Analytic moral philosophy and the anxiety of masculine reason

Claudia Card on the features of North Atlantic philosophy:

Each side of the dualisms of mind/body, reason/feeling, culture/nature, and masculine/feminine has its proponents. However, the lion’s share of power, privilege, and prestige accrues regularly to those identified with the sides of mind, reason, culture, and masculinity. The general point of such dichotomies has been to affirm control structures, which often become oppressive structures of domination and subordination: mind dominating body, reason dominating feeling, culture dominating nature, masculine dominating feminine. The devaluation of what is subordinated is used both to “justify” the domination and to convey the relative undesirability of being in the position of the subordinated. These values even turn up in the profession of philosophy in the dichotomy of so-called “hard philosophy” (logic and philosophy of science) and “soft philosophy” (value inquiry in ethics, aesthetics, philosophy of religion, social and political philosophy). Resistance to the implied “femininity” of “soft philosophy” may be partly responsible for the spectacle of men attempting to express value inquiry in mathematical formulae.

Claudia Card, “Removing Veils of Ignorance”

Analytic moral philosophy and the affect of masculine reason

It is not, of course, purely coincidental that the runaway trolley assumed its place as the quintessential thought experiment in analytic normative philosophy. Like in a B-movie where the hurtling train is a pretext for the aggrandizement of the protagonist (and the audiences that are meant to identify with the hero), so the thought experiment was imagined to be a juggernaut grinding objectors to a grisly pulp, the mise en abyme to the seemingly inevitable moral punchline.

It is thus all the more striking – in light of the claimed inevitability of fatalities from rogue trolleys and the like – the extent to which the analytic philosopher constructs his moral decision-making as a performance of toughness. The ultimate moral test, we are made to understand, comes down to the fortitudo moralis of opting for the unpalatable. “McMahan,” Eva Feder Kittay notes in her critique of the book, The Ethics of Killing, “eventually concludes that we have to bite the bullet and accept that those with the same cognitive functioning and psychological capacities should be given the same moral status regardless of their species.” In the circle of analytic moral philosophy, Stephen Mulhall observes in a critique of the same book, “being a fearless thinker matters more, it seems, than avoiding morally fearful thoughts.”

On the alleged progress of analytic moral philosophy

“I am highly optimistic about the prospects for progress in normative ethics. It is evident to me that great progress has already been made since I entered the field in the early 1980s. Unlike many other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, which in recent years were seduced by bad French philosophy into a lot of silly “post-modern” theorizing that has exposed them to derision and reduced them to irrelevance, analytic philosophy is flourishing.”
— Jeff McMahan, “Normative Ethics: 5 Questions”

The Ethics of Killing is full to bursting with … thought-experiments, or ‘cases’ as McMahan calls them…. These cases are devised rather than created, modified rather than rewritten, analysed rather than entered into; they invite precisely the epithets with which McMahan’s book has been greeted – ‘novel and ingenious’, Peter Singer tells us on the dust-jacket, rather than, say, ‘wise and insightful’.
— Stephen Mulhall, “Fearful Thoughts”

“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”
— Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

Eva Feder Kittay on the normative ethics of Singer and McMahan:

Peter Singer focuses on infants who are severely disabled, especially those with severe mental retardation (not those who are beyond the stage of infancy however), while Jeff McMahan considers the congenitally severely mentally retarded (hence- forth CSMR) of any age. …

In his book The Ethics of Killing McMahan makes the argument that it is less bad to kill a CSMR person than to kill ‘one of us’. In the most provoking of Singer’s books, Should the Baby Live? he and co-author Helga Kuhse state quite baldly: ‘We think that some infants with severe disabilities should be killed’ (1985).

Since I wrote the article in which I counter McMahan’s claims and arguments, I experienced one of the most profound learning experiences of my life. My daughter now lives in a group home with five other people who are all considered to be severely mentally retarded, and have been so since birth. Two of her housemates lost their fathers within the period of a month. One, a young woman diagnosed with Brett’s syndrome, would be found sitting with tears streaming down her face after she was told that her father was extremely ill and would die. In the case of the other, a young man who invariably greets me with a huge smile, I myself witnessed the howling, wailing grief minutes after his mother and sister informed him of the death of his father. He waited till they left before he began his heart-wrenching sobbing. They most likely left not knowing what he had understood, and only learned of his response when they later spoke to the staff. It is not unreasonable, in the case of this young man, that he held back his grief to spare his mother and sister. We are speaking here of the capacity to understand the very abstract concept of death, the death of a beloved person. So much for cavalier claims that the severely retarded cannot form profound attachments.

McMahan has other characterizations of the CSMR. In EOK, he sometimes speaks of them having the capacities of a chimp, in other places maintains that they have psychological capacities equivalent to that of a dog.

Eva Feder Kittay, “The Ethics of Philosophizing: Ideal Theory and the Exclusion of People with Severe Cognitive Disabilities”

The Ethos of analytic moral philosophy

Stephen Mulhall on Jeff McMahan’s The Ethics of Killing:

Two-thirds of the way through [Jeff McMahan’s] dense, involved and exhausting book, its author acknowledges that his views about the nature of persons have the following implication. Suppose that a woman, without family or friends, dies giving birth to a healthy infant. At the same hospital there are three five-year-old children who will die if they do not receive organ transplants, and the newborn has exactly the right tissue type. If Jeff McMahan’s theory is right, it is morally permissible to ‘sacrifice’ the orphaned infant in order to save the other three children.
We can hold off for a moment on the question of why his theory has this implication. The simple fact that it does, as he points out, appears to be a reductio ad absurdum of his position. And McMahan has the grace to confess that he ‘cannot embrace’ this implication ‘without significant misgivings and considerable unease’. But he embraces it nevertheless, since he continues his examination of abortion and euthanasia for a further 150 pages, still drawing on the same account of the nature of persons that led to the apparent reductio in the first place – as if simply acknowledging its existence constituted a sufficient settling of accounts with it.

Reduction to absurdity is, of course, a fate that any philosophical theory might meet – although it is relatively rare for a theorist simultaneously to underline and ignore this flaw in his progeny. But such split-mindedness is peculiarly disturbing when the theory concerns itself with morality, since in such a context a reductio argument confronts us with moral absurdity – or, to put it more bluntly, with the morally intolerable, the morally unthinkable. Elizabeth Anscombe once said that anyone who thought in advance that it was open to question whether an action such as procuring the judicial execution of an innocent person should be entirely excluded from consideration showed a corrupt mind. She thereby expressed a (highly controversial but hardly unintelligible) fear not only of evil actions, but of thinking evil thoughts – a fear of the dulling and degrading of moral sensibility that such acts of contemplation can encourage and express. The analogy with McMahan’s moral absurdity is not exact. A morally innocent victim is certainly central to his cautionary tale; but while (to his credit) he cannot bear explicitly to accept this evil consequence of his theory, he also cannot bear to reject the theory on its account. On the contrary, he acts as if his claim to be a serious moral thinker would be more severely damaged if he took such evil consequences as sufficient reason to abandon his theoretical endeavour. Being a fearless thinker matters more, it seems, than avoiding morally fearful thoughts.

In this respect, his work is representative of the mainstream of contemporary practical ethics in the Anglo-American philosophical world. Take the fact that the moral intolerability of his theory is revealed by invoking an imaginary case. The Ethics of Killing is full to bursting with such thought-experiments, or ‘cases’ as McMahan calls them. Their deployment is a central technique in the modern moral philosopher’s tool-kit; it is even the way some philosophers achieve a kind of immortality – as with Judith Jarvis Thomson and her ‘case’ of the woman to whom a violinist is hooked up for life support, a case designed to illustrate a certain argument for abortion (McMahan’s critical discussion of it is the best I have seen).

The Ethics of Killing puts this technique to more systematic and imaginative use than any other book I know of. McMahan’s cases even get a separate, and very useful, index – although its enigmatic entries (‘The Pipe Sealer’, ‘The Accidental Nudge’, ‘The Whole-Body Transplant’) irresistibly reminded me of the ‘Concordance of Nicola Six’s Kisses’ in Martin Amis’s London Fields (‘The Rosebud’, ‘Clash of the Incisors’, ‘The Turning Diesel’). However, inventing, varying and examining such cases requires and encourages the exercise of a certain kind of imagination – the kind evoked by the label ‘thought-experiments’. These cases are devised rather than created, modified rather than rewritten, analysed rather than entered into; they invite precisely the epithets with which McMahan’s book has been greeted – ‘novel and ingenious’, Peter Singer tells us on the dust-jacket, rather than, say, ‘wise and insightful’.

McMahan’s ‘Sacrificial Newborn’, with which we began (my title, not his; strangely, it doesn’t appear in his index), is a case in point. Its sole rationale is to present us with a lightly clothed calculation. Eliminate anyone with whom the newborn might have a human relationship (since their distress might complicate the sums), and whistle up enough older children to outnumber our orphan (thereby forcing us to acknowledge that three is at least three times greater than one). It’s an arithmetical tale, morality by numbers – and the simpler the texture, the clearer the point.

But what if our concern were not clarity but understanding, or an engagement of our moral imagination with something resembling the texture and complexity of human reality? Not only is medical unlikelihood bypassed for McMahan’s purposes (no tissue-typing problems); we hear nothing of the family and friends of the three five-year-olds. This is presumably because their obvious joy at the redemption of their children would simply shift the balance of calculation even further in the same direction. But what if the mother of one of these children discovers the source of her daughter’s new organs? Would her joy be untainted by this knowledge? Is it obvious that she, or any of the parents involved, would regard it as legitimate for a healthy orphan to be thus abused? Is it obvious that any of them, or indeed any of the hospital staff, would not feel an obligation to the memory of the newborn’s dead mother that might make them hesitate over its ‘sacrifice’?

Stephen Mulhall, “Fearful Thoughts”

The Ambitions of Philosophy

What are the ends of philosophy? To what ought the practice of philosophy aspire to, hold itself accountable for, harness its energies toward?

For a certain type of analytic philosopher, philosophy is a distinctively transcendent form of problem-solving. This philosopher aspires to a conceptual conclusiveness achieved through the formulation of vacuumless definitions, epiphanic thought experiments, knock-down arguments that render the interlocutor mute, perhaps even comatose (‘‘Perhaps philosophers need arguments so powerful they set up reverberations in the brain: if the person refuses to accept the conclusion, he dies.’’—Robert Nozick).

Jeff McMahan gives vent to this account of philosophy with remarkable vigor:

I am highly optimistic about the prospects for progress in normative ethics.  It is evident to me that great progress has already been made since I entered the field in the early 1980s.  Unlike many other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, which in recent years were seduced by bad French philosophy into a lot of silly “post-modern” theorizing that has exposed them to derision and reduced them to irrelevance, analytic philosophy is flourishing.  Part of the reason why analytic philosophy generally is in such a healthy state is that, as Jerry Fodor observed in a recent book review, philosophers no longer tend to have philosophies.  We no longer devote our lives to developing comprehensive philosophical or ethical systems.  We are individually narrower and more specialized, which enables us to focus more carefully and minutely on the problems we study, and as a consequence to produce work that is more rigorous and detailed.  The result is that philosophy has become more of a collective endeavor than it was in the past, in the sense that different people are focusing selectively on problems that are elements or aspects of larger problems.  When the results of individual efforts are combined, we may achieve a collective product that exceeds in depth, intricacy, and sophistication what any individual could have produced by working on the larger problem in isolation.

On its face, this would strike readers as a fairly banal recitation of analytic philosophy’s catechism – its claim to progress a metonym for its fantasies of being a civilizational flame for Science and Enlightenment, Freedom of Speech and Truth. Never mind that its boast of relevance can only be sustained by refusing to read the rest of the humanities and social sciences. Never mind that its smug satisfaction at “flourishing” makes a hideous mockery of its teeming reserve army of adjunct labor.

The intensity of this philosophy’s ambition lies in its sublime disavowal of ambition. It wants no part in developing “a comprehensive philosophical or ethical system.” Rather, for it, the “humble spadework” of argumentation is all. And yet, curiously, its narrow focus is said to be part of a “collective endeavor,” each individual philosopher’s work presumably a piece in an “in depth, intricate, sophisticated” jigsaw puzzle.

But what justifies McMahan’s faith that each individual philosopher’s piece of the puzzle interlocks with others to add up to a collective product? At what point in history will that collective product come into panoramic view? From whose perspective will the jigsaw puzzle be declared complete? It could be that McMahan is taking it for granted that those future workers of normative analytic philosophy will look just as he does, think just as he does, desire just as he does. There is, to be sure, a certain sort of achievement – a cleverness, even – in fitting together an-all white jigsaw puzzle, rather like the genius of extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers in The Grand Academy of Lagado.

Notes toward a critical contextual social ontology

Call the non-ideal social ontology that I would elaborate as adequate to a robust engagement with African intellectual thought a critical contextual social ontology. It advances an account of social ontology that is contextual – that is, that social lives are constituted by the interaction of situated, creaturely, human animals not only with one another, but also with non-human organisms in diverse ecological contexts; historical – that is, that social lives are emergent from a deep temporal background, are dynamic, and are processual; structural – that is, that the contours of social lives are formed by interanimated but irreducible political, economic, and cultural vectors; existential – that is, that social lives are striated through by the radical particularity of creaturely embodiment, subjectivity, and phenomenology; and reflexive – that inquiry into social ontology is itself embedded, and therefore demanding of a recursive, dialectical critique of the very conditions of possibility – the non-ideal social ontology – from which the philosopher, critic, or thinker is speaking and writing.

A critical contextual social ontology, then, advances a thoroughgoing break with the presuppositions and horizons of the standard account of social ontology. Standard social ontology takes itself to be engaged in elaborating the fundamental entities – that is, the very basic units – of social life. Insofar then as it speaks of the basic entities of society, it searches for the “essence” of social life. This commits standard social ontology to a reductionist method – one that in most accounts comes under the moniker methodological individualism, which explains social phenomena as reducible to individual intentions; to an anthropocentric bias – such is the manner in which it abstracts from the facts of ecological existence that it pays no mind to any other biota and abiota other than the human animal; to a synchronic episteme – its account of social life is cadastral and therefore static; and to an archetypalist normativity – it posits a singular model of social life as universal and paradigmatic and thereby flattens the spectacular diversity of social formations.

African Philosophy as Inquiry into Non-Ideal Social Ontology

“Perhaps what is inexpressible (what I find mysterious and am not able to express) is the background against which whatever I could express has its meaning.”
― Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value

A non-ideal social ontology is inquiry keyed toward understanding actually existing constituents of social reality, the nature of the relationships among these constituents, and their meaning and significance for ecology, politics, economics, and culture. As such, a non-ideal social ontology critiques the foundational assumptions of social ontology, which are revealed to be ideologically freighted toward naturalizing and legitimating exploitative and oppressive socio-political regimes.

Inquiry into a non-ideal social ontology unfolds a stunning range of critical projects for African philosophy. If the vectors of a non-ideal social ontology can be said to be those of ecology, politics, economics, and culture, that raises the question of what precisely constitutes ecology, politics, economics, and culture; their points of articulation and disarticulation; and what follows from the deliverance of these knowledges.

What constitutes “the ecological” in African philosophy – in what ways is it theorized in both critical and vernacular intellectual traditions and how is the ecological imbricated in political economic, and cultural practices? What is “the political” in African intellectual thought and practice – what are its residual, dominant and emergent institutional formations, hegemonic and fugitive figurations of power, systematic and diffuse ideologies, particularistic and transversalist relational attachments and affiliations, existential and queer identities, utopian and dystopian imaginative horizons? What are the contours and formations of “the economic” in African societies – what are the zones of contact and incommensurability, conflict and consilience, dissonance and resonance, between and among practices of endowment, exchange, and need? What is constitutive of “the cultural” in the African context – how are subjectivities emergent and performed, what is the texture of political, economic, and aesthetic culture?

And in considering all the above, what are the currents and gyres of exchange and appropriation that cut a middle passage between Africa and other geo-political formations?

Against comparative philosophy

Comparative philosophy is misleading if taken to be the evaluation of two or more parallel discourses, each self-generated and self-contained. Instead, critique is robustly historical and geographic when it traces the emergence, constitution, entanglement, and articulation of the intellectual formations it takes as its objects of inquiry.

Toni Morrison’s magnificent work, Playing in the Dark, brilliantly illumines the trajectories such a project may take. Morrison has all but made it impossible for one to engage with any serious study of “Great American novelists” such as Poe, Melville, and Hemingway without accounting for the deep Africanist presence — “a real or fabricated Africanist presence … crucial to [American writers’] sense of Americanness” — that precisely determines the formal structures in these novels.

In the same vein, we ought not be able to read Kant, or Hume or Mill without registering the deep and persistent “Africanist presence” in these texts – even when, especially when, such a presence is furiously disavowed. “Africa” is lodged in the deepest interstices of North Atlantic, Asian, Latin-American, Middle Eastern discourses, and, of course, in turn persistently and variously registers their presence.

(Excerpted from Groundwork for the Practice of the Good Life)

History and the analytic philosopher

More from Bernard Williams:

Paul Grice use to say that we “should treat great and dead philosophers as we treat great and living philosophers, as having something to say to us.” That is fine, so long as it is not assumed that what the dead have to say to us is much the same as what the living have to say to us. Unfortunately, this is probably what was being assumed by those who, in the heyday of confidence in what was being called the “analytic history of philosophy,” encouraged us to read something written by Plato “as though it had come out in Mind last month” – an idea which, if it means anything at all, means something that destroys the main philosophical point of reading Plato at all.
(Bernard Williams, “Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline”)

The Rhetoric of Analytic Philosophy

The inimitable Bernard Williams:

A question that intrigues me and to which I do not know the answer is the relation between a scientistic view of philosophy, on the one hand, and, on the other, the well-known and highly typical style of many texts in analytic philosophy which seeks precision by total mind control, through issuing continuous and rigid interpretive directions. In a way that will be familiar to any reader of analytic philosophy, and is only too familiar to all of us who perpetrate it, this style tries to remove in advance every conceivable misunderstanding or misinterpretation or objection, including those that would occur only to the malicious or to the clinically literal-minded. This activity itself is often rather mournfully equated with the boasted clarity and rigor of analytic philosophy…..

There is no doubt more than one force that tends to encourage this style. One is the teaching of philosophy by eristic argument, which tends to implant in philosophers an intimidatingly nit-picking superego, a blend of their most impressive teachers and their most competitive colleagues, which guides their writing by means of constant anticipations of guilt and shame. Another is the requirements of the PhD as an academic exercise, which involves the production of a quite peculiar text, which can be too easily mistaken for a book. There are demands of academic promotion, which can encourage one to make as many published pages as possible out of whatever modest idea one may have.

Now none of these influences is necessarily connected with a scientistic view of philosophy, and many people who go in for this style would certainly and correctly reject any suggestion that they had that view. Indeed, an obvious example of this is a philosopher who perhaps did more than anyone else to encourage this style, G. E. Moore. However, for all that, I do not think that we should reject too quickly the thought that, when scientism is around, this style can be co-opted in the scientistic spirit. It can serve as a mimicry of scrupulous scientific procedures. People can perhaps persuade themselves that if they fuss around enough with qualification and counter-examples, they are conducting the philosophical equivalent of a biochemical protocol.
(Bernard Williams, “Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline”)