Saturday, October 15, 2016

Debating My Humanity

Recent events in philosophy and wider political life have me thinking about a point of political epistemology. There is a principle fairly popular in circles I am broadly sympathetic with which is roughly that: somebody should never be put in the position of defending their own full humanity. Any debate which does not have, as a presupposition, something like the full moral equality of persons is not a conversation one can reasonably expect those not-presupposed-to-be-fully-human to participate in or even bear witness to. Here's a tweet which says it in a snappy way:
We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.
I like the way that tweet puts it because it makes it clear this is not really a purely academic issue -- this is a matter of what it means to coexist in a pluralistic society, whether we can get along across certain cultural and political divides.

I think this principle guides a lot of people's thought, and I guess is kind of independently plausible if one has any Kantian-esque intuitions about the supreme importance of maintaining one's own dignity as a person, so it is worth giving it some thought. I don't have anything definitive to say, but I guess I just want to get people thinking and talking about it. I'll call the idea that nobody should ever have to take part in conversations that do not presuppose their own full moral equality the Presupposition of Dignity (PoD). Should we accept the Presupposition of Dignity?

Now, really, I think the PoD actually requires a lot of finessing. For instance, what's the scope of that `should'? And what exactly constitutes the kind of failure of conversational presupposition that might violate PoD? And many questions besides! I'll give examples of things which I guess would violate the PoD, based on how I think the-thing-I-have-in-mind is actually used in the relevant circles. But for the most part I am going to leave this pretty unrefined, and hope that people can pick up roughly what I have in mind. Let's get going.

So, I've seen and taken part in disagreements about whether or not black people are mentally or morally deficient in such a way that might explain our relatively low numbers in British or American philosophy, or historical canon philosophy more generally. I've seen (though not personally taken part in) disagreements about whether or not race mixing is morally impermissible (and on some occasions morally impermissible for black men in particular) that, if not quite denied my right to exist, then certainly involved at least some parties suggesting it was rather a shame that I do. I've seen disagreements in ethics which certainly seemed to take as an open possibility the idea that for various reasons my life might just not be as valuable as other peoples, and so more readily sacrificed.

All these discussions, I think, are discussions which people who agree with the PoD believe I should not have to have taken part in; and I think the idea might also be that I was thereby licensed to reprimand others for taking the stances they did as morally failing, or generally make some claim upon people to simply stop having such discussions and fall into line with my position thereon without further ado. I hope this gives some idea of what the PoD is, and how it is deployed in practice -- perhaps you will recognise some applications of the PoD from your own life.

Ok, so, for all that build up, here are my rather underwhelming thoughts on the PoD:

  1. I am very very wary of moral principles that are open to strategic interpretation. The PoD always strikes me as especially bad on this front. I worry that any version of specifying anything like what is meant by ``rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist'' shall by necessity, if it is capture all intended cases, be very lax. And in that laxity there will be much room to define an ever increasing field of disagreement and dissent as falling under the principle. Presumably, it shall often be attractive indeed to strategically manipulate such laxity so as to render disagreement with one's point socially more difficult. Further presumably, in at least some cases this shall be a bad thing for a community of inquiry.
  2. My sense is that people who do not regularly participate in discussions which violate the PoD in one's own case habitually and vastly underestimate the psychological toll it can take. Obviously there is individual difference in tolerance for such conversations. But when I have seen people reject application of the PoD in practice I have noticed the following distinct correlation: toughen-up rhetoric most often comes from people who manifestly have the least need for thick skin on this score. It doesn't seem to me that there is any correct or objectively superior degree of sensitivity on this front; a greater degree of empathy would do a lot of good.
  3. My guess is that people who believe the PoD want it to be a piece of non-ideal theory: in our actual world here, with the spread of moral disagreements that we really observe, this is meant to set limits on what kind of political debate and disagreement is within the pale. However, I worry that what drives it is the following more ideal-theoretic intuition: people should not believe false things, or perhaps morally pernicious things if one has a non-cognitivist theory, and in serious moral discussion we want to presuppose the true or morally superior things. So if one is an egalitarian and grants the kind of in-the-ideal-case or objective sense of `should' in the italicised sentence there the PoD will seem to very quickly follow. However, I doubt the italicised sentence is attractive, or at least useful, for a non-ideal theorist; simply because in this world of mass non-compliance and unresolvable-in-the-foreseeable-future disagreement it will have no actual application. Any attempt to enforce it would reduce to an argument about what the moral facts/non-cognitive-preferable-things are, which is just what this was meant to set limits upon. So I worry that the PoD is a bit of disguised ideal theory, applied as if it was a bit of non-ideal theory.
That's what I got so far. As I said, this is all very unrefined, just collecting together some thoughts prompted by my own experiences. I do think the PoD is sociologically quite a significant phenomena and does not really receive as much explicit attention as a moral or political principle as it really should, so if nothing else I hope this gets people thinking.



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