Monday, August 27, 2018

Inside Ethics

Alice Crary's Inside Ethics: On the Demands of Moral Thought is an excellent book, and I have no criticisms to offer. But I do have some questions about it. First, though, a summary of the argument, in the form of a series of quotations:
Human beings and animals have moral qualities that are, in a straightforward empirical sense, open to view. That is the thesis of this book. (p. 10)
I describe thinkers who take human beings and/or animals to lack all observable moral characteristics as situating human beings and/or animals outside ethics, and I describe those who in contrast take human beings and/or animals to have moral characteristics that are open to observation as situating human beings and/or animals inside ethics. (pp. 11-12) 
It is entirely standard to conceive of ‘moral’ values [...] as values that are internally related to action and choice, and thus far in this chapter I have simply assumed that my talk of human and animal ‘moral’ characteristics would be read as implying—as I intend it to imply—that the recognition that a creature has these characteristics is practically significant in the sense of being directly relevant to how it should be treated. (p. 13)
There are passages in his later work in which Wittgenstein gives expression to a view of mind of the sort I want to defend (viz., a view on which psychological categories are irreducibly ethical and metaphysically transparent), and his writings also develop interrelated lines of reasoning that, when brought together, can be used to make a compelling case for such a view. (p. 39)
Mental characteristics are only at home in human and animal lives in which some things matter in that they are, say, to-be-feared, to-be-sought, to-be eaten, to-be-protected, or to-be-befriended. Our ability to recognize creatures as possessing such characteristics presupposes that we have already at least imaginatively adopted an attitude toward them as beings who are caught up in such lives and who accordingly, in appropriate circumstances, merit specific modes of concern and attention. It is in this respect, insofar as they are aspects of the lives of creatures who call for particular forms of response, that the mental characteristics of human beings and animals are essentially practical. Given that they are thus both objective and essentially practical, it is fair to say that these characteristics present us with objective moral values. (p. 88)
[I]n ruling out conceptuality we commit ourselves to representing any natural or learned canine responses as operating on (or triggered by) particulars. We cannot talk about modes of conduct that involve the recognition of kinds of things or of individuals. This is what speaks for attributing conceptual capacities to dogs. (p. 113)
[I]f we are to bring human beings and animals empirically into view in ethics, then— without regard to whether they possess species-typical capacities of mind—we need to look at them in the light of ethical conceptions of what matters in the lives of members of their kinds. That is what speaks [...] for saying [...] that merely being a human or an animal matters for ethics. (p. 161) 
[L]iterary works can contribute internally to the kind of empirical understanding that we seek in ethics (p. 204) 
One striking feature of the book is its similarity to, and engagement with, regular philosophy. That might not sound striking, but Crary somehow both draws heavily on Wittgenstein and engages in what looks very much like the kind of philosophical theorizing that he rejects. I can't help feeling that this is a sign that something must have gone wrong, but I also can't see that it matters. This is not a good position for me to be in. So my first question is, what should I do about this? I'll attempt a kind of answer below.

Secondly, Crary distinguishes between two kinds of facts in a way that puzzles me. This comes up especially in the last chapter of the book. For instance, see these passages about Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals:
To arrive at this recognition we need to know some of the plain facts about what this system [i.e., the industrial food system] is like. These facts have in recent years gotten attention in, among other places, non-fiction best sellers, blogs, and the columns of major newspapers, and they are increasingly familiar to the reading public. Safran Foer takes it for granted that his readers will know the basics about factory farms, and he devotes himself to filling in some of the details. For instance, when he talks about the treatment of those chickens who are raised for meat—or, in the industry lingo, “broilers”—he tells us not only that the birds are packed together in close quarters but also that they are generally placed in windowless sheds by the tens of thousands at densities that allow each bird on average something less than a square foot of floor space; he tells us not only that these conditions quickly become filthy and produce illness but that they lead to respiratory disease, musculoskeletal injury, and enormously high rates of infections of different kinds (including some like E. coli that are caused by fecal contamination); he tells us not only that the birds therefore all get antibiotics in their feed but also that their bodies are routinely bathed in chlorine to decontaminate them after slaughter; he tells us not only that many chickens are injured when being packed for transport to slaughter but also that approximately 30 percent suffer broken bones, that they receive no further food or water once under way, and that they are slaughtered by a mechanical process that, when it works correctly, slits their throats while they are still conscious and, in the small but significant number of cases in which it doesn’t, scalds them alive; and so on and so on.
When Safran Foer discusses the treatment of broiler chickens, he isn’t merely concerned with these kinds of neutral facts. He is taking for granted the ethically charged image he develops of the significance of different animals’ lives and using it to get us to register the horror of what is done to the birds. One of his goals is to have us visualize what it means for a chicken to be crammed into a room with tens of thousands of its fellows, with no more than about an eighth of a square foot to itself. “Find a piece of printer paper and imagine a full-grown bird shaped something like a football with legs standing on it,” he instructs, “and imagine 33,000 of these rectangles in a grid.” He uses evocative language in talking about the kind of ailments from which many of these chickens suffer because he wants us to register the bodily significance of the fact that a small percentage of the birds “die writhing in convulsions from sudden death syndrome” and that three quarters have the sorts of walking impairments that are in all likelihood signs of chronic pain. He uses similarly expressive terms in talking about the ways in which the birds are treated during transportation to slaughter and during the killing process because he also wants us to register horrors here. Workers are, he explains, expected to crate chickens so quickly that they “will regularly feel the birds’ bones snapping in their hands.” Moreover, “often the screaming of the birds and the flapping of their wings will be so loud that workers won’t be able to hear the person next to them on the line,” and “often the birds will defecate in pain and terror.” It is in this way—by moving from his effort, early in the book, to get us to see that animals matter to evocative descriptions of the handling of broiler chickens in the industrial food system—that Safran Foer positions us to see the awful callousness of the birds’ treatment. (pp. 262-263)
Crary contrasts plain or neutral facts with ethically charged expressive terms and evocative descriptions. This sounds like a contrast between ways of saying what the facts are more than a contrast between two kinds of facts, and perhaps this is what she means. But I'm also not sure about where the contrast is. When she talks about "these kinds of neutral facts" does she mean both such facts as that "birds are packed together in close quarters" and that "they are generally placed in windowless sheds by the tens of thousands at densities that allow each bird on average something less than a square foot of floor space"? Or is the former a neutral fact while the latter is ethically charged? As these paragraphs are written it looks as though the stuff about birds having their throats slit while still conscious and in some cases being scalded alive are (supposedly) neutral facts while their dying while writhing in convulsions is either a different kind of fact (an ethically charged one) or else a different kind of presentation of a fact (an evocative one). I agree that there is a difference in kind between the bland statement that chickens are packed together in close quarters and the statement that the screaming and flapping of the birds is so loud that workers cannot hear the person next to them. But both, I take it, are equally facts. 

The first paragraph quoted above contains a series of "not only...but also" pairs of facts, and it seems to me genuinely unclear whether Crary means that everything in the paragraph is a plain or neutral fact (which is what the words "these kinds of neutral facts" in the first sentence of the next paragraph seem to imply) or whether the "not only" facts are plain/neutral and the "but also" ones are ethically charged. That would make more sense to me. But the difference seems more one of degree than of kind. One of the "not only" facts involves reference to filthy conditions that produce disease. That isn't as evocative as the fact about routine chlorine baths for decontamination, but it's at least somewhat evocative. And this matters because the inside/outside ethics distinction that gives the book its title has to do with this distinction between neutral facts and (what I think Crary never calls) ethical facts. 

A difference of degree is still a difference, but I wonder whether there's a tension, and whether this matters, between Crary's distinction between outside and inside ethics (between neutral facts and non-neutral facts) and her view that ethically relevant facts are empirically discoverable. Here's a possibility: those who situate humans and/or animals outside ethics believe that there are neutral facts, or perhaps rather that there is a space of neutral facts with no essential or internal connection to ethical facts; those who situate humans and/or animals inside ethics deny that there is such a space or, if there is one, that humans and/or animals exist within it. (The latter might think, for instance, that mathematics or physics is a kind of conceptual space in which the facts are neutral, but that in this space there are no people or animals.) In this case, from the inside ethics perspective, the distinction between neutral and ethical (non-neutral) facts is only relative at most. So in the passages quoted above about Safran Foer we need to read in words such as 'relatively' and 'supposedly' whenever anything is described as neutral or evocative or morally charged. Because all the facts mentioned there are morally charged to some extent. This, it seems to me, is in fact the case, i.e. it is the case, and not only "from the inside ethics point of view." 

I can't (be bothered (here and now) to) explain how or why, but I think this shows the outside ethics position to be not just false but nonsensical. It is a 'position' that is committed to the existence of a way of making sense of human and/or animal life that does not exist. And what I suspect is that all of Crary's book has to be read in a kind of as-if spirit. The various 'theories' that she shows to be 'wrong' are, in fact, not even possibly correct. But she talks about them as if they might be. And the 'theories' that she shows to be better are in fact a (possibly misleading) representation of the only way we can, or at least do, make sense of the phenomena in question. Thus, for instance, there is not really "a view of mind" to which Wittgenstein gives expression and which Crary endorses. Rather, there is the way (or ways) we talk about and understand the concept of mind (or a whole bunch of concepts related to mind). I haven't spelled it out, but somewhere in this, I believe, is the answer to my first question about theories and Wittgenstein. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The philosophy of Agatha Christie

This is Amy Leatheran in Murder in Mesopotamia, channeling Schopenhauer:
Somehow, the more I get older, and the more I see of people and sadness and illness and everything, the sorrier I get for everyone. Sometimes, I declare, I don't know what's becoming of the good, strict principles my aunt brought me up with. A very religious woman she was, and most particular. There wasn't one of our neighbours whose faults she didn't know backwards and forwards...

Monday, August 6, 2018

Forthcoming 2


This collection examines the relationship between Augustine and Wittgenstein and demonstrates the deep affinity they share, not only for the substantive issues they treat but also for the style of philosophizing they employ. Wittgenstein saw certain salient Augustinian approaches to concepts like language-learning, will, memory, and time as prompts for his own philosophical explorations, and he found great inspiration in Augustine’s highly personalized and interlocutory style of writing philosophy. Each in his own way, in an effort to understand human experience more fully, adopts a mode of philosophizing that involves questioning, recognizing confusions, and confronting doubts. Beyond its bearing on such topics as language, meaning, knowledge, and will, their analysis extends to the nature of religious belief and its fundamental place in human experience. The essays collected here consider a broad range of themes, from issues regarding teaching, linguistic meaning, and self-understanding to miracles, ritual, and religion. « less


Wittgenstein, Religion and Ethics

New Perspectives from Philosophy and Theology

Editor(s): Mikel Burley
Media of Wittgenstein, Religion and Ethics
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Table of contents

Notes on Contributors

Introduction: Wittgenstein, Religion and Ethics: Seeing the Connections, Mikel Burley (University of Leeds, UK)
1. The Early Wittgenstein on Ethical Religiousness as a Dispositional Attitude, Chon Tejedor (University of Hertfordshire, UK)
2. 'The Problem of Life': Later Wittgenstein on the Difficulty of Honest Happiness, Gabriel Citron (Princeton University, USA)
3. Wittgenstein and the Study of Religion: Beyond Fideism and Atheism, Mikel Burley (University of Leeds, UK)
4. Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard and Chalcedon, Rowan Williams (University of Cambridge, UK)
5. On the Very Idea of a Theodicy, Genia Schönbaumsfeld (University of Southampton, UK)
6. Wittgenstein, Analogy and Religion in Mulhall's The Great Riddle, Wayne Proudfoot (Columbia University, USA)
7. Riddles, Nonsense and Religious Language, Stephen Mulhall (University of Oxford, UK)
8. Wittgenstein and the Distinctiveness of Religious Language, Michael Scott (University of Manchester, UK)
9. Number and Transcendence: Wittgenstein and Cantor, John Milbank (University of Nottingham, UK)
10. What Have I Done?, Sophie Grace Chappell (The Open University, UK)
11. Wittgenstein and the Value of Clarity, Duncan Richter (Virginia Military University, USA)



“The essays gathered in this book address in fresh and exciting ways topics central to philosophy of religion, religious ethics, and theology. Anyone interested in those fields will want to read it, as will anyone interested in Wittgenstein. Not only does the collection show the continuing importance and interest of Wittgenstein as a philosopher in his own right, it offers fascinating dialogues between Wittgenstein and major contemporary philosophers and theologians, and it convincingly demonstrates the value to contemporary philosophy and theology of Wittgenstein's approach. Mikel Burley is to be congratulated on gathering together such a stellar list of contributors. This book will be an invaluable reference point for future discussions.” –  Andrew Moore, Research Fellow, University of Oxford, UK