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Inside EthicsReview - Inside Ethics
On the Demands of Moral Thought
by Alice Crary
Harvard University Press, 2016
Review by Sylvia Burrow
Jun 14th 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 24)

Moral philosophy rarely focuses on moral salience, finding and noticing certain things interesting to moral thought. Crary raises the question: "How do animals and humans enter moral thought?" The answer matters to our understanding of what counts as morally important. The thesis of the book is that humans and animals possess characteristics that are at once empirically discoverable and morally relevant, thus residing "inside ethics." What lies "outside ethics" is traditionally regarded as empirical and thus lacking moral characteristics. Placing humans and animals inside ethics challenges the traditional view by arguing that humans and animals both matter to moral consideration in ways directly relevant to moral thought and discussion, according moral significance to each. To the extent that we neglect to appreciate empirically discoverable moral features of animals and humans we deprive ourselves of opportunities to recognize instances of moral outrage or moral goodness and thereby fail to register concrete occasions to do good or prevent harm. The account that Crary carefully develops is deeply grounded in philosophy of language and philosophy of mind, prominently responding to Wittgenstein, Derrida, pragmatism, and post structural theory. I will leave detailed discussion of these theoretical underpinnings for another time since my aim here is to focus on Crary's metaethical approach to moral psychology.

          In the beginning chapters Crary lays the groundwork for the book, arguing that ethics has no need of turning to empirical studies as something separate from philosophy to justify claims about humans or animals. Empirical reality is not itself morally neutral, argues Crary, thus both humans and animals possess moral standing in light of empirically observable features. While prominent philosophers such as Peter Singer and Christine Kosgaard accord moral standing to both humans and animals, each philosopher appeals to empirical characteristics "outside ethics." Singer's utilitarian approach values human and animal interests alongside each other in a move obviating speciesism, but Crary points out that such interests are morally inert on Singer's view and so we only attach moral value to these interests in light of moral theorizing. Similarly, Korsgaard supposes the world is morally inert. Korsgaard's Kantianism comes to the fore here in its hard metaphysical view that the world lacks any theoretically or empirically discoverable moral features. Underlying a view of the world as morally inert is a view of objectivity supposing that objective qualities are available for anyone to perceive, independent of perception. Crary calls this approach a narrower conception of objectivity. Crary's contribution is to show that moral philosophers are not tied to a narrow conception of objectivity. Room is available for subjective experience on Crary's wider conception of objectivity. The argument Crary presents draws together empirical qualities and subjective experience as each morally substantive since subjective qualities can be both ethically important and objective, such as the psychological characteristics of humans and animals.

          Ethical discussion traditionally focuses on ideally-reasoning persons in ways typically excluding topics such as emotion, disability studies, and animal ethics. Crary's metaethical account stands out as a clear, well-reasoned challenge. Shifting the focus to include human and animal interests alike within ethics presents not just a new perspective on animal ethics but a novel approach to ethical theorizing that is, I think, long overdue. Naturalizing ethics is not new, thus one might suppose Crary is simply offering the same old naturalism freshly attached to a new description of objectivity but that would be mistaken. Ethical naturalism supposes objectively knowable moral properties and here Crary's account does not diverge noticeably. However, naturalism supposes that moral qualities are reducible to entirely non-ethical properties, which includes any of the psychological qualities to which Crary appeals. So ethical naturalism supposes that fears, desires, and so forth are psychological qualities that are not themselves imbued with any moral characteristics. Psychological qualities are empirically observable, objectively knowable, but ultimately not moral qualities according to naturalism. On Crary's view, psychological qualities are themselves moral qualities:

The empirically discoverable qualities of human beings and animals that count as moral are psychological qualities and, in presenting my preferred account of these qualities, I observed that they have essential references to conceptions of what matters in the lives of human beings and animals who possess them (p.89).

Psychological qualities are morally laden because they reference widely objective moral values. These ethical conceptions are available to observation through taking the perspective of the life of the being holding those psychological qualities. Through moral imagination, we can reflect on the mental lives of other humans and animals and come to see moral concerns that are reflected in their actions. It is central to Crary's account that moral reflection ought to be radically transformed to apply moral concepts to psychological characteristics "to do justice to human and animal expressive life in its messy entirety" (p.86). Expressive life includes both linguistic and physical behaviour through which we attribute mental qualities to others, running along a continuum from wholly unlearned behavior to fully linguistic behavior (p.68). So Crary's point is that grasping another's expression (human or animal) is not possible apart from understanding what is important to the life of creatures of its kind. Here ethical naturalists might be drawn to Crary's responses to Philippa Foot, since Crary argues that Foot merely assumes that psychological qualities are objective while Crary's semantic theory aims to justify that claim.

          The move to include both animals and humans inside ethics is valuable for reconceiving moral thinking, tout court; and for providing a new theoretical basis of morally considering animals. I will expand on each of these points with the aim of drawing out a couple of elements of the theory worth expanding from a moral point of view.

          First, Crary points out that moral thinking traditionally proceeds according to the consideration and application of moral judgements. Crary's challenge to the traditional view is valuable because it draws in elements such as meaning, expression, salience, and imagination as central to moral thinking. One element worth more attention in Crary's theory is moral imagination. To find salient the moral injustices and wrongs of situations we need employ not just moral rules, principles, or other moral judgements but often moral imagination. Consider the life of Nim the chimp. Nim was taken from his mother at birth and loaned to a psychology professor who hoped to show that chimps have a much greater capacity for learning sign language than previously recognized. For five years Nim enjoyed a productive social environment and was raised in many different human households where he learned a good array of signs to communicate with his human companions. Crary relays a snippet of an emergent friendship between Nim and a student researcher Bob Ingersoll, in which Bob and Nim are heading outside and Bob signs, "where?" and Nim signs, "walk" and then signs, "play" before energetically leaping and running ahead. Crary then describes Nim's move to an experimental research lab where "among other things" he was used to test vaccines for humans while relentlessly confined to a concrete enclosure. When workers there eventually found out that some of the chimps at the facility could sign, they tried to communicate "hug" and "play" but by then, "the magnificent chimp form of life to which hugging and playing belong… [had] already been cruelly distinguished" (p.269). On Crary's view moral thinking about this situation is impoverished if it fails to consider Nim's psychological states as objective qualities imbued with moral value. I would add that imagining Nim's emotional states is significant to understanding the wrongs and harms in this situation. The possibility of moral imagination is present but I think, an under-utilized resource in Crary's theory. Crary's account could be expanded to include the work of those philosophers appealing to imagination as part of envisioning the best moral life of persons in relation to animals, persons with disabilities, and other sorts of persons. (For instance see Jean Harvey for discussions of our moral relations with non-human animals, Catriona MacKenzie for discussions of moral imagination in relation to persons with disabilities, and Robert Gordon, Nancy Sherman, or Adrian Piper for work on moral imagination in relation to imagining other persons' psychological states.)

          Second, Crary's theory provides a new approach taking "animal ethics" out of its category as somehow a separate approach to ethics apart from moral theory's traditional focus on human reason and action. In doing so, Crary provides a nuanced approach placing animals and humans along a continuum of beings capable of rational thought but which does not depend on such a continuum to accord moral relevance. The salience of moral interests of animals and humans does not turn on lacking or possessing certain qualities of mind like rationality. The point is that animal lives matter much as human lives do. Pinning a brain-dead rabbit to a board for dart practice is morally abhorrent for many of the same reasons it is morally objectionable to treat persons with cognitive disabilities as somehow not deserving the same moral attention as other persons. Since traditional approaches to ethics often stumble to include animals or persons with disabilities, Crary's account is a welcome addition. Yet expanding on how the psychological states of animals or other persons might be brought to moral attention is not given sufficient consideration, and this relates to the deficiency I pointed out in the previous paragraph. Expanding on how persons are to imagine the psychological states of other persons and animals is needed to ground Crary's practical approach to ethics. Doing so would fill in the gap as to why the issues of animal experimentation and eating animals (which somewhat awkwardly combine to form one last chapter) are key exemplars of her approach. If others' psychological qualities are to matter to moral thinking in the ways Crary hopes, then explaining how those qualities enter into moral thought is a needed piece of the puzzle. Crary's account provides plenty of material to situate that account but that piece needs to stand out more than it does. Integrating the work on animal experimentation and eating animals into the main structure of the theory might provide the means to offering concretely grounded examples of how others' psychological lives enter into moral thinking. Doing so would, I think, make a compelling case for not just that but how animal lives matter – morally speaking -- much as human lives do.

 

© 2016 Sylvia Burrow

 

Dr. Sylvia Burrow is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Cape Breton University whose research focuses on moral psychology and encompasses emotion theory, integrity, and autonomy with an emphasis on self-confidence, self-trust, and self-esteem.


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