Tag Archives: shared commitment

Cary Wolfe on “Another Moral Vocabulary”

FridayStoopFocus

Friday on the stoop.

This is from Natasha Lennard’s 2017 interview with Cary Wolfe in The Stone:

On the one hand, rights discourse is Exhibit A for the problems with philosophical humanism. Many of us, including myself, would agree that many of the ethical aspirations of humanism are quite admirable and we should continue to pursue them. For example, most of us would probably agree that treating animals cruelly, and justifying that treatment on the basis of their designation as “animal” rather than human, is a bad thing to do.

But the problem with how rights discourse addresses this problem — in animal rights philosophy, for example — is that animals end up having some kind of moral standing insofar as they are diminished versions of us: that is to say, insofar as they are possessed of various characteristics such as the capacity to experience suffering — and not just brute physical suffering but emotional duress as well — that we human beings possess more fully. And so we end up reinstating a normative form of the moral-subject-as-human that we wanted to move beyond in the first place.

So on the other hand, what one wants to do is to find a way of valuing nonhuman life not because it is some diminished or second-class form of the human, but because the diversity and abundance of life is to be valued for what it is in its own right, in its difference and uniqueness. An elephant or a dolphin or a chimpanzee isn’t worthy of respect because it embodies some normative form of the “human” plus or minus a handful of relevant moral characteristics. It’s worthy of respect for reasons that call upon us to come up with another moral vocabulary, a vocabulary that starts by acknowledging that whatever it is we value ethically and morally in various forms of life, it has nothing to do with the biological designation of “human” or “animal.”

Having said all that, there are many, many contexts in which rights discourse is the coin of the realm when you’re engaged in these arguments — and that’s not surprising, given that nearly all of our political and legal institutions are inherited from the brief historical period (ecologically speaking) in which humanism flourished and consolidated its domain. If you’re talking to a state legislature about strengthening laws for animal abuse cases, let’s say, instead of addressing a room full of people at a conference on deconstruction and philosophy about the various problematic assumptions built into rights discourse, then you better be able to use a different vocabulary and different rhetorical tools if you want to make good on your ethical commitments. That’s true even though those commitments and how you think about them might well be informed by a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the problem than would be available to those legislators. In other words, it’s only partly a philosophical question. It’s also a strategic question, one of location, context and audience, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that we can move more quickly in the realm of academic philosophical discourse on these questions than we can in the realm of legal and political institutions.

How Things Are Between Us

Time now to say something about the tendency, nearly everywhere apparent, to reduce human relationships to transactions, as promised in an earlier post. The topic is vast and I won’t pretend to give it comprehensive treatment in this short post. Instead I’ll just outline some of the problems I have with this tendency, and try to work my way back to some of the thinking and reading I’ve been doing about ordinary first-person plural activities, like conversations, taking a walk together, and so on.

I’m going to pass quickly over what seems to me the most obvious point about this transactional way of thinking about human relationships: namely, that it’s crass to recast human relationships as mere exchanges of goods or information or words. I can easily conceive of situations in which a transactional approach might become abusive, destructive or reach sociopathic proportions; and examples (like this ugly item from today’s news) wouldn’t be very hard to find. But I think crass is the word I’m looking for at the moment, especially if we’re talking about the everyday activities of relatively decent people. “Crass” denotes coarseness and a lack of intelligence and refinement. It’s bad manners, we might say, as long as we remember that manners are more than etiquette, but a respect for how things are between us.

In a commercial transaction the seller can be indiscriminate: usually it doesn’t matter who the buyer is, as long as the seller’s price is met. (Of course there are special cases even here: the Christian baker who will not sell a decorated wedding cake to the same sex couple; the Soup Nazi — “No soup for you!”; and so on.) In relationships, on the other hand, we regularly discriminate and sort out our feelings toward people. Attitudes matter. We are friends, lovers, enemies. I like or dislike you, or I am bothered by what you said. It’s easy to spend time with this person; but that one gets my goat within the first few minutes. She is my mentor with whom I enjoy having lunch at the Greek restaurant on Wednesdays; here comes the tedious colleague with whom I despise talking. All these attitudes are fluid and subject to change, but the point is that in relationships we are always discriminating, reacting and adjusting. Relationships involve moral judgments and ground us in moral community.

Transactions tend to be finite; once the price is negotiated and paid in exchange for goods, the transaction is over. (I recognize that there are transactions that trigger other transactions and so on, but even so the extension of that scaffolding does not necessarily amount to a full-fledged relationship.) Relationships are not events but enduring states; and while some relationships may involve negotiations of price (e.g., we talk about relationships with longstanding clients or customers), those negotiations have as it were been imported into the relationship or continue within it, and they can be destructive of it.

Relationships properly speaking involve much more — above all, a sense of “us,” and all that the first-person plural brings with it: mutual recognition and mutual authority, a whole range of changing attitudes, evaluations of beliefs and actions in light of recognized norms, as well as all sorts of promises and obligations, claims and grievances.

In a word: relationships involve care.

Obviously, but care for whom? This, for me, is the essence of the matter. Most of us would probably be quick to say that a relationship involves care for another or someone other than oneself, for a second person or persons. But all the attitudes we have toward others and the actions we undertake on behalf of second persons demonstrate, at a minimum, that we care not just for the other but also for how things are between us. And that is probably the more important point here, or at least the point I would like to stress: that in a relationship we are jointly committed to how things are between us. We are not only a first and second person who have each made an individual or personal commitment, but a first-person plural, a “we.”

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.

Howard Becker’s Idea of A World

Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker profile of sociologist Howard Becker brought this passage to my attention. It resonated with so many things I’ve been reading about and even writing about lately that I immediately searched out the source of the passage Gopnik quotes: “A Dialogue on the Ideas of ‘World’ and ‘Field,’” between Becker and Alain Pessin. There’s a transcript of the 2006 dialogue on Becker’s site; it also appeared in Sociological Forum and in the French journal Sociologie de l’art. Here’s the passage that initially struck me:

A “world” as I understand it–and if my language elsewhere doesn’t convey this then I’ve failed to be clear–consists of real people who are trying to get things done, largely by getting other people to do things that will assist them in their project. Because everyone has a project, and the outcome of negotiations between them is whatever they finally all agree to, everyone involved in such an activity has to take into account how others will respond to their own actions. David Mamet, the playwright, said somewhere I can’t now find that, in a scene in a play, everyone in the scene has something they want. If they didn’t want something they wouldn’t be there, they’d be off someplace where they could pursue something they did want. The scene consists of each one trying to get what he or she wants, and the resulting collective activity is something that perhaps no one wanted, but is the best everyone could get out of this situation and therefore what they all, in effect, agreed to.

A world is a place where, willy-nilly, we find ourselves trying to do things and where we are always already committed to doing things with others; so we need constantly to read their minds or at least get a good working sense of what they want and take their intentions into account. This permits and requires us to make claims or demands on them and them on us. We ask for or compel their assistance in myriad ways, even as they and others do the same to us and myriad others.

In this conception, at least, a world is not a fiat of power, a matter of a coup or command, but an ongoing negotiation and accommodation. As Becker says elsewhere in the “Dialogue,” when Pessin presses him, once again, to differentiate idea of a world from Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of a “field”:

the metaphor of world–which does not seem to be at all true of the metaphor of field–contains people, all sorts of people, who are in the middle of doing something which requires them to pay attention to each other, to take account consciously of the existence of others and to shape what they do in the light of what others do. In such a world, people do not respond automatically to mysterious external forces surrounding them. Instead, they develop their lines of activity gradually, seeing how others respond to what they do and adjusting what they do next in a way that meshes with what others have done and will probably do next.

I like Becker’s sense here that we are never starting from scratch. We are always in medias res and our work is always unfinished, and it keeps unravelling and collecting itself in different configurations, collaborations, joint commitments and shared intentions.

There’s no extra-social territory, no Archimedean point from which we make a world. We are already in it; and we are never very far from each other, even when we think we are making plans of our own. We are constantly making little, often imperceptible adjustments and changes to what we are doing and what we want to do, re-routing desire, fidgeting and digressing, retreating and advancing, even as we gradually recalibrate our next moves (our “lines of activity,” as Becker so nicely puts it).

Inevitably, we end up doing something other than what we initially thought we wanted or tried to do — which we ordinarily allow, because we’ve already conceded and agreed to the imperfect outcome a thousand times over.