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.



On Alice Crary’s Inside Ethics

Alice Crary’s Inside Ethics is an ambitious and thought-provoking book; and I am in broad agreement with much of what it is trying to say, and do. The idea that what may initially be referred to as “empirical reality” is not ethically inert, or “neutral,” and more specifically the idea—hereafter referred to as “Crary’s central thesis”—that human beings and animals have “empirically discoverable moral characteristics (or qualities)” (1, 31, 255), seems to me potentially true and important. But of course, everything depends on what is meant here by “empirically discoverable” and by “moral characteristics”; and, as we will see, there are questions to be raised about how Crary means these terms. It is not clear to me that, at the end of the day, these terms could coherently be meant in such a way that Crary’s central thesis would retain its plausibility, or even truth, and at the same time have quite the significance that Crary takes it to have.

Though Crary’s central thesis may be summarized in a sentence, the overall argument of the book is complex and multilayered. Its two main layers are, first, the central thesis and the argument for it, and, second, another argument that is meant to convince us that the thesis applies to all human beings and animals, regardless of their possession of any particular property or set of properties, beyond that of being a member of this or that species. Since the first layer is difficult enough by itself to reconstruct, understand, and assess, I will focus exclusively on it, in order to keep this response to Crary’s book manageable. And for the same reason, I will say almost nothing about Crary’s marvelous employment of literary examples, whose power and compellingness struck me as going beyond, and as being largely independent of, Crary’s more “formal” argumentation. And that—I mean, the idea that literary examples could be central and even essential to what may rightly be called “argument” in ethics (as opposed to playing a merely supportive or illustrative or rhetorical role in ethical argumentation)—is to my mind one of the most important insights of Inside Ethics.

Coming back to Crary’s central thesis, let me ask again: what does it mean to say that “human beings and animals have empirically discoverable moral characteristics”? As is often the case in philosophy (and not just in philosophy), in order to understand the thesis—see what it comes to—we need to consider the argument for it, as well as the implications it is taken to have. I therefore begin with an attempt to reconstruct the argument, as I understand it:

  1. Human and animal behavior—at least insofar as it is pertinent to ethics—may not aptly be understood as a mechanically-produced response to physical stimuli, but rather needs to be seen as a manifestation of understanding—however rudimentary or primitive—of the creature’s circumstances, and as expressive of what matters to the creature, and how (cf. 68).[/NL]


  1. In order to understand a stretch of human or animal behavior—at least insofar as it is pertinent to ethics—we need to situate it within a broader conception of what matters in the life of that creature, and how—where that in turn needs to rest on a conception of what matters in the life of such creatures, and how (cf. 88).1
  2. A conception of what matters in the life of a creature, and how, is itself an ethical conception (cf. 67–68, and 89), where “an ethical conception” needs to be understood in contrast with something like “a conception belonging purely to natural science, or purely expressible and explicable in its terms” (cf. 24).[/NL]


  1. An understanding of human and animal behavior—at least insofar as it is pertinent to ethics—may only be had from inside ethics (cf. 80). This is supposed to contrast with what Crary takes to be the prevailing view, on which natural science may, and should, tell us all that we need to know, in ethics, about human beings or animals.

Let me say outright that I find myself in broad agreement with Crary’s argument as summarized above. The main aim of this response is to invite Crary to clarify issues that I find unclear, and thereby to find out how far our agreement reaches. I begin with what might only be a small disagreement—as far as the argument of Inside Ethics is concerned—but which would set the stage for everything else I’m going to say in this response.

Crary believes that in order to entitle herself to 1, she needs to argue that human and animal perception is “conceptual all the way down” (4, 50). This—I mean, both Crary’s “conceptualism” about perception and her taking it to be essential to her overall argument—seems to me to be mistaken. For Crary, the reason why human and animal behavior is expressive of what matters to the creature and how, is that human and animal perception is “conceptual(ized),” and (as Wittgenstein has taught us) our concepts are expressive of what matters to us and how. This is one of several places in the book where Crary takes her cue from John McDowell; and it seems to me that, here and in few other places, the argument of the book would have benefited from relying less on McDowellian transcendental philosophizing, which proceeds on the basis of claims about what perceptual experience needs to be (97) in order for this or that philosophically-construed cognitive achievement to be possible, and more on the insights of phenomenology. In other words, Crary’s argument would have benefited from engaging less in what Wittgenstein calls “thinking,” and more in what he calls “looking and seeing” (PI 66). Not that there isn’t much valuable looking and seeing in the book; it’s just that, as I see it, the thinking sometimes comes in the way. The issues here are complex and difficult, and I have written about them in considerable detail elsewhere.2 Here, I’ll limit myself to just a few, minimally supported comments.

Originally, McDowell argued that human perceptual experience is “conceptualized,” or has “conceptual content,” in that it has propositional content—the sort of content expressible by means of sentences of an indicative form (McDowell 1994 and 1998). As Crary notes, McDowell himself has come to recognize that that idea is implausible.3 More recently, McDowell has proposed that the normal perceptual experience of normal human adults has “content” that, while not (yet) propositional, is nonetheless “conceptual” (cf. McDowell 2007 and 2009), and Crary too is arguing for some such understanding of human and animal perception as well (cf. 99). Crary proposes that human and animal perceptual experience is conceptual in that it is “about individuals and kinds of things” (100) and, therefore, “dealing in universals” (110).

This attempt to hold on to a watered-down conceptualism is still deeply problematic, it seems to me.4 For one thing, it is not clear that we can actually make sense of the idea of conceptual content that is not, or does not presuppose, propositional content, for, as Travis has compellingly argued (in Travis 2013), concepts may most plausibly be understood as abstractable elements of whole thoughts, or judgments—some sort of a taking of a representational stand. The difficulty of disconnecting conceptualism from propositionalism shows, it seems to me, in Crary’s talking of perceptual experience as being about individuals and kinds of things (97)—thereby attributing, in effect, a representational function appropriate to propositionally-articulated judgments or thoughts to perceptual experience. And it also shows in her proposal to cash out her version of conceptualism in terms of “an interpretation or thought . . . [contributing] internally to our perception of a thing” (52, see also 97). I’m not saying that there is no way of understanding “interpretation” or “thought” in such a way that an interpretation or thought would not (necessarily) have propositional form, or content. But it is, at the very least, unclear what such an understanding would be, or come to.5

Another worry is that Crary’s (and McDowell’s) talk about the content of a perceptual experience does not make clear sense. I just do not know how perceptual experiences are supposed to be identified, and counted,6 and how their contents are supposed to be identified, and counted.7 When Crary writes, for example, that if she went for a walk and saw an unfamiliar dog, “the content of one of [her] visual experiences would be ‘a dog’” (100, my emphasis)—where that is supposed to be applicable to (and illuminative of) a moment in her conscious life—even apart from her noting, or remarking, or otherwise saying, to herself or to someone else, something along the lines of “there is a dog over there” (ibid), I worry that we have replaced the original McDowellian picture, which Crary rightly questions (99), of (adult human) perceptual experience as always accompanied by subtitles, with the no less suspicious and problematic picture of every familiar thing and every familiar physiognomy in perceptual experience showing up, whenever and however it shows up, with a name tag or label attached (perhaps sometimes with a question mark following the name). And it should be noted that even name tags or labels need to be attended to in the right way (noted, registered), and understood within the context of a shared practice that has a point, or makes sense, against a certain worldly background, in order for them to fulfil their function.

As competent speakers, we know how to tell (= know the criteria for), and would normally be able to specify well enough for present intents and purposes, what some human being (which could be oneself) or animal saw (for example); and in specifying it, we would normally be using words, and applying concepts.8 But to go from that to a claim about what human and animal perceptual experience is, is unwarranted. The basic danger is that of reading into perceptual experience the content of possible specifications, or descriptions, of its (objectively identified) objects, thereby encouraging an overly intellectualized, and distorted, picture of the former—a picture that encourages (and is in turn encouraged by) our natural tendency to overlook perceptual experience, and, in the words of Merleau-Ponty, to “forget it as a fact and as perception in the interest of the object which it presents to us” (Merleau-Ponty 1996: 57).9

In Crary, following McDowell, the insistence on conceptualism is motivated by the assumption that all sense is conceptual, so that the only alternative to conceptualism about perception is what McDowell (following Sellars) has famously called “the myth of the (purely mechanically) given”—where the given, as such, is taken to be, precisely, lacking in sense. Crary sometimes cashes out the McDowellian “given” in terms of what’s “merely biological” (108, 183), or what may fully be cashed in terms of “pure stimulus-response mechanisms” or “immediate biological impulses” (117). But the McDowellian dichotomy between the conceptual and the senseless is false, and so is Crary’s dichotomy between the conceptual and the merely biological or mechanical. One of the most fundamental insights of phenomenology, which is central to Merleau-Ponty (and in a different way to Heidegger), is that the world as pre-reflectively perceived and responded to has physiognomic, rather than conceptual, unity and sense—unity for, and in terms of, our body, not our intellect. What we perceive and respond to has motor and affective significance, before it has anything that may sensibly be thought of as conceptual sense. A ball, for example—some particular ball—is perceived as soliciting, and allowing, certain bodily engagements and manipulations, which may with time become more or less habitual, before, and even apart from, being recognized as a ball, let alone as having a particular geometrically-defined shape. Crary echoes approvingly McDowell’s echoing of Kant’s famous dictum that the “I think” must be capable of accompanying all of our representations (109); but, as Merleau-Ponty points out, in what is clearly meant as a repudiation of the Kantian dictum, “consciousness is in the first place not a matter of ‘I think that’ but of ‘I can’” (Merleau-Ponty 1996: 137). The world as pre-reflectively perceived and responded to is perceived as a field of actual and potential bodily engagement, before it becomes, where and when it becomes, the object of true or false judgments. And, contrary to what Crary suggests (51–52), that is what the dawning of Wittgensteinian “aspects” teaches us: that there is perceivable sense, or comprehensible unity, that is not (yet) conceptual, that no conceptualization could fully capture, and that does not always correlate with what we know objectively about the object.10 Incidentally, that is also what the perceptual experience of beauty teaches us, according to Kant.11

Our discussion thus far may be summarized by saying that far from it being the case that our behavior is expressive of what matters to us in one way or another, and how, because our perception is always conceptual(ized), and our concepts are expressive of what matters to us and how, as Crary proposes, our concepts express what matters to us and how, because they enable us to objectify—more or less usefully for various intents and purposes—an intersubjectively sharable, and largely shared, phenomenal world that draws our attention and calls for (solicits, elicits) motor-affective responses that, as such, are already forms of valuing.

Now, how significant is all this to Crary’s central thesis and her argument for it? There is a sense in which it is not very significant. Neither Crary’s central thesis, nor her argument for it, requires her “conceptualist” account of perception. And in fact, if you go back to my reconstruction of Crary’s argument, you’ll see that it makes no mention or use of Crary’s “conceptualism.” It is possible, in fact, to read Crary’s argument in such a way that the phenomenological understanding of perception and behavior lies tacitly at its background: the reason why human and animal behavior may not aptly be understood as a mechanically-produced response to physical stimuli, but rather needs to be seen as a manifestation of understanding of the creature’s circumstances, and as expressive of what matters to the creature, and how, is that human beings and animals perceive and respond to physiognomic, not-yet-conceptual sense, in the way sketched above; and no purely mechanical account can do justice to that. Moreover, as perceivers and responders to physiognomic sense, we immediately and pre-reflectively perceive the behavior of other human beings and animals as intentional and expressive of what matters to the creature and how: the moment our gaze falls upon the body of another human being or animal “the objects surrounding it immediately take on a fresh layer of significance” (Merleau-Ponty 1996: 353)—that is, we immediately perceive things also in terms of their motor-affective significance for that other. Thus, while Crary’s conceptualism may be misguided, as I’ve suggested, its phenomenological critique arguably leaves her overall argument not just essentially intact, but actually better motivated.

So far so good. But the phenomenological critique of conceptualism—which I have admittedly barely just sketched above—raises further questions about how we should understand the “empirically discoverable” and the “moral characteristics” components of Crary’s central thesis. It also has bearing on what may be thought of as the illocutionary force of the thesis.

What does Crary mean by “empirically discoverable”? She might have meant something like “perceivable,” in the sense of “part of the phenomenal world, or the world as perceived and responded to prior to being thought, or thought (or talked) about.” Once again following McDowell, however, Crary proposes to cash “empirically discoverable” in terms of “objectivity” (29, 31), and thereby skips, in effect, the phenomenal world. Moral values, she says, are “woven into the objective fabric of the world” (17; see also 61). And then there are moments in which Crary presents herself as advancing a metaphysical claim (cf. 11), and says that “aspects of mind”—which are the “moral characteristics” from her central thesis—are “part of the true furniture of the universe” (39). These lapses into pre-Kantian metaphysical talk seem to me un-Wittgensteinian, and unhelpful. It is difficult enough to keep clearly in mind the grammatical-phenomenological distinction between the phenomenal world and the objective world—or, more precisely, between the world as pre-reflectively perceived and responded to, and the world as thought (and talked) about objectively—and to think about its implications for Crary’s central thesis.

On the phenomenological understanding, the phenomenal world is where we each first and foremost find ourselves, and others. It is a world of meanings, or interrelated meaningful phenomena, where meaning, as I’ve already mentioned, is understood in terms of motor and affective significance;12 and this in turn means that the phenomenal world is internally related to the phenomenal body—the body as lived, or experienced, as opposed to the body understood objectively—in that the latter is perceived, or pre-reflectively present to us, as an intentional power of actual and potential engagement with the former, and the former is perceived as a field of actual and potential engagement by the latter.

It is at this level of pre-reflective, embodied being-in-the-world, I wish to propose, that the continuity between human perception/behavior and animal perception/behavior—the continuity that Crary mistakenly seeks to capture by attributing to animals conceptual capacities (92ff.)—is to be found.13 As Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello puts it, sharing the experience of animals “is a matter not of inhabiting another mind but of inhabiting another body” (Coetzee 2003, 96).

The phenomenal world is intersubjectively sharable and, for each one of us, is actually shared with others—to varying degrees with different others. The objective world—the world in which temporally enduring objects, with their determinate properties, stand in determinate temporal and spatial relations to each other—is a world that we (human beings) construct together on the basis of our always-already sharing a phenomenal world, and against the background of that world. The construction of the objective world is an ongoing, intersubjective practice (or set of interrelated practices), into which we each are initiated almost from the moment we are born—a practice that involves, among other things, establishment of shared attention; identification and reidentification and naming of (types of) things; and further down the line involves methods of calibration, experimentation, collection of and appeal to evidence, and proof, invocation of agreed upon standards of measurement and accuracy, agreed upon ways of being proven right, or wrong, and of gaining authority and establishing expertise; and so on and so forth.

Crary argues against the widespread notion that “objectivity is free from everything with an essential reference to our affective or other subjective responses” (32); and, following Wittgenstein on rule-following, she goes as far as to claim that we “lack a clear idea” of what it would be for any “region of thought”—including objective discourse—to be thus free (44). I think this is an important insight, though I would have thought that this understanding of “objectivity” may already be found in Kant, who argues in the first Critique that the objective, empirical world is constituted by judgment, and then argues, in the third Critique (what is already implied in the first) that our agreement in judgments, without which we would not be able to constitute an objective world together, rests on nothing more, nor less, than our sharing a sense of fit between “concepts” and “intuitions,” or between the “understanding” and the “productive imagination”—a sense of fit that comes to the fore in the judgment, and experience, of beauty (cf. Kant 2000, 5:241–42). A way of putting the basic insight of phenomenology would be to say that the perception of Kantian “beauty” is primary and pervasive (see PP, xvii): the phenomenal world presents us with an indeterminate unity, in whose enactment we participate, “without it being possible for any determinate thought, i.e., concept, to be adequate to it” (Kant 2000, 5:314).

The objective world, unlike the phenomenal world (or Kant’s beauty, or Wittgenstein’s aspect), is independent of any particular individual’s perceptual experience of it—that’s essentially what’s meant in calling it “objective.” But, as Crary argues, it is not independent of us; it is not, as Kant has taught us to recognize, a world “as it is in itself.” And Crary’s proposal that “objectivity” encompasses more than just the natural sciences (cf. 34ff.) is surely right: every element or feature of the phenomenal world—human and animal behavior included—could be objectified; and objectifying it might be beneficial in some way. But there is also the question of what would thereby be lost.

Having sketched the distinction, and relation, between the phenomenal world and the objective world (however “widely” the latter is understood), the question I accordingly wish to raise at this point is in which of those two worlds we should locate the “moral characteristics” from Crary’s central thesis. Crary, as we’ve seen, wishes to locate them in the objective world; and no doubt, one could think about human behavior, as well as of the mental states it expresses, objectively. The problem, however, is that one would thereby render problematic Crary’s further claim that the characteristics in question are “internally related to action and choice” (13, my emphasis). For how, or in what sense, is a piece of human behavior, understood objectively, internally related to action and choice? When I spoke above of an internal relation between the phenomenal world and the phenomenal body, I meant that things in the phenomenal world are perceived, prior to any theoretical reflection, as having affective and motor significance, as calling for (eliciting, soliciting), or allowing, or hindering . . . certain affective-motor responses, which means that, at the pre-reflective, pre-objective level, what you perceive is not separable from how it moves you. Features of the world as thought of and understood objectively, by contrast, though still reflective of what matters to some collective “us,” and how, are, precisely, not thus related to our affective-motor responses. There are indefinitely many ways in which one could coherently respond, or find oneself moved to respond, to the same particular piece of human behavior, as it is identified and understood objectively. So in what sense might that piece of behavior be internally related to choice and action?

Crary, it seems to me, is not entirely clear on this issue; and this brings us to what “moral” means in the “moral characteristics” of her central thesis. Initially, Crary says that by “moral” she means “practically significant,” and then explicates “practically significant” in terms of “internally related to action and choice” (13, see also 15). As I’ve just noted, however, given the fact that she wishes to locate what she calls “moral characteristics” in the objective world, it is not clear what it would mean for those characteristics to be internally related to action and choice.14

Two further things that Crary says to clarify what she means underscore the difficulty I’m trying to bring out. One thing she says is that the recognition that a creature has moral characteristics is “practically significant in the sense of being directly relevant to how it should be treated” (13, my emphasis). Another thing she says is that “to count as immediately relevant to action, a feature of the world has to be such that, in the right circumstances, things that possess it have a tendency to invite specific practical attitudes” (32, my emphasis). I note that these are two distinct ways of cashing “moral” (or “practically significant”); and neither of them is the same as saying that there is an internal relation between the set of characteristics in question and our practical responses to those characteristics. Together, however, they seem to me to exhaust the basic options available to Crary, once she has chosen to place the characteristics she wishes to talk about in the objective world: given the objectively establishable presence of some characteristic (or set of characteristics) of a creature, or some piece (or range) of creaturely behavior, one could either argue, or claim, or plead . . . that a creature with that characteristic, or that thus behaves, should be treated in some particular way—thereby acknowledging in effect that the relation between the characteristic or piece of behavior and the treatment advocated is not internal—or one could try to establish statistical correlation (perhaps under certain conditions) between the presence of that characteristic or piece of behavior and some particular attitude or response, or some range of attitudes or responses, on the part of those who perceive it. I take it that Crary does not mean to be talking about anything like the latter. But, if so, what might be the force of her “should”?

Crary, if I understand, wants her moral “should” to be objective as well, together with the “moral goodness” and “moral outrage” or “harm” it is supposed to track (13);15 and in this she aligns herself with the tradition of Western moral philosophy and with much of the work on ethics in contemporary analytic philosophy. But, as much as I sympathize with the philosophical craving for an objective, moral “should”—what with the danger of relativism, nihilism, simple moral conflict, and so on—and even taking into account Crary’s “wide” understanding of “objectivity” (and “argument”), I’m not sure there is an objective and at the same time moral understanding of “should” that could do the work Crary wants it to do.

There are objective uses of “should” that aren’t moral. There is the empirical “should” of well-grounded expectation (“If our calculations are correct, and nothing has gone wrong, the spaceship should have reached its final orbit by now” or “The egg should be hard by now”). And there is also the instrumental “should” (“If you really want to help protect the environment, you should live in a smaller house and drive a smaller car,” or “If you want to be healthier, you should exercise on a regular basis.”) It seems clear that neither of those uses of “should” is what Crary aims at, or needs. But what might be an objective and moral use of “should”? How, for example, might one establish the correctness of a claim about what someone morally “should” do? How might such claims be calibrated? How might expertise in, or authority on, matters of what morally should be done be established? If I tell you that you should not eat meat, or should not be cruel to animals, or that all human beings are worthy of respect, would it make sense for you to ask, “How do you know?” which normally makes perfect sense in response to empirical claims, but which, to my ear, sounds extremely odd here? And if you did ask me, “How do you know?” how might I respond? Clearly, it seems to me, not in any of the kinds of ways we ordinarily and normally respond to that question.

The ordinary and normal moral “should” (and similarly “ought”), I wish to propose, has the force, not of stating an objectively establishable fact, but of urging someone, or calling upon her, to do what we believe, “know in our heart,” but cannot prove, to be the right thing for her to do. When people use “should” in a moral context, and use it as if they were simply stating an objective fact, as if they could simply be right, and others wrong, about what morally should be done, they are typically guilty of moralizing: they fail to acknowledge (to themselves and to others) the moral burden necessarily incurred in taking a stand on moral matters.

Once we give up the philosophical quest for an objective, moral “should,” as resting on an understandable but ultimately misguided, and potentially morally problematic, philosophical fantasy, it should no longer be clear what might be gained by claiming that the human and animal characteristics Crary talks about are objective. Granted they could be objectivized. But what would be gained by that morally? Why, given the aims of Inside Ethics as I understand them, should it matter to Crary that the ways in which human and animal behavior is expressive of what the creature cares about and how they could be objectivized, and in this sense are “part of the objective world”? Wouldn’t it have been better, both philosophically and morally, to present Inside Ethics as an invitation to its readers, or as urging them, to look at and see, pre-objectively, things a certain way, to experience the same objectively-identified things differently, where seeing and experiencing them that way would be internally linked to affective-motor responses on the part of the perceiver?16 That would seem to leave the author of Inside Ethics at the mercy of her readers, so to speak, needing to rely on their willingness to accept her invitation, and on their sharing (enough of) her sensibilities. But isn’t it one of the main upshots of Crary’s reading of Wittgenstein on rule-following that that, at the end of the day, is true of anyone who genuinely tries to communicate herself to others? And, if so, wouldn’t it better—morally, philosophically, and rhetorically—to acknowledge that vulnerability at the outset, rather than claim objective authority for one’s argument?17


Baz, A. 2003. “On When Words Are Called For—Cavell, McDowell, and the Wording of Our World.” Inquiry 46: 473–500.

———. 2016. “Aspects of Perception.” In Wollheim, Wittgenstein, and Pictorial Representation: Seeing-as and Seeing-in, edited by Gary Kemp and Gabriele Mras. New York: Routledge.

———. Forthcoming. “Bringing the Phenomenal World into View.” In Wittgenstein on Objectivity, Intuition, and Meaning, edited by James Conant and Sebastian Greve. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Coetzee, J. M. 2003. Elizabeth Costello. New York: Penguin.

Husserl, E. 1970. The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. Translated by D. Carr. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

———. 1998. The Paris Lectures. Translated by P. Koestenbaum. Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic.

Kant, I. 2000. Critique of the Power of Judgment. Edited by P. Guyer. Translated by P. Guyer and E. Matthews. New York: Cambridge University Press.

McDowell, J. 1994. Mind and World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

———. 1998. “Having the World in View.” Journal of Philosophy 95: 431–92.

———. 2007. “What Myth?” Inquiry 50: 338–51.

———. 2009. “Avoiding the Myth of the Given.” In Having the World in View. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 1996. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by C. Smith. New York: Routledge.

Strawson, P. 1974. “Imagination and Perception.” In Freedom and Resentment. London: Methuen.

  1. This last bit points us to what I referred to above as “the second layer” of Crary’s argument.

  2. See Baz 2003, 2016, and forthcoming.

  3. Indeed, I have argued elsewhere (Baz 2003) that the idea makes no sense.

  4. I argue against McDowell’s recent attempts, in Baz (forthcoming).

  5. In talking about an interpretation or thought being internal to the perception of a thing, Crary takes herself to be following Wittgenstein’s remarks on the perception of what he calls “aspects” (49–55). I think she is actually following Strawson’s appropriation (by way of Kant) of Wittgenstein’s remarks (in Strawson 1974, which she mentions on 97n9). As for Wittgenstein, having now spent many years thinking and writings about his remarks on aspects, my own sense is that, though he never came to form an understanding of aspect perception that satisfied him, he is, at the very least, no obvious ally of conceptualism about perception, or for that matter about aspects. And I myself have argued (Baz 2016) that, whatever Wittgenstein himself might have thought, Wittgensteinian aspects may not aptly be identified with, or in terms of, empirical concepts.

  6. How many perceptual experiences have I had in the last minute, or since this morning? How many am I having right now? And for how long would it/they last?

  7. What about the figure-background structure of perceptual experience? Is only the figure conceptualized? Or the background too (which seems even more patently implausible)? And what constitutes “the figure” for the purposes of “conceptualization”? When I’m having a conversation with someone, is every gesture and word of theirs conceptualized? What about a change in their tone of voice, or posture?

  8. Let me emphasize that I do not think that every use of words is aptly thought of as involving the application of concepts. But identifying and specifying what someone saw (for example) is normally part of objective discourse, and therefore aptly thought of as involving the application of empirical concepts.

  9. That tendency to overlook perceptual experience in favor of its objects is what Merleau-Ponty, following Husserl, calls “the natural attitude” (Merleau-Ponty 1996: 39; and see Husserl 1970: 119 and 144; and Husserl 1998: 14–15).

  10. About the famous Necker cube, Merleau-Ponty says this: “A cube drawn on paper changes its appearance according as it is seen from one side and from above or from the other and from below. Even if I know that it can be seen in two ways, the figure in fact refuses to change its structure and my knowledge must await its intuitive realization” (Merleau-Ponty 1996: 34).

  11. At some point, Crary seems to be complaining about Kant’s failure in the third Critique to “insist on objectivism” (173n22). By my lights, Kant’s discovery for philosophy of the perceivable-and-intersubjectively-sharable that is, precisely, not yet objective, or objectified, is nothing to complain about, but rather is an insight that has potentially far-reaching philosophical implications, including for ethics.

  12. Crary gestures toward this sort of phenomenological understanding of perception in some of the things she says on p. 88.

  13. Merleau-Ponty strikingly introduces the phenomenological perspective of “being-in-the-world” with the example of an insect that, when one of its legs is tied, stumbles in the continued attempt to use it, but having lost a leg, functionally substitutes one of its sound legs for the one cut off, and proceeds in its endeavors virtually unhindered (PP, 77–78).

  14. It should also by noted that if Crary were to opt for the phenomenological understanding of the internal relation between what we perceive and how we respond to it, she would commit herself to saying that landscapes, for example, or even colors and shapes, are “moral” in her sense, since, on the phenomenological understanding, those too are perceived as having motor and affective significance, before they are thought about or understood objectively (cf. Merleau-Ponty 1996: 61 and 210).

  15. Crary says at some point that “to say that human beings and animals are ‘inside ethics’ is to imply that we require ethical resources not merely to do empirical justice to their worldly lives in ethics but, moreover, to do so in an objectively authoritative manner” (198, my emphasis).

  16. Put otherwise, isn’t what Crary is trying to get her readers to see, just like what Elizabeth Costello is trying to get her audience to see, the sort of thing that “[cannot] be demonstrated, [but] can only be experienced” (Coetzee 2003, 176)?

  17. For me personally, part of what makes Elizabeth Costello’s argument against eating meat compelling is precisely her repeated acknowledgment of its powerlessness to rationally enforce recognition of its truth on the part of her audience (cf. Coetzee 2003, 111 and 114).

  • Alice Crary

    Alice Crary


    Response to Baz

    Avner Baz opens his response to Inside Ethics (hereafter IE) by saying that he agrees with the book’s guiding ideas and, in particular, with its thesis that—in Baz’s words—“human beings and animals have empirically discoverable moral characteristics.” That is indeed one of the book’s central claims, and, given the extent to which this claim elicits philosophical resistance—and given the amount of philosophical work I had to do to make a case for it—it is gratifying to hear an expression of agreement, especially from an admired colleague. After affirming his sympathy for this basic program, Baz goes on to focus his remarks on IE on criticism of one strand of thought that figures in the book’s defense of it, namely, a strand of thought having to do with what in IE is called conceptualism about perception. (The book also touches on conceptualist themes in connection with action and sensory experience—see, e.g., 102–3—but Baz doesn’t mention that IE also has an eye to this broader set of issues.)

    Baz initially presents himself as addressing in this connection what, he says, “might be a small disagreement.” It is, however, evident that he is convinced that the supposed disagreement is utterly consequential. More specifically, it is evident that he believes that what he regards as a misguided conceptualism about perception threatens to spoil the entire vision of moral thought in IE that he admires, infecting it with an unappealing and untenable strain of intellectualism. Moreover, the sorts of argumentative errors that Baz takes himself to find here are supposed to be quite unforced, since, as he sees it, “neither Crary’s central thesis, nor her argument for it, requires her ‘conceptualist’ account of perception.” To be sure, Baz begins his response by promptly sketching the approach in ethics, defended in IE, that he claims to agree with, and he never talks about the kind of argument that, on his view, should be presented in its favor. So, he sheds no light on why he thinks some sort of conceptualist position cannot contribute essentially to an argument for the view that humans and animals have observable moral traits. More significantly, Baz fails to bring into focus—or even to take an interest in the task of bringing into focus—the very particular type of conceptualist stance that is at play in IE. On the contrary, at various points, he indicates that he takes himself to be dealing with at best a modest variation on the Kant-inspired conceptualism that figures in the work of John McDowell, apparently regarding as insignificant the fact that an entire chapter of IE (chapter 3) is devoted to criticism of McDowell’s work in this area. Starting from a critique of conceptualism about perception that might be regarded as suited to McDowell’s commitments, Baz argues that it would be possible to arrive at a more satisfactory account of perception for the purposes of IE by jettisoning this conceptualist position and exchanging it for Merleau-Ponty’s idea of “the phenomenal world,” understood as a world that is “internally related to the phenomenal body—the body as lived, or experienced.”

    It is a fair question whether it would be possible, as Baz here suggests, to produce a narrative about the demands of moral thought, of the sort presented in IE, using Merleau-Ponty’s categories. But, as interesting as this question is, answering it is Baz’s project, not mine, and exploring the question would take me far beyond the scope of the current remarks. Here I focus instead on the following, more manageable question. Is it possible that, in imposing on my text a roughly McDowellian conceptualist view, and in then setting out to make his well-worn critical moves against this familiar form of conceptualism, Baz winds up merely projecting onto my work the flaws he claims to find in it? Or, to put it slightly differently, is it possible that Baz approached my text already equipped with a critique of certain positions that get placed under the heading of “conceptualisms about perception” and then, without attending either to the general character or to the distinctive details of my argument, took my willingness to use this heading as license for rehearing a prefabricated critical tirade? There are, as I explain in what follows, good grounds for returning an affirmative answer to this question.

    A reasonable place to begin is with a précis of how a conceptualist account of perception figures in IE’s argument for thinking that moral characteristics are among the characteristics that humans and animals observably have. The argument is designed to show this by establishing that some categories that apply to the expressive behavior of human beings and animals are not only irredeemably ethical but also cognitively authoritative in the following sense. The relevant, indelibly ethical categories are essentially matters of sensitivity to how things are, and hence such that someone who didn’t register them could be said to be missing something. Thus conceived, the categories can be said to pick out genuine (as opposed to, say, merely projected) characteristics of humans and animals. The starting point of IE’s argument for categories that in this way determine observable ethical characteristics is the recognition that contemporary philosophy of mind is structured by philosophical assumptions that seem to exclude the very possibility of such characteristics. Sketching the relevant assumptions is one of the main tasks of chapter 2 of IE. For the purposes of this response it suffices to say that paramount among them is an engrained assumption to the effect that we invariably approach a less distorted view of the real or objective world by progressively abstracting from all of our perceptual and affective endowments. Suppose that we adopt some version of the plausible view that the aspects of our lives picked out by ethical categories are such that there is no question of adequately describing them apart from at least implicit reference to attitudes they merit. Granted the just-mentioned, engrained assumption about what is involved in getting empirical reality in view, it now appears that we are obliged to conceive the real “furniture of the world” as excluding everything ethical. By the same token, it appears that, if we want to make a case for finding ethical values among this “furniture,” we need to challenge the engrained assumption. One of the very general sources of support for this assumption about what is involved in bringing the world into focus is the idea that, even granting that there is no such thing as ideally abstract thought about the world, we have an intelligible idea of what such thought would be like, in at least some areas—and, further, that the standpoint afforded by this idea licenses us to represent abstraction as a regulative ideal for all world-guided thought. Attachment to the view that we ourselves have a coherent image of what ideally abstract thought is like is arguably strongest in reference to perception and, more specifically, in connection with the set of accounts of perception that get referred to as forms of non-conceptualism about perception. It is because non-conceptualism is thus a prime source of resistance to a metaphysic, of the sort IE aims to defend, that allows for the incorporation of ethical values in the fabric of the observable, objective world that an investigation of the merits of some kind of anti-non-conceptualist or conceptualist view of perception is decisive for the book’s argument. That, very roughly, is what Baz fails to grasp when he asserts, incorrectly, that IE’s thesis doesn’t require a conceptualist view of perception, and this oversight distorts his account of the book’s larger argumentative strategy.

    A further comment about the distinctive terminology of IE is in order. Within the book, I speak in reference to the transition to a more permissive metaphysic that accommodates ethical values of the widening of our conception of objectivity. This transformation in how we conceive of objectivity is an expansion in our inventory of the kinds of things that are capable of qualifying as “objective” in the particular sense of being such that someone who fails to register them can be said to be missing something. Among other things, we must now allow for the possibility of needing particular attitudes, or a certain sensibility, in order to bring into view things that are in this sense objective. (It would be difficult to exaggerate how important insisting on this possibility is for IE. The book is an outspoken defense of the idea that, as I put it in the preface, “ethically rich work in the humanities and the arts can as such be immediately pertinent to the world-guided images of human and animal lives that we seek in ethics.”) Notice that this “wider” way of talking about objectivity directly conflicts with the way in which Baz talks about objectivity. For Baz, “the objective world” is, as he puts it, “the world in which temporally enduring objects, with their determinate properties, stand in determinate temporal and spatial relations to each other.” Although there is nothing wrong with using the term “objectivity” to pick out properties fitting this description, it is decidedly wrong to represent my remarks about the objective world as though they were remarks about such properties. Baz’s commentary not only indulges but is structured by this straightforward form of interpretative sloppiness, and, as will emerge, this is the source of many of the errors in his commentary.

    Consider Baz’s misrepresentation of what, within IE, conceptualism about perception amounts to. For this purpose, it is important to understand why, after developing the line of argument sketched a moment ago, I turn in IE to a more detailed investigation of conceptualist views. This is because, as I put it in the text, “conceptualisms are often taken to be inseparable from a form of skepticism about animal minds that would deprive the enterprise of [showing that animals have observable moral characteristics] of a great deal of its interest” (93). Here is the explanation I give at the opening of chapter 3 of why conceptualist views are taken to be wedded to constrained accounts of animals’ capacities of mind. The issue is that

    [EXT]many philosophers champion understandings of what concepts are from which it seems to follow that no non-rational animals possess them. One result is that it may appear to be a necessary consequence of conceptualist outlooks not only that no non-rational animals are rightly credited with capacities of mind exactly analogous to those characteristic of rational human beings but, moreover, that no non-rational animals possess the sorts of modes of awareness that would justify us in attributing to them any significant mental qualities at all. (93)[/EXT]

    It is significant for the purposes of IE to challenge this line of thought, and in the book I mount a challenge by defending a flexible notion of a concept that makes room for the possibility that some non-rational animals deal in concepts. I identify two, closely intertwined sets of capacities—what I call learning and maturation, respectively—that are internal to concept-mongering, and I describe how, in the lives of human beings, these capacities come in degrees. After having, in this basic style, made a case for thinking that we may be right to attribute concepts to young children who don’t yet deal in propositions and who are in this respect not rationally mature, I argue that we ought to be open to the possibility that we may be right to attribute concepts to some non-rational animals as well. Part of the trouble with Baz’s commentary on this portion of my text is that he doesn’t explore its case for this flexible notion of a concept, and that he declares his allegiance to the more rigid notion that I repudiate. (See, e.g., the passage in which he declares that “it is not clear that we can actually make sense of the idea of conceptual content that is not, or does not presuppose, propositional content.”) Yet more problematic is the fact that Baz takes his own disinterest in alternative ways of thinking about what concepts are to somehow justify him in assuming that I must be operating with the more traditional construal of a concept to which I clearly and repeatedly object. It is certainly true that this notion of a concept seems to saddle us with a “dichotomy between the conceptual and the merely biological or mechanical.” But my notion of a concept is very different, and my overarching—and entirely explicit (see IE 3.3–3.5)—ambition in presenting this alternative notion is to contest the sort of dichotomy to which Baz takes exception. So, when Baz moves from misrepresenting my views about how to construe the notion of a concept to reading this dichotomy (“Crary’s dichotomy”) into my book, his remarks float free from my book’s argument altogether.

    Given that at this point Baz loses the thread of IE’s narrative, it’s not surprising that there are other problems in these parts of his commentary. Whereas, in relevant portions of IE, I am concerned with rejecting philosophical assumptions about the nature of concepts that obstruct phenomenologically accurate description of the expressive behavior of animals, Baz wrongly takes me to be making a transcendental point about how all “animal experience is conceptual in that it is ‘about individuals and kinds of things.’” Moreover, when, on the basis of this misreading, Baz suggests I would do better to rely less on “transcendental philosophizing” and “more on the insights of phenomenology,” he puts himself in the quite comical position of urging me to write a book that does precisely what, if not for his misreading, he would have seen that the book I have written in fact does.

    Significantly, the “wider” conception of objectivity that I champion in IE is integral to this quest for phenomenological correctness. The idea is to avoid antecedently hampering our powers of observation, specifically, by refusing to close off the possibility of finding that non-rational animals have perceptual capacities that are—in my flexible sense—concept-involving. With an eye to pursuing this goal, we have to equip ourselves with a philosophical outlook that doesn’t speak against allowing perceptual experience, to the extent that it is indeed concept-involving, to count as a feature of the world that is in my sense “objective” (i.e., in the sense of being such that someone who failed to register it could be said to be missing something). If we make the very plausible (although not undisputed) assumption that the intelligibility of rational relations is irredeemably normative and that it cannot meaningfully be captured in merely causal terms, then we need to critically examine traditional philosophical views that oblige us to represent the objective realm as in itself free from all values. We need to make a case for expanding or “widening” our conception of the kinds of things that count as objective.

    This brings me back to Baz’s charge that in appealing what I call a “wider” conception of objectivity in the development of my preferred conceptualist account of perception, I veer toward an untenably intellectualist posture. It is, admittedly, unclear why Baz thinks this charge hits its mark. The lack of clarity here is a function of the fact that, as I have discussed, Baz fails to get in view either my preferred conceptualist outlook or my preferred—“wider”—manner of conceiving of objectivity. However, although Baz’s critical reasoning here is obscure, it is clear that he thinks I have run afoul of what he regards as “one of the most fundamental insights of phenomenology,” namely, in his parlance, “that the world as pre-reflectively perceived and responded to has physiognomic, rather than conceptual, unity and sense—unity for, and in terms of, our body, not our intellect.” I will not weigh in on the question of whether it is correct to describe central trends in the phenomenological tradition, as Baz does here, in terms of a dichotomy between the body and the intellect, as opposed to (as I would describe them) in terms of a philosophical vision that has no room for a sharp distinction between the bodily and the mental. However, to the extent that Baz is here maintaining that there is a bodily dimension to the perceptual experience of rational human beings, he is making a point that is at home within IE. I make this same point when I appeal to the wider conception of objectivity in making a case for an idiosyncratic conceptualist account of perception, and when I thus bring out how a complex sensibility—a sense of the importance of the similarities between sensory representations and other actual or possible representations of the same object (or of objects of the same kind)—is internal to perceptual experience. If Baz had attended more closely to the argument of IE, he might have seen that his allegation of intellectualism cleanly misfires.

    Baz closes his response to IE by suggesting that it would “have been better, both philosophically and morally, to present Inside Ethics as an invitation to its readers, or as urging them, to look at and see . . . things a certain way, to experience the same objectively-identified things differently, where seeing and experiencing them that way would be internally linked to affective-motor responses on the part of the perceiver.” Baz has put me in the odd position of needing to stress that the form of presentation he envisions for IE would not improve the book because it is the form of presentation that the book already has. What is strange and somewhat unsettling is that Baz discerns some of the larger aims of IE without seriously considering the possibility that its author had some reasonable ideas about how to achieve those aims. Yet there are features of Baz’s reading of the book that ought to have prompted him to ask himself whether he had indeed done justice to its guiding argument. He writes at the opening of his response that he will have “almost nothing” to say about “Crary’s marvelous employment of literary examples” later in the book, adding that “the idea that literary examples could be central and even essential to what may rightly be called ‘argument’ in ethics (as opposed to playing a merely supportive or illustrative or rhetorical role in ethical argumentation)—is to my mind one of the most important insights of Inside Ethics.” The intellectualizing strain that Baz claims to find in IE’s “‘formal’ argument” prevents him from connecting the argument with what he admires in its reflections on literature, obliging him to regard these reflections as “largely independent.” But wouldn’t it have been better, both philosophically and morally, if Baz had asked himself whether it was likelier that the author of IE had produced a book with two incompatible and independently functioning parts—or whether instead it was more probable that he himself had, as a result of unwarranted assumptions about the significance of the book’s terminology (e.g., “concept,” “conceptualism,” and “objectivity”), overlooked the extent to which the book’s overarching narrative not only coheres but is thoughtfully and self-consciously designed to do so?



Søndergaard Christiansen on Inside Ethics

In Inside Ethics, Alice Crary argues for a moral realism revolving around the ideas that the bare fact of being a human being or an animal has moral importance that is best understood on the basis of empirically informed life-form-relative modes of thought. In this way, Crary brings out a strong analogy between our ethical understanding of humans and animals and ensures that this understanding is an integrated part of our general understanding of reality by arguing that ethically relevant empirical forms of knowledge about humans and animals is at home within wide notions of objectivity and rationality. Not only do I agree with these overall claims, I also find that Crary’s project moves in the only right direction if we are to develop an adequate form of moral realism. In this essay, I therefore refrain from adhering to the standard model for a philosophy paper, which is to identify one or two possible points of criticisms of the positions in question, and from there try to dismantle it. What I will do instead is to try to think with Crary’s project and humbly suggest two ways in which it would benefit from being developed further—in a maybe philosophically less tidy way.

Part of what makes Inside Ethics an important book is that Crary here develops a conception of ethics that takes seriously our fundamental and ethical experiences of the way that human beings have moral importance, independent of their actual capacities or properties, and in doing so, she paves the way for a philosophical account of the equally common experiences that animals matter in the same way (experiences that are often less available to us because of the way that we currently live—or rather do not live with animals). In one of the book’s more radical moves, Crary brings this possibility into view by discussing the ways in which we may fail morally if we do not respond to the moral importance of the corpse of a human being or of a dog. Crary manages to connect her conception of ethics with our fundamental experiences of the importance of humans and animals in part by showing that ethically relevant forms of knowledge are not available within a hard or scientistic naturalism, where an understanding of reality must be established independently of a specific human point of view, but rather depends on a wider conception of objectivity that mirrors the concept of objectivity found in ordinary language. What Crary points out is that our ordinary understanding of objectivity allows for concepts that include certain forms of subjective responses as objective in a straightforward sense, namely those that can be the subject of reasoned agreement and disagreement; a wider conception of objectivity that also allows for a wider notion of rationality where a person’s affective responses may contribute internally to rational understanding and reveal to us facts of actual moral importance.

Wittgenstein’s philosophy plays a crucial role in Crary’s line of reasoning because it brings out how shared human responses makes an independent contribution to our ability to know how the world is. By developing a view of language as non-abstract and practice-bound, he shows how subjective qualities contribute to an objective understanding of the world, including qualities loaded with affect, which allows for the practicality of moral thought. In line with this, Crary shows that we cannot understand what it is to be a competent thinker about human beings’ and animals’ modes of expression and inner lives without this competence including “a sense of the psychologically significant ways in which human beings and animals of different kinds can behave,” a sense that “is equivalent to a sense of the point of behaviour of human beings and animals of different kinds, or, alternatively, to a sense of what matters in human and animal lives, and such a sense belongs to ethics” (79; italics added). According to Crary, what brings ethics into focus in our understanding of humans and animals is the fact that if we are to understand the expressions, reactions and actions of humans or animals, we need to understand the point of these forms of behaviours—a point that is internally related to what is of importance in human or animal life and ultimately to an ethical conception of such lives. We will return to this idea below.

Another point of vital importance for Crary is that such an ethical conception of what matters in human and animal life cannot be established on an individualistic approach to ethics, where the moral status of an individual is determined by its own particular characteristics; an approach exemplified in the influential positions of animal ethicists Tom Regan and Peter Singer. One ethically disturbing consequence of ethical individualism is that human beings with severe impairments have a lesser claim to moral consideration, and, against this, Crary points out “that a conception of what is humanly important is the right reference point for understanding the expressive lives of all human beings, without regard to how well or poorly endowed they are mentally” (14–15), making a parallel point for dogs. This offshoot is that the ethical importance of being a human or an animal only clearly comes into view when looking at the individual through the lens of its particular life-form, of what it would be for a creature of this kind to live a good life. If we are to think morally about humans and animals, we therefore have to understand individuals through empirically formed modes of thought relative to their particular life-form.

In the remaining part of this essay, I want to discuss further two interconnected elements in Crary’s position: her conception of the right analogy for moral judgment s and the intimate connection she makes between point, importance, and ethics within a life-form of a living creature.

In the investigation of Crary’s suggestion of the best analogy for moral judgments, I depart from her discussion of the similarities and differences between her position and that of Philippa Foot. Foot aims to show that there are facts that are objective and at the same time ethically normative, and that an account of these facts will provide us with a unified theory of natural goodness. This project is inspired by Michael Thompson’s groundbreaking notion of natural-historical judgment s about a species such as the judgment “the domestic cat has four legs, two eyes, two ears, and guts in its belly” (Thompson 1995, 281). Natural-historical judgment s are non-statistical, immune to counterexamples, and characterised by a teleological form of generality directed at the aims of the species in question, and they provide objective norms or ideals for a specific species that serve, as Crary puts it, as “standards for how, in some sense, members of a species are supposed to move through time” (173).

Departing from Thompson, Foot insists on an analogy between the way that the word “good” is used in such species-relative assessments of non-human organisms and the way it is used in moral judgment s. In this way, she sees moral judgment s as analogous to species-relative assessments in biology, with the addition that moral judgment s are always also exercises of practical reasoning. This means that for rational human beings, nature is not normative, rather an account of the best human life is to be based on deliverances of practical reason, and even if such an account is analogous to natural-historical judgments, it cannot be reduced to such judgments, because it is inherently rational and ethical. Still, the analogy holds because we should see moral judgments about human beings as describing a form of natural goodness that sets “a necessary condition of practical rationality and therefore [is] at least partly determinate of the thing itself” (Foot 2000, 63). There is a necessary link between furthering good in human life and reasons for action because anyone who does not respond to such reasons, at least when this is the only rational thing to do, “is ipso facto defective” (ibid., 59). The natural patterns of normativity arising from the life-form of human beings do in fact work as rational norms that can be followed by people with the appropriate rational capacities, the virtues.

Crary worries, like other commentators, that Foot’s view may be problematically conservative because of its dependence on existing moral judgments (see also, e.g., Whyman 2018). Above all, however, Crary worries that Foot is wrong to insist on a naturalistic analogy between moral judgments and species-relative assessments of non-human organisms. According to Crary, we do not—as Foot does—need to move from the claim that the lives of human beings are not determined by biology to the claims that human natural history cannot be given in strictly animal terms, and that moral judgments are instead to be understood as assessments of humans’ exercise of practical reason. Against this, Crary insists on the possibility that “in natural history we are concerned with what it is for creatures of a kind to move ideally though time in a strictly biological sense, without regard to whether or not their lives are governed by strictly biological constraints” (184; italics added). Because Foot holds a too narrow understanding of what a biological understanding of a life-form may involve, she fails to see that “if we are in search of a workable naturalistic analogy in ethics, we should compare moral thought about human beings, not, as Foot recommends, with natural-history thought about non-human organisms, but rather moral thought about animals” (190). What moral thought about animals shows us is the possibility that empirical attention to a life-form may reveal real and empirically discoverable values which means that we can understand moral judgments as the appropriateness of our responses to such values. That is, it shows the possibility of a form of moral thought that is life-form-relative and exactly analogous to life-form-relative modes of moral thought of animals.

Now, my question is whether we really should be looking for only one analogy to throw light over moral judgments, whether the value of the analogy that Crary points to between life-form-relative modes of thought and moral judgments really make superfluous the invocation of the transformative nature of practical reason that Foot explores. I want to suggest that we should rather see the field of moral judgments as characterized by variety, which means that we need to turn to a variety of analogies for its elucidation. Moral judgments not only concern various aspects of human life, but also that it they may take various, related forms. We may, for example, think of the difference between moral judgments that primarily concern features of human life that is tied, to a high degree, by our specific life-form, such as evaluations of our responses to cases where a human is starving or drowning or to cases concerning features of human psychology such as emotions of fear or trust, and moral judgments that primarily concern features that are highly enculturated, such as our responses to cases of individuals feeling alienated or to the introduction of new forms of genetic testing. With regard to these last cases, considerations of norms established by the human life-form provide us with very little help, and accordingly, I would suggest that moral judgments should here rather be understood as primarily as assessments of humans’ exercise of practical reason.

My suggestion is that we should give up the search for one analogy that will fit all moral judgments and instead turn to different analogies to describe various forms of moral judgments. What I think we will find is that some moral judgments are best understood as evaluations of our responses to life-form relative and empirically discoverable values as described by Crary, while other judgments are best understood as evaluations of exercises of practical reason, as suggested by Foot. That is, we should not see Foot and Crary’s positions as two mutually exclusive and competing suggestions for one analogy for a homogenous group of judgments but rather as two supplementary suggestions for analogies of two different areas within a heterogeneous group of moral judgments connected by something like family resemblances.

This bring me to my second consideration. As noted above, Crary suggests that if we are to understand the expressive behaviour of humans, we need to understand the point of such behaviour—an understanding that draws on a conception of what matters in human life and ultimately on an ethical conception of human life. Crary makes this rather brisk movement from point, over to importance, and then to ethics several times, at central places in her argument (see, e.g., 76, 79, 144–45); but she does so without unfolding the relation between the three in much detail. In this way, she seems to imply a uniform connection between the point of our behaviour, what matters in human life, and ethics. I do agree that the three are often related, but I want to challenge the implied uniformity of this relation. The point of seasoning my food or choosing a flattering pair of glasses connects in some ways to what matters in human life (such as eating delicious food or making a good impression on others), but in these cases the point of my behaviour can be understood independently of anything that would count as an ethical conception of human life. This becomes apparent by the fact that I can agree or disagree with someone about the right seasoning or the most flattering glasses without worrying about her ethical standing, and I can be persuaded by that person’s reasons in the case of disagreement, even if I find her completely ethically depraved. However, this is not so if a person fails to see the point in my responding to a child crying for help in the street. In this case, I would come to worry about the ethical standing of the other because the point of my behaviour connects directly to a full-fledged ethical conception of human life.

What I am suggesting is that there are important differences between various forms of moral judgments and between the way that point, importance, and ethics connect in our lives, and that these differences can be easily overlooked if we simply adopt as general Crary’s admirable analogy between moral judgments and life-form relative judgments. What we should do instead is to develop the framework of Crary’s common sense moral realism with descriptions of the various forms of moral judgments and of the many different ways that ethics may connect (and may not) to the human life-form.


Foot, Philippa. 2000. Natural Goodness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thompson, Michael. 1995. “The Representation of Life.” In Virtues and Reasons, edited by R. Hursthouse, G. Lawrence, and W. Quinn, 247–96. Oxford: Clarendon.

Whyman, Tom. 2018. “Radical Ethical Naturalism.” Philosophy and Social Criticism 44.2: 159–78.

  • Alice Crary

    Alice Crary


    Response to Søndergaard Christensen

    Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen presents her insightful and generous reflections on Inside Ethics (hereafter IE) as an attempt to “think with” the book’s main narrative. To “think with” someone else’s project—in the sense Søndergaard Christensen has in mind—it’s necessary to start with a good appreciation of that project’s animating ideas. So, it is to the point that Søndergaard Christensen opens her remarks with an account of IE’s major themes that, while compact, is both perceptive and illuminating. To be sure, she describes IE as aiming toward the development of an adequate form of “moral realism,” and this is a label that I find ambiguous and confusing and therefore deliberately avoid using in the book (see my remarks on this topic in my response to Hämäläinen). But that is a merely terminological matter, and, despite using a term that I eschew, Søndergaard Christensen succeeds in succinctly capturing IE’s guiding concerns. She starts by noting that the book’s argument for affirming the moral importance of merely being human, or merely being an animal of some kind, essentially depends on its case for “widening” our conception of objectivity so that it is more capacious than the familiar sort of conception that I refer to as “narrower.” She then rightly observes that what distinguishes the wider conception I favor is, not merely a bigger inventory of the sorts of things that qualify as objective in a narrower sense (see my remarks on Baz’s response for the discussion of a misunderstanding of this sort), but an enlarged view of the types of things that are capable of qualifying as objectivity—in particular, a view that, as she puts it “allows for concepts that include certain forms of subjective responses as objective in a straightforward sense.” Additionally, Søndergaard Christensen correctly points out that Wittgenstein is important for IE in significant part because he provides a model for how to argue for this widening of the objective realm, “bring[ing] out how shared human responses makes an independent contribution to our ability to know how the world is.”

    When, after thus sketching the larger philosophical program of IE, Søndergaard Christensen sets out to internally examine the book’s central narrative, she focuses on the reading I offer, in chapter 5 of IE, of Philippa Foot’s 2001 book Natural Goodness. More specifically, Søndergaard Christensen presents herself as wanting, in a spirit of agreement with the larger orientation of IE, to “depart from [my] discussion of the similarities and differences between [my] position and that of Philippa Foot.” Søndergaard Christensen’s remarks here are provocative, and, although I ultimately want to suggest that they reflect a misinterpretation both of Foot’s project and of my dispute with it, there are significant respects in which I am nevertheless in sympathy with them.

    Søndergaard Christensen starts from a general account of Foot’s work that in fundamentals agrees with the account I give in IE. Foot’s larger ambition, Søndergaard Christensen tells us, is to defend a “unified theory of human goodness” that pivots on the idea that “moral judgments [understood as taking as their objects human exercises of rational will] are analogous to species-relative assessments” of non-human organisms. When Foot talks about species-relative assessments, Søndergaard Christensen explains, she—Foot—is helping herself to Michael Thompson’s analysis of natural-historical discourse. What distinguishes Thompson’s analysis is the arresting claim that natural-historical judgments have a distinctive logic and, in particular, that they are neither universal generalizations nor statistical claims. Rather, they are outtakes from accounts of how specimens of a life-form ideally develop over time. Or, as Søndergaard Christensen puts it, they are “non-statistical, immune to counterexamples, and characterised by a teleological form of generality directed at the aims of the species in question.” Foot is primarily interested in this conception of natural-historical judgments because it equips us to explain how, despite being clearly evaluative, species-specific assessments of non-human organisms can be objective. Although Søndergaard Christensen leaves this last point implicit, it is—as will emerge—to the point to spell it out. Thompson’s story about natural-historical discourse includes, in addition to his remarks about the distinctive logic of natural historical judgments, an argument for regarding descriptions of the operations and features of individual organisms as having necessary references to the larger natural historical accounts that are collectively composed by these judgments. Insofar as these “vital descriptions”—to use Thompson’s term—are thus essentially tied to normatively drenched natural-historical accounts, it is possible to move seamlessly from descriptions of what’s immediately before us to species-relative evaluations. Further—and this is, as Søndergaard Christensen recognizes, the point that is decisive for Foot—insofar as species-relative evaluations of individual organisms are thus grounded in facts about what the organisms are like, we are justified in regarding these evaluations as objective. Foot is an objectivist about moral judgments, and this basic account of the objective character of species-relative assessments is both what underlies her talk about an analogy between these assessments and moral judgments and, as she sees it, what justifies her in her objectivism.

    There is one further aspect of Foot’s outlook—this is, again, an aspect underlined by Søndergaard Christensen—that deserves mention here. Despite advancing a claim about a direct analogy between species-relative assessments of non-human organisms and moral judgments of human expressions of rational will, Foot stresses that there are fundamental differences. The most significant divergence that she discusses has to do with the fact that humans are rational beings and that an account of how we ideally develop through time—an account that would, in Foot’s eyes, qualify as formally similar to natural historical accounts of non-human organisms—is one that it is only possible to arrive at through the exercise of practical reason. Or, as Søndergaard Christensen puts it, it is an account that is “based on deliverances of practical reason.”

    I agree in fundamentals, up to this point, with Søndergaard Christensen’s sketch of Foot’s idiosyncratic form of ethical naturalism. But, after offering the sketch, Søndergaard Christensen turns to what she describes as my “departure from Foot,” and at this point she misrepresents the nature of my own reservations about Foot’s project and, in doing so, misrepresents what Foot is up to. To be sure, it’s not easy to do justice to Foot’s distinctive enterprise, and Søndergaard Christensen works from a genuinely helpful account of its basic structure. Although I disagree with the drift of Søndergaard Christensen’s further reflections, she nonetheless succeeds in usefully inviting further consideration of some of the enterprise’s finer points.

    Søndergaard Christensen represents me as thinking “that Foot’s view may be problematically conservative because of its dependence on existing moral judgments.” Now in fact I do not think this. Nor is it entirely clear to me why Søndergaard Christensen believes that I favour this critical image of Foot. However, the following interpretative hypothesis strikes me as very likely. When Søndergaard Christensen is describing what, according to Foot, is unique about a natural historical account of human life, she correctly mentions that Foot holds that we arrive at such an account through the exercise of practical reason. It seems plausible to think that Søndergaard Christensen moves from noting the emphasis in Foot’s work on practical reason to concluding that Foot is advocating the kind of practical reason-based stance that is articulated in the writings of many Kantian moral philosophers, viz., a stance on which the correctness of a moral judgment is a strictly practical or formal matter involving the affirmation of a principle or maxim to which everyone could in some sense consent. Assuming that Søndergaard Christensen takes Foot to be presenting this sort of formalistic view, it is not difficult to understand either why she would think an at least partial criticism of it might be in order or why she would think I might be interested in such a criticism. It is not uncommon for philosophers to suggest that the relevant kind of formalistic approach makes better sense of the authority of moral judgments about actions that essentially presuppose specific institutional contexts (e.g., lying) than it does of the authority of moral judgments about actions that don’t presuppose such contexts (e.g., suicide). This may well be what Søndergaard Christensen has in mind when she suggests that Foot’s view is most illuminating of “moral judgments that primarily concern features that are highly enculturated” and when she then goes on to represent me as thinking that we need to move away from Foot if we are to accommodate “cases [of moral judgments] concerning features of human psychology such as emotions of fear or trust.”

    Let us assume that this is indeed what Søndergaard Christensen has in mind. The trouble is that the relevant description of Foot’s philosophical moves fails to reflect what is most insightful in Søndergaard Christensen’s own account of Foot’s ethical outlook. By Søndergaard Christensen’s own lights, the cornerstone of Foot’s type of ethical naturalism is an analogy between species-specific assessments of non-human animals and moral judgments. In developing her analogy, Foot is—as we saw—representing species-specific assessments of non-human organisms as objective because grounded in facts about what the organisms in question are like. Moreover, she is claiming that the “vital descriptions” of the organisms that record these facts are capable of underwriting the assessments because these descriptions have necessary references to normatively saturated natural historical accounts of the organisms. In order to appreciate how far Foot is from favouring the sort of formalistic view of practical reason that Søndergaard Christensen seems to be attributing to her, we need to spell out the other side of Foot’s analogy more explicitly than Søndergaard Christensen does. Foot is suggesting that moral judgments of human exercises of rational will are objective because grounded in facts about what human beings are like. Moreover, she is claiming that “vital descriptions” of individual human beings—that is, descriptions of individual human beings’ modes of rational expression—are capable of underwriting moral judgments because these descriptions have necessary references to practical reason-produced natural historical accounts of the human life-form. What emerges here is that, for Foot, the objective correctness of moral judgments is essentially a matter of sensitivity to facts about what human life is like. So, far from being a merely formal matter, as Søndergaard Christensen seems to assume, such correctness necessarily reflects a type of attention to how things are that is rightly characterized as substantive or theoretical. Since Foot’s practical reason-oriented ethical stance is not a formalistic one, there is no reason of the sort Søndergaard Christensen envisions for me to distance myself from it, and, as it happens, I do not distance myself from this portion of Foot’s project.

    It may be helpful, in closing, to say a word about what I do take exception to in Foot’s project. (Here I am in effect elaborating on the remarks on this topic that I made toward the end of my response to Hämäläinen.) Although, as I discuss at length in IE (see esp. 5.2), I am inclined to think Foot is right to perceive striking structural similarities between moral judgments and species-specific assessments of non-human animals, I am also convinced that her insistence on tightly aligning moral thought about human beings with natural-historical thought about non-human animals reflects a failure to recognize the possibility—it is a possibility that is very important for the purposes of IE—of moral thought about animals. At the same time, I am convinced that her insistence on a tight alignment of these forms of thought reflects a failure to fully appreciate the significance of the fact that moral thought about humans encompasses more than moral judgments. This last topic is an involved one, and for an adequate treatment of it, I refer the interested reader to the text of IE itself.

Nora Hämäläinen


Hämäläinen on Inside Ethics

In her new book Inside Ethics, Alice Crary continues her argument, familiar from previous work, for what she calls a broader conception of objectivity. She argues that such a conception is necessary for an adequate account of humans and animals, and thus for a discerning moral philosophy.

Her fundamental point of contention is a persistent tendency in mainstream contemporary moral philosophy—stemming from a materialist or dualist metaphysics—to condemn moral reasons, properties, and values, etc., to a ghostly existence as projections, preferences, or products of human reason. She traces this outlook in meta-ethical non-cognitivism, the work of utilitarians like Peter Singer as well as Kantians like Christine Korsgaard, concluding that “moral philosophers, together with popular ethical writers who take their cue from moral philosophy, by and large operate with the . . . assumption that, qua observable, human beings and animals don’t have any moral features” (11).

In contrast to this she presents a view of both human beings and animals, which grants them objective, empirically discoverable moral features. That is, learning more about people and animals is a path to (objective) knowledge also about their moral properties. The moral claim on us made by a dog is not a function of our moral propensities but a consequence of what kind of creature the dog is: a creature with a life, capacities for enjoyment and companionship, distinctive needs and potentials. Moral thought, thus, is about learning to see the world as it is. In this sense, both humans and animals are always already inside ethics, whether we recognize it or not.

Proponents of the mainstream view tend to picture our subjective endowments as obstructions to an objective vision of reality. But when it comes to living and minded creatures, Crary argues, we need developed subjective sensibilities and a cultivated responsiveness to their needs and interests, to bring them properly into view. Thus, a broader conception of objectivity (and rationality) is necessary.

Sharing much of Crary’s philosophical background, I find myself in sympathy with her critique of a prominent form of moral metaphysics, her world-guided, realist take on moral understanding, the way she accommodates animals, and the way she considers narrative literature as a central medium of moral thought. Against this common background, I have, however, some reservations concerning how she proceeds to argue for her view. To explore these, I will here focus on her mode of engaging the contemporary scene of philosophy in different parts of her book and the possible philosophical implications of her choices.

Who Is There and Who Is Not

I have previously thought of Crary’s work on a broader conception of objectivity as a kind of diplomatic mission: of presenting a certain (broadly Wittgensteinian) view of the moral life, language, rationality, the mind, and metaphysics, in a context of mainstream analytic philosophy where this view is considered controversial.

The present book is large and ambitious, and regarding her thorough style of argument, it has required difficult choices of inclusion and exclusion. In order not to clutter the text with a heavy apparatus of references, she has chosen to represent her philosophical opponent in terms of rather broad, influential approaches (internalism/externalism) and on the other hand, in terms of particularly interesting individual philosophers (Singer, Korsgaard, McDowell) whose work she uses as a ladder to climb past problematic views.

What puzzles me, however, is the way she repeatedly emphasizes that her views are controversial, even when there are substantial contemporary traditions to back her up. Ideas of the nature of the moral life, sympathetic to her view, are thus rendered invisible in the text. These include, first, Wittgensteinian philosophers like Peter Winch, D. Z. Phillips, Cora Diamond, and Raimond Gaita, along with their colleagues and disciples, who are, today quite numerous. Diamond is acknowledged as a central discussion partner and mentor, and her work is cited sympathetically, but it is quite possible to read the book without realizing her role as intellectual precursor to many of Crary’s basic philosophical tenets. Of explicitly Wittgensteinian thinkers, only MacDowell makes a major appearance. Second, there is Iris Murdoch and the philosophy influenced by her work, with a critique of the philosopher’s fact value dichotomy and the materialist metaphysics, and defense of a philosophy of mind, a (broad) conception of thought and rationality, which seem to me obvious precursors of Crary’s own. A quotation from Murdoch stands as the epigraph of the introductory chapter, but apart from that she figures only once as an Alzheimer patient and once in a footnote.

Third, there is a tradition of pragmatist philosophy where Crary’s ideas hardly stand out as controversial. Reading William James in tandem with Crary’s book it strikes me how many of the painstakingly argued points of her book resonate with James’s conceptions of what human thought and our human relation to the world are like, and similar observations can certainly be made concerning pragmatist ethics of a later date. Fourth, there are major figures of late twentieth-century and present anglophone ethics: Charles Taylor, Alasdair Macintyre, and Bernard Williams, along with feminist ethicist Margaret Urban Walker and bioethicists like Hilde Lindemann who certainly agree that moral philosophical inquiry must start from a perspective where value and the ethical are part of the picture from the start, rather than some strange add-on that needs to be accommodated to a materialist metaphysics. Also, the phenomenological tradition can be mobilized for this cause.

Furthermore, the idea that our understanding of the world is evaluative/moral all the way down is fundamental for thinkers like Foucault and Bourdieu, and their influence permeates large discussions in the social sciences where the analytic view of a world of plain objective facts and added subjective values is bound to look awkward as a basis for learning more about human life.

It is not difficult to imagine reasonable rationales for not engaging these traditions. One is that Crary has a complex relation to some of these more sympathetic traditions and figures that she does not want to delve into in the present book. Another is that she might not recognize the points of affinity that may look obvious to others, or consider them relevant for her assessment of the general scene of discussion. A third might be that she considers the status of many or some of these precursors problematic in the context of philosophy she wants to address, and thus feels that they may hinder, rather than help, her in her pursuit. One rationale could be that she does not want to rely on precedent but wants to argue her case independently. Or maybe some of these contexts are simply too obvious to be mentioned. Etc.

I am not suggesting that she should have discussed all or any of these traditions, but rather that the support they offer could have played more of a role in her description of the scene of discussion. The result of her choices is that the outlook she opposes becomes rhetorically normalized. Is it a worrying trend in moral philosophy, as Crary labels it in the first chapter, or is it the view endorsed by everyone who counts? In other words, isn’t there a risk that she caters for a kind of narrowness in contemporary (broadly) analytic ethics: the academically convenient but intellectually destructive tendency to ignore any view that is not part of the current (narrowly conceived) debates?

The Role of Wittgenstein

The one precursor who does get full attention and credit in Crary’s book is Wittgenstein. In the atmosphere of analytic moral philosophy to which and against which Crary speaks, this can be controversial enough, considering Wittgenstein’s declining influence among mainstream analytic philosophers in the past few decades. Defying this tendency, she engages Wittgenstein’s philosophy of mind to argue that our subjective responses contribute to our capacity to bring the world objectively into view. Our understanding is mediated by our shared linguistic practices, and these practices bequeath to us an engaged, evaluatively immersed manner of knowing the world, which is distorted in a narrow conception of objectivity.

I am sympathetic to this large picture of Wittgenstein’s philosophy and its potential significance for ethics, but there is one aspect of it that I find disconcerting: the way Wittgenstein is, perhaps inadvertently, placed as a gatekeeper to the right way of going against the materialist moral metaphysics of contemporary moral philosophers. What we need is, according to Crary, “a very particular understanding of psychological discourse.” It is a view that “invites us to conceive our categories for thinking about psychological qualities as ethically inflected categories that resist any meaningful reduction or translation to physical terms, and it also asks us to consider these categories as essentially matters of sensitivity to how things really are” (37).

Since Crary also observes that her view of objectivity is continuous with a commonsense realism about morality, we may ask: aren’t there other ways of arriving at a philosophical elaboration of such realism? Isn’t there a risk that readers who find Crary’s reading of Wittgenstein difficult or unattractive, may think that there is, then, no good reason to consider the commonsense realism as a philosophically fruitful starting point?

The Role of Literature

In chapter 6, Crary discusses literary texts, Seebalds Austerliz, Coetzee’s Disgrace, and Tolstoy’s story Strider: The Story of a Horse, to illuminate the kinship of humans and animals, and to show by means of literature what kind of engagement with the world and with other creatures may be necessary to get a proper view of their moral nature. We find Strider, the old gelding, much reduced due to age and mistreatment, and we see his previous owner’s neglect of the horse as an aspect of his general moral incapacity. We engage in Coetzee’s character David Lurie’s evolving sensitivity to animals. We also encounter the parallel between Jaques Austerliz—the art historian who once was a Czech Jew, uprooted from his past by a kindertransport to England—and a compulsive raccoon that the book’s narrator sees at the Antwerp Zoo. These readings work well to illustrate how literary works can present humans and animals as creatures with a life, with necessary conditions for flourishing, and thus objective moral traits that we can learn to know. Literature, on this view, contributes to moral thought precisely in power of its literary qualities, strategies, and ways of engaging the reader.

Having considered this a prominent way of understanding the ethical role of literature in contemporary philosophy, I am surprised to find that Crary considers the contemporary scene of conversations on ethics and literature largely unable to accommodate these kinds of insights. “The standard view” in Crary’s terms, is one which harvests literary work for descriptions and arguments, and neglects the moral thought involved in literature in its own right. Central figures like Stanley Cavell, Iris Murdoch and Martha Nussbaum are merely mentioned in a footnote as critics of the “standard view,” and the large number of contemporary scholars taking their cue from them is rendered invisible. Thus, paradoxically, Crary’s argumentative strategy runs the risk of normalizing a philosophically superficial take on the ethical roles of literature, and conceding the privilege of making the field to philosophers whose main interests lie elsewhere (analytic moral theory, analytic aesthetics, epistemology).


Emphasizing the discussions where Crary’s ideas are controversial and effacing discussions where they are at home has some potentially problematic consequences for her substantial take on moral philosophy. Her insistence on a broader conception of objectivity, encompassing moral features as central aspects of reality, reads on a first glance as a natural elaboration of the line of moral realism endorsed by Murdoch and Diamond. Moral discernment, for them, is about being in touch with real aspects of the real world. It is thus about trying to be objective and responsive, to overcome bias and subjective projections.

But Crary’s recurrent emphatic return to the words “objective” and “objectivity,” give a clue that something slightly different is going on here. We catch a glimpse of this something in her critiques of Foot’s naturalism and Cary Wolf’s posthumanism in chapter 5. What interests me here is the common denominator of these critiques: the failure of both Foot and Wolfe to account properly for the objectivity of moral features. In Foot’s case, the problem is one of negligence: “Although Foot assumes that human beings have observable moral characteristics, she doesn’t present an argument for this assumption” (191). In Wolf’s case, it is his reliance on Derrida’s work, which undermines the possibility of proper objectivity: “It appears not only that any authority our words have is at bottom context-relative but also that there can be no question of satisfying a familiar ideal of objectivity that encodes the idea of universal authority” (195).

What she seems to demand is not the casual objectivity of “try to be objective for once, will you please!” (meaning “this is not the time for spilling out your emotions/prejudice/fears”), or “I think Paul was there: he can give an objective account of what happened” (meaning let’s hear Paul, who is not a party in the conflict). What Crary is looking for is rather a robust philosophical (metaphysical) conception of objectivity as “how things really are” correlative to a philosophical anxiety of the relativity of subjective experience, which is conceived as a threat to the rationality of the philosophical endeavor. To convince or refute her philosophical opponents, she needs to counter them at this level: give them the heavy duty, though broad, objectivity they demand.

But, the question is, does she? Or can she? Crary censures Foot for just taking observable moral characteristics for granted, but maybe this not a mistake on Foot’s part. Murdoch at least was quite explicit about what she saw as the necessity to put value into our metaphysical picture form the start, if we want to have it there at all. If we want effective argument for the reality of moral features, it needs to be about starting points. But there is a limit to what can be achieved by means of argument, because the difference between two kinds of moral metaphysics is rather like a change of aspect. You can say: “Look at the ears,” and the rabbit comes forth. Or you can say: “Look at the (objective) ethical intelligence of Tolstoy’s portrayal,” and a broader conception of objectivity comes forth (or not). Crary does the latter well, as also Nussbaum, Diamond, Cavell and others have done. But whether she manages to do something more by means of her emphasis on argument and objectivity is uncertain.

Crary’s Ethics

The last issue that I want to raise concerns how to move on from Inside Ethics. I have suggested that Crary might be granting too much credence to standards and ideals of philosophers holding the view she is criticizing. This might put her in an argumentatively disadvantageous position, but it might also have problematic consequences for her substantial thinking about ethics. One such consequence or risk is that moral life is rendered too neat and tidy: once we sort out this issue of objectivity, and acknowledge the need for a developed subjective sensibility for understanding objective reality, we are fine. What remains, then, is developing our sensibilities and getting creatures objectively into view.

Missing in this picture is the way that any lived and shared morality is about sanctioned and systematic exceptions to the demands of other creatures; we could call it the agonism of (moral) life. Looking back at the economic realities of the agrarian societies from which the Western societies of late modernity have only just emerged, we see conditions where such compromises were keenly felt. Dependent on wool, leather, hides, as well as milk and meat for sufficient nutrition, most people lived day to day with animals, delighting in lambs and calves, finding comfort in animal company, and yet learning to do their share in slaughter and the preparation of food, leather, and other utilities.

From the mere acknowledgment of the objective moral qualities of a creature, that is, the claim to life and flourishing it manifests, very little follows. Exclamations like “It is a live animal, you cannot treat it like that!” or “For God’s sake, he is a human being” are efficient responses to wanton cruelty or neglect. But what is the appropriate treatment of a living being who is someone’s dinner or threatening enemy? To butcher without cruelty and without unnecessary suffering? To protect one’s home, family, and livelihood without undue violence? These are the materials of moral reflection and negotiation.

Living in a modern city, our fridges stocked with tofu and authorities for protecting our spaces, we can do our share to reduce cruelty. But we easily underestimate the amount of harming, maiming, and killing that goes on in our names: in modern agriculture, in keeping city spaces free from unwanted wildlife, not to speak of police violence, warfare, and exploitation. I agree with Crary that a proper acknowledgment of the reality of other beings, that is, their objective (moral) qualities, is essential. But even a pacified, modern, vegan society will have its own ways of perpetrating, tolerating, endorsing, and administrating the selective denial of respect and concern for other creatures. And even in such a society will there be a historically malleable set of things we need to suffer “for our own good,” and things that are considered genuinely damaging?

Thus, in a sense, Crary’s book ends before the real adventure of both social critique and moral philosophy begins—the real adventure being that of interrogating our and others’ ways of administering moral concern and recognition. And it might have to end there because once you let these negotiations in the equilibrium of broadly objective moral demands will be disturbed. This is because such negotiations concern, not only how to get acknowledgeable facts into view and how to deal with them, but our very concepts, categories, proprieties, emotional responses, and what things mean for us.

Crary would probably agree that we develop our moral discernment as children of a specific time and place; that a developed sensibility is a specific sensibility of a certain kind of people who have had quite specific conditions to cultivate their understanding. Creativity, partiality, individuality, and cultural idiosyncrasy play their roles in what it means to develop a moral sensibility. Thus, different people can truly see different worlds and still respond to the objective moral claims of another being. But this elaboration places a strain on the notion of objectivity. In the midst of social, moral, and conceptual change we reach for the (objective) reality of others. But this must be objectivity understood in a rather casual manner. Developed sensibilities (shared or individual) are of many different kinds and pick out different traits of reality. Objectivity, in some philosophically or metaphysically more ambitious sense, might be unhelpful to describe the approximation of the real at work in moral life. Demanding such a notion, as Crary seems to do, might be an incentive to underplay agonism and change.

  • Alice Crary

    Alice Crary


    Response to Hämäläinen

    Nora Hämäläinen delivers her reflections on Inside Ethics (herafter IE) from a position of general sympathy. She declares that she agrees with the book’s distinctive ethical vision—a vision that, as she succinctly puts it, “grants [both human beings and animals] objective, empirically discoverable moral features” and that thus invites us to conceive “moral thought . . . [as] about learning to see the world as it is.” This is a notable measure of agreement, and it is a pleasure to find it expressed in the work of a philosopher as thoughtful as Hämäläinen. Hämäläinen does not, however, spend much time trying to characterize the stance in ethics that, she says, she finds congenial. She limits her descriptive gestures to the brief opening paragraphs of her response, and, without offering an account of the nature of the book’s argument, devotes her remarks to five critical points. This response is accordingly dedicated entirely to her criticisms, which, while provocative and interesting, in different ways reflect a failure to register IE’s distinctive aims and methods.

    The first three of Hämäläinen’s five critical points, taken together, amount to an internally complex critique of IE’s argumentative strategy. The heading for the first of these three points is “who is there and who is not.” This would in fact have worked well as a heading for all of the first three points. The first point goes like this. After mentioning three of the philosophers whose writings serve as important reference points for the book (viz., Christine Korsgaard, John McDowell and Peter Singer), Hämäläinen gestures at a large and heterogeneous group of thinkers who, as she sees it, are in some sense intellectual fellow travelers and who, she laments, nevertheless fail to “make a major appearance” in the book’s pages. Her list includes “explicitly Wittgensteinian thinkers” (such as Peter Winch, D. Z. Philips, Cora Diamond, Raimond Gaita and—one thinker Hämäläinen takes to be so important here that she gets separate mention—Iris Murdoch), classic pragmatists (such as William James), prominent figures in “twentieth-century and anglophone ethics” (such as Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre and Bernard Williams), feminist ethicists (such as Margaret Urban Walker), bioethicists (such as Hilde Lindemann), classic (unnamed) phenomenologists and French philosophers and sociologists (such as Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu). Turning to her second point, Hämäläinen next raises concerns about the fact that Wittgenstein, a thinker who—in her words—has had a “declining influence among mainstream analytic philosophers in the past few decades,” is an important source of inspiration for some of IE’s main lines of argument. Lastly, in making her third point, Hämäläinen returns to mentioning thinkers she takes to be intellectual fellow travelers and whom she thinks might well have received more attention in IE, now focusing specifically on the book’s engagement with questions about the relationship between philosophy and literature. Without explaining why she thinks they need to be addressed under separate cover, she adds to her list of allegedly overlooked figures the names of Stanley Cavell and Martha Nussbaum.

    Hämäläinen’s critical ambition in giving her long list of philosophers who are supposedly included and excluded in the text of IE is to suggest that there are more “substantial contemporary traditions” in alignment with the book than get acknowledged and that one distorting effect of the book’s argumentative style is that the outlook it opposes “becomes rhetorically normalized.” Notice that it would not be sufficient for the purposes of responding to Hämäläinen’s charge here to have found ways to integrate the voices of all or even most of the thinkers whom she takes to be neglected in the book’s main narrative. From Hämäläinen’s perspective, it is problematic that—as she sees it—IE relies significantly on Wittgenstein, since he is a controversial figure whose influence is, in her view, in decline. It’s accordingly unclear how, from her perspective, it could have improved the book’s argument to have included additional treatments of the work of those thinkers she considers to be “explicitly Wittgensteinian,” since presumably that would have simply served in her eyes to further ghettoize its favored positions. In order to address this critique of Hämäläinen’s, it would have been necessary to write a book that was at least in large part devoted to bringing out connections between IE’s main outlook and figures in at least some of the following further intellectual traditions—pragmatism, non-Wittgensteinian anglophone ethics, feminist ethics, bioethics, phenomenology and French philosophy and sociology.

    I can imagine various interesting and worthwhile projects fitting this general description, and I would personally be delighted to see someone undertake them. (See my response to Baz for an expression of my openness to the idea of a book that sets out to link a view like the one I defend in IE to the phenomenological tradition in particular.) But it is not an objection to the book I wrote that it is not dedicated to one of these projects. Hämäläinen’s criticism of IE’s argumentative strategy is not to the point. There is, moreover, a sense in which that is hardly surprising. For Hämäläinen doesn’t employ even a small portion of her response to say what the book’s argumentative strategy is like. She does claim, correctly, that I tend to represent its guiding claims as “controversial,” and she says she is “puzzled” by this gesture given that there are—she avers—significant, currently well-represented philosophical traditions to “back me up.” A brief description of IE’s guiding claims, and of its approach to defending them, should help to clear up the puzzlement.

    The main positive theses of IE, sketched only in part at the opening of Hämäläinen’s response, could be stated as follows. I claim that humans and animals have moral characteristics that are open to observation—this is what it is for humans and animals to be, in the terms of IE, inside ethics (see 12)—and, in addition, that this has important consequences for how we conceive of appropriate methods of ethics. My idea is that it is a consequence that the exercise of specifically moral capacities such as moral imagination is required to bring the worldly lives of human beings and animals into focus in a manner relevant to ethics. Moreover, I attempt to show that, if we elaborate on the work of insightful thinkers (philosophers and others) who help themselves to the relevant kinds of ethically non-neutral methods in trying to do empirical justice in ethics to human and animal existence, we can see merely being human, or merely being an animal of some kind, is morally important. That is what I mean when, in chapter 4, I summarize a core contention of the book by saying that all humans and animals are, in my sense, “inside ethics.”

    Before turning to the structure of the book’s argument, it seems worth noting that—although she starts with a reasonable, if incomplete, account of IE’s aims—Hämäläinen sometimes operates with a different and wrongly watered-down account of the book’s ambitions. She sometimes glosses the positive point of the book by saying that I am primarily interested in what she calls a “commonsense realism about morality.” When I first read this, I was unsure what position Hämäläinen meant to be ascribing to me. The term “moral realism” gets used in ethics in different and contradictory ways, and, with an eye to avoiding confusions that frequently arise when the term is used, in IE (and elsewhere) I avoid employing it altogether (for an account of the reasoning behind this terminological choice, see 31). But the suggestion that IE is dealing in “commonsense realism about morality” makes a certain sense if what Hämäläinen means by this—and this is what, upon a second reading of her response, I take her to mean—is that I favor a view on which there are objective moral values and on which we accordingly need moral resources simply to capture, in a manner pertinent to ethics, certain aspects of the world. She is certainly right to suggest that (among many other things) I favor a view on these lines. What is offkey about her opening polemic is that it depends for its apparent force on the false assumption that a thinker who sympathizes with, in her terms, this sort of “realism about morality” thereby counts as a significant intellectual anscestor of the book. Her reliance on this assumption is, I suspect, what leads her to mention the arrestingly wide range of individuals who figure in her listings of “who is there and who is not.” The trouble is that there’s a misfit between this picture of what it takes for other philosophers to be in alignment with the enterprise of IE and the actual enterprise of IE. To clarify this, I need to give a brief account—of a sort that is lacking in Hämäläinen’s response—of the approach I adopted to achieving what a paragraph back I described as the aims of IE.

    A reasonable place to start is with the suggestion of IE that Hämäläinen finds puzzling. I do take the idea that human beings and animals are inside ethics in my sense to be deeply controversial not only in philosophy but well beyond it. (I certainly wouldn’t have spent several years on the project if I didn’t think I was saying something that needed to be said.) But, within the pages of IE, I do not merely take it for granted that an effort to locate humans and animals inside ethics is bound to encounter fierce philosophical resistance. One of my goals in laying out the book’s argumentative strategy is to bring out forcefully how and why it encounters such resistance. My main goal is to provide argumentative steps from positions that represent human beings and animals as “outside ethics” (viz., in the sense of lacking observable moral characteristics) to a position on which not only some but all human beings and animals are inside ethics.

    Here is a brief, schematic account of the argument of IE. Early in the book I discuss how, setting aside their more specific differences, many prominent moral philosophers who address issues pertaining to animals as well as humans agree with each other in accepting the constraints of a metaphysic that excludes from the fabric of the world qualities that are such that a reference to particular perceptual or affective endowments is necessary in order to adequately describe them (chapter 1). Next I show that this metaphysic, which I place under the heading of the narrower conception of objectivity, carves out the conceptual space in which most debates in philosophy of mind currently take place. In addition, I present an argument against the narrower conception and for what I call a wider conception of objectivity (viz., a conception that is broad enough to include among the furniture of the universe qualites that are such that a reference to particular perceptual or affective endowments is necessary in order to adequately describe them), and I argue that aspects of both animal and human minds are in this sense “widely objective,” specifically, in that a reference to ethical outlooks is required in order to adequately capture them (chapters 2 and 3; see in this connection also the helpful overview of these portions of IE that Timothy Furry and Ethan Smith give in their introduction to this symposium). I go on to bring out how a—“narrower”—conception of rationality that is the epistemological counterpart to the narrower conception of objectivity underlies philosophical hostility to the idea that ethically non-neutral methods (e.g., of the sorts that we encounter in works of literature) can as such directly inform ethical understanding, and I call for reliance on a—“wider”—conception of rationality that is the conceptual counterpart of the wider conception of objectivity and that accommodates this idea. Lastly, helping myself to the sorts of ethically non-neutral methods sanctioned by the wider conception of rationality, I make a case for thinking, among other things, that all humans and animals are inside ethics (chapters 4 and 6). One virtue of this argumentative approach is that it enables us to see what might initially have looked like a disconnected set of “narrowly objective” views in a number of separate subareas of philosophy—say, metaphysics, ethics, philosophy of mind and philosophy & literature—turn out to form a pattern that seems to prevent us from locating humans and animals inside ethics. That is what I meant when I said that IE’s argumentative strategy brings out how and why the book’s guiding theses are controversial. Moreover, although my sketch here is too general to establish this in detail, we have here an outline of how the strategy achieves its main function of providing argumentative steps from positions that represent human beings and animals as “outside ethics” to a position on which not only some but all human beings and animals are, on the contrary, “inside ethics.”

    This brings me to the role of Wittgenstein in IE. Hämäläinen thinks that I have grounded at least a significant portion of the book’s argument in Wittgenstein’s philosophical authority and so have, “perhaps inadvertently, placed [him] as a gatekeeper to the right way of going [in ethics].” Given that she takes Wittgenstein’s influence to be in decline, it appears to her to be problematic that, as she believes, his influence is thus decisive for the success of my enterprise. This is, however, an entirely fabricated worry about IE. It is true that, in the book, I make significant use of passages from Wittgenstein’s later writings in one chapter—chapter 2—and it is also true that this chapter is structurally pivotal, since it contains my main case for thinking that humans and animals have observable moral characteristics are hence “inside ethics.” But it is not true that I have entrusted my project to Wittgenstein’s reputation. On the contrary, I am quite clear that, as I put it, “I am not primarily concerned to make a contribution to Wittgenstein exegesis” (46). Although I use Wittgensteinian materials to motivate my conclusions, I am more concerned with the soundness of my main line of reasoning than with its origins, and I treat questions about interpretative fidelity as secondary. The status of Wittgenstein’s current influence or reputation is thus of no significance for the success of my project. All that matters for my purposes is the soundness of the arguments that, rightly or wrongly, I take myself to have inherited from him.

    Let me turn now to a criticism Hämäläinen makes in the fourth of her five sections. One of Hämäläinen’s main charges here has to do with an extended passage in chapter 5 in which I am concerned with Phillipa Foot’s 2001 book Natural Goodness. What is relevant about the passage in question, for the purpose of this response, is that I both credit Foot with situating human beings “inside ethics” and raise a question about what I see as her tendency to simply assume that human beings have observable moral characteristics. Commenting on this moment in IE, Hämäläinen floats the idea that I am wrong to level a criticism at Phillipa Foot in connection with this tendency of hers. “Maybe,” Hämäläinen writes, “this was not a mistake on Foot’s part,” and, taking her cue from a gesture of Iris Murdoch’s, Hämäläinen suggests that we are right to proceed in ethics in a manner that “put[s] value into our metaphysical picture from the start.” I have no objection to Hämäläinen’s suggestion here, which strikes me as sound, but it cleanly misses the point of the remark of mine about Foot that supposedly prompts it. I do not raise a question about Foot’s tendency to simply help herself to the view that humans have observable moral characteristics because I believe that any philosopher who holds this view ought to have an argument for it. I do not believe this. I raise a question about this gesture of Foot’s for two reasons. One is that I am asking whether her 2001 book ought to be seen as a forerunner to my efforts in IE to situate human beings inside ethics (191). My other reason for raising a question about this moment in Foot’s work has to do with the fact that she fails to register that, like human beings, animals have observable moral characteristics (191–92). It seems reasonable to me to think that, if she had puzzled over why we need irreducibly ethical categories to think and talk about the worldly lives of humans, it might have occurred to her that we also need such categories to think and talk about the worldly lives of animals. This is why I draw critical attention to Foot’s mere assumption that humans have observable moral characteristics. There is, significantly, no tension with Hämäläinen’s Murdochian proposal about how to proceed in ethics.

    Consider, lastly, an interesting rebuke that Hämäläinen administers in the fifth and last section of her response. She closes the response by intimating that I leave the most important issues untouched. “Crary’s book,” she writes, “ends before the real adventure of both social critique and moral philosophy begins—the real adventure being that of interrogating our and others’ ways of administering moral concern and recognition.” We could gloss the complaint that Hämäläinen is airing here by saying that she thinks that IE ultimately offers nothing more than a new bit of normative theory. Although she is willing to credit the book with situating human beings and animals inside ethics, she thinks the interesting work only begins once we treat human beings and animals as inside ethics and, whilst doing so, get on with pressing questions of social and moral critique. Her point is that this critical project is where the action is and that IE has nothing to contribute to it. But is this right? Here it is helpful to return to the account I gave above of the aims of IE and to recall that one of the book’s aims is to show that it follows from an understanding of human beings and animals as inside ethics that the exercise of specifically moral capacities such as moral imagination is required to bring the worldly lives of humans and animals into focus in a manner relevant to ethics. Moreover, as indicated above, in the text of IE I don’t merely make this methodological observation. I actively make use of it. I employ the sorts of ethically non-neutral and world-directed methods that I claim are of decisive importance in showing that all human beings and animals are inside ethics, and, in developing this line of thought, I attempt to arbitrate a politically fraught dispute about the moral standing of people with severe cognitive disabilities (chapter 4). I also employ the sorts of ethically non-neutral and world-directed methods that I regard as important in following up at length on the contributions three literary authors make to our understanding of moral fellowship between human beings and animals (chapter 6), and, finally, I discuss some very insightful animal advocates have made use of these methods in intervening in debates about whether we should eat animals and about whether we should experiment on them (chapter 7). If we follow Hämäläinen when she claims that the kinds of critical endeavors that are made possible by locating human beings and animals inside ethics are the “real adventure” in ethics, then it is fair to say that three of seven chapters of IE are dedicated to adventuring. In truth, I too would find IE to be a less interesting book if it did not contain this material. But, because IE is in fact to a substantial extent concerned with exploring the critical significance of its own normative claims, there can be no question of vulnerability to a charge, of the sort leveled by Hämäläinen, of missing the adventure.

Stanley Hauerwas


Theological Reflections on Alice Crary’s ‘Inside Ethics’

It is important to begin my reflections on Crary’s fascinating book by making clear the fundamental difference between Crary and me. That difference, moreover, is the source of our most basic disagreements. I am not referring to our obvious difference, which is that Crary is a philosopher and I am a theologian. I will suggest in this response that difference is not as significant as is often thought. In fact, I will use this opportunity to respond to Crary to say why I think the work Crary has done as a philosopher is important for the work of theology.

No, the basic and fundamental difference between us is that Crary is clearly a dog person and I am a cat person all the way down. Crary may object that she does not ignore cats because she does use Cavell’s report of his daughter’s learning “kitty.” But I think it is undeniable that Crary is more attuned to the ethics that are “inside” dogs than she is when it comes to how cats understand us. I believe her argument would have been stronger if she had attended to those intelligent creatures called cats, particularly Siamese cats, who clearly do not need, as dogs do, the constant affirmation of their “owners.” It turns out that cats own us.

I think I know what I am talking about. I cannot remember when I have had not had a cat. Tuck, a cat with great dignity, lived to be twenty-two, Enda and Eden lived to eighteen, and Faith and Hope have just turned three. These cats have always been ready to welcome us (Paula, my spouse, is also a cat person) when we return home at the end of the day, but they do so on their terms. I am persuaded by Crary’s argument that human beings and animals have empirically discoverable moral characteristics. But her case would have been stronger if she knew Faith and Hope.

Now that I have got that off my chest, I will develop a more conventional though quite distinctive response to Crary’s book. I do not intend, however, to engage the philosophical issues her book raises. That may seem odd, but those matters have been broached by the earlier respondents. Accordingly, I think there would be little use for me to go over ground that has already been well plowed. Crary, moreover, has responded to those questions and criticisms with admirable clarity. Of course there is more to say, but philosophically there is always more to say. Rather, I will hopefully open a different line of enquiry by asking why and how a theologian might have a stake in the kind of arguments Crary develops in Inside Ethics and also by suggesting how certain theological concepts might be implied or at least brought to bear on Crary’s work.

That said, however, I should make clear that I am sympathetic with the argument central to Inside Ethics as well as the arguments Crary uses to support her positions. In particular, I am sympathetic with her reading of Wittgenstein’s philosophical “method,” which I take to be the central argument Crary makes in defense of her “empiricism.” Like Crary, I have been influenced by Cora Diamond’s and Stephen Mulhall’s reading of the Philosophical Investigations. I have at least implicitly assumed something like her account of Wittgenstein’s philosophical psychology to suggest how best to think about the importance of habit for any account of the virtues.  I also think she is right—indeed, I have developed similar arguments—that there is a “pragmatism” in Wittgenstein’s account of how linguistic expressions “mean” such and such in relation to a judgment.

Therefore I found her criticism of modern ethical theory not only persuasive but one that provides an opening for theological interventions in ethics. Crary argues that moral philosophers have operated on the assumption that the observation of the behavior of human beings and animals is external to morality. In contrast, she argues that human beings and animals have moral characteristics that are available by observation. She rightly argues that most modern moral philosophy denies that to be the case, because most moral philosophers think such an acknowledgement would make the attempt to sustain the neutral or objective character of moral reason problematic.

Her critique of the character of modern moral philosophy is one that has significant theological implications. Theological considerations have been excluded from modern ethical theory exactly because it has been assumed if theological convictions were included in any account of moral rationality, their particularistic implications will subvert any attempt to sustain an account of moral objectivity. In short, most philosophical ethicists have assumed that if theological convictions were considered in moral argument, then there would even be less chance of providing a moral theory capable of overcoming disagreements.

In contrast to the ambitions of most Kantian inspired accounts of ethical objectivity, Crary argues that objectivity is only available by something like the kind of work done by Cavell and others in ordinary language philosophy. In the process, Crary’s account of “inside ethics” at the very least provides an opening for theological considerations that would make her position perhaps even more threatening to a large group of ethicists. Crary’s “method” means that the only “method” requires us to attend to how we say what we say.

Put in my terms, what Crary’s account of modern moral philosophy suggests is that her understanding of “inside ethics” tells, or at least presupposes, a narrative. But she does not make the narrative presupposed explicit. That story could come in a number of forms, but to say the very least it should be clear that at least one way the story is told is by Jewish and Christian accounts of creation.  That story makes clear that all animals, human and non-human, share a common characteristic—we are first and foremost creatures. “Creature” turns out to be a logically primitive notion that confirms the empirical observations that human and non-human animals can be observed to have moral sensibilities.

Crary quite rightly argues that modern ethical theory has a far too limited view of what counts as a moral concept. I think that is true. In particular, “creature” is one such concept that presumes a moral stance but isn’t normally classified as moral (19). As a concept, moreover, “creature” begs for narrative display. Crary comes close to suggesting the need for such a narrative when she reflects on creatures’ expressive behavior. That she uses the language of creature is telling (68), but equally significant is her suggestion she can tell a story about the behavior that is relevant for human beings and animals. I take such a claim to be the philosophical equivalent of the theological conviction that all life has been created to have a purpose. Thus her later claim that “to do justice to a human being’s expressive behavior it is necessary to look at her in the light of a conception of what is important in human life” (135).

Put in traditional terms, Crary’s claim about the necessity of having a conception of what is important in human life implicitly affirms that every form of life has a telos. Moreover, the telos makes possible the “seeing” of what makes the satisfaction of the purpose possible. That all life has a telos makes possible, indeed necessary, the stories that make our lives make sense. I think it would be very interesting for Crary to engage MacIntyre’s critique of Aristotle on telos in Ethics in the Conflict of Modernity, because I cannot help but think MacIntyre would strengthen her case by introducing the concept of the good.

I take Crary’s understanding of what makes life important to be the background presumption for her claim that it is morally significant that human beings are human beings and animal life is in like manner significant by being animal life. That significance is well on display in her reflections about mentally disabled persons and about those suffering from Alzheimer’s. Her views on the imperative to serve the former and care for the latter can be the beginning of an important conversation between philosophers and theologians about what it means to be a community capable of caring for those who so suffer.

Finally, it might well be asked what all this may have to do with God. I think it may work this way. Crary briefly discusses what it might mean to be creatures that grieves. It is often thought if you hold a certain set of beliefs about God, then you appropriately grieve about, for example, when someone close to you dies. But that is to get it backwards. We do not grieve because of our belief in God. We believe in God, at least the Christian God, because we are creatures for whom it makes sense to grieve. I should like to think Crary’s book (88, 91) helps us understand why we rightly grieve when our twenty-two-year-old cat dies and how such grieving can help us see and even begin to understand what it means to be a creature.

  • Alice Crary

    Alice Crary


    Thoughts on Cats and Theology

    It would be difficult to exaggerate how delighted I am to find myself in conversation with Stanley Hauerwas—whom I have long admired—or how honored I am by his words of appreciation for Inside Ethics. Hauerwas proposes that my book’s guiding lines of thought are helpfully taken to bear on “the work of theology,” and he makes this proposal in part with an eye to inviting me to follow up on his own theological reflections. Although this might seem an intimidating prospect for a philosopher with no formal theological training, I here offer as an expression of my heartfelt gratitude for Hauerwas’ engagement with the book my best effort to rise to the occasion.

    To start, I need to address what Hauerwas calls our most fundamental difference, namely, that—as he puts it—I am “a dog person” and that he is “a cat person all the way down.” In fact this way of putting things fails to do justice to my complex relationship to cats. I had a beloved older sister, Jen, who established herself as the cat-oriented member our family before I came into the world, depriving me of that role, and I am prevented from enjoying close feline companionship now by the allergies of members of my current household. Nevertheless, my life has in fundamental respects been cat-oriented. Indeed, it is possible to introduce some of the main themes of things I want to say in response to Hauerwas with two anecdotes about my intense relationship to one particular cat, a spirited and physically imposing, one-eyed gray tom named Peter, who inhabited the house in which I grew up (and who was considered “Jen’s cat”). The first anecdote is about my first words, which I didn’t utter until I was well into my third year. I joined the fellowship of speakers one day when I pointed to Peter and produced the reasonably well-formed sentence: “Eh see’m catty.” When my mother tells this tale, which became part of our family lore, it is invariably to make the point that I was always unwilling to do anything until I could do it perfectly and that I was, from the beginning, a hopeless perfectionist. The second anecdote is about an imaginary world that Jen would describe to me during the long, lazy days of our childhood, a higher world of peace and wisdom in which human beings and animals could speak to each other. The denizens of this higher realm were called “Kibbenses,” and, although it was made clear to me that I wasn’t a Kibbens—of course I was desperate to be one—Peter was. (We often called him Peter-Kibbens.) This means that a cat, not a dog, is the force behind not only my earliest drive toward perfectionism but also my first longings for transcendence, about both of which more anon.

    By way of ground-laying, it will be helpful to say a few words about some important matters of substance on which Hauerwas and I see eye to eye. The main critical target of IE is an assumption, at least tacitly made by a great many moral philosophers, to the effect that—to use Hauerwas’ succinct formulation—“the observation of the behavior of human beings and animals is external to morality.” Within the book, I discuss how pressure thus to situate human beings and animals “outside ethics” can be traced to an engrained but ultimately untenable philosophical image of what objectivity is like. Hauerwas finds this moment in the book’s argument congenial because he thinks that the same basic philosophical outlook that, as I maintain, wrongly excludes moral considerations from directly informing an objective grasp of human beings’ and animals’ worldly lives also wrongly excludes “theological considerations” from directly informing our understanding of the world to which moral thought is responsible. I agree with him on this point and want to affirm his subsequent claim that IE “provides an opening for theological considerations that would make [the book’s] position even more threatening to a large group of ethicists.” My book urges that pursuit of the kind of undistorted empirical understanding of human beings’ and animals’ lives that we seek in ethics requires openness to investigating ethically charged attitudes that we find expressed in, say, “work across different fields in the humanities as well as in literature and other arts” (3), and Hauerwas is right that it follows from my larger argument that this openness should be construed to involve a posture of willingness to explore, inter alia, non-neutral perspectives that we encounter in theology and the study of religion.

    This brings me to a helpful gloss that Hauerwas offers on the overarching project of IE. He credits the book with showing that, far from inevitably inviting formulation in the style of scientific reports, our modes of understanding the worldly lives of human beings and animals in ethics are articulated within a realm of meaning and are such that they might aptly be captured in the form of “narrative.” That strikes me as exactly right, and I am intrigued by Hauerwas’ gently pointed observation that I don’t specify the narrative that is in question. He himself mentions the Jewish and Christian accounts of creation within which “all animals, human and non-human” are creatures. Hauerwas’ suggestion is that these religious stories are well suited to IE’s claims insofar as, on their terms, “creature” is a “logically primitive notion” that brings with it the idea “that human and non-human animals can be observed to have moral [characteristics].” Hauerwas is, I believe, right to detect a good fit between this feature of Judeo-Christian thought and themes of IE. However, while it is part of the task of IE to elicit the recognition that we may register things about the worldly lives of humans and animals that aren’t otherwise available by—for instance—looking at them as creatures in a Judeo-Christian sense, the book should not be read as developing a specifically Judeo-Christian vision of creation. To be sure, by my lights, there is a teleological dimension to the exercise of getting humans and animals empirically in focus in ethics, but to speak of teleology in the sense that interests me is not to presuppose the existence of an independent subject who sets things up with a telos (for discussion of related topics, see 176, note 30). I do refer to humans and animals as creatures in IE, but I use the word rather informally as a term of endearment, as an expression suited to the recognition that all human beings and animals are in my sense “inside ethics.”

    One of my motives for writing a book that aims to elicit this recognition was to challenge the idea, defended by a number of high-profile moral philosophers, of tension between an unqualified affirmation of the value of animal life and an unqualified affirmation of the value of the lives of humans with severe cognitive disabilities. I am happy that Hauerwas thinks that there are religious resonances to this project, and I join with him in hoping that theological-philosophical exchanges of the sort we’re having now can prompt further “conversation between philosophers and theologians about what it means to be a community capable of caring for [all humans and animals].”

    I sincerely express this hope without finding myself in a position to connect it, as Hauerwas beckons me to do, with the idea of God. The most I am prepared to do here and now is riff a bit on a proposal that Iris Murdoch once made about how ethics ought to preserve important aspects of this idea for “those who are not religious believers.” Murdoch was operating with an understanding of the concept of God as a concept of “a single perfect transcendent non-representable and necessarily real object of attention,” and her thought was that, as she put it, “moral philosophy should attempt to retain a central concept which has all these characteristics” (from “On ‘God’ and ‘Good’” in The Sovereignty of Good; stress in the original). It is fair to say that the argument of IE equips us to affirm, with some differences, a thought on these lines. Without trying to discuss all of Murdoch’s proposed God-related terms, and without worrying about how close my interpretations of the terms are to Murdoch’s own, here I comment on versions of three of them. I briefly describe how the argument of IE encodes a notion of moral attention, and I discuss how the ethical outlook to which this notion belongs provides a home for intimately interlinked ideas of transcendence and perfectionism.

    The notion of moral attention I have in mind can be distilled from the meta-ethical stance, sketched above, on which Hauerwas and I agree. To represent moral values as woven into the fabric of reality, in the fashion in which we both do, is to hold that our affective endowments contribute internally to our ability to get aspects of the world into focus in a manner pertinent to ethics. This affectively-inflected understanding of moral cognition is aptly represented as implying the need in ethics for specific modes of attention. What are required are modes of attention that are demanding insofar as they call on us to further develop our sensitivities and thus to work on ourselves.

    There is an arresting and important analogy between the logic of moral attention, thus understood, and the logic of faith as Hauerwas describes it in his remarks on IE. “We do not grieve because of our belief in God,” Hauerwas writes, “we believe in God, at least the Christian God, because we are creatures for whom it makes sense to grieve.” Hauerwas is claiming that a Christian’s caring attitude toward her fellow creatures isn’t grounded in an antecedent belief in God; rather, that belief is available to her insofar as she already has a caring attitude. Something very similar can be said about the type of moral attention suggested by the argument of IE. The idea is not that we attend passionately to others because we recognize that their lives matter; rather that recognition is something that is available to us insofar as we already attend passionately, or lovingly, to them. (This is a way of putting what Wittgenstein was expressing with his well-known, gnomic phrase: “My attitude toward him is an attitude toward a soul. I am not of the opinion that he has a soul.”)

    To embrace the relevant notion of moral attention is to allow that it is always possible that we will need to do further work on ourselves in order to justly understand some particular morally salient circumstance. To embrace it is—we could say—to allow that it is invariably possible that, in the pursuit of moral understanding, we will need to transcend our current conditions. Moreover, it is natural and reasonable to speak, in reference to this never-ending demand for openness to the need for self-transcendence, of a sort of moral perfectionism. Not that there is any hint here of some supposed perfect end state. What emerges from IE’s main lines of thought—and in describing the book in these terms I am inheriting from Stanley Cavell’s account of what he calls Emersonian perfectionism—is that we rightly see ourselves as ever in search of better or more perfect versions of ourselves. So, we can justly say that the ethical outlook presented in IE makes sense of the sort of longing for transcendence that speaks for a drive toward perfectionism.

    I leave it to Hauerwas and others to decide whether these reflections bring me anywhere close to the idea of God. I am, as I mentioned at the outset, extremely grateful for his gracious comments about my work and for the opportunity they have given me to link themes of IE with his theological ruminations. And I mean no offense to the dogs who have, most truly, been among the great loves of my life in saying that I am indebted for my original interest in these issues to one very special cat.

    • Stanley Hauerwas

      Stanley Hauerwas


      A Footnote for a Continuing Conversation

      I should like to think that the exchange between Professor Crary and me is the beginning of a conversation for which I have been longing. Philosophers and theologians may actually have something to say to one another. At least they may have something to say to one another if they have had a Peter in their lives. Like Peter we may be first misidentified but nonetheless discover who we are as well as who we may be. I suspect Crary’s account of life with Peter is a nice exemplification of how we are formed morally to recognize the gift of the otherness of those we love.

      That way of putting the matter is of course Murdochian. Like Crary, I have been long influenced by Murdoch. So I much appreciate Crary’s use of Murdoch in response to my questions about how her account of IE might have theological implications. Some time ago I wrote on Murdoch’s claim that much that Christians believe is true, but God does not exist. I am not going to rehearse again what I then said other than to say I would be very interested Crary’s views about Murdoch’s insistence on the necessary acknowledgement of the pointlessness of our lives if we are to be free of our narcissism.

      My primary interest, however, in this short response is to footnote the observation to which Crary calls attention about how our ability to grieve is a condition that makes the belief in God intelligible. That insight I learned from Herbert McCabe (who may have learned it from Wittgenstein) that God cannot interfere in the universe not because he does not have the power but because he has too much. Thus Wittgenstein’s remark “Not how the world is, but that it is, is the mystery.” Enough said.