity that moves Maria’s emotion of loving to connect with the object of her love but without being able to express it in words or being aware of it. Maria is attracted to this person. Axiological properties in general, like those that characterize emotional acts, need objectivating predicative acts to bring that motivating/-ed matter to the fore. The intentional essence of the emotional content needs to be meant in order to be epistemologically understood, yet their axiological quality can already be perceived in intuition (the essence of the beloved person as a positive value, for example). Axiological properties do not necessarily refer to the ‘real’ object (91); Giulio can be just Maria’s fantasy, or he might no longer be living, or he could be the character of her favorite play. Axiological properties relate to the content-object in the same way as logical properties do. Yet, while logical properties are necessary for the content to preserve its objectual unity (92), axiological properties do not seem to be essential to this unity; they come as a co-existent addition to that unity (Giulio, the person Maria has in mind, versus Giulio, the person Maria loves). In fact, even if I do not know whom I love, that person will continue to be, although my feelings in relation to that person and the values that I attribute to her will be perceived as disconnected moments that hinder the possibility of fully grasping the content of my intention. Parenthetically, I think that this magnitude of disruption is exactly what occurs in cases of borderline and bi-polar personalities where the inability to mean the axiological properties related to the intentional content of an emotional act has the power to disrupt the unity of the emotional content as much as logical properties do.
To come back to Staiti’s argument, the asymmetry between axiological and logical acts does not involve that axiological acts are not intentional. The necessity connecting the essential integrity of an object (constituted by the logical properties that make that object what it is) to its axiological properties is a motivational necessity. According to this motivational necessity, the object of my experience comes to acquire a value after I have grasped its nature (101); this understanding motivates me to feel and act in a certain way toward it. Axiological and logical properties refer to each other in a complementary way. This complementarity structures the way in which I see the object of my experience and determines the meanings and values that I am going to assign to that object. “The more easily I will understand the supervenient axiological properties of my object, the more familiar I am with the logical properties of the same object” (101). If I am not wrong in my understanding of Staiti’s argument, I think that his argument would flawlessly work in the example of the lemon vendor he mentioned above. The lemon seller will know more the value of what she is selling the more she knows about the product. Yet, once again, I think that this argument would be less effective when applied to emotions. Logical properties do not seem to be more essential than axiological ones in emotional acts. In fact, it might happen that the more I know someone the less I feel I can value her because her personality is puzzling to me or the less I feel that I know her because she keeps showing side of herself that are contradictory.
Yet, here Staiti raises an important point: there is a parallelism between axiology and logic, which he explains as a parallelism between the good and truth, that makes liberal naturalism in ethics possible. Using Husserl’s reference to this same parallelism, which in Husserliana XVIII and XXXVII focused, though, on ethics, axiology, and logic–respectively the good, value, and true—Staiti builds an interesting strategy for describing the concreteness of the good in ethics as a natural phenomenon. He writes that “the good is the axiological equivalent to the notion of existence in the logical-theoretical sphere” (115). Staiti proposes the parallelism between axiology and ethics as a stratagem for solving the problem of realism in ethics. While I believe that this stratagem is quite effective, I also think that a passage is missing here: the object of axiology, in fact, is a value and not the positive value—the good as Staiti seems to affirm. I think that the parallelism he proposes is not between axiology and logic but between ethics and logic which modifies, of course, the terms and results of Staiti’s argument. Moreover, he indicates that the logical equivalent of the good is the notion of existence, and not the expected notion of truth. Although unexpected, I agree with Staiti’s explanation of Husserl’s argument. The truth is in continuity with the notion of existence, that is a property of Sätze (115) propositions. What exists is what is posited (gesetzt), that is, the objectual correlate of what has been posited in a categorical act (114).
In the last chapter, Staiti applies this parallelism as a convincing stratagem for tackling G. E. Moore’s Open Question Argument (1903). Moore’s Open Question Argument relates to the impossibility of defining good (1903, 50). If ethics cannot find a convincing definition of good, no analytic proposition around the good holds, accordingly all the propositions used to describe the good must be all synthetic ones. “Interrogating whether something is good, equates to ask oneself if pleasure is pleasant” (1903, 64). “Moore shows that the notion of good is irreplaceable when it appears together with complex proposition, otherwise their meaning would change” (122).
Yet, if we look at this problem from a phenomenological perspective and ask ourselves “what does the question ‘x is good’ truly ask?” we will see how what we want to know is the concretum of goodness as it belongs to that specific intentional act correlated to that specific ontological region. The question addresses the kind of properties and objects with which the notion of good is in a mereological foundation. Since the good correlates with its logical properties in an essential way and since the logical properties are what is posed, then the good is the mereological foundation of those parallel properties. We know how to answer the Open Question in relation to the good without leaving x as an incognitum. The good is that Satz (proposition) which receives a cognitive fulfillment qualified by axiological properties related to a specific ontological region existing in one’s experience of a given space and moment in time. Differently from Geach’s argument toward Moore (1956, 33), Staiti is not saying that the good is an attribute of being because there is a mereological relationship between logic and axiology, the posited and the good. While an attribute can be removed or changed without altering the essence of the object, in this mereological relationship the good and the posited are interwoven with each other via a motivational necessity; changing any of these terms will change the nature of the phenomenon itself.
I think that Staiti succeeds in his goal of showing the mutual enrichment deriving from applying phenomenology in metaethics. The argument presented in this concluding chapter is a tangible proof of it.
De Caro, M. 2016. “Natura e Naturalismi.” Hermeneutica, 16: 9-24.
Geach, P. 1956. “Good and Evil.” Analysis, 17: 33–42.
Husserl, E. 1988. Vorlesungen ueber Ethik und Wertlehre. Dordrecht: Kluwer. (Hua, XXVIII).
Husserl, E. 2004. Einleitung in die Ethik. Dordrecht: Kluwer. (Hua, XXXVII).
Husserl, E. 1965. “Philosophy as Rigorous Science,” trans. in Q. Lauer (Ed.), Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy. New York: Harper.
Moore, G. E. 1903. Principia Ethica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.