Symposium Introduction

Sixty years ago this past January G.E.M. Anscombe wrote “…it is not profitable for us at present to do moral philosophy; that should be laid aside at any rate until we have an adequate philosophy of psychology, in which we are conspicuously lacking.”1 Taking Anscombe’s premise as retaining its relevance, Alice Crary’s Inside Ethics seeks to remedy that lacking. Crary sheds light on the origins of our moral sensibilities and the moral necessities of minded creatureliness.

More specifically, can we say that moral claims are “objective” if morality is, at least to some degree, bound up with human subjectivity or mindedness, as it seems we must say? (Morality isn’t, for example, part of a lion’s form of life in hunting gazelles, whereas ethical norms can and do enter into human hunting and killing of prey for food). Can we affirm that morality is part of the world as such, as well as part of human thought and mindedness? These are some of the most central philosophical questions that animate Inside Ethics as Crary seeks to sketch a philosophy of mind from within moral mindedness.

Crary begins her argument summarizing current moral philosophy using Peter Singer and Christine Korsgaard as representatives of the dominant metaphysical trends in ethics that situate human beings “outside” ethics. What Crary means by “outside” here is key. Crary argues that both Singer and Korsgaard, in their distinctive non-cognitivist and Kantian ways respectively, leave the world morally inert. No object is or can be teleologically relevant for action, unless that relevance is imposed from the outside by a knowing person. In short, humans are not by nature ethically significant to each other or the world, morally speaking, and cannot discover moral qualities in humans or animals. As a result, “objective descriptions” of the world are left to the sciences to be handed off to the moral philosopher who is left to work with whatever these disciplines can say “objectively” about the world. And what is left is completely bereft of qualities of mindedness, according to Crary.

Crary seeks to dislodge this picture of moral thought and action that disallows all subjective qualities from entering into objectivity (what she calls a “narrower conception of objectivity”) by arguing that humans (and animals) are “inside” ethics and that some qualities of human mind can be part of objective reality (what she calls a “wider conception of objectivity”) (33-35). Drawing on Wittgenstein, Crary argues that this wider conception of objectivity fits with a “common sense realism about the mind,” a mind that is “an ineradicably ethical phenomenon” (40). Crary makes her case by arguing against abstraction requirements that compel thinkers to remove any and all forms of subjectivity in our representations of reality because subjectivity supposedly occludes the way things are in the world. Using Wittgenstein’s thinking on sense perception and rule following, Crary shows how any account of thought and experience that requires unmediated or non-conceptual access to the world is not simply false but empty or meaningless. All modes of thought are by nature conceptual and circular, though not viciously so—since even an ideal of pure linear thought with grounding in non-conceptual experience cannot do the work it purports to do, in Crary’s view.

Ultimately, moral significance is an empirical and therefore discoverable reality on Crary’s terms. Her argument cuts against the grain of physicalist and materialist conceptions of mind that presume that physical properties are the only objective realities. Crary notes the connections between materialist metaphysics in science and the belief that sciences offer the best ways to begin moral conversations regarding humans and animals.

But, more specifically, what are these ethically significant and irreducible characteristics of mind that are also objective, according to Crary? She begins by using Wittgenstein to demonstrate the necessary connection between inwardness and expression—that is, between qualities of mind and forms of behavior. Following Wittgenstein, she considers how our concepts of pain and grief require expression. For example, it would be nearly impossibility to convince someone that another human being was in excruciating pain if they were sitting quietly in an office reading a book. A similar argument could be made about animals. In other words, separating pain from expressive behavior threatens to render our concept of pain empty. And here lies the pivot of Crary next move: to show that ethical conceptions are necessary to make sense of the psychological significance of someone’s behavior. The primary way Crary seeks to gain traction here is through pragmatic considerations. Crary argues that understanding behavior (either of a human or non-human creature) requires a mind to know what matters or is important in the life of the creature in focus. Her argument relies on taking a contextualist position, the view that pragmatic considerations are necessary for understanding expressive behavior, which includes linguistic behavior. In short, in order to understand human behavior one must know what is important in a human life and such important matters are necessarily practical in scope, e.g. food, shelter, friendship, etc).

Such pragmatic considerations require the “priority of judgment” (70); another idea Crary gleans from Wittgenstein. What she and Wittgenstein mean by this is that for a hearer to understand the sense of a sentence, or any linguistic act, she generally grasp in what ways a speaker’s words fit within the situation they’re spoken. That is, language does not have a logical structure theoretically separable and antecedently knowable prior to its use. Words and sentences are usually recognized by another speaker to have sense within particular situations for particular purposes. Crary even uses theoretical description in behavioral psychology as one particular use that requires pragmatic sensitivities. She discusses cases of sympathy in children and jealously in dogs, and concludes that the proper coding of behaviors by researchers or theoreticians requires them to have a conception of sympathy’s place in the life of humans as well as jealousy in the life of dogs. In other words, coding a dog’s behavior as jealous while it excitedly receives a treat from her caretaker as a reward for obedience would be a failure in such a conception.

Such is a basic outline of Crary’s philosophical argument that offers more detail and depth than an introduction like this can put forth. Amongst what’s been elided are uses of literature and ordinary human practice across cultures that—sometimes movingly—support Crary’s case. Additionally, Crary refines and positions herself with in-depth comparisons and analyses of the works of Cary Wolfe and Philippa Foot, while also discussing ethical concerns regarding eating and experimenting on animals. 

Essays on Inside Ethics

Avner Baz opens the symposium. His critical response to Crary’s book presupposes broad agreement in what and how she argues her case. However, Baz devotes the majority of his response to points of disagreement with Crary. Baz argues that John McDowell’s influence on Crary’s account of human and animal perceptual experience reflects a deeply non-Wittgensteinian philosophical practice and results in conceptual confusion. Ultimately, he questions whether it is helpful or truthful to locate “moral characteristics” in our conceptually articulated “objective” world. Baz’s arguments are notable because he makes his case against Crary from their shared Wittgensteinian methodology, his own important contributions to understanding Wittgenstein’s writings on seeing aspects, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology.

Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen likewise offers a critical response in the context of broad appreciation of Crary’s arguments. Christensen offers two points of criticism. First, she suggests that Crary’s project and Phillipa Foot’s naturalistic ethics are more complementary than Crary admits. Christensen’s larger concern appears to be that human language is richer in empirical judgments that may serve as analogies with world-guided ethical judgments about human beings than Crary allows. Second, she argues that Cray consistently moves too quickly and uniformly from seeing the point of particular human and animal actions, to knowing what matters for human and animal life, to ethics. Christensen claims that Crary needs to say more about how to move from each of these points to the others and that she should show a greater appreciation of the variety in how these three moments are related to each other in the course of human and animal lives.

Nora Hämäläinen’s response displays a concern with the picture of contemporary philosophical discourse Crary’s book may inadvertently normalize and with the “objectivity” Hämäläinen understands Crary to be after. Hämäläinen mentions the many philosophers and philosophical schools of thought which are broadly resonate with Crary’s goals, but which Crary either ignores or barely mentions. These include other notable Wittgensteinians, pragmatists, certain feminists, Aristotelians, post-structuralists, phenomenologists, and more. Hämäläinen argues that omitting reference to such philosophers may have two pernicious effects. First, it may normalize the problematic modes of thinking of her opponents and thereby “caters for a kind of narrowness in contemporary (broadly) analytic ethics.” Second, it makes Wittgenstein the single gatekeeper to a modern philosophy that can resist narrow materialism, when, in fact, philosophy is full of resources to resist reductionist and scientistic physicalisms.

Hämäläinen also takes Crary to be arguing for an “objectivity” in ethics which is a specifically philosophical notion and differs from how “being objective” typically functions in ordinary language. Given such an understanding of what Cray is seeking, Hämäläinen asks whether sufficient argumentation has been made to make the case. Furthermore, she argues that this notion of “objectivity” may present a picture of ethics that is too “neat and tidy.” In other words, the concern with “objective” moral judgments may lead to ignoring the economic, cultural, sociological, and other contexts of human life and thought and thereby obscure crucially important dimensions of human responses to moral value.

Aaron Klink responds to Crary’s book from a different perspective. He is a theologian and a pastor. He ministers to the sick, dying, and mourning through hospital and hospice chaplaincy. He brings his pastoral experience to the fore in the manner in which he asks concrete questions about the implications of Inside Ethics for vulnerable people and even corpses. Furthermore, he gestures towards possibilities opened up by Crary’s work for theological and religious matters as well as asks critical questions from a theological and religious point of view.

 


  1. G.E.M. Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Philosophy 33, no 124  (January: 1958): 1.

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