Bataille v. Kant on Universality

This may or may not end up being a sort of preliminary comparative analysis of Bataille and Kant’s respective takes on universality, as opposed to something more thorough. After all, it may seem as if Bataille doesn’t say too much regarding universality–at least not explicitly. Of course, this is not really true insofar as Bataille develops normativity in terms of universality–namely, at the very beginnings of Erotism: Death & Sensuality, Bataille precisely develops the case for the culturally universal presence of the taboo despite empirically documented violations of these very taboos.

Bataille and Kant on the Problem of Cultural Universality

The Investigation of Cultural Universals

After all, it would seem that no matter what norms are considered as “culturally universal”–key rites of passage for example–these norms can always turn up an exception. Easiest to observe is the fact that supposed norms against murder and incest are asserted as present irrespective of the aggregate level at which these very behaviors or relationships are partaken in, in a community. In other words, the sociologist and the anthropologist, when making claims about the presence of cultural universals, immediately confront the difficulty of scientifically bringing into account such universality. Measuring the presence of a norm seems to be impeded by the fact that norms themselves are internally comprised of the contradictorions within individual subjects’ idealization of the social functioning of the given society–this idealization extant insofar as the society itself is seen as actually endorsing its own professed aspirations, despite observed dynamics of behavior in that society. To be able to measure, then, the presence of norms in a society is at the same time to necessarily presuppose precisely that more hidden relation between what is professed and what is not done, for otherwise there would seem to be an impossibility of the very idea of a cultural universal.

Nonetheless, with the presupposition acquired, the very objectivity of that cultural universality would seem to empty itself into a subjective generalization made in defense of the cohesion necessary to social function. That is, the norms immediately turn into the empty rituals of institutional mechanisms of enforcement at the same time that the norms achieve only a subjective reality. For this very reason, the anthropologist and sociologist who see themselves as reasonable and empirical sacrifice the initial objective search for cultural universals, in order to initiate the objective search of institutional dynamics instead, reflective of an emphasis on exogenous normative enforcement. The institution, in this case, is the universal, or the cultural universal. But this is merely a sly act of moving the goalpost, for an institution is precisely predicated on the lack of universality–that is to say, its internal structure and function leeches off cultural particularities so that it may persist. This temporal persistence evidences a kind of universality, but it’s not a universality of culture–it’s a universality of both the technical and the social. It is also only a contingent universality, as not all institutions survive the test of time, and not all of them arose in some perennial fashion. In this way, any generalizability and thereby universality of an institution itself already rests on the aforementioned presupposition immanent to the given culture itself.

Kant and Bataille’s Respective Solutions

How, then, does one make an objective case for cultural universality? By abandoning this very project of empirical objectivity. Here is where Kant and Bataille seem to have some agreement. When expounding on universality, in this case of culture (or a sort of descriptive ethics), there must be a formalistic approach–it cannot be merely empirical. Where Kant and Bataille would nonetheless disagree is that the former thinks this involves an objective process independent of empirical content or a normative process of confirmation built into the relevant propositions about culture (which renders it a priori while nonetheless synthetic), while the latter thinks the investigation of the form of culture or the community involves precisely an investigation into the structures of objective, external facts and observations to see what they say about subjectivity. Kant, in other words, sees the problem in terms of the conditions of possibility for thinking culture and community which one cannot get behind and which transcend all experience of culture and community, while Bataille sees this problem in terms of the conditions of possibility for culture and community as such evident in the structure produced and enacted by cultural and communal participants, and which constitute their external objective being. In other words, there is a methodical difference. Bataille, then, retreats precisely into the structure of the subjectivity which grounds the relations amongst the objective facts observed in culture, rather than to the objective features necessary to a subjective, epistemic access to culture and community (e.g., the properties of thoughts or propositions regarding some object–e.g., culture or community–which render them intelligible and truth-functional). The result of Kant’s method would be close to mere definition (whether analytic or synthetic), while the result of Bataille’s method would be an exposition of the dynamics inherent to the production of culture. Bataille, in this sense, is more in line with Hegelianism (and Heideggerianism) than Kantianism, although he still breaks from all of these thinkers in that both Hegel and Heidegger still posit their own version of a transcendent (respectively, the teleological terminus or the ontological difference/gap).

To be fair, of course, Heidegger and Hegel’s respective “transcendents” are a lot more ambiguous than Kant’s insofar as they precisely either violate the dichotomies Kant constructs, or otherwise posit a functional binary that, in being ontological rather than epistemic, obliterates the problem of realism and epistemic access (or at the least, their relevance). Of course, it also may be somewhat unfair to depict Kant as blind to the subjectively enacted structure necessary to community. After all, insofar as his social/political philosophy, Kant seems to have an awareness of the impossibility of perfectly following the categorical imperative–particularly in public life–and seems to understand rather implicitly, as in his philosophy of religion, that there is a sort of assent to the community as such (the commitment to the existence of the community as a prerequisite to its flourishing) which is requisite for being bound to morality. In Kant’s case, this community is idealized as religion, and the metaphysical notions within a religion are precisely of a practical import to the creation and sustenance of the community. That is to say, individual caprice can be subject to the ideal of duty-for-its-own-sake most optimally only when a means of rational discourse and deliberation is present, and this is present only when the notion of existent community is assented to without need of proof (when the idea that the most perfect and rational being exists is assented to as a matter of faith). This is why Kant’s concept of faith plays an important role in his epistemology–without it, there would be a disunity between his epistemology and normative ethics. It’s also a way of resolving the tension between Kant’s notion of personal duty and the practical realization of the kingdom of ends in the public arena. For Kant, faith therefore doubles as social trust and assent without proof.

But this merely brings us back to the original problem. Rather than synthesize it, Kant’s approach sustains the contradiction by consent to an illusion: the community or culture (or God) exists by means of its lack of existence. This may of course not be surprising given Kant thinks there are limits to reason (exemplified in his exposition of the antinomies of pure reason). Nonetheless its worth noting the inadequate attempt at tying the knot back together. The subjective provision for the objective lack of community/culture/God (via faith in the lack of this lack of community/culture/God) is done as a matter of moral necessity. Is it not clear in that case that, in the context of trying to resolve the problem of (descriptive) cultural universals, Kant would merely lapse back into the methodically confused investigation of the sociologists and anthropologists as previously explained? With practical reason, the divisions of a priori v. a posteriori, and synthetic v. analytic judgment break down. Given Kant’s approach to morality, this breakdown is made invisible by the treatment of ethical claims as a priori synthetic claims insofar as they rely on a metaphysics–but the result of such a notion is precisely that ethical claims fail to fulfill their function, even by Kant’s own standards, without faith deployed in metaphysics, which disregards the requirements of a priori synthetic (or scientific) claims.

This outcome, of course, does not so much prove Kant entirely wrong as it much more proves the limitations of his framing–namely, his understanding of universality. Of course, one can argue that Kant’s notion of a priori synthetic truth precisely suggests some unity of normativity and evidentiality or justification that may be compatible with his notion of faith, as in that case propositional meaning and method of confirmation are in unity. This is simply not the case, however, as his notion of faith is precisely not about a provision of evidence or justification–it is disconnected from this epistemic concern, precisely so a priori synthetic claims have full force. Notice the structure of what occurs here: practical reason, which relies on a grounding scientific logic, must take an exception to its own grounding so that its pragmatic aspect remain intact. In other words, in parallel fashion Kant has landed back to moving the goalpost from the issue of normativity (the existence of descriptive cultural universals) to that of institutional dynamics (the action/reaction patterns of social actors and the role of institutional trust). Indeed, one is immediately reminded of the structure of Bataille’s notion of the taboo (universality which subsumes its own exception).

For Bataille, the universal is not so much found in its global applicability as precisely in its particularity–it has a precise and particular relationship to the possibilities of experience as a whole, and this whole is not exhausted in it but, rather, must always pass through it. This universality is a universality of passage rather than a universality of ends. Thus, in Bataille’s case the particular character of the exceptions to an otherwise universal is itself supremely important to whether the universal is indeed actually absent or obliterated. I.e., the passage may be the universal, but the beginning and the end of a passage have a diversity of relationships just as they do diverse relations with the passage. Yet in all cases the passage functions as some sort of condition for them. When one mentions the exceptions to a cultural universal it is necessary to look at the character of these exceptions to see if they precisely constitute that universality, or if they indeed contradict it. Contradicting a universal would mean to obliterate the passage, rather than to exit it by its blessings. In other words, the question is: is the purported exception necessary to that universality? How is it possible to discern this?

Bataille isn’t clear, but throughout Erotism: Death & Sensuality there’s a sentiment that any exception which finds its necessity in the universal or whose practice must be rationalized through the constraints of the universal is constitutive of that very universal. For example, when Bataille discusses the taboo on violence, this taboo is for him culturally universal, despite the fact that violence nonetheless exists in various cultures. But this violence nonetheless occurs always from the standpoint of this prohibition of violence–either the violence infects those who, in its enthrallment, are both threatened and aroused into their own explosion of violence for the sake of snuffing out the violence confronted and effectively stopping it in its tracks–even if at the danger of succumbing entirely to this very violence–or the violence is given a habitual and regulated procedure of enactment such that it must incorporate an antithetic movement towards the affirmation of the scandalous nature of that violence. Consequently, cultures are equally fascinated and disturbed by violence in particular ways precisely because it is universally prohibited. In sum, for Bataille, the universal could be seen as merely a particularity privileged as the frame of reference through which its negated contrasting possibility is structured. E.g., “non-violence” is privileged as the frame of reference through which the real and undeniable possibility of violence is engaged and made intelligible.

Evaluation of Kantian v. Bataillian Approaches to Universality

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Universality in the Categorical Imperative

Admittedly, Kant’s discussion of the universality of normative ethics is being treated as transferable to a discussion of descriptive ethics (or, cultural universals), while Bataille’s discussion of descriptive ethics (or, cultural universals) is being treated as transferable to a discussion of normative ethics. But in fact, insofar as the implications of the thesis of universalism is extremely similar whether applied in normative or descriptive ethics, I believe I am justified in making this seemingly asymmetric comparison/contrast. There is nonetheless a difference between normative and descriptive ethics, but this is precisely where the implications of, say, Bataille’s views become interesting as they cross-pollinate with concerns in normative ethics, especially in the context of Kant. Famously, Kant’s categorical imperative legislates the moral law on the basis of internal conceptual coherence of act in an imperative, provided its own conditions of effective possibility. That is to say, in the example of whether one should lie when a murderer is asking about the location of his victim, the condition for the effective possibility of telling a lie is that there is some standard of honesty as a frame of reference by which the lie can be made. But if one suppose everybody lied all the time, lying would be inherently impossible. Hence, it fails the test, and lying is no longer a moral option.

Relation between the Categorical and Hypothetical Imperative

While Kant disassociates this categorical imperative from the hypothetical imperative, given that its supposed to be unconditional, it is possible to analyze the categorical imperative in terms of the hypothetical imperative. After all, despite Kant’s banishment of the passions as arbitrary sources of moral decision-making, it is necessary that Kant extract his purely rational ethical formalism through abstracting from these desires and passions, thereby entering into the cognitive mode of discourse by which rational deliberation is made upon desire, yet in spite of desire. Which is to say, where pain or any other emotion may be deliberately undertaken for the sake of the rationality of some decision, and no decision made for the sake of the passions and desires. But essentially what this means is simply to isolate reason from the material accidents which spur such passions and desires, and thereby to dilute any empirical content (the observation of the fact that we “feel” like doing something or “enjoy” doing it or otherwise) as source of justification for our actions from rational deliberation. This is so even if the undertaking of action must, after this, still find itself under the forces of the experiential world and confront them.

Hence, in the context of the hypothetical imperative, what Kant is essentially doing is subtracting the accidental character of the antecedent: “If I want eggnog, then I must go and buy it at the liquor store.” While there may be reason, material or otherwise, to mentally associate the given content of the consequent with the antecedent, the antecedent, despite its lack of dependence in this context as the clause that stands as independent variable in the conditional, is largely accidental. For the subject need not want eggnog. It could aim for any sort of thing. So, what Kant is trying to do is make this un-accidental by reducing the antecedent to its formal nature, susceptible to purely rational deliberation: “If I want X, then I must go and buy it at the liquor store.” While “want” gives a sense of passion and desire, it could be seen as a trivial expression for “aim”: “If I aim for X, then I must go and buy it at the liquor store.” The subject here has a variable aim whose value is, if analyzed simply in terms of the possibility of what may be aimed for, rationally discernible in terms of the weighing of logical possibilities.

The logical possibilities are already delimited by Kant’s own valuation of the subject as, via rationality, a self-controlled and self-legislating, and thereby free, subject. They are also delimited precisely by the distillation given in his exposition of the forms of knowledge: this aim must be both a priori and universal. Indeed, also synthetic insofar as this aim is not already thought in any of these particular aims, even in combination. They may or may not be contradictory at any given time, but this would not tell us much about their decidability as this contradiction does not conceptually derive from these aims but is also contingent. Nonetheless, contradiction is another thing to avoid for a rationalist ethics, but what contradictions matter? Those that derive from application: practical rather than theoretical contradictions. Already, there is an attempted unification of universality with applicability–the practical expression of universality. The universal applicability of what, then? Of some action, as an action sums up an aim in its generality. If there is a contradictory result due to the universal application of that action undermining its very conditions of possibility, then it is categorically prohibited (it contributes to a negative maxim). That, in sum, is how the categorical imperative works to allow for universal maxims.

In this way, the given aim–the categorical imperative, or its allowable maxims, or their contrapositives–can be inserted for any other aim into the hypothetical imperative, albeit consequently disbanding a subset o possible aims by also covertly restricting the consequent. In fact, the consequent is largely irrelevant except in this act of restraint on possible ends. Notice that the consequent takes the role of a means by which the antecedent is achieved, and likewise acts as the causal/logical outcome of the antecedent. In other words, the means by which one abides by the maxims allowed for by the categorical imperative (as well as more unsurprisingly, the material consequences) are irrelevant. The means, through their irrelevance, are an indirect way through which to restrict achievement of the aims to those means which precisely abide by the aims, for their sake. The relationship between the means and the aim here seems reciprocal initially, but they are not–the means is subordinated to the end, not in the sense that any means will do provided the end but that any means will do provided it is consistent with the kingdom of ends (which means a lot of both means and possible ends are off the table).

They are asymmetric simply because of the very functional difference between the antecedent and consequent clause of a conditional: in completely abstracting and formalizing the antecedent, what is being done is a movement whereby the consequent, whose conceivable content is dependent on the content of the antecedent, plays no content-based role in relation to the antecedent yet remains formally restricted by that antecedent. The loss of the consequent’s material-practical meaningfulness leads to action being disconnected from both those conditions necessary to act (means) and those effects or ends which may or may not affect the presence of such necessary conditions (of such means). That is, in privileging and prioritizing rationality, Kant subtracts those concrete conditions and constituents of basic agency. While he attaches those concrete conditions and constituents back post-facto, they have been so abstracted in the service of rationality that it comes at the cost of the exercise of actual, concrete agency as well as at the cost of practical plausibility. The issue, then, is that the categorical imperative restricts the moral possibilities far more than is rationally necessary (e.g., the categorical imperative would seem to restrict a person from killing another person trying to kill them¹), but also does the opposite in opening the possible moral maxims far more than is rationally necessary (e.g., the categorical imperative cannot decide between a maxim of self-defense v. that of pacifism–even as it restricts a person from killing another person trying to kill them, which is too particular to generalize into a restriction on self-defense!).

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Issues with the Categorical Imperative

First, in applying a criterion of coherently, logically possible universal applicability to the aim or end alone, it assumes that the resultant incoherence of a universal case is somehow transferable to the actual particular case such that a value judgment can follow directly from it. In sum, it assumes that value judgments are transferable across universal and particular cases. There is simply no reason to assume this even with Kant’s rationalist approach. Notice that in explaining Kant’s categorical imperative and the reasoning behind it, at no point is the connection between abstract maxims derived from a hypothetical case of universalization and the world of causality and concrete determination made. Even if we treat autonomous actors as ends-in-themselves, this does not mean non-universalizeable actions violate this treatment given that non-universalizeable actions can in fact protect the necessary conditions for other people’s exercise of their autonomy (such as, say, personally choosing or allowing someone else to choose to have homosexual sex instead of heterosexual sex²), or may involve a dilemma in which two actor’s autonomies’ are mutually exclusive. The perfect [Kantian] example of the latter is whether one should lie to a killer about the whereabouts of their victim–Kant says one shouldn’t lie, but clearly the victim would then lack treatment as an end-in-themselves, making one’s lying or not lying effectively a trade between violations of the categorical imperative. Of course, Kant’s abstracted notion of moral agency allows it so that this can be true, but nonetheless not affect the morality of our action let alone our blameworthiness. Yet this abstracted notion of moral agency is problematic precisely because it deflates blameworthiness to the moral value of one’s action. There is a strong disconnect, in other words, between Kant’s notion of free will (will formed by rational reflection, which anchors the morality of action) and “will” as an object of causal necessity (the will as something one can be more or less responsible for given degree of personal contribution and how this is to be meted out given the relationship between moral causes and moral effects). While it is certainly true that Kant cleverly tries to dissolve the is-ought issue by rendering “oughts” a consequence of a rationally self-reflective “is” within the chain of causation, he messes this attempt at reconciliation up majorly by failing to adequately recontextualize moral agency–after all, this rational self-reflective mind must find a rational connection between maxims and laws of nature at some level and this connection cannot but be instrumental in nature. Yet the direction of this instrumentality is not clear: maxims being useful to nature, or nature being useful for maxims.

In addition, even if we take that autonomous activity which is an end-in-itself as precisely characterized by sticking to the categorical imperative rather than the mere possibility of doing so, it would then not be autonomy in Kant’s sense. If non-universalizeable actions or maxims a priori negate the presence of autonomy then Kant has betrayed his own notion of autonomy, in which freedom is expressed through self-legislation. If it is required that one decide not to kill oneself, for example, so that autonomy is to have been exercised, then it would seem respect of the moral law supersedes the mere possibility, plausiblity or likelihood of respecting that moral law when it comes to evaluating the presence or lack thereof of autonomy. This would seem to suggest that anybody who is ignorant of what the objective maxims are even as they hold to Kantian deontology, while nonetheless following or violating whatever the true maxims are, lacks autonomy even if they have been effectively self-legislating. Again, this would be bizarre, even if it would be consistent with his condemnations of suicide, given another of Kant’s objections to lying is that it withdraws others’ ability to exercise autonomy in their decisions (suggesting that it is the possibility to act out of duty that makes autonomy what it is, rather than conformism to the moral law). It seems there is ambiguity whether respecting one’s own autonomy and that of others requires allowing them space to self-legislate, or self-legislating the correct moral law and following it. This connects to aforementioned quibbles: this bizarre take on autonomy comes from a disconnect between agency and blameworthiness in Kant–or, the way causality is rendered irrelevant to the exercise of moral agency.

Further, even if we assume that, while non-universalizable action does not necessarily violate treating autonomous actors as ends-in-themselves, it is still immoral based on the categorical imperative, the fact that that which is tested for universal applicability is one’s aim (whether understood as action or translated as maxim) is actually entirely arbitrary on the part of Kant. Testing one’s aim for coherently, logically possible universal applicability is testing just one aspect of action–thinking that actions can be morally evaluated in a way intrinsic to those actions, which is also to say in terms of good will, does not necessitate they be evaluated only as (logically possible) ends. Kant’s emphasis on rationality and intrinsic value in ethics does not require framing actions as ends, insofar as actions are always constituted by an instrumental relation. An action may have its intrinsic value due to its uniqueness as a means among other means. Even further, it seems this universalizability test is merely a moral heuristic and not strictly a rational affair: for example, that effective lying universalized is in tension with its presupposition of a frame of reference of expected honesty and the presence of truth, does not make the outcome incoherent. It is enough for there to be a mere possibility of truth for lying to likewise be logically possible, and so a case of universal effective lying has nothing incoherent about it. It is not even a performative contradiction. It would be like saying that universal darkness is impossible because darkness assumes a frame of reference where one could conceive of the presence of light, when it is in fact enough that light itself be a possibility regardless of conceivability. The fallacy is just less obvious because we’re dealing in the “ought” realm.

A Bataillian Take on Universal Imperatives

The real concern here, again, would have to do with the conditions of possibility for lying. Once that is realized, however, the categorical imperative ceases to make much sense–the test of universal applicability doesn’t really tell us about the conditions of possibility for lying, besides that condition in which honesty must be a logical possibility as well, at the very least. What’s of real relevance, then, are the material conditions under which lying could obtain, but even more the conditions, rational or otherwise, where it would or should obtain. Simply thinking of the conditions under which it could not logically obtain leaves us empty-handed as to its value under any and all possible sets of conditions. If indeed it could not obtain without a frame of reference of actually expected honesty and actually-occurring frequent honesty, as well as the existence of truth, then this is merely a factual case of implausibility (or in the case of an absence of truth, impossibility), wherein the implausibility or impossibility is through some sort of moral alchemy transformed into a value judgment that transfers over cases where it is in fact plausible or possible.

First of all, why is universalized lying’s implausibility or impossibility married to lying being bad? If its to do with the notion of a rationalist ethics (a way of avoiding performative contradiction), then it is the resultant irrationality of the universalized act that is immoral (the irrationality of the act is already contingent on conditions of omnipresence), and not the act itself. Bringing up respect for autonomy here as a defense doesn’t exactly help as it merely raises objections already made previously. Especially given that autonomy nonetheless assumes a capacity for rational, and thereby universal, moral judgment (predicated on this very logic!)–and it is this capacity which requires we treat others as equally capable legislators of morality (i.e., that we respect their autonomy!). Further, would not a universal morality require that the goodness or badness of an act obtain regardless of whether everyone was or was not doing it? Would not a proper universal end be indifferent to conditions, even ones based on conceivable universalizeability? In which case, what relevance would “badness” (or incoherence) in a scenario where the act is implausibile/impossible have when it comes to demonstrating the possibility of universal morality, as opposed to simply the moral value of that which is universalized once it is universalized? If rationality were what were key it would seem that an autonomous agent would have to admit to being lost precisely in the seeming accident of aims and the concreteness of causal relations, and thereby in the practical relevance of instrumental relationships. There is no need to be a consequentialist to realize that our ends only gain any discreteness as a result of the properties of the very objects of our aims–their bounds, their relations, their structure (topology), their causality, their contingency. Hence, our aims are never isolated, but collide and intercourse with each other, in ways not merely accidentally related to the aforementioned external factors (e.g., bounds, relations, et al). If universally true moral claims must be synthetic, it would be a testament to this fact. As was noted earlier, there must be a connection, likely instrumental, between the rationalist intrinsic value revealed under pure contemplation and the mundane practical world ruled by regularities, causality and physical laws.

Kant here is simply performing the move of the exception yet again to get out of this rut, as this is precisely what gives the enactment of his morality an aura of impossibility, and thus of absurd harshness of moral judgment–that  is why Kant’s political-legal-juridical notions seem at times far removed from his normative ethics (e.g., Kant was in favor of the death penalty). Bataille allows us, with his own notion of universality, to think this very exception Kant performs back into Kant, as woven more directly into a synthesis of his philosophy. Not only does a universal ethic allow for lower-order precepts, actions, or granular moral valuations which cannot be universalized in the way Kant wishes but may still hold correct in lieu of the highest-order universal precept, action, or value–and thus already accounts for exceptions to ethical judgment that apply universally–but the universality of one’s aim is largely irrelevant the possibility of universal morality. A universal ethic cannot be universal because it is applied to an object thought of as, or which actually is, universal–this is Kant’s mistake. Rather, ethics could be universal only if action, as an object or end, which it would hold as its object, is rendered irrelevant. If it were otherwise, and actions are analyzed purely in their character and logical consequence as ends-to-themselves, the problem of actualizing the good rears its head albeit ignored, as in such a case no action could be addressed in terms of some subordinate relation to another action.

It may seem as if Kant is privy to this, but arguably its quite the opposite–he rails against any particular, empirically filthy aims determining the moral law, but only to take the rational form of the aim as such and extrapolate an aim from it, however abstract (e.g., the following “maxim”), which all are subject to. This is precisely why for Kant it is not enough to simply conform to the maxim–it must have been one’s deliberate aim, e.g. it must be that one acted out of duty. Thusly he still technically holds to the relevance of the aim, and thus of the universality of the object of moral judgment, as relevant to the establishment or demonstration of a universal normative ethic.

Bataille seems closer to a more accurate view of both culture universals and, by analogy, ethical universalism. Contrary to Kant, the universality of a moral “law”–under a universality holding a similar structure to Bataille’s taboo–holds by virtue of a particular relation this law has to “the whole.” That is, a relation such that any action, maxim, etc., passes through it even if it is not exhausted by it. Hence, under a Bataillian normative ethics, exceptions do not count against the universality of the moral law insofar as they precisely constitute the conditions of possibility for the binding nature of the moral law. This take, therefore, sees the universal moral law as, while applied by individuals, only rendered possible at the societal systemic level, via institutions insofar as institutions provide the medium through which exceptions to the moral law are incorporated or taken into account by individuals. Thus, in this case the individual subject’s ethical position on what comprises the moral law also immediately forces always a confrontation with the whole of society, requiring the enactment of that moral law’s ownmost exception insofar as a reflection of the impossibility of its fulfillment within that society. That is, the moral law, whatever it may be, even if it should be followed by everyone at all times, is nonetheless regrettably capable of challenge if done as a testimony to the societal impossibility of this moral law and done in the spirit of this law. Further, Bataille himself points us to an alternative to this “legislative” view of morality. Principles of morality emerge from networks of desire and their material basis (e.g., material constraints).


  1. Killing is non-universalizable. After all, お前はもう死んでいる (何?!)–that is, you would already be dead–and dead people can’t kill. There is no way for people to truly equally kill each other at the same time.
  2. Homosexuality is non-universalizable. If all parents could have engaged in it, as well as all presently existing people, there would be no presently existing people to engage in it, and generations prior to those parents would render the parents non-existent as well, and so on. Of course, it may be questioned whether Kant’s test should be applied diachronically as well as synchronically. Even conceding that Kant may restrict his universalizability test to be synchronic, it’s clear that introducing synchronic universalization presents a problem for the question of autonomy and treating people as ends-in-themselves in Kantianism, and that this is related to the problematic nature of the assumption that value judgments are transferable across universal and particular cases. It would seem that introducing a temporal dimension into a rationalistic ethics breaks down Kantian deontology. The relevance of this (i.e., why this should be considered a flaw) is elaborated in the rest of the essay.