Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Rachel Fraser on Sophie Grace Chappell’s Epiphanies

Although I have yet to read the book under review, I have some thoughts about Rachel Fraser's criticism of Sophie Grace Chappell's new book EpiphaniesAll quotes from this in the Boston Review. Bits that seem extra important to me are in bold.

Chappell’s proposal for managing disagreement is what she calls “a republic of conversation.” We should explore together our various epiphanies. Only extremists—those whose epiphanies preclude such conversation—will be excluded. This, of course, is textbook political liberalism. As such, it inherits much of the dreamy unreality characteristic of liberal visions of collective life. There are particular agents with their private projects. Sometimes those agents come together. When they do, their conduct is governed only by the thinnest of requirements: be tolerant, be respectful.

This seems unfair. Chappell is not responsible for the alleged faults of other members of the same tradition or family of views. And Chappell offers, apparently, a proposal (concerning what we should do), while Fraser criticizes a “fantasy” of how our collective lives are lived.

This is a fantasy. Our collective lives are always governed by a thicket of normatively structured institutions—institutions that orient us to a particular conception of the good. [...] Arguably, it is just these thickets which enable conversation. Meaningful discourse requires an interpersonal infrastructure, which cannot be laid in a normative vacuum; it needs some lifeworld to bed into. But it seems to be within just such a vacuum—all moral content thicker than civility pumped out—that Chappell proposes we converse.

Evidence that Chappell proposes conversation in a moral vacuum? None that I can see. But, of course, I haven't read the book.

Once we start thinking of ethics as a social technology, systematicity and argument take on a different hue. It’s hard to be all that piecemeal or poetic when thinking about how to organize social institutions. We may live by our visions, but they can’t write our social policy. And some of us are doomed to live within a moral order that we disavow. This, I am inclined to think, is an unavoidable feature of human life: there could not be a form of life both neutral and meaningfully collective.

Once we do what?! Can this be a good idea? I would think that piecemeal is the only way to think about social institutions. Pretty much for reasons that Fraser gives. We are borin into a world of such institutions and they shape the way we think. We can destroy everything but only literally, only physically. We cannot imaginatively or intellectually wipe the slate clean and then think afresh from there. Wiping the slate clean removes the tools we need to think with. We are stuck with something like reflective equilibrium as the best or only option for social evaluation.

Moving on... So, to converse (meaningfully and collectively) we need a lifeworld. This will not be neutral. And so neither can we ever be. OK.

But if we can’t be neutral, we should at least be articulate. In other words, you owe me an argument. The vision of the good life that our social institutions encode should be explicit and contestable. And to be explicit and contestable—well, that sounds a lot like the law, and less like art criticism (at least as Chappell conceives it). Arguments can be challenged, rather than merely traded, in a way that visions cannot. 

Couldn’t one equally say, “But if we can’t be neutral, we should at least be civil, tolerant, and respectful”? And surely articulating a vision of the good life need not, and usually will not, take the form of putting forward an argument. And how contestable will a vision be that is encoded into the social institutions that enable the very conversation in which alone it can be contested? Somewhat, no doubt, but imperfectly or awkwardly, I would think, at best.

This seems like the key to the mystery here. There's an ideal (that seems visible in Fraser's thinking) of stepping back to get as clear a view as possible of social norms so that they can be critiqued and changed as desired. But there is also a recognition that we cannot do this except from within a lifeworld that is not completely separable from those norms and institutions. Which makes Chappell's view seem more correct than Fraser's. 

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