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Michael Slote's recent book begins by expressing his opposition to Enlightenment ideals, which treat both epistemic and practical rationality as central to our moral lives, as well as to Faustian ideals, which emphasize activity and control at the expense of notions such as caring, empathy and receptivity or receptiveness to others. The tone of the book is often conversational and hence it is engaging as well as clearly written. Slote makes the broad claim that feeling is "essential to epistemic rationality and to the particular epistemic virtue or virtues of objectivity and fair-mindedness", going on to claim that we must be willing and able to empathize with the beliefs and viewpoints of others if we are to be regarded as fair-minded and objective.
For Slote, empathy demands applying what is sometimes referred to as the Principle of Charity to the arguments of others. As he puts it, we must be able to view the beliefs and viewpoints of others in a favorable light if we are to be capable of the virtues of objectivity, open-mindedness and fair-mindedness in judging the viewpoints of others. Slote's suggestion is that just as anger, contempt or hatred seem intuitively incompatible with being objective and open-minded about the opinions of others, so the receptivity that empathy involves becomes a pre-condition for or an element of epistemic rationality. Coming to a view about the opinions of others can be a complex matter given that anger or hatred can interfere with one's ability to be objective or fair-minded, since one may be overcome by particular concerns, e.g. about having been treated unfairly oneself or having seen others treated unfairly. However, the kind of empathy Slote argues is requisite to being objective is distinctive in that it falls less under our deliberate control than we might expect; it is "less the active, deliberate, projective kind and more the automatic, associative, unself-conscious, unwilled and receptive kind" of empathy (p.19). Thus morality is seen as anchored in emotion and empathy, rather than as grounded in our rational capacities, although Slote is not thereby as dismissive of rationality. At least in a general way, feeling or sentiment are seen as relevant to belief, knowledge, and epistemic justification and in fact as essential parts of the process of coming to believe and know.
Given that there are more or less empathetic ways of maintaining beliefs, the approach we adopt determines how objective, open-minded and fair-minded we are in dealing with a given subject matter. Slote repeats his insistence that he is not an irrationalist, if irrationality is construed as a position maintaining that reason has no serious or important place in our lives and thinking; rather he argues that the Enlightenment project he is criticizing overemphasizes reason. Epistemic rationality is recognized as entailing being objective and fair-minded but the reverse entailment does not hold. Thus Slote argues that he is not offering a sentimentalist account of epistemic or intellectual rationality since while sentimental or emotional elements are involved, so are other factors that are independent of such elements; beliefs call for evidence or intuitive support rather than empathy alone.
Nonetheless, Slote argues that there will be an inevitable conflict between epistemic rationality and emotions such as love and friendship and that "some of our highest ethical/moral ideals actually run counter to practical rationality" (p. 88). To favor love and friendship over epistemic rationality where the two conflict may be -- as Slote argues - "to tell people they should be less worried about being epistemically irrational than rationalists would tell us we should be" (95). But readers might then ask whether this necessarily implies that a psychologically realistic and ethically adequate picture of human life should tell us to favor love and friendship and to be less concerned about epistemic irrationality.
We may well, as Slote argues, "have to learn to live with and accept a certain amount of epistemic irrationality in ourselves and those around us" (p.15). He is also no doubt correct to argue that cognition, learning and the acquisition of knowledge are affected -- if not "thoroughly permeated and constituted" (67) -- by emotional factors; and that our recognition of this is crucial to an adequate understanding of human capacities. But Slote's position rests on the claim that "there are emotional elements in epistemic/theoretical rationality" (49), a claim that he argues distinguishes his position from other moral sentimentalists, including Hume. However, Hume does clearly appreciate the crucial connection between passion, imagination and a naturalized form of reason in coming to an understanding of human nature -- a connection that is not easily disentangled. Humean naturalized reason acknowledges reason's role in the genesis of our emotional dispositions, as well as in opposing our peculiar sentiments. In addition, it recognizes reason's dependence on imagination and passion in the development of moral sentiment and in the process of judicious deliberation (A Treatise of Human Nature, III ,III, I,). Thus, Slote might be overstating his case in distinguishing his project from Hume's.
Slote takes a refreshing approach to ethical theorizing, arguing that "[w]hat characterizes people as inconsiderate, cold-hearted, or just plain immoral (and/or psychopathic) is more a matter of psychologically lacking certain forms of receptivity than of any other factor" (22). The virtues of his approach are his insistence on the role of feeling and emotion (specifically of empathy and caring) in conditioning the development of our moral intuitions and values and our receptivity, as well as in exploring the nature of ethical deliberation in childhood. His account of the nature of human experience in this context is extended and somewhat repetitive in parts, but he is certainly correct to argue that the acquisition of childhood beliefs and attitudes does have much to do with a child's empathetic tendencies to trust the reliability of those they love and rely upon. Young children do tend to be more partial to the beliefs and opinions of their parents and loved ones than to those of strangers. However, experience, cognitive and conceptual development may attenuate that partiality over time as much as confirm it; and while Slote does acknowledge this, it is not his focus. Rather, Slote emphasizes the way in which parents, through inductive discipline, sensitize their children to the negative effect that their behavior can have on others, drawing attention to the pain or harm a child's action might have caused to another and helping to develop empathetic tendencies or a kind of receptiveness to the feelings of others.
The claim that he does not deny the role of reason, but rather emphasizes the role of empathy, caring and receptiveness in providing a foundation for the development of beliefs and opinions is one which is also often made. But while it is clear that Slote is not skeptical about the importance of epistemic/cognitive/intellectual rationality, his view that we should not be afraid to favor empathetic and emotional responses to ethical deliberation raises questions as to the extent and nature of that privilege. Certainly, as he suggests, we should not be afraid to respect and value judgments or responses made out of love and friendship, but the extent to which these are to be balanced by respect and esteem for the demands of epistemic/cognitive/intellectual rationality is not clear.
Theorists who make use of the notion of reflective equilibrium in the context of ethical deliberation argue that we ought to balance or attempt to reach an equilibrium between our feelings, judgments and intuitions about behavior on the one hand and the principles to which we subscribe on the other -- whatever the genesis of those principles. There seems room in this kind of approach to take account of a number of factors. We can accept that our principles may have been empathetically imbibed during childhood, as Slote argues. We can at the same time recognize that we ought to keep our morality open to revision, "exposing it to whatever valid pressures there are -- including pressures from [our] sympathies", as Jonathan Bennett suggests (The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn" in Peter Singer's Ethics (Oxford: OUP, 1994), or as Slote might put it, our empathies. Finally, there is also room to recognize that epistemic rationality when applied to particular situations might be inappropriate and constitute what Slote suggests, following Williams, is 'one thought too many'.
Slote might recognize this kind of approach as completely consistent with the open-mindedness, fair-mindedness and objectivity that receptivity entails, but at the same time he might argue that it fails to give precedence to the epistemically non-rational or partly irrational kind of receptivity he is recommending.
The kind of receptivity on which Slote focuses in the early sections of the book, is taken beyond concerns about empathy and caring to have wider application in the latter part of the book, where receptivity is briefly discussed in the context of environmental ethics. Slote refers to the impact of Faustian ideals of active control and domination over nature that have led to the destruction of our common natural habitat. He enlists feminist ideals and green environmental values to support his rejection of inordinate and unbridled human activity on the Faustian model. Receptivity, he argues, is a concept and a phenomenon that ought to guide us in this context since it challenges opposing attitudes of domination and of passivity to offer an alternative mode of relating to the environment.
But in general, receptivity is presented as an important virtue that underlies and is presupposed by the concepts of empathy and caring. It is recommended for its capacity to capture much of what deontological or consequentialist ethical theories entail since Slote argues that our empathetic tendencies and capacities are what provide us with sensitivities that in turn respond to the demands of such ethical theories; e.g. as Slote puts it: "our empathy as moral agents may be somewhat sensitive to how many people might be harmed in a given situation, may be sensitive to numbers and quantity; but it is also sensitive to how strongly, in causal terms, we relate or might relate to given harms, and it if is, then care ethics can account for deontology in sentimental terms (p. 104)".
At the same time, Slote provides an example that argues for the superiority of a commitment to receptivity over rationalistic Kantian ideas about respect for autonomy. His view is that a decision not to respect the rights (autonomy) of 1970s neo-Nazi demonstrators to march in Skokie, Illinois -- the home of a significant number of Holocaust survivors -- can be justified on empathetic grounds since empathy can and should make us sensitive to the fact that the rights of the demonstrators do not trump considerations of serious emotional trauma likely to be suffered by the Holocaust survivors. However, the empathetic or receptive response can also be justified in rational terms. In fact the process of justifying the decision to deny the neo-Nazis demonstrators the right to march on the grounds of the likely harm inflicted on Holocaust survivors is a process of rational justification, one motivated by a concern for and receptivity to the survivors' feelings and emotional reactions. Thus while this focus on receptivity is crucial, it operates in tandem with a process of rational justification.
The phenomenon of receptivity is also associated in the book, particularly in the final sections, with the value and importance of accepting what is possible in and for human lives, given the kinds of creatures we are. Slote's argument criticizes belief in human perfectibility, in the context of the Enlightenment and Ancient Greek assumptions about perfectibility and about the harmonizability of all values, virtues and personal good. He argues that that the belief in human perfectibility reflects an unwillingness or inability to accept the potential value of ordinary human lives. On this basis, Slote also rejects the idea of a life plan in favor of manifesting a more receptive attitude to our lives which accepts life as we find it. But our attitude to this will depend in part on what we take reasonable life-planning to entail; one's life plan might be to participate in life as one finds it, receptively and accepting of "life's imperfections" -- precisely as Slote recommends to us. Empathy and an appreciation for an 'imperfect' life are surely gifts that facilitate inter-connectedness between human beings and allow us to recognize the vulnerability that enables us to both affect and be affected by one another.
© 2014 Sandra Lynch
Assoc. Professor Sandra Lynch, Director, Centre for Faith, Ethics and Society, School of Philosophy & Theology, University of Notre Dame Australia