Saturday, October 6, 2018

Does the I-You relation enter into every aspect of the moral life?

Roger Scruton argues in On Human Nature that the “I-You relation enters essentially into every aspect of the moral life”.

That strikes me as an exaggeration. Examples readily come to mind of the exercise of the traditional virtues of prudence (practical wisdom) and temperance (moderation) that do not involve other people. We can make the ethical judgement it is good to exercise practical wisdom by managing our food intake and exercising regularly without considering possible benefits that might have for others. We can make the ethical judgement that it is good to be able to respond with moderation when our computers misbehave, even if there are no other humans nearby to witness unrestrained emotional outbursts.

So, why does Scruton take such an extreme position on the importance of the I-You relation? Scruton follows Stephen Darwall, who argues that the moral life depends on the “second-person standpoint” – the standpoint of someone whose reasons and conduct are essentially addressed to others. In attempting to explain that proposition, Scruton argues that it is “only because we enter into free relations with others that we can know ourselves in the first person”. He presents two supporting arguments – one from language and one from recognition.

The argument from language, associated with Wittgenstein, is that first-person awareness arises from mastery of a public language and recognition that others are using the word I as I do, to express what they think or feel directly.

The argument from recognition, associated with Hegel, is based on the claim that in a state of nature, motivated only by my desires and needs, I am conscious, but without the sense of self. The sense of self arises from encounters with other humans and the struggle for survival.

It seems to me that the argument from language fails because it does not explain why first-person awareness would depend on having words to express what that feels like.

The argument from recognition fails because it does not explain why it is necessary to identify other humans as having self-awareness before being aware of your own thoughts and feelings. Indeed, it is not clear how any individual human can ever be certain that other humans are self-aware – we assume that others are self-aware as we observe their behaviour because of introspection about the way our own actions are related to our thoughts and feelings.

Within a few decades, we could well be assuming that some robots are self-aware because they seem to behave as though they are self-aware. Incidentally, just now when I asked Siri if she is self-aware, her response was: “Not that I am aware of”. I expect she has been programmed to make that response, but it is the kind of response one might expect from a self-aware human trying to appear to be clever.

In attempting to provide a functional explanation of self-awareness, it is not clear why Roger Scruton gives so much credence to the speculations of Hegel. He persuaded me earlier in the book that much human behaviour, including laughter, can be better understood in terms of its social meaning rather than evolutionary causes. But evolutionary causes are pertinent to functional explanations. We should not lightly dismiss the possibility that self-awareness provided evolutionary advantages to the individuals who possessed it by helping them to survive terrifying solitary endeavours, as well as to compete with and to cooperate with other humans.

Of course, we don’t need to ask how we came to have self-awareness if we acknowledge that the fundamental problem of ethics is taking responsibility for how we live all aspects of our lives. It is sufficient to acknowledge that we have self-awareness, which entails the ability to reflect upon our own behaviour, feelings and thoughts.

The template of responsibility, advocated by Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen in The Perfectionist Turn, bases ethics on “the existential fact that we must make something of our lives”:

“For the template of responsibility, the basis for determining worthiness is human flourishing or wellbeing of some sort. Its ultimate value is integrity. Integrity expresses itself interpersonally in honour but when applied to the agent herself, the term ‘integrity’ signifies a coherent, integral whole of virtues and values, allowing for consistency between word and deed and for reliability in action” (p 20).

By contrast to the template of responsibility, the template of respect refers to the view that ethics as essentially about relations among persons. Den Uyl and Rasmussen note that Stephen Darwall’s second person perspective provide a prime example of the template of respect. Darwall’s perspective leads him to the view that ethics is essentially a social or communal phenomenon. He sees our sociable nature as giving rise to moral obligations conceived in juridical terms. Den Uyl and Rasmussen comment:

“Darwell wants to suggest that it is only reasoned and reasonable claims and demands that we can make upon one another. And yet, unless a determination of what is reasonable is left to individuals, there is … nothing beyond the grasp of what might potentially become the subject of publicly dictated forms of claiming and demanding” (p 167).

(The Perfectionist Turn has been previously discussed on this blog: here, here and here.)

In the hands of Roger Scruton, the founding of ethics in the I-You relation leads eventually to approval of Hegel’s assertion that the dialectical opposition between the family, as a sphere of pious obligations, and the market, as a sphere of free choice and contract, “is transcended and preserved in a higher form of unchosen obligation – that towards the state”. Scruton asserts:

“The bond of allegiance that ties us to the state is again a bond of piety”.

In Roger Scruton’s framework, ethical conduct almost seems to be equated with accepting obligations and following rules, rather than accepting responsibility for one’s own actions. To his credit, he condemns the commandants of concentration camps “given to obeying orders and willing to sacrifice their conscience to their own security when the time to disobey had come”. But he doesn’t seem to understand that people who feel a bond of piety to the state are likely to be particularly challenged when it comes to knowing when the time has come to disobey.

Before concluding, I want to note that I enjoyed reading On Human Nature, despite the impression that might be given by what I have written above. I found Roger Scruton’s discussion of the limitations of the explanations offered by evolutionary biology to be particularly illuminating.