Foucault’s approach to ethics and politics is rather atypical within philosophy. It was deeply informed by two claims: that human subjectivity is much more plastic, or historically changeable than tends to be acknowledged in philosophy and the ‘sciences humaines’, and that moral discourse and practices are high in exclusionary potential and have often functioned as instruments of domination. In order to try to minimize the risk of using theories of human being, and of putatively universal normative constraints, as instruments of marginalization and oppression, Foucault developed what we may think of as a minimalist approach to agency, the theory of normativity and ethics. Rather than seek to offer a robust theory of the subject in order to vindicate pre-existent commitments to various putatively universal normative requirements, his project was to see how minimal a conception of subjectivity and how minimalist an ethics we might get by with. My goal in Minimal Agents, Substantive Commitments is to develop this minimalist approach to agency, normativity and ethics systematically, framing it in the language of, and engaging some central debates in, mainstream Anglo-American ethics and meta-ethics.
The starting point of the minimalist approach to ethics is the idea that there are no ends or aims that are constitutive of human agency: while to be a human agent is to be committed to pursue various ends, there is no single set of particular ends to whose pursuit all of us are committed merely by virtue of the fact that we are human agents. In addition to the minimalist conception of agency, the minimalist approach to ethics is based on a particular conception of norms, their binding force over people, and on a distinction between two kinds of commitments (de facto and de jure), two basic ways in which we may take a person to be committed to pursue an end and thereby to comply with various norms. The core claim of the minimalist approach to ethics is the following conception of the binding force of norms: “a norm has binding force over an individual exactly insofar as that individual is committed to the pursuit of an end whose attainment requires compliance with that norm.” In the book, I show that these scant resources suffice for building a powerful meta-theoretical framework within which it is possible to describe and compare today’s dominant approaches to ethics and meta-ethics, and address a number of standing theoretical problems and impasses (i.e. whether and in what sense there are constitutive norms of agency, how to understand the distinction between formal and substantive normative requirements and how they interact with one another, how to understand the normative force of norms and standards of conduct, etc.). Moreover, I argue that this framework brings clearly into view how adopting a moderate form of relativism à la Foucault is not merely theoretically advantageous, but also ethically and politically desirable.
Minimal Agents, Substantive Commitments