Thursday, October 18, 2018

Alice Crary's Inside Ethics: a symposium

There's a wonderful set of discussions of Alice Crary's book Inside Ethics here. It features Avner Baz, Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen, Nora Hämäläinen, and Stanley Hauerwas, among others, with replies by Crary. 


  1. This seems very much on point to me:

    Such pragmatic considerations require the “priority of judgment” (70); another idea Crary gleans from Wittgenstein. What she and Wittgenstein mean by this is that for a hearer to understand the sense of a sentence, or any linguistic act, she generally grasp in what ways a speaker’s words fit within the situation they’re spoken. That is, language does not have a logical structure theoretically separable and antecedently knowable prior to its use. Words and sentences are usually recognized by another speaker to have sense within particular situations for particular purposes.

    Moral judgement must hinge on the recognition of the other as another mind, another self towards whom our behavior matters. How it matters becomes a function of the "mindedness" of the other which then matters, in its turn, to us because creatures with minds (in this case this is just to say sentience) recognize the same thing they have when the evidence allows that recognition.

    The moral dimension of our own judgments follows from this recognition and informs the things we find good or bad, right or wrong to do in relation to the other. And this is as much a part of our world as the physical phenomena in which we stand and the laws that govern them are.

  2. What about the quid facti/ quid juris distinction? The question is not about the origin of our moral sensibilities, but the origin of ethical principles. And I would say the situation is similar to the question of the origin of logico-mathematical principles: I mean by this the objective reality that I think one could take to be described by the axioms and definitions of formal mathematical systems. I want to say that the relation between the expression of a logico-mathematical principle, even in a formal language, and the objective mathematical reality is similar to the relation (of reference) between an empirical knowledge claim and the objective situation in the world described; it's just that in the former case perception is not involved, but rather some kind of "inward gaze" whose specific properties I at least do not know; perhaps Wittgenstein was thinking about this possibility. I would say that ethical principles, like mathematical principles, are not objects primarily belonging to the psychological or biological level of analysis. If lions and gazelles were to develop the ability for language as humans have, I would predict that they would develop an understanding of ethical principles as well, not to mention any alien beings visiting from other planets. From my reading of the summary of Crary's approach, her views seem to me to be amenable to what I've said so far. Like the laws relating the natural numbers, the fundamental ethical principles originate in the real world that is the object of empirical understanding, but they could not be otherwise. ("How is this so?" you may ask.)


  3. I think you have a point, JPL. Ethics is embedded in how we see a world because we see what Crary calls "mindedness" in it no less than the merely mechanical. We see causes but also reasons, that is, intentions, and intentions imply "mindedness."

    The world is richer than just patterns of observed phenomena, the sorts of things other biological entities are capable of recognizing and of navigating round and having a certain level of communicative capacity, the sort that language (in its assertoric sense) makes possible, is to see a world that consists of more than things observed. It includes ourselves and that inclusion implies others.

    Ethical thought, which is to say the capacity to recognize the aspects of our world that are associated with observation-capable entities (i.e., the teleological dimension of being in a world), arises as a concomitant of having a world at all, i.e., of being in the condition in which observing is as much a phenomenon as what is observed. When we reach that point, through the discursive practices of language, in which the world is conceived reflexively (as including observed and observers both), then the moral dimension follows.

  4. Stuart:

    Yes, perhaps just a side note to what you were saying: it seems sometimes people forget that for us, the observed world, the world that is the intentional object of our attempts to understand experience, includes not just the objects existing independently of us, but also our actions on those objects, and of course those actions have reasons and purposes.

    Then the ethical questions arise when our actions affect other autonomous agents with their own centres of consciousness.


  5. Yes. The question then for ethics is how this aspect of living in a world produces moral claims, intuitions and beliefs? Why does living in a world with others lead some of us, at least, to think this situation gives us a reason to treat others who are like us at least in this respect) differently than we treat entities we recognize as not being like us (e.g., rocks, trees, robots)?

    Granted there is a level of feeling towards others which we have as a result of our evolutionary heritage, which precedes the rational, i.e., those kinds of responses that just reflect our instinctual reactions to others (particularly when they seem to be like us or part of our group). But such feelings are not the ones that matter in our moral considerations because moral claims rest on having and giving reason while acknowledging that we feel a certain way is never a sufficient reason for others to feel that way, nor is noting that others feel a certain way a reason for us to.

    Ethics is fundamentally part of our rational life, ethical questions seek reasons. The point, then, for moral theory or ethics, must be to ascertain what reasons, if any, support the things we count as morally or ethically right to do? If there are none, then ethics can only be expressive and no moral intuitions or beliefs can count as better than another. And that makes ethics a dead end.

    Yet we do not live our lives that way nor does it seem we can, no matter how hard we try. Even mafia dons have codes of ethics. It's likely that every human group has a place for behavioral standards within its culture. So the real question for ethics is why is that part of our form of life and, to the extent it is, which version, if any, is right for human beings, i.e., how are we to distinguish the better forms from the worse. Why charity or mercy or honesty rather than omerta or revenge (when these seem to conflict)?

    Perhaps the answer lies in this notion of "mindedness," as Crary is suggesting, a notion I would recharacterize as "subjectness" because it doesn't carry the same connotation of having an entity-like status which "mind" does. The condition of being a subject implies a whole other dimension to being in the world than that of being in it as an object.

    Being a subject implies relations to the world in terms of its constituents which include, quite obviously, other subjects. And relating to other subjects brings into focus a whole new level of effects which our relational interactions bring about. Here, I think, is where we must look to understand the rational efficacy behind our notions of moral rightness and wrongness, the feature that raises moral judgements above the expressivist behavior of animals.

  6. I think Nora Hamaleinen's comments make an important point in regard to Crary's search for an objective ethic:

    From the mere acknowledgment of the objective moral qualities of a creature, that is, the claim to life and flourishing it manifests, very little follows. Exclamations like “It is a live animal, you cannot treat it like that!” or “For God’s sake, he is a human being” are efficient responses to wanton cruelty or neglect. But what is the appropriate treatment of a living being who is someone’s dinner or threatening enemy? To butcher without cruelty and without unnecessary suffering? To protect one’s home, family, and livelihood without undue violence? These are the materials of moral reflection and negotiation.

    Living in a modern city, our fridges stocked with tofu and authorities for protecting our spaces, we can do our share to reduce cruelty. But we easily underestimate the amount of harming, maiming, and killing that goes on in our names: in modern agriculture, in keeping city spaces free from unwanted wildlife, not to speak of police violence, warfare, and exploitation. I agree with Crary that a proper acknowledgment of the reality of other beings, that is, their objective (moral) qualities, is essential. But even a pacified, modern, vegan society will have its own ways of perpetrating, tolerating, endorsing, and administrating the selective denial of respect and concern for other creatures. . . . in a sense, Crary’s book ends before the real adventure of both social critique and moral philosophy begins—the real adventure being that of interrogating our and others’ ways of administering moral concern and recognition.

    As Haemlein appears to note, isn't this really the case in the end, i.e., that the moral problem doesn't end with recognition that we treat our morally evaluative discourse as being objective (in some sense) merely because others (whether humans or animals) are like us in an important sense? Rather the truly moral question, the one that bedevils so many of us, is when and whether to take that to heart, to conclude that being like us matters in a way that prompts us to alter our behavior in their favor?

    At the end of the day isn't the real moral question that we wrestle with about discerning what it is about our moral discourse that leads us to certain moral intuitions and beliefs rather than others? If moral judgment is grounded in something objective (as we think it must be to work as advertised), then understanding that ground must also enable us to answer the question about what's the moral thing to do . . . if not in every particular case with absolute confidence we are right then at least in general as a tool for deciding between the different cases when they come up?