The Table Video

Bennett W. Helm

Can an Ethics of Care Be Objective?: Personhood and Communities of Respect

Elijah E. Kresge Professor of Philosophy / Chair Scientific & Philosophical Studies of Mind Program, Franklin and Marshall College
June 2, 2017

In earlier work, I argued that we can make sense of communal norms and values as emerging from within what I have called a “community of respect”: a community in which members hold each other responsible to certain communal norms, thereby constituting these norms as binding on them (and constituting each as members of the community). I now want to explore whether this account can provide adequate resources for an ethics of care: whether moral norms, for example, can be understood to be the norms of a community of respect of all persons. Of central concern is whether such an understanding of moral norms (as well as moral respect and dignity) as relativized to particular communities of respect can nonetheless make room for the objectivity of morality.

Transcript:

Okay, so what I’m gonna give you today is really a kind of exploration. I’m sort of in the process of changing from one project that I’ve been working on for quite a while to a new project. This is kind of an overview of what that new project will be. Well, the new project is at least book-length and I’m hoping to squeeze that into 30 minutes, let’s see how well I can do. So what I wanna talk about is, yes, this will work, okay.

I wanna explore an idea of an ethics of care, or an ethics of love. And, just as an initial characterization, an ethics of care as I’m gonna understand it here, relatively informally, is this idea that morality is somehow grounded in human caring, in relationships that are defined emotionally. And an ethics of care has, well in part, has a focus on relationships. So one’s aim as a moral agent is to seek to establish and maintain caring relationships.

And it emphasizes therefore the interdependence of people, and understands others as concrete individuals. So the idea is that you’re connecting directly with particular other people. And it’s that kind of particularism, getting to the second point here, that, well I mean, the idea here is doing so, making these connections with other people, seems to require attention not to abstract moral principals, as you would find on alternative conceptions of ethics, but rather focusing on the particular demands of unique, or at least potentially unique, circumstances. Throughout all of this is an emphasis on the emotions.

The relevant modes of attention, the relevant kinds of motivation in many cases, are fundamentally emotional, and it’s these emotions that are grounding our sense of the moral requirements. Without emotions, such as sympathy and empathy, our response to another is not, you might think, properly moral. Now a problem for this kind of conception, at least I want to suggest, is a conception of objectivity.

Why should I, well okay, so morality first of all seems to require a kind of objectivity, right? So moral norms are binding on moral agents, they can’t simply change, they can’t change with the seasons like norms of fashion, they can’t change with your culture, like norms of etiquette.

Moral rights are claims that we have on other people, and when we make these claims on other people, we are somehow binding them, binding them in ways that don’t depend on, well, their desires, their beliefs, things like that, they are simply bound by the kinds of claims that we have insofar as these claims are stemming from our rights.

And this bindingness of moral norms means that we can’t be mistaken, sorry, means that we can be mistaken. We can make mistakes about what the norms are, we are bound regardless of what we actually think these norms to be. But this seems to be a problem for an ethics of care, at least on one sort of view of an ethics of care.

So if you’re thinking of the kind of care involved here as direct, personal relationships with other people, one to one sorts of relationships, you might ask why it is that we should care, why it is that we must care about this particular person.

Caring, it might seem, is essentially subjective partly because it’s grounded in our emotions. And just like I cannot require that you love me in this personal way, it seems like, well, we can’t require that you care about me in a distinctively, personal sort of way. So caring seems not to be universally binding in the way that morality requires. Or so it might seem, and if that were true, then we would have a problem of objectivity, right?

An ethics of care, an ethics of love, would not seem to be properly objective in the kind of way that morality demands. But I think that’s a mistake, and part of what I wanna try to do today is to at least sketch out an account of how we might flesh out the details in a very hand-wavy sort of way, what an ethics of care is in such a way as to be able to make sense of the possibility of objectivity.

So, just by way of preview, what I’m gonna do is very quickly sketch an account of emotions, caring and a notion that I call communities of respect, that I think is really fundamental to understanding this notion of an ethics of care.

Then I wanna move on and talk about a grounding of objectivity in experience quite generally. Objectivity outside of ethics, and think about the way in which that’s grounded in experience, and then start to apply that to an ethics of care, apply it to the particular case of communities of respect that I’m gonna be developing. Okay, so just very quickly, a brief account, my account, of the relationship between emotions and caring. As I’ve got it there very roughly, to care about something is to be emotionally invested in it.

Emotions are evaluative responses to things that affect what you care about, positively or negatively, and they evaluate those things, they’re targets, they evaluate those things as good or bad. Now in my past work, part of what I’ve argued is that rational patterns of emotions, having a common focus, having a common grounds that is sort of explaining, and justifying the kind of evaluation that’s implicit in these emotions, that these kinds of rational patterns with a common focus constitute our caring about that focus.

So this is partly what this diagram is trying to display. The focus of these emotions is my car. I might care about my car, and insofar as I care about my car, well, I might worry about the kids playing baseball in the street, worrying that they might damage my car.

I might get angry at them when they break my windshield. I might fear a passing hailstorm. You know, again fearing the kind of damage that it might do to my car. I might feel relief when it doesn’t. So here we’ve got a kind of pattern of emotions, and it’s a projectable pattern, you can start projecting this pattern into future cases. So how do you think I oughta feel when, I don’t know, a tree branch falls on my car, for example?

The pattern of emotions is going to include my getting upset about the tree branch falling on my car, fitting into the pattern, and again my claim is that’s what constitutes my caring about the car in the first place. Okay, so part of what I’ve argued, again in past work, is that different types of emotions constitute different kinds of caring.

Different kinds of caring including valuing, loving, and respecting, and respect is what I think is going to be most important for thinking about a kind of ethics of care. So this is what’s moving me to thinking about what I’m calling communities of respect. In understanding communities of respect, part of what I’m going to be talking about is these reactive attitudes. There’re different kinds of reactive attitudes but generally speaking the reactive attitudes are emotional responses through which we hold each other responsible for upholding or failing to uphold particular norms. Lynn made an off-hand comment at the end of her talk that holding each other responsible is fundamental to community.

That’s part of the idea here. These are emotions whereby we hold each other responsible to various norms. And part of my claim is gonna be that these emotions really constitute a distinctive kind of community. So, resentment, gratitude, indignation, approbation, guilt, self-approbation, looking at these emotions here, these reactive attitudes are sort of the paradigm reactive attitudes that many philosophers have talked about.

And part of my claim is that these are fundamentally interpersonal emotions. And they come in interpersonal patterns. So, my resentment of you for interrupting my talk, my resentment calls on you to feel guilty, and it calls on other people to feel a kind of disapprobation or even indignation towards you. So we start getting these kinds of interpersonal connections among the reactive attitudes.

Similarly, my gratitude for Laura Pelser for doing such a wonderful job organizing the conference here, I don’t know, is Laura here? At any rate, my gratitude here calls on her to feel a kind of self-approbation, it calls on the rest of you to feel approbation towards her, maybe to feel gratitude towards her yourself.

Okay, so again part of what we find here is a kind of interpersonal connection among these emotions. And, in feeling these emotions, in feeling these reactive attitudes, part of what we’re doing is that we are recognizing that certain norms are binding on us, and we are recognizing others’ standing as accountable to these norms, as well as their authority each to hold the others accountable to the norms. So it’s that recognition of standing as accountable to the norms, and authority to hold others accountable to the norms that I think are really important and fundamental about these reactive attitudes.

Now my claim is that these kinds of interpersonal rational patterns of reactive attitudes constitute the respect that we have towards each other as members of a particular community. They constitute our recognition of the standing in authority, we might even say the dignity, that others have as members.

They constitute the norms to which we are responsive, to which we hold each other responsible in the community. And finally, they constitute the community itself. So, it’s a little hard to see all these lines sort of pointing up to the members, and the norms, and the community of respect at the top. But again the idea is that it’s these sorts of patterns of these reactive attitudes that are constituting the membership of the community, the respect we have toward members, the dignity that others have as members, the norms and by doing that constitute the community itself. Okay, so my claim is going to be that the moral community is a community of respect, and the sort of caring that’s central to an ethics of care just is respect.

I was invited out here about a month ago to Biola to give a seminar on something like this topic, and part of what I was trying to argue there is that one way we might think of agape as a form of love, just is in terms of the kind of respect that is constituted within these communities of respect. Again, moral community is a particular kind of community respect, that’s going to be my claim.

But now we can raise again the problem of objectivity that I raised at the beginning. Central to the kind of account that I’m giving here, is the norms constituted by these patterns of reactive attitude are binding on members of the community. So the bindingness of the norms is relative to the community, itself. For example, the members of my family, we hold each other but not outsiders, to certain norms that are characteristic of our family, so after everybody’s finished eating dinner we put our dishes into the dishwasher. That’s one of the things that we hold each other responsible for in my family.

But, of course, we don’t hold visitors to the family responsible to that norm in the same way, right? That is a not a norm that applies to them, it’s a norm that applies to this community of respect that is my family. So, in part I think this a strength of the kind of account, of the general account, of communities of respect that I’m giving here. It’s a strength insofar as it enables me to make sense of a variety of different kinds of communities.

Of nested and over-lapping communities of respect in which people are bound to a variety of norms. So norms, communities ranging from family, clubs, religious congregations, members of a particular academic community and so on. So all of these, I think, in various ways can be understood to be communities of respect overlapping, nested and so on.

So in part I think that’s a kind of strength of the account that I’m offering. But that sort of relativism is problematic when we start trying to think about how you might apply that to thinking about the moral community, especially given the way that moral norms, as objective, are universally binding. The objectivity of morality requires the possibility of getting things wrong.

And so far it looks, given the kind of account that I’ve given here, it looks like whatever the community thinks is right, is right. There’s no way that we can say the community itself is getting things wrong. So again, if I’m going to be able to give an account of the objectivity of morality along the lines of thinking about a community of respect, I’m gonna have to overcome that problem. How do we think about, whoops, there we go, how do we think about objectivity in general?

Set aside the moral cases, just think about ordinary, straightforward cases of objectivity. A claim that I think is really fundamental to trying to make sense of objectivity generally is this slogan from Kant, which I’m sure many of you know. So Kant says, “Concepts without intuitions are empty, “intuitions without concepts are blind.”

By intuition here, roughly Kant means experience. So concepts without experience are empty, experience without concepts are blind. What does he mean by that, why is that fundamental to thinking about objectivity? Well, the first claim is that beliefs have to have a kind of grounding in experience. In order for us to have beliefs about the world as objective, our beliefs have to be capable of being justified in light of evidence for their truth.

So belief is a particular kind of attitude that we take towards something as true. But this requires that our perceptions, our experiences, are capable of rationally entitling us to those beliefs. Or not, right, they may fail to do that but at least we’ve gotta have that possibility of our experience entitling us to having certain kinds of beliefs. So we must be able to take our experiences to be evidence, albeit defeasible evidence, that things are as we experience them to be. But to come to believe that things are as you experience them to be… Sorry.

To come to believe that things are as you experience them to be on the basis of that experience requires that your experience and your belief have the same content. The content of our beliefs is going to be conceptual. We can articulate our beliefs using linguistic concepts here, and if the content of your experience and the content belief is the same, well then the content of your experience has got to be conceptual as well.

And that’s really what I think Kant is getting at with the second half of this slogan here. So intuitions, experience without concept, is blind. Experience without concept is blind in the sense that it’s not the kind of thing that could provide a kind of justification, a kind of grounding for our beliefs, and in that way would lack the kind of objectivity that we think is central to belief, to judgment.

So, again, if perception is to serve its role in justifying judgment, in justifying our beliefs, it has to be conceptual in form. How do we make sense of the first half of the slogan? Well, concepts are going to be grounded in experience as well. In order to experience the world as it is, we have to have the right concepts.

And if we are able to make this distinction between the right concepts and the wrong concepts, you have to be able to talk about justifying your concepts. And here I think we can start to make sense of, well, concepts as sort of embedded within particular theories. Now, by theory, I hope to include things like scientific theories, but something more general, broader. By a theory I’m going to understand a kind of collection of interconnected beliefs and practices that make some domain intelligible to us.

That give content to the relevant concepts in terms of which we can start articulating and justifying those concepts. So, for example, scientific examples are gonna be easiest here. So, scientific concepts like mass or like phlogiston, are given content by their place within an overall scientific theory. A theory that in turn makes it possible for us to understand and perceive objects’ mass or to perceive the process of dephlogistication.

If you don’t know what phlogiston is, I’ll come back to it. So part of the lesson here, I think, is that no concept is intelligible in isolation from other concepts, from the way in which each makes possible certain inferences from and to claims involving these other concepts. So concepts are things that allow us to make, or start making, inferences between claims that are articulated in terms of a variety of concepts that are embedded within a particular theory. Okay.

These theories, and the concepts that they embed, succeed only insofar as they can come to inform our experience in the right kind of way.

Theories that do no succeed as well as other theories in making sense of the world through informed experience are rejected, and they’re rejected in favor of these other theories, you know, the ones that do better on this score. So here think about phlogiston theory. Phlogiston theory is a theory of burning. A theory developed, I forget whether it was developed in the 18th century, but at least it was widely thought. [audience member commenting] Sorry? No? It developed back, I think, in the 18th century.

Phlogiston is understood to be a substance that is released in the process of burning, so if you have a wax candle and you set it on fire, you see the flame, right? The flame just is the phlogiston that is being released, and as it’s released it gets absorbed into the air, and the air sort of carries the phlogiston around and it’s taken in by plants, for example.

That’s part of what plants do when they grow, and so on, is that they take in the phlogiston from the air, and in part that’s what accounts for why it is that plants burn. So we’ve got a theory here about what phlogiston is, it’s the substance that, you see it, it’s there, it’s the flame, it’s the candle flame. You see the phlogiston happening, you see the phlogiston being released by the object. Again this is the process of dephlogistication.

And it’s embedded within this theory that hopes to explain why things work as they do, why it is that certain kinds of things burn, other things don’t, and so on. The problem is that the broader theory doesn’t cohere very well with all of the evidence that we have with all of the experiences that we have. So phlogiston theory predicts, understands, that when an object burns it’s releasing substance, it’s releasing some mass so it should be getting smaller, it should be decreasing in mass.

Turns out that’s not true. It increases, at least once you start accounting for the soot and all of that, it increases in mass and partly what we know is, now, is that burning happens through the taking on of oxygen. So we now have the oxygen theory of burning, where you’re absorbing oxygen from the environment in a chemical process and now you’re acquiring mass as a result of that kind of process. So that idea that you’re acquiring mass rather than losing mass in the process of burning is something that the phlogiston theory is unable to account for. So it’s unable to account for those kinds of more sophisticated experiences that we can get. And it’s partly for that reason that we reject the theory.

By rejecting the theory, we reject the idea of phlogiston, the concept of phlogiston, this is a bad concept that we need to get rid of, and we reject the experiences that we had that were informed by that concept. So again, people who accepted phlogiston theory thought they were literally seeing the phlogiston in the candle flame, that just was the phlogiston. And now they have to revise the way in which they’re perceiving that as a result. Okay.

So, the claim here then is that concepts in general carry some empirical content. They must reflect how the world is in our experience. And that’s, I take it, what Kant means in the first half of the slogan here. Concepts without intuition, concept without that kind of grounding in experience are empty.

In general, next slide, the conclusion I think we can draw out of this is that objectivity requires grounding of the theory in experience. And it’s this experience that makes possible our being mistaken, both in particular beliefs, and in particular concepts. That, I think, is a rough and ready way of cashing out the idea that perception in general is theory laden.

It’s something that has to be understood as in, informed by particular concepts that are embedded within a broader sort of theory. Okay, how then do we apply this to thinking about objectivity in the context of communities of respect? And here I think we need three things at least to get this idea off the ground. One, of course, is this idea of grounding in experience.

If morality is to be objective, our moral theory, that is to say this understanding we have of the moral world, the kinds of practices and beliefs and so on that we have that inform our experience of the moral world, must be grounded in experience.

The relevant form of experience, I think, is fundamentally emotional. In particular, it’s the reactive attitudes. In feeling the reactive attitudes we experience the import of particular harms and benefits. We experience the dignity, the standing in authority, of particular other people. Now part of what I wanna claim is that human emotions are informed by concepts.

Again this I think is important as a way of trying to understand objectivity, but I think it’s plain in the way that we understand what our emotions are, they are informed by particular concepts. And we can see this in an easy example, sort of a standard example in philosophy of emotions, of somebody’s fear of a dog that is kind of objectively harmless.

So let’s assume that my neighbor, they have a German Shepherd and maybe 10 years ago I was bitten by this German Shepherd, and so I’ve developed this healthy fear of the dog, but as the years progress the dog is now 17 years old, which is pretty old for a German Shepherd, kind of losing all of his teeth, he’s arthritic, he can barely get up off the ground and hobble outside.

Well one day there he is kind of hobbling outside to do his business and I’m feeling kind of panicky, I’m feeling this fear. I judge that this dog is now harmless. The dog is not dangerous. But I’m feeling the fear, I’m feeling that the dog is dangerous, and there’s a kind of conflict between the way in which I’m feeling and the judgments that I’m making.

Again, that conflict I think is a conflict we can make sense of only once we start recognizing that the concept of danger is informing the emotional, the fear that I have in this case. It’s only in terms of that concept that we can say the content of my fear and the concept of my, sorry, the content of my fear and the content of my judgment are opposed to each other in a way that makes sense of the conflict between them.

I think linguistic concepts here can inform a wide variety of objects of emotions. So what I just talked about here, fear involving the concept of something being dangerous, dangerousness is a kind of evaluation that is characteristic of the emotion of fear. Other emotions like anger involve different kinds of evaluations, evaluating something offensive, for example.

These different evaluations that are characteristic of particular emotion types are generally understood to be those emotions formal objects. So the formal objects of an emotion can be informed by concepts. What I think is important in the present context is that the focus of emotion is something that can be informed by relevant concepts.

So remember the focus of the emotion, if you have these broad patterns of emotions, the focus is the thing in the background that is grounding the various evaluations that you’re making. It’s the thing that you care about in terms of which we can make sense of the particular evaluations you make in having the variety, the broad pattern of emotions. So, the focus of your emotions is going to be that which you care about. And again, that can be something that is informed by particular concepts.

Okay, let me just skip a little bit here. How does this apply to thinking about the reactive attitudes? That our reactive attitudes are informed by concepts, by linguistic concepts, I think is one key to understanding the objectivity of morality. So reactive attitudes, if I go back to this picture, part of my claim is that we get these reactive attitudes that are all kind of focused on the community of respect. Reactive attitudes are focused on the community itself, and reflect our care for that community.

This involves a particular kind of concern for the well-being of the community, a concern that is at least implicitly understood, the community has to be implicitly understood as a particular kind by the members of the community. So, in caring about my family as a community of respect, we, that is to say the members of my family, have to have an implicit understanding of who this we is, who we are in my family, and of the kind of way of life that we think is important for us to be living as this particular community of respect. Important here is going to be the potential conceptual understanding that we have of the family, of who we are.

A conceptual understanding that itself might be called into question. So, at least as a first pass we might think, okay my family, well that consists of me, it consists of my wife, it consists of our descendants and any future spouses that they might have, and so on. Well, let’s say my daughter, she’s a little young yet, but let’s say she has a boyfriend who she’s in a very long-term committed relationship with, but the boyfriend rejects the institution of marriage.

He doesn’t wanna get married. Is he a member of the family? Well, now you can see there’s some question. Should we treat him as one of us, should we hold him accountable to the various norms of our family? Should we think, you really oughta put your dishes into the dishwasher after dinner. Should we start resenting him for failing to do that, or not? Do we treat him merely like a guest, because, you know, he hasn’t taken that further step and married my daughter. How should we understand ourselves? You can imagine different ways of going, but the different ways of going are going to be ways in which we come to have a clearer, more explicit understanding of who we are as a family. A clearer, more explicit understanding that is going to be, well, conceptual understanding that is going to inform the subsequent reactive attitudes that we feel.

So, in short, our reactive attitudes are conceptually informed emotional experiences that must be able to ground our moral judgment.

So that’s the first claim that I’m making. If we’re going to be able to understand the moral community to be a community of respect, we’ve gotta understand moral claims as somehow being grounded in the experiences we have in feeling these reactive attitudes. Okay, second claim. We need to think about the moral concept of a person.

The moral community is the community of all persons. The concept of a person is going to be fundamental to justifying moral judgments in the way required for moral objectivity. So what makes a person, sorry, what makes a norm be a distinctly moral norm is that it is binding on one just because one is a person. What makes rights and responsibilities be distinctively moral is again, that they apply to one just because one is a person.

Moral dignity, similarly, is the dignity one that has just because one is a person as a member of a community of respect of all persons. So my claim here is that the moral community is a community that one belongs to just because one is a person. Now, I hope it’s clear that we can’t simply equate the concept of a person with the concept of a human being.

So, you know, a slave owner back in the 1850s might be mistaken in thinking that his slaves are not persons. But showing him this, showing him that he’s mistaken, is going to take more work than simply pointing out that the slaves are human beings.

You’ve got to do more, you’ve got to say more in order to explain why it is that he’s making a mistake in this kind of context. So again, the concept of a person and the concept of a human being are different concepts. And just like we might wonder whether particular human beings are persons, so too we might wonder whether members of different species might be persons.

Are chimpanzees persons? Are dolphins? What about Martians? What about some advanced, future robot? Might they be persons? However you come down on these questions, I don’t think it’s obvious what the right thing to say is, so it’s a substantive moral question how we should understand what it is to be a person and therefore, who exactly are persons, and what it means to have dignity as a person.

Again, in the context of this theory that I’m starting to develop here, the idea is that this moral concept of a person has got to inform our moral experiences. Has got to start informing the reactive attitudes that we feel. Okay, third point, essential contestability.

To accept moral objectivity is to recognize that moral norms are not relative to particular communities of persons, it’s to recognize the possibility that changes in moral theory, changes in our moral concepts and moral norms for example, that those changes can be improvements. And it’s to recognize that moral disagreements can be substantive rather than merely verbal.

Moral norms and concepts therefore must be justifiable, and something that we can always question and challenge, or they would not be objective. And this is what I’m getting at by this idea of essential contestability.

You’ve always got to be able to question and challenge, and well, respond to the challenge, justify, particular moral claims that we make. Now, not all communities of respect need to understand the norms to be essentially contestable in this way. Norms of etiquette, norms of fashion, are examples of cases in which norms are not essentially contestable. So the changes in these norms need not be understood as improvements.

But with essential contestability, disagreement must in general be taken seriously as something that we can resolve through disagreement, sorry, through deliberation. So, this has to be a feature of the kind of moral community that we have. If we’re thinking of a moral community as a community of respect, it’s gotta be a community of respect in which we take moral disagreement seriously in this kind of way. In which we accept this sort of moral contestability, or, eh, essential contestability.

So in short, I guess I’ve got this on a slide, the moral community will be the community of respect of all persons, at least this is the hypothesis that I’m wanting to explore here. The moral community will be the community of respect of all persons within which members, through their moral experiences informed by the concept of a person, mutually recognize the need for justifying their moral judgments at least in part in terms of that concept of a person.

Okay. How can we now think about justification in the context of morality? How do we start thinking about the way in which deliberation about the concept of a person can help justify particular moral judgments?

That’s the million dollar question, I suppose. And I’ve got about five or ten minutes, so I’ll just answer it very quickly [laughs]. What I wanna do rather than really answering it is just kind of point to a particular example here. And this is an example of Mary Wollstonecraft in her arguments, some of the arguments she gives of indication of the rights of women. What she’s doing in this context, it’s a long book written back in the late 18th century, so it’s 1793, something like that was when this was written. And in part this passage was written in response to Talleyrand, who’s an important figure in the French government, this is just after the French revolution, part of what Talleyrand was trying to argue is that, because of the kind of thing that a man is, and I mean man in the sense of male human being here, because of the kind of thing that a man is, because of the kind of rights that men have, we need to be giving men a public education.

Education is a right that men have, but not women, women are different, he says. Well, Wollstonecraft is kind of looking at the kinds of arguments that he was giving in the context of men to argue for education as a right, and saying, “If the abstract rights of man will bear “discussion and explanation, those of women by a parity “of reasoning, will not shrink from the same test, “though a very different opinion prevails in this country, “built on the very arguments which you use “to justify the oppression of women,” namely, “prescription.”

So the idea is that women are prescribed a certain place within a society, and it’s in virtue of that prescribed place that they have in society that we can now start oppressing them. We can now start denying them the very rights that we claim men have. So men have this right to education, women don’t, because they have their place which is not a public place in society in virtue of which they must be educated.

Okay. So, the claim here is that we have gotten things wrong, not just in a particular case, but wholesale. Misunderstanding a concept of a person in a way that seems to justify what should instead be seen as a kind of oppression. Applying principles of consistency, we should recognize that both men and women are fully persons, and have the same rights as a person. And recognizing this requires changing our understanding of who full persons are so as to include women.

So we’ve gotta change our concept of a person. What’s going on here is not merely a bit of a priori reasoning, justifying a revision in our concepts. Philosophical analysis on its own is inadequate if we picture that analysis as the a priori articulation of concepts. In addition, such newly elucidated concepts must be capable of informing our moral experience, must be capable of informing our reactive attitudes. So, if the moral community is the community of respect of all persons, then the concept of a person must inform our reactive attitudes focused on the community, our moral experience.

And opposed revision of our concept of a person, like this one, must therefore, is going to be successful only if it can come to inform our reactive attitudes in such a way that it can be confirmed in that moral experience. Contrary moral experience can provide defeasible evidence in favor of contesting a particular conceptual elucidation.

So it’s because Wollstonecraft’s arguments and elucidation of a concept of a person have in fact come to inform, not just her own moral experience, but our moral experience quite generally, confirming the overall resulting moral theory, it’s because of that that this elucidation can properly be understood as an improvement.

Of course we know it took a shockingly long time for that to happen, part of what Wollstonecraft is pointing out in this claim, “Though a very different “opinion prevails in this country,” she knew it’s going to take a long time for this kind of change to come into effect. But it’s only once it does come into effect that we can confidently say, what has happened here is an improvement in our understanding of the relevant moral concepts.

Okay, so this is what I think objectivity looks like in the context of a moral community of respect. It’s gotta be essentially interpersonal. That’s part of what’s built in to the idea of a community of respect, it’s interpersonal. It’s gotta be universal, it’s gotta apply to all persons. It’s a community of respect of all persons. It’s gotta be capable of rational justification.

In part given the way our respect is informed by the concepts the community takes to be essentially contestable. And finally it’s gotta be grounded in the evidence of our experience. Grounded in the kind of reactive attitudes we have.

Now I think it’s not obvious that objective morality so conceived is going to be obtainable. If it is, I think that would be a non-trivial achievement that we would make. But for that matter I think it’s not obvious that a completed objective science similarly conceived is attainable. Again, to do so would be a non-trivial achievement. Nonetheless, in both cases, in both the case of morality, and the case of science, I think we can make sense of the possibility of improvement in or moral or scientific understandings, and that, I think, is all we really need to have a good start in metaethics. Thank you. [applause]

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