Marianne LeNabat sat down earlier this year with Alice Crary, Chair of Philosophy and Founding Co-director of the Graduate Certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies, to talk about her most recent book, Inside Ethics: On the Demands of Moral Thought, the role of ethics in philosophy, and what philosophy is for.
The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Marianne LeNabat: What is the focus of your work? What kinds of topics do you address?
Alice Crary: The straightforward answer is that I work in ethics.
Ethics as I understand it isn’t a specialized sub-discipline within philosophy, but emerges out of an engagement with many areas. Sometimes philosophers itemize sub-disciplines in philosophy: ethics as opposed to philosophy of mind, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language, etc. I don’t find it useful to compartmentalize my work like that. I approach issues in ethics by working in those areas and others as well, including social and political philosophy.
ML: Are there ethical issues in particular that you work on?
AC:In my most recent book, Inside Ethics, I focus on the value of humanity, and the value of being an animal, taking up issues in animal studies and disability studies. The treatment of animals is one particular concern, and cognitive disability is another. I wanted to combat ways of doing moral philosophy that neglected those cases in ways that seemed just seemed awful.
ML: What is distinctive about the ways that you approach these issues?
AC: Throughout my writings, I argue that the world that concerns us in ethics is brought into focus by moral thought and activity. My idea is that any adequate sketch of the sphere of moral thought needs to include, in addition to specifically moral concepts, efforts to illuminate the features of the world to which these concepts are responsible.
This account of moral thought may seem farfetched, quite untenable really. It’s an account that takes it for granted that we need moral capacities like moral imagination to adequately capture features of the world that moral concepts pick out and that, at the same time, presupposes that the real world is morally non-neutral. A presupposition on these lines is alien to most work in contemporary moral philosophy. It’s at least a tacit premise of most ethical research that reality is as such morally neutral. So, to make a plausible case for my preferred account of moral thought, I have to do significant work to defend this conception of reality. This is one of the projects that leads me to grapple with topics in philosophy of mind, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language, and other areas.
ML: What led you to the topic of animals?
AC: There are roughly two different things I can say here. Even before I was in graduate school, I was interested in the treatment of animals, in particular in advanced, industrialized societies like ours. I saw us living in a world in which food production is increasingly industrialized, and I was horrified by factory farms. But I was also struck by things like deforestation and the pollution of the oceans, and hence the destruction, on a massive, global scale, of animal habitats.
A bit later, when I was already studying philosophy, I became interested – this is my second route into these issues – in how unsatisfying the answers were to ethical questions about animals, even from philosophers and theorists who, like me, were appalled at things that were being done to animals. The case of animals became a route for me into thinking about moral philosophy, because the approaches in ethics that I had been trained in didn’t seem adequate to deal with that. I took this as a clue to suggest that there might be something wrong with them altogether.
So my book’s title – Inside Ethics – refers as much to human beings as it does to animals. Its guiding insight is that, in all sorts of traditions, moral philosophers tend to outsource the empirical understanding of human and/or animal life to disciplines outside ethics. That’s what I call placing them “outside” ethics. And the book is about saying, no, you can’t do that.
ML: They outsource it to biology –
AC: Yes, moral philosophers in effect say, “of course we’ll do ethical theory, but first, if you want to know what, empirically, an animal is – including what it is like for the purposes of ethics – you should look at biology.” And there might be room for metaphysics to say something, and physiology, and physics, and chemistry, and neuroscience… But the idea that we need essentially ethical resources in order to bring human beings and animals empirically into view in ethics is simply off the table.
There is a quote I like from a literary author named Geoff Dyer who talks about “that ongoing way in which we learn stuff through literature and the humanities.” I felt as though that ‘ongoing way’ had just dropped out of the philosophical tradition.
ML: You were talking earlier about the way that you approach philosophy. I once heard someone say that philosophers are in the business of coming up with really bad reasons for things we think already. Speaking of your dissatisfaction with the way that animals are theorized, especially by ethicists: kids in particular have an instinct for kindness or sympathy for animals, and then we as a society have practices that are completely opposite to that, and then we have to tap dance to come up with reasons why we shouldn’t be doing this. It’s funny how philosophy ends up coming up with something very strange in order to say something quite simple. Is there a way of doing philosophy that is perhaps less strange?
AC: I like your observation, but I would take it in a different direction. I do think that ethics can sometimes be radical. It can reveal to us that we need to do things wildly differently. In the case of animals, in our society: you said that children have this instinct of sympathy. There’s something to that. But children also squash bugs and hang cats and things like that. This may be in part because they get mixed messages, say, “be nice to the pets and eat your bacon.” In any case, it’s not clear that kindness is the one thing that’s natural. What is clear that kids today grow up in a society in which animals are in many contexts – abattoirs, laboratories, etc. — treated as mere objects, as morally disposable things. So in ethics, if you turn to animals, you can easily wind up proposing something radical, just by suggesting animals should get any consideration at all.
The point here isn’t merely about animals. Think about issues of race and class and gender and ability and age, where in ethics and critical social thought we may be committed to protesting injustices that have incredibly long histories. Here also it is important for ethics be radical.
Sometimes moral philosophers are right to affirm things we think already. But when they do, it seems to me that it does matter that they give good reasons. Take Peter Singer. He and I will agree on some ethical issues having to do with animals – including the fact that animals are proper objects of moral concern – but I would say, “He has the right view, he’s just come up with bad reasons in support of it.” And you might wonder why it matters that he has bad reasons. The issue in this case is that his bad answer, which involves trying to raise the standing of animals by connecting moral status with individual capacities of mind, has the effect of undercutting the moral standing of human beings with severe cognitive disabilities. The result is a disastrous set-up where it looks like animal protectionists and disability activists are somehow in conflict with each other. So it’s not enough to affirm, as Singer does, that animals matter; we need insight into how and why they matter.
ML: Are there are connections here with your work on literature?
AC: When I was talking about the main catchphrase of my book – placing human beings and animals “inside ethics” – my point was that doing empirical justice to human beings and animals in ethics requires the use of ethical resources like moral imagination. The idea is to recover a huge amount of what you could call our cultural resources in the humanities and arts – history, religion, literature, film, our whole visual culture – and to say these things are relevant. They can be resources for bringing the worldly lives of human beings and animals into view in a way that’s relevant to ethics. Moral philosophers are ignoring a striking portion of what’s available to them when they sideline these resources. A guiding theme of the things I’ve done with literature has been to show that literature, by directing our attitudes, can internally contribute to genuine rational moral understanding. The funny thing is that this is a pretty revolutionary thing to say in academic philosophy!
As far as my new book is concerned, two of the literary authors I focus on are Coetzee and Sebald, and I’m interested in what we learn from them – the images that they give to us of the kinds of vulnerabilities that human beings and animals have, and how there are kinds of moral fellowship between human beings and animals you don’t see unless you can see those vulnerabilities.
ML: If I were to push on this point a bit: what would you say to someone who asks, “well for the sake of educating our sensibilities in our relationship to animals, why shouldn’t we just read literature? What is it that philosophy can then do? How do those contributions meet? Why do philosophy?”
AC: I don’t have a strict answer to the question of how to demarcate one from the other, but there are differences of emphasis, differences in the kinds of thinking that each invites, and in the kinds of missteps each makes possible. It’s easy to focus on the dangers of literature and the other arts, and certainly literature is sometimes corrupt in ways – it can be manipulative, it can be sentimental. But philosophy can deal in bad arguments, and it can be irresponsible, and unproductive. We do ourselves a disservice if we are not open to finding insights in both realms, but wherever we look we’re still responsible for thinking for ourselves.
And one of the morals of Inside Ethics is that today, philosophy in particular has an important role to play interrogating established views of knowledge, and opening us back up to literature and the other arts.
I often focus on literature but there is nothing particular about my work that says literature is the only place – I also write about films, and I teach philosophy and the visual arts as well.
ML: So, what sort of practical response are you aiming to provoke with the book?
AC: I want to advance discussions, both about how animals are treated, and how the severely cognitively disabled are treated, and to show that those projects go hand-in-hand with each other. Those are the specific issues that I focus on in the book, but I hope that the work has a relevance that goes well beyond that.
When I say I work in ethics, sometimes people hear that as saying I’m not interested in political questions, because people often think of ethics and politics as somehow categorially distinct. But the things I do in ethics directly guide social criticism.
Recently I’ve been working with colleagues in the US and in Europe on traditions of social critique, and in doing so I am making use of the ground covered in Inside Ethics. The realm of values that we think about when we’re criticizing our social and political institutions had better include those pertaining to human beings who aren’t fully social, for one reason or another, and to animal life also. So that’s another thing: I am committed to radical, practice-oriented social criticism – social criticism that explores systematic forms of social subordination having to do with, say, race, gender, ability, class, body shape and age – and I see my work as bringing more clearly into view the realm of values to which such criticism is responsible.
Marianne LeNabat is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research. Her work concerns political philosophy’s resistance to theorizing collective action. In addition to other publications, she has recently written for n+1 and New Criticals. She is an editor at Public Seminar.
Alice Crary is a moral philosopher and the author of Inside Ethics: On the Demands of Moral Thought (Harvard, 2016), a monograph on the representation of animals and humans in ethical discourse which has been described as “a sweeping challenge to several widely shared orthodoxies in metaphysics and moral philosophy.” She has written widely on issues in metaethics, moral psychology and normative ethics, philosophy and literature, animals and ethics, philosophy and cognitive disability, and philosophy and feminism, as well as on figures such as Austin, Cavell, Diamond, Foot, Murdoch and Wittgenstein.
For more details about Alice Crary’s publications, see a small selection from the NSSR Bookshelf.