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Ethics of dialogue: consciousness vs linguistic ability


To: David G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Ethics of dialogue: consciousness vs linguistic ability
Date: 1 February 2006 12:04

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 18 January, with your fifth and final essay for the Moral Philosophy program, entitled 'Language and Morality', responding to the question: ''In the ethics of dialogue, it is the capacity for language rather than the presence of consciousness that marks the crucial moral difference between those who are, or are not moral subjects.' - Comment on this claim.'

You develop the case against the ethics of dialogue very skilfully. The only point at which I felt that you had not fully responded to my argument in unit 13 is where you say, 'If cruelty is wrong by itself and it is our character or 'the person who we are' that defines cruelty as wrong then the concept of dialogue does not seem to come into play. There must be more to morality or ethics than an ethic of dialogue.'

What I actually say, right at the end of the unit, is 'What counts is the continued practice of virtue irrespective of who or what is on the receiving end, to maintain the resonance of virtuous individuals in a moral community.'

One way of taking this paragraph would be the thought that the ethics of dialogue somehow needs to be supplemented by a virtue ethics. However, this would be a disaster from a methodological standpoint. If the ethics of dialogue is not sufficient as an account of the basis for moral conduct, then some other basis needs to be found. If virtue ethics was there all the time, we could have saved ourselves all the trouble of trying to establish an objective basis for moral conduct through a priori philosophical considerations alone.

The point of virtue ethics is not just the affirmation that virtues and vices are an important consideration in moral philosophy. The idea is far more radical. The virtue ethicist claims that this is what moral philosophy is really about. One thus refuses to be drawn into the debate whether ethical considerations are ultimately subjective or objective. To which I would respond that you can 'refuse' all you like, but the problem as I have outlined it is still there whether you are prepared to acknowledge it or not.

From the vantage point of an ethics of dialogue, virtues and vices are merely 'something important', a factor which needs to be taken into consideration. But how, exactly? The idea of 'resonance', which needs much more space to develop adequately, is that my obligation to develop a virtuous character and avoid vices arises from my obligations to other members of the moral community through the ethics of dialogue. In addition to my direct obligations to consider the needs and desires of other members of the moral community, there arises a more general obligation to the moral community as a whole, to perform actions which strengthen the bonds which hold the community together and avoid actions which weaken those bonds.

Examples of other actions which (allegedly) strengthen the bonds of community would be respecting traditions, singing the national anthem when the occasion demands, showing good manners, dressing in an appropriate manner. You can smile at some of these examples. It is not 'morally wrong' to smirk with your hands in your pockets while everyone around you is singing. And there may indeed be all sorts of reasons for objecting to national anthems anyway. But that is not the point. The point is that wherever we find a moral community, in whatever form that takes, there are customs, structures, understandings which underpin the sense of 'belonging together'.

More basic then any of the admittedly questionable examples I have given, is the 'practice of virtue'.

The argument is not that I should care for animals because other members of the community care for animals. It is rather based on the empirical consideration that to deliberately torture an animal as a matter of fact requires a psychological disposition towards cruelty. Exhibiting these dispositions is harmful to the moral community, even when no member of the moral community is harmed.

I have merely given a sketch here of how the argument might go. Other things to think about might be, e.g. why we show respect for the dead. How can you have moral obligations to a dead person? Or consider the environment. Trees are not conscious so why should we care about them? Again, the reason is based on empirical considerations about what human beings are 'like'. Martians might be different. In which case their ethics of dialogue would lead to very different behaviour.

All the best,