Darwall and the Emperors’ New Clothes – A Reading Note

I’ve been nodding my head enthusiastically as I make my way through Stephen Darwall’s account of the second-personal character of moral obligation. The Second Person Standpoint anticipates and articulates questions I have to address when it comes to what I’ve been calling the power of asking. It’s as if someone has drawn a clear a map of a path I am preparing to walk. But the other day I came across the following passage about the Edict of Milan that threw me and still has me puzzled. It reads like a costume drama, with characters from the 4th century garbed in 20th century philosophical robes: wardrobe by Austin (“felicity conditions”), Strawson (“resented… and blamed”) and Falk (“guiding… not goading”).

Consider the demands a king or an emperor makes of his subjects, for example, the Edict of Milan, which the Roman emperors Constantine and Licinius promulgated to stop Christian persecution in the Roman Empire. If Constantine and Licinius resented violations of this demand and blamed violators when they lacked adequate excuse, then in interpreting them as addressing (and so guiding) their subjects by second-personal reasons and not goading them, even by rational coercion, we must see them as having been committed thereby to regarding their subjects as capable of recognizing the edict’s (de jure) authoritative backing and of guiding themselves by it. The normative felicity conditions of a command that can generate genuine second-personal reasons include the addressees’ capacity for such a practically effective recognition. Qua second-personal address, the edict presupposed subjects’ aptitude for this second-personal relation, specifically, their capacity for reciprocal recognition and acceptance of their responsibilities to the emperor and, as well, their capacity to discharge their responsibility through this recognition.

Notice the way Darwall carefully stages this example and hedges the history here with a conditional (“if Constantine and Licinius”) and such carefully wrought turns of phrase as “in interpreting them as addressing” and “we must see them as having been committed.” If we remove all that apparatus, I wonder, does this amount to anything more than saying that in issuing an edict, Constantine assumed his subjects would be able to recognize its authority and follow it? I supposed it’s fair to say Constantine expected compliance, and Darwall is just getting at what’s behind that expectation. But then what makes the Edict of Milan different from any other edict or law promulgated and enforced by any ruler or regime? Why single it out?

I see the point about Constantine committing himself to his subjects’ “capability to recognize the edict’s (de jure) authoritative backing”. We are asked to believe that issuing the edict carried “presuppositions of second-personality” that would have committed Constantine to the “the equal dignity of persons and to morality as of a form of mutual accountability” — had they only been “fully worked clear.”

I’m just not sure there’s much historical specificity to the historical example here; and the anachronistic language makes matters worse. I don’t think Darwall would want to argue that the “aptitude for second-personal relation” somehow became particularly prominent or recognizable in 313 (the year the edict was issued). Nor does he seem to suggest that that aptitude – or the presupposition (if not the explicit recognition) of that aptitude on Constantine’s part – has any historical specificity at all.

Just a few moments before this, Darwall has admitted that “for most of human history, it has seemed to people that any justified order is quite incompatible with the kind of moral equality that many readers of this book, at least, might be willing to take for granted.” But for Darwall people in all historical periods seem to enjoy equal moral standing; you and I and a 4th century peasant, soldier or the Emperor Constantine himself. This is admirably egalitarian, but I am not so sure it makes for very good history. At the very least it suggests that Darwall doesn’t seem to regard the dignified stature of mutually accountable second-persons itself as a historical construct – something that emerged, let’s say, with the modern subject or early modern ideas of subjectivity, or something that could pass away with certain institutions or practices.

Darwall wants to argue that we have this dignified stature (in part, at least) because we are capable of recognizing ourselves as second persons within a moral community. Apparently we have always been so capable (and, I take it, always will be). For most of human history, we just haven’t fully known it or taken appropriate measures to demonstrate it, or, at least, we haven’t realized and reflected our mutual dignity and equal accountability in political institutions or a social order.

In the next chapter, Darwall will identify “tensions within early modern voluntarism” – in the work of Locke, Pufendorf and Suarez – “that lead in the direction of morality as equal accountability.” It seems philosophy will change and take new directions but human beings qua moral beings don’t, or don’t have to. We already are members of the moral community. We may not come into the world fully clothed in our dignity, but the world gives it to us. The moral community of free and rational persons, equal and mutually accountable, populates history in all periods, in the 4th century as well as the 21st, even though for most of human history there were no “justified relations of authority,” institutions or political order that explicitly recognized, supported or protected it.

As I say, I’m puzzled by this, and not sure exactly where it’s heading, or if Darwall will work the problem out in this book. History here appears to trace an arc of gradual enlightenment, with the moral community of equally dignified and mutually accountable persons finally coming into its own and creating appropriate institutions, philosophical constructs and orders – from the Edict of Milan right up to the present, I guess, when things are almost fully worked clear.

2 thoughts on “Darwall and the Emperors’ New Clothes – A Reading Note

  1. Pingback: Darwall and the Emperors’ New Clothes – A Reading Note | ChristianBookBarn.com

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