Brandom and Ethics
Jon Cogburn has just put up a post about the ethical implications of Brandom’s thought (here). As much as I respect Jon, I’m afraid I almost entirely disagree with the post. I think he’s being really unfair to Brandom. I mean no offence to him, but his claim that some of Brandom’s remarks (to the effect that pain has no intrinsic moral significance) are evil strikes me as hyperbole. I haven’t yet fully gone through Reason in Philosophy, but I’ve been thinking about the ethical implications of Brandom’s work (see my speculative heresy piece on ethics) and have come to very much the same position expressed in these remarks, yet without any of the more horrific implications Jon seems to see in them. To warn you, this is another fairly long post (coming up 7,000 words).
1. Explicating the Problem
First of all, we should not be damning Brandom for ways his philosophy could be misunderstood or used to justify things that neither genuinely follow from it, nor that he himself assents to. We shouldn’t blame Nietzsche (or Kant) for the horrors of Nazism, and we should treat Brandom in the same way. This being said, Jon’s worry is that Brandom’s philosophy somehow legitimates the mistreatment of creatures that lack the rational capacities necessary to engage us in conversation, and thus to count as sapient (rather than merely sentient) on by Brandom’s standards. Examples of these are pre-linguistic children, humans that cannot develop language skills or have lost them through some means (e.g., brain damage), and non-human animals. I think that there is something to this worry, and that we do need to show why this is not the case. Doing this properly would require developing a more robust ethical theory out of Brandom’s approach. At minimum, we simply need to show that this is possible, and hint at what it would look like.
However, I think that Jon sets the bar against which Brandom is to be measured far too high. The reason he gives for taking Brandom’s remarks to be evil is that they imply that the sentient creatures discussed above have no intrinsic moral worth. We should bare in mind that denying such creatures intrinsic moral worth is far from equivalent from legitimating their mistreatment. Now, some might say that this claim could nonetheless be used to justify such mistreatment. Yet, that someone could attempt to so justify atrocity by appeal to this idea does not for that matter show that it actually follows from Brandom’s work. We should keep in mind the above principal and not hang Brandom either for the motivation that misunderstandings of his work could provide, or for justification that a genuine understanding of his work could hypothetically (although it has not been shown to) provide. The real problem here is precisely what something like intrinsic moral worth is supposed to amount to.
Now, lets look at the Brandom passage Jon quotes:-
Here the question is: should moral respect go with sapience or with biology? Sentience-utilitarians such as Singer say the latter because they see morality as normatively driven by the intrinsic sensuous evaluation implicit in the phenomena of pain and pleasure. But we kantians see the normative basis of morality as derived form the positive freedom of giving and asking for reasons. Mammalian sensuousness, sentience, is at best a necessary condition of that, not a sufficient one. According to this line of thought, it is the capacity to engage in conceptual activity, being a subject of sapience, not of sentience, that is in the first instance morally significant. This does not, of course, settle it that we should not accord respect and rights to embryos, as potential moral persons, or for that matter, to non-human animals. But in each case the argument appeals to an indirect connection to the primary subjects of moral respect and (so) rights: discursive creatures. Kant certainly thought it was wrong to cause pain to animals for no reason–but that is not in the first instance because of what it does to them, but because of what doing that to them does to us. (Brandom 2009, 148)
I’m afraid I’m much in agreement with what Brandom says here. There are a lot of ethical theorists who try to ground ethics in the intrinsic normative force of pleasure and pain, and who interpret these in biological terms. Setting aside for the moment issues about the nature of normativity, and whether anything like intrinsic normative force makes any sense, such accounts are at the very least insufficient. This is because they tend to limit pain and pleasure to the simplest physical forms of satisfaction, and end up treating things like the satisfaction and frustration of our wishes and projects as subsidiary matters whose significance depends upon the stimulus they produce in us. A desire that my brother go to university is only fulfilled by that state of affairs coming to pass, and not if my family engages in an elaborate deception which convinces me that it has (and thus produces the corresponding pleasure). The disconnect is even more obvious in the case of desires which aim at things one cannot possibly experience (such as that my philosophical contribution is remembered after my death). If we take this view, we can find no good reason not to actively deceive others and ignore the wishes of the dead. Moreover, such approaches exclude the possibility of moral agents (and patients) that have radically different physical structures. At the very least, there needs to be some independent basis for the ethical responsibilities we owe to genuinely rational agents.
Now, Brandom goes further than simply criticising the sentience oriented account, and claims that rationality is the root of the ethical, and that rational agents are the primary subjects of moral responsibility. Jon thinks that Brandom is drawing a false dichotomy here, forcing us to choose between either an account of ethical obligation based on biological sentience or rational sapience. He thinks that this is dichotomy is false because it is possible to have it both ways:-
One can have absolute obligations to not cause needless pain to all sentient creatures, as well as obligations to respect the autonomy of rational creatures. There is absolutely no good reason for Brandom to commit a false dichotomy here. The latter obligation in no way undermines the former.
The question is this: if we can have it both ways, what exactly is the common source of ethical obligation? Indeed, how do we make sense of the idea of normativity on this basis?
It is indeed possible that we can have an absolute moral obligation both to prevent harming sentient creatures and to respect rational autonomy, in the sense that the two obligations aren’t incompatible. However, it is just as possible that we might have an absolute ethical obligation to wear hats on Tuesdays and to respect the paths of lava flows (and indeed, only those obligations). What we really want is to know why such obligations are foundational. The problem is not that the obligation not to harm sentients and the obligation to respect the autonomy of sapients are themselves incompatible, but rather that the accounts of why they are foundational are incompatible. To reject this dichotomy we either have to reject the demand for an explanation of why there are such absolute obligations, or we need to provide a proper account of the twofold root of ethical obligation in sensation and reason. I think the former is undesirable in the extreme, and the latter seems impossible (although I’m willing to be proved wrong).
Given this, I think Brandom’s account of the nature and basis of normativity in terms of rational autonomy is the best such account there is. This holds even if we discount the other successes of his approach in providing a systematic account of understanding, language use, practical action, etc. We have seen above that there are seemingly insurmountable difficulties for the sentience-based approach in accounting for the obligations we owe to rational entities. Yet, it is possible to give an account of the way that pleasure and pain play a role in rational motivation, and thus have a derivative kind of normative force. Principally, this lets us account for why we shouldn’t inflict pain on (or withhold pleasure from) rational agents (unless of course there is good reason to), but it doesn’t yet say anything about whether we should extend this courtesy to non-rational agents.
This is of course where Jon’s worry comes in. Brandom claims that although his Kantian (sapience-based) approach does not on its own settle this issue. He takes it that more needs to be said to determine whether we have derivative (rather than foundational) responsibilities to sentient creatures of various stripes and what they are. However, Jon thinks that Brandom is disingenuous at this point:-
I’m sorry, this is damningly and obviously stupid in so many ways. Yes it does settle the issue. The uncombined atoms that go on to make up the fetus are a “potential person,” yet they clearly have no moral worth. And the idea that non-sapient creatures have rights only because treating them in certain ways effects us can only be the idea that in harming them it somehow causes us to harm sapient creatures (not I suppose by being more likely to cause humans pain, since pain and pleasure have no moral regard, but rather in decreasing other human’s sentience). For Brandom it is wrong to torture a severely retarded person or animal just in case that would cause us to somehow make other humans less sapient. But that is transparently evil as well as psychologically implausible (Arendt’s terrifying banality of evil is just the way that human beings can compartmentalize in ways that completely undermine what Brandom is suggesting). But this means that if the Nazis had stopped at killing retarded people and done it in a way that did not cause undue stress to the non-retarded, there would be absolutely nothing wrong with that. I’m sorry, if such a view isn’t evil then the word has no meaning.
There are several points that must be responded to here. Firstly, assuming that Brandom has a definite account of what ‘potential’ means when he references it as part of an open question is just unfair. Brandom was referencing an existing debate, not taking up any kind of position in it. Demonstrating the vacuousness of simplistic uses of the notion of potentiality has no relevance here, as Brandom is not taking up any concrete position vis-a-vis the nature of potentiality, let alone potential personhood. Secondly, Brandom at best suggested the uptake of something like Kant’s approach to the status of non-sapient creatures. He didn’t provide a fleshed out account of what this would consist in. However, Jon has chosen to take this as an endorsement of the crudest possible form of such an account. The claim that: “For Brandom it is wrong to torture a severely retarded person or animal just in case that would cause us to somehow make other humans less sapient” not only presents Brandom’s position as far more determinate than it is, but the notion of “less sapient” is not even properly defined. We are left to imagine that on Brandom’s account we can legislate as much cruelty as we like as long as we can still have stimulating dinner party conversation about it later. Such a view might well be evil, but it doesn’t seem to be Brandom’s view.
Nonetheless, rejecting such a crude version of this kind of account is not good enough. As noted at the beginning, we need to show the possibility of deriving ethical obligations to non-sapients from within something like a Brandomian account, even if we needn’t work it out in its entirety. I’m going to go out on a limb and offer a possible strategy. It’s not fully worked out, but I think it has some promise.
2. Sentience and Sapience
We first need to tackle the core distinction between sentience and sapience, which Jon seems to suggest is another false dichotomy. I actually have certain problems with the way Brandom uses this distinction, mainly because it tends to suggest that the two terms are of the same kind, like the difference between dogs and cats. However, what one must remember is that sentience is a biological, and thus natural category, whereas sapience, the status of being a rational subject, is actually a form of normative status. Being a rational subject is something one is counted as within the practice of giving and asking for reasons. To be counted as such is to be counted as having certain fundamental rights and responsibilities, which are themselves normative statuses that cannot be cashed out in naturalistic terms.
This doesn’t mean that there isn’t any link between the ascription of sapience and the real causal structure of sapients described in natural terms. The ascription of sapience is based upon an assessment of capacities to engage in the game of giving and asking for reasons. Brandom has given his most detailed exposition of this idea in Between Saying and Doing (although I must admit that I didn’t entirely digest the stuff on AI). This means that there could be naturalistic facts that obligate us to count something as a sapient. It should be noted here that Brandom doesn’t require one to be a logical being to be a sapient being. One needn’t be able to use logical language, or make explicit inferences, only be able to track implicit inferential connections between claims and actions. Although I don’t think Brandom has said this explicitly, I think a good maxim is that anyone we can count as sapient, we should count as sapient. If we recognise that someone has certain capacities, then we are obliged to treat them as an autonomous rational agent. The salient point is that we can give an account of an entity’s capacities in naturalistic terms, and thus it is possible that we could show that certain entities with particular causal structures should be counted as sapients.
However, although there can be naturalistic facts about an entity’s constitution that are sufficient for us to ascribe sapience, it’s not clear that there is a set of such facts that are both necessary and sufficient. There could be entities that have radically different causal structures than us that we would nonetheless be obliged to count as rational agents. The capacities that motivate the ascription of sapience are very much multiply realisable. This contrasts with the notion of sentience as deployed by sentience-utilitarians. It is a biological notion linked to certain particular ways it can be realised. Of course, there are plenty who would say that sentience is not a biological notion, and would appeal to fuzzy definitions of what it is like to have conscious experience. I have expressed my general dislike of such hazy ideas of ‘consciousness’ elsewhere (here). When Brandom says that “Mammalian sensuousness, sentience, is at best a necessary condition of that, not a sufficient one”, the important phrase is ‘at best’.
So, Brandom has no problem accepting naturalistic (and evolutionary) accounts of how it is that we come to have the causal capacities necessary to be counted as fully fledged rational agents, and thus has no problem with such accounts picking out similar capacities we share with animals. His issue is that such an account would never be equivalent to an account of rational sapience itself. For Brandom, the divide between the natural and the normative is inviolable, and I tend to agree with him. Jon mentions teleosemantics as something that could further fill in this gap between the sentient (natural) and the sapient (normative) at one point, which is well known as a program that tries to derive the normative from the natural. Brandom has explicitly argued against teleosemantics (see ‘Intentionality, Modality, and Normativity’) and although I won’t repeat his arguments here, I think they are effective. Jon also mentions the Heideggerian tradition of grounding theoretical understanding in practical understanding. I do think Brandom needs to tell a better story about how our practical grasp of ordinary action (rather than our practical grasp of the game of giving and asking for reasons) contributes to our grasp of conceptual content. Other than BSD, his first paper on Heidegger (‘Heidegger’s Categories in Sein und Zeit‘) is the closest he’s come to doing this, and although I think it’s a misinterpretation of Heidegger, there is some promise there. However, I don’t think these Heideggerian lessons would do anything to ameliorate the split between the normative and the natural in the way teleosemantics does.
Moving on, the thing to take away here is that the moral worth of autonomous rational agents, our obligation to respect their autonomy, is not really a natural (or empirical) matter, even if we are obliged to count certain kinds of natural entities as autonomous rational agents. There is nothing like intrinsic moral worth here, if by this we mean some special metaphysical property possessed by a certain class of entities. Rather, the obligation that we have first to recognise certain entities as rational subjects, and then to respect their autonomy, is a transcendental matter.
This is because there are transcendental norms that we are bound by insofar as we engage in rational discourse or action at all. These norms are transcendental because they provide the condition of the possibility of rationality as such. They dictate what it is to undertake theoretical or practical commitments, by specifying both what one must do to do so, and what one does in doing so. Given that norms are themselves a form of practical commitment, these transcendental norms also form the condition of the possibility of normativity itself. To make these norms explicit is thus to give an account of the nature of normativity in normative terms (which is a virtuous, rather than a vicious circle). There is no non-normative ground of the normative – as McDowell is fond of saying, it’s norms all the way down. I’ve explained these points in more detail elsewhere (here, here, here and here).
The important point is that although most of these norms would not normally be considered ethical (Is it strictly unethical to contradict oneself?) they nonetheless provide the ground of ethical normativity in two senses. In the weak sense, they provide the ground of normativity as such, and thus also of any species of normativity. In the strong sense, they provide us with specific obligations to other rational agents, and these constitute our obligation to respect their autonomy. At this point we have a broadly Kantian ethical story, although it must be noted that Brandom does not endorse the categorical imperative, because he has a more nuanced story about how autonomy functions. I’m not going to go into this in detail, because I haven’t done enough work on it. Suffice it to say that there are a variety of possible positions regarding precisely what is involved in respecting the autonomy of rational agents. Habermasian discourse ethics is the other example that comes to mind.
3. Derivative Intentionality and Dependent Obligations
The question is now how we derive obligations to non-sapient creatures on the basis of this transcendental story. Non-sapients can’t have intrinsic moral worth, but then, there is a good sense in which neither can sapients. This transcendental approach is antithetical to the notion of intrinsic value as such. However, it seems that what is really at stake is not intrinsic value, the denial of which can hardly be considered evil, but rather the independence of our obligations to non-sapients from our obligations to ourselves and other sapient creatures. This is a complicated matter, because there are varying levels of dependence that such obligations could exhibit. At one extreme we could have some form of universal obligation to non-sapients that is completely independent of whatever relationship they stand in to sapients, and at the other we could have purely local, particular obligations, such as those not to interfere with animals that are the property of others sapients. There is a whole spectrum between these two however.
I don’t think its possible to make our obligations to non-sapients completely independent of all relations they stand in to sapients. The transcendental basis for ethics lies in our obligations to other sapients, and there just isn’t any way around this. The question is thus what degree of independence we can out of this. What we want are some general obligations that extend beyond particular relations that non-sapients stand in to particular sapients. This would undercut the crude interpretation which makes the wrongness of harming non-sapients dependent upon the relation of the action to me. I think the key to finding this lies in two features of Brandom’s account: his account of derivative intentionality and his account of authority and responsibility.
Derivative intentionality is Brandom’s account of what we ascribe to non-linguistic creatures (such as animals) when we treat them as having intentional states (such as beliefs and desires), so that we can provide intentional explanations of their behaviour. This intentionality is derivative because our ability to ascribe it is parasitic upon our ability to engage the game of giving and asking for reasons. This is because we are in effect ascribing normative statuses (such as theoretical and practical commitments) to these creatures in the same way that we ascribe to our interlocutors in rational debate. Now, there are other forms of derivative normative status that we can ascribe to entities, such as biological and technological functions. However, the way in which we ascribe them is not parasitic in the same sense that derivative intentionality is.
To explain this, we need to explain the relation between authority and responsibility. This involves explaining a bit more about the normative status of sapience, or being a rational subject. In essence, a subject is a locus of responsibility. A subject is just something that can be held responsible for the commitments that it has undertaken. This is what the identity of a subject consists in. In this respect, a lot of the classical debates about the metaphysics of personal identity have everything upside down – the identity of the subject across time is not the basis on which we hold it responsible for things it has done in the past, but rather, us holding it responsible is primarily what this identity consists in. This isn’t to say that there aren’t specific criteria governing whether we do in fact ascribe identity in this way, just that these don’t pick some special metaphysical substrate of authority and responsibility. In principle, I could be uploaded onto a computer in some fashion, and it would be possible to say that I am the same person, because it makes sense to say that I retain all of the responsibilities I had previously (at least, those that aren’t conditional on me not being uploaded into a computer). However, a subject is just as much a locus of authority. A subject has a unique authority over which theoretical and practical commitments it undertakes (although this is not for that matter an absolute authority). It is also in virtue of this unique authority that I can acquire any other kind of authority, such as military command, or ownership. For me to be the same person is also for me to retain this unique authority.
Now, when we ascribe normative statuses to non-sapient creatures we ascribe to them a normative status analogous to being a rational subject. However, this status is deficient, insofar as such creatures cannot directly exercise any authority over what they are committed to. Now, when we keep track of the normative statuses we ascribe to ourselves and our interlocutors in discourse (what Brandom calls deontic scorekeeping), we do not just keep track of those commitments an individual explicitly acknowledges. On the one hand, we also keep track of the individual’s consequential commitments (those that are implied by those they acknowledge), but on the other we also keep track of implicitly acknowledged commitments. This is to say that we ‘read between the lines’ and try to ascribe to our interlocutor a bunch of normative statuses that best makes sense of their behaviour. This kind of thing is familiar from Davidsonian radical interpretation. The ascription of derivative intentionality consists entirely of this ‘reading between the lines’. This is what makes the ascription of derivative intentionality different from the ascription of functions.
What makes this possible are genuine similarities between non-sapients and sapients. It’s important to note that this process of ‘reading between the lines’ is not a purely theoretical activity, but is something that depends on a practical grasp of the behaviour of humans that is partly acquired and partly inbuilt. Prediction is a two way street, and our practical ability to predict others’ behaviour feeds our ability to ascribe them intentional states, just as the latter enables us to make predictions of their behaviour on the basis of intentional explanations. The important point is that the similarities we share with non-sapients tap into this practical grasp to differing extents. This is not to say that it isn’t possible to ascribe derivative intentionality in a theoretical fashion, such as taking MRIs of a monkey’s brain and using the similarities in causal structure to project intentional descriptions. Both similarities in external behaviour and internal structure potentially count. However, the extent of the similarities limit richness of the kinds of intentional interpretation we can achieve. This is fairly apparent in the different relationships we have with dogs and lizards. It is a lot harder to ascribe to a lizard a rich mental life without pushing into fiction. A final, and crucial point to make here, is that pleasure and pain are absolutely fundamental similarities in this regard, they play a big role in letting us fill the background in terms of which we make any sense of a creatures behaviour, in virtue of the systematic role they tend to play in rational motivation.
4. Quasi-Agency and Structural Norms
In looking for general obligations that we have to non-sapient sentients, I think we have to further examine the normative status that we confer on non-sapients when we ascribe derivative intentionality to them. For want of a better term, lets call this quasi-agency, as opposed to rational agency. To do this it is necessary to think a little bit more about the nature of normative status.
Normative statuses are socially instituted, and they are generally instituted within the context of a certain practice that is governed by norms. The example I usually use is that of being a goal keeper in football (or soccer), which confers on one a certain role within the practice, consisting of specific obligations and permissions. However, as we have explained normative statuses can be ascribed to non-humans. A knight in a chess match has a various normative statuses, its status as a knight, which indicates how it may be moved in general, and its status as occupying a current position, which delimits how it may be moved now. A ticket to a concert has a normative status that it conveys on its holder, namely, permission to enter the concert. These are both kinds of functional status. One might detect a little whiff of Heidegger here, and one wouldn’t be wrong. The other kinds of status we have so far discussed are rational agency, which is the status of being counted as an interlocutor in the game of giving and asking for reasons, and the various subsidiary normative statuses that such agents can take on, such as theoretical and practical commitments, and the corresponding entitlement of such commitments. These latter statuses are special, in that they get there significance from the transcendental norms governing the practice of giving and asking for reasons. The other kinds of status discussed are based on contingent norms that are in some sense instituted by a social group.
However, I think that there is a third kind of norm, which we might call a structural norm, that is neither transcendental nor entirely contingent in relation to them. To explain this it is important to recognise the distinction between norms and practices that Brandom endorses, and that I’ve tried to elaborate on (here). Norms are a form of collective practical commitment, and are thus themselves normative statuses. Practices are collective behavioural regularities, which are usually self-sustaining to some extent, and can be fully described in natural terms. Norms are implicit within practices, such that we can engage in a process of interpretation (which itself is a matter of giving and asking for reasons) that makes the norm explicit in the form of a rule or principle. What needs to be pointed out is that although the norms governing the process of giving and asking for reasons are transcendental, the practices to which they correspond are as natural as any other. The biological and social factors that enable us to engage in the game of giving and asking for reasons have evolved naturally and must perpetually sustain themselves, just like any other. The question is, how do they so sustain themselves?
I think the answer is that they are interwoven with a whole bunch of subsidiary structural practices that make possible there current state and continued perpetuation. Implicit in these practices are structural norms. The best example of this I can think of is child-rearing. It takes a decent amount of time and attention to raise a child not only into a language user, but into a genuinely autonomous rational agent. What’s interesting about this is not only that the two aren’t the same, but that there isn’t a crisp boundary delimiting either. A baby has no authority, but neither does it have any responsibility for its actions. As it grows and starts genuinely acting we begin interpreting its behaviour, ascribing it intentions, and we also impart it with a kind of limited responsibility, in terms of which we try to correct its actions (through scolding and the like). As it develops linguistic competence our need to ‘read between the lines’ lessons, which means that we slowly confer on it a form of authority over its commitments.
We think of these kinds of provisional authority and responsibility as sandbox authority and responsibility, and they constitute a varying scale of quasi-agency. The practices of parenting (which include the wider social activities in which children are brought up), although they are derivative upon the game of giving and asking for reasons, are not specified by the transcendental norms of rationality. They are nonetheless an essential part of the wider context of the rational way of life. As such, the normative status of quasi-agency we confer upon children gets its significance from structural features of our rational form of life. We thus seem to have located a complicated set of obligations that have we to non-sapients (or even proto-sapients), that are not dependent upon particular sapients, but which rather rest on a wider social state of affairs.
5. Conclusion: The Halo Effect
This basic approach requires some more explanation, and some further consideration about how it can be extended to other cases. I think the obvious counter-example that is going to be raised against this kind of approach are those of infants who can never develop language, let alone get out of the forms of sandbox authority we set up for them. From here it is only a short distance to cases of permanent and temporary mental illness and debilitation. I think these cases can be accommodated, but it involves further understanding the difference between norms and practices, and the way practices tie into the hardwired mechanisms that enable our practical grasp of one another’s behaviour.
To reiterate, the basic idea is that although there cannot be obligations to non-sapients that are entirely independent of some relation to sapients, there can be some general obligations to non-sapients (or types of non-sapients) that are independent of any particular sapients, but are dependent upon certain structural practices tied to sapience (or at least, to the way we realise sapience). The essence of the idea is that the obligations get their force from the indispensability of the corresponding practices for maintaining and propagating the wider practices constitutive for sapience. The important thing to note here is that this indispensability is actually a causal matter. These obligations emerge not from the transcendental norms of rationality, but from the causal role that the practices in which they are implicit play in maintaining the practices constitutive for rationality. For this strategy to work, we need to posit something like a modified version of the categorical imperative, i.e., an obligation not to any particular rational interlocutor, nor even to all rational interlocutors, but to the very institution of rationality itself. This needs to be worked out in more detail, but if true, it would lend a transcendental force to otherwise contingently instituted structural norms.
The question remains as to how we extend this strategy beyond the case of genuinely proto-sapient children to non-sapients that cannot become sapient. My rough answer to this is what I will call the halo effect. To explain this its helpful to I think about further cases in which there is some form of privation of rational agency. These cases, such as temporary insanity, involve something similar to the sandboxing we perform with children. Before and after such episodes the person can be counted as fully responsible for (and authoritative over) their commitments and their actions, but during them, we effectively downgrade the status of their agency, or at least hold it in abeyance. When we do this, we do not (or at least should not) cease to give these individuals the respect they otherwise deserve, but rather, our obligations to them are modified in certain specific ways. If anything, our obligations become greater, even if we give them less autonomy. Nor do we cease to identify the insane person with the sane person they were before, or become again later (there are cases in which this happens (e.g., brain death), but we won’t address them at the moment). It is a similar case with children, they do not at some point suddenly become a fully responsible and authoritative sapient being, and neither would they suddenly count as a different person upon doing so. There is an identity between the adult and the child they were, but one that is mediated by the sandboxing we carry out in child rearing.
What all of this shows is that there is not a crisp boundary between full sapience and mere sentience. The above cases present examples of practices that we have developed to police the fuzzy border between the two. The idea is that these are structural practices insofar as they play an indispensible causal role in maintaining our practice of respecting the autonomy of those we count as full fledged rational interlocutors. It is important to remember that a practice is a collective behavioural regularities, and thus that we are talking about maintaining and encouraging a certain tendency on our part. Now, I think that cases such as babies who will never develop anything resembling sapience, and previously sapient individuals who have irretrievably lost it, can be accounted for in this framework. I think that, loosely speaking, we simply can’t consistently maintain these structural practices (and thus the core feature of the institution of rationality as such) unless they extend to these cases. This is essentially what I mean by the halo effect: that the practices in which our respect of rational autonomy of sapients consists cast a halo of additional obligations to non-sapients in order to make them consistent. This halo is ultimately founded on the similarities that non-sapients share with sapients, and I think we’d find that the obligations are not homogeneous, but vary in relation to the level of similarity.
Now, there’s a lot of specific arguments to be had about what exactly ‘consistency’ is, and how this holds in specific cases, but I’m only trying to outline a strategy here, not solve the problem entirely (and I’ve just hit 6000 words). However, I think it’s helpful to say something about how this extends to the case of animals. As we’ve seen above, the scorekeeping abilities which form the basis of our capacity to engage in the game of giving and asking for reasons are based largely upon a practical grasp of one another’s behaviour, one that to a certain extent enables something like pre-linguistic communication (which Heidegger would still call ‘discourse’ or Rede). This same practical grasp extends to creatures that are similar than us, and it makes possible the ascription of derivative intentionality. Indeed, this can even be supplemented by a properly theoretical grasp of the similarities such creatures have with us (such as an account of the anatomical basis of pleasure and pain).
There is thus an automatic halo of cases in which our relations to non-sapients are directly based on the ways we relate to eachother, and it is gradated by the richness of such relations. The imperative to maintain the consistency of our practices then gives us certain obligations to these creatures on the basis of this richness. We have greater obligations to those creatures to which we can ascribe a vibrant ‘inner’ life than to those that we can simply ascribe rough states of pleasure and pain to. For instance, the fact that I can interpret my dog as having expectations about the future means that I must take that into account in the way I treat him in a way that I don’t necessarily need to with my goldfish. Nonetheless, there can be a general obligation to avoid needless cruelty in both cases. This probably also amounts to a hierarchy of value on the basis of the level of quasi-agency we ascribe to sapients, but I wouldn’t like to be tied down too much on how exactly that would work. I certainly don’t think it would be an absolute matter, whereby anything in the level above automatically trumps something in the level below.
In conclusion, I think I’ve demonstrated a possible strategy that enables us to address Jon’s worry in the context of something resembling a Brandomian normative framework. Importantly, I think I’ve given a far better spin to the Kantian idea Brandom referenced, whereby we are obligated not to act in certain ways towards non-sapients because of what it does to us, than the crude interpretation Jon proposed. It’s not that an act of needless cruelty does something specifically to me, such as make me ‘less sapient’, however that is to be understood, but rather how it reflects on our form of life as a whole. One might here maintain that if I could somehow causally isolate my act of cruelty, then it would suddenly become perfectly fine. I don’t think this works, because it flies in the face of the modified categorical imperative proposed above. We all have an obligation to follow the structural norms which maintain the institution of rationality, and we can’t isolate ourselves without placing the burden upon everyone else, which amounts to a lack of respect for their autonomy. Insofar as the causal dimension introduced by the modified categorical imperative has a certain consequentialist flavour, it is most definitely rule-consequentialism, rather than act-consequentialism.
As a final note, I think this strategy might strike some as reactionary, as a matter of simply trying to make Brandom’s account consistent with some prior conception of morality. I’d like to dispute this. On the one hand, I think much of what I’ve been trying to do is to make explicit norms that are already implicit in our practices. On the other, I think it’s quite possible that we can derive entirely novel obligations from the schema proposed above. I think the idea that we all have some transcendental obligation to the very institution of rationality itself could be particularly fruitful for developing a positive ethics. It definitely points in the kind of democratic direction that Habermas advocates. This will have to wait for another day, however.
This entry was posted on February 27, 2010 at 11:08 am and is filed under Discussion, Exegesis, Theory with tags Animals, Authority, Brandom, Ethics, Kant, Normativity, Personal Identity, Rationality, Responsibility, Sapience, Sentience, Transcendental. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.