Tag Archives: moral community

A Few Observations on Standing on Quicksand

Three_Ways_of_Standing_on_QuicksandA few thoughts on the drawing I made yesterday morning.

One amoral transactionalist or another in my drawing might try to accumulate sufficient goods — in this case, enough flooring: planks, paving stones, rebar, etc. — to shore up only his patch of quicksand.

As he watched his trading partner and his fellow man sink, he might realize that he has done himself out of the trade that sustained and defined him.

He might also find that he needs the other guy after all, as it’s very hard to lay planks across one area of quicksand without building up another. (The best design would go to the very margins of the whole patch of quicksand, and anchor the floor in terra firma.) He has won only as much land as his transactions to date have secured for him. Once his trading partner sinks, he has made his last acquisition.

Even if their trade observes some rules, it will be short-lived unless they recognize that the patch of quicksand they’re standing on needs shoring up and maintenance. When the pair recognize that they share common ground, and a common future, they have a much better chance of keeping themselves from sinking.

With that recognition, they have already crossed over from amoral transactionalism into some sense of common life or mutual standing. They can start working together, or start coordinating their efforts: they might decide to tax their trade so that they can direct some of the goods toward building a shared foundation.

Do the pair locked in territorial rivalry have any future? One might prevail over the other, raid his stores of goods and make plans to occupy the entire territory. He could even enslave him or coerce him to build a stable platform over the quicksand patch.

It’s a future from which both parties should recoil in horror. At the very least they might understand that, all things being equal and luck being what it is, committing to this course means that one of them will end up dead or suffering under the lash.

And the best the winner of such a contest can hope for is the master’s fate: he will never be truly respected nor have standing as a person (which can only be granted by another person; but he has deprived his rival of that standing). He will have lost even that bitter sense of “we” that he knew in the days of territorial rivalry. Now he can only make the vanquished party hand over his goods, do his bidding, cower in fear or howl in pain.

Three Ways of Standing on Quicksand

Here’s a drawing I made on the back of an envelope over breakfast this morning, to illustrate three ways of standing on quicksand: territorial rivalry, amoral transactionalism, and moral community or mutual standing.


A Note on the Latest No-Platforming

There are currently a number of arguments being made on both sides of the question whether the no-platforming of Peter Tatchell constitutes censorship. I won’t say they are all good arguments; but I’d like to suggest there’s more at stake in all this than the speech rights of one very outspoken person. This thought was brought home to me by a turn of phrase in Jerry Coyne’s very thorough post on the Tatchell affair:

If someone is invited to an event and then is disinvited, or someone who’s already agreed to speak at an event withdraws because they don’t like the views of another invited speaker, then that is a kind of censorship, as it constitutes breaking an agreement previously made in an effort to prevent someone’s views from being expressed and heard.

Censorship might well have been the intended outcome of Fran Cowling’s childish refusal to take part in a debate with someone who had signed a letter defending the free speech of Germaine Greer and other writers whose views she found unsavory. I don’t know for certain that she meant to do anything other than stomp her feet in public (some people call this behavior “virtue signaling”) or if she had thought her actions all the way through.

All that involves very complicated questions about her intentions and so on, and it’s beside the simpler point I want to make. Before jumping into questions of what Cowling intended or what were the intended or unintended consequences of her actions, I suggest we pause to consider the simple fact that (as Coyne puts it, or almost puts it) Cowling broke an agreement. Full stop.

Of course, we make and break agreements all the time, sometimes reaching and then rescinding an agreement jointly with others, and sometimes in violation of commitments we’ve made, or without fulfilling the explicit or implicit terms of the agreement. It’s in making and breaking agreements where we come up against questions of what we owe each other.

In this instance, the breaking of the agreement could stand at least as much discussion as the censorship question or the question what Cowling hoped to accomplish by breaking the agreement. It’s not simply that Cowling broke or withdrew from the agreement she’d made to appear alongside Tatchell. He’s even said that he’s ok with that (“She has a right to refuse to speak alongside me, but not to make witchhunting, McCarthy-style, untrue allegations.”). It’s her denouncing him as a “racist and a transphobe” that really bothers him.

But there was a much much more basic agreement in place even before the invitation to either speaker was made, and that’s something like a shared commitment to debate, or the very idea that it’s worth talking things over and listening to what others have to say — as opposed to, say, might makes right or some equally ugly proposition. It’s hard to believe that this even needs saying: when we deny others who share a commitment to talking things over the standing to talk, we wrong them and invite all sorts of abuses against them and against ourselves.

This is one reason why Cowling’s actions appear to be unethical and dangerous even if it can be argued that they are not, as her supporters insist, a violation of Tatchell’s individual rights.

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.