Alice Crary On Her Newest Book, Inside Ethics

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.

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Jay Bernstein, on Torture and Philosophy

Jay Bernstein is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at The New School for Social Research. His latest book is Torture and Dignity: An Essay on Moral Injury (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

Bernstein, who received his PhD from the University of Edinburgh in 1975, has been at the NSSR since 2001, where he teaches courses on Kant and Hegel, and on topics in ethics and aesthetics. His enormously popular lectures have been collected by his students and published online at The Bernstein Tapes.

He recently discussed his latest book, as well his approach to philosophy more generally, and how he feels about being a part of the faculty here, with Marianne LeNabat, a doctoral student in philosophy.

Marianne LeNabat: First, can you tell us what you work on generally? What sorts of philosophical problems interest you?

Jay Bernstein: Can I give two answers to this question?

Here is the first one: During my job interview at the New School for Social Research, when asked by graduate students what I understood the true purpose of philosophy to be, my mind immediately flew to the panoply of traditional answers to this question: philosophy is the installation of reason as the mechanism for distinguishing appearance from reality; philosophy is an underlaborer to the advanced sciences of its age; philosophy should address Kant’s four fundamental questions: What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope? What is man?; philosophy’s task is the comprehension of its own time in thought; philosophy must address the meaning of being.

These are all meaningful answers to the question. But what pressed itself into words at that moment was something more provincial: No academic discipline, no area of the humanities or the social sciences has, as its central task, the recognition, remembering, and addressing of the breadth of human suffering. While making occasional appearances here and there, suffering itself, its character, extent, and reasons, is virtually absent from university studies and research. Philosophy, if it is not to become irrelevant or complicit in what is worst, should become a repository of thought about human suffering. That is a good deal of what I have learned from reading Theodor Adorno for forty years.

The second answer is narrower. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit blew me away when I first read it. It still does. It has two thoughts that have been decisive for my philosophical work: First, in the famous dialectic of master and slave there is the argument that in order to simply to be a person one must be recognized by another person. From this comes the unwelcome thought that we are radically dependent beings, that we owe our being persons at all, as well as whatever independence or freedom we might have, to the persons and institutions that surround us. Thinking about the depth of human dependence has been part of everything I have worked on and thought about. Second, it turns out that the dependence on others entails that we are historical beings through and through.

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