Thursday, January 29, 2015

Three Roles for Moral Outrage - philosophical doodle for Kevin Timpe

On the cool philosophy blog Discrimination and Disadvantage, philosopher Kevin Timpe makes the following point, and asks the following question

"What I found pretty quickly, however, upon digging into the disability literature is that I become outraged by some of the views I encounter. These views aren't just (in my view) wrong, but (again, in my view) morally offensive. To hear individuals claim, for instance, that my son has no moral standing at all (despite never having met him); to ask, apparently in all honesty, if the severely disabled have a right not to be eaten; to discover sterilization of some individuals with disabilities is not only legal but compulsory in some states--these, and other views, provoke a very strong visceral reaction.

In writing on the problem of evil, Eleonore Stump (under whom I did my PhD) writes that "philosophical analyses of the problem of evil can border on the obscene unless the pattern-processing of the intellectual exercise is coupled with a clear recognition of the awfulness of suffering."2 Some of what I've read regarding disability strikes me as similarly obscene, and in part for what is perhaps the same reason: in like manner to how some philosophical reflection evil reduces those who suffer to simply an object of study--a piece in a the machine of a philosophical view--so too some of what I'm finding in the literature seems to treat those with disabilities--including but not only my son--to an object in a way that reduces, or even explicitly rejects, his personhood. In what I think is a very powerful paper, "The Personal is Philosophical is Political,"3 Eva Feder Kittay describes some of the views she's engaged with as "abhorrent" (395). One reason for her reaction is how her daughter falls under some of those views: "For a mother of a severely cognitively impaired child, the impact of such an argument is devastating. How can I begin to tell you what it feels like to read texts in which one's child is compared, in all seriousness and with philosophical authority, to a dog, pig, rat, and most flatteringly a chimp; how corrosive those comparisons are, how they mock relationships that affirm who we are and why we care?" (397). Kittay gives two challenges that people in this kind of situation face. It is the first that I want to focus on here. "The first is to overcome the anger and revulsion that one feels when encountering the view that one's disabled child--or child with a particular disability--is less worthy of dignity, of life, of concern or justice than others" (398f). Now, I certainly agree that one has to be able to control one's anger and revulsion, that both can be an obstical not only to philosophical reflection, but also to advocacy on behalf of the disabled (as well as our own well-being for those of us that love these individuals). But it also seems to me that such anger is also important. Here it will probably be obvious that I'm roughly Aristotelian in my normative framework. But anger, even outrage, seems to me to be among those responses that are proper in this case of scenario. Sometimes, not getting angry about a view can be an indication of too little concern for just treatment of those who are the recipients or objects of those views.So I'm wondering about a question that I hope can start a discussion here that can help set the tone for future posts in this blog. And even though I'm asking this question in the context of philosophy of disability, I suspect that a parallel question comes up in many, perhaps even most, of the other areas that this blog is for.So, here's my question: what is the proper role of moral outrage in our philosophical theorizing about disability (or sex or race or ....)?

Ok, my little bit of reflection has lead me to three main ways I think moral outrage properly functions in our moral theorizing about disability, race, sex, etc.

Point one - A Spur (and balance-rod)

Anger and more strongly outrage, helps to move us from contemplation to action, and helps to keep our actions carefully balanced between many competing concerns.

Thinkers like Heidegger or Merleau-Ponty like to point out that our own-nature is most characteristically evident, not in disinterested contemplation of the world, but in active interaction with it. Our intelligence is engaging. In trying to do things and succeeding or failing, we are more ourselves than in merely observing or contemplating. The same is true in argumentation. Detached intellectual investigation can be a useful tool in some cases, and detachment can help prevent us from being sucked into certain kinds of tempting errors. It's good to have detached folks as well as engaged folks involved in a conversation in order to guard against certain kinds of intellectual dysfunction. But engaged folks are more authentically participating in the conversation, and they are more wholly present with the topic at hand. They are bringing more of themselves to the issue. A conversation among detached theorists, without passionate non-detached thinkers involved, is also in danger of a variety of intellectual and pragmatic forms forms of dysfunction.

Outrage in particular, among the forms of passionate engagement available, allows our rhetoric to soar and aids us in calling all witnesses to yearn for justice. Outrage mixes simple anger at a moral wrong, with disgust for the wronger, and compassion for those wounded by the outrage provoking situation. Outrage spurs us to action, but it also aids us in calling others to action, and helps locate not just wrong-doing, but wrong-doers and wronged within an often complex moral situation. When issues are genuinely mixed with many aspects requiring careful consideration, outrage doesn't stand up well, and ought to give way, after a brief surge, to more deliberative weighing of many avenues of thinking about the situation. But, when critique of an entrenched but morally indefensible position is required, moral outrage helps us to get past the many lines of defense of the wrong, which may be familiar to us, or routinely proffered by those invested in the status quo, and helps us to focus instead on the wrong itself. Outrage includes a note of disgust, and disgust helps to keep us from swallowing things we shouldn't. In particular, entrenched wrongs, are likely to have a variety of tempting justifications surrounding them. The disgust involved in outrage, helps to keep us from swallowing these justifications. It can help to keep us from perilous compromises, or from settling down in the seeming inevitability of long-entrenched wrongs. The note of wounded sympathy within outrage helps us to remain in robust alliance with the wronged. When we are morally wronged directly ourselves, our properly functioning emotions usually turn to more straight-forward defiance. Moral outrage, on the other hand, is usually on behalf of someone else. And the emotion itself helps us to balance our own privileges within the moral situation. We are neither the direct wronger, nor the directly wronged, but neither are we disinterested, or unaffected completely. If we are partly entangled in the wronging actions, our moral outrage at the wrong can help us engage in the difficult work of disentangling ourselves from the wronging, without disentangling ourselves from the wronged. This is usually hard on the ego, and it is tempting to deflect blame from ourselves, but the disgust within the outrage keeps this tendency in check, and the anger urges us to keep working on it rather than give up. Similarly it can be tempting to wash our hands of the whole affair, rather than engage in the delicate work of careful partial disentanglement. But the sympathy within the outrage, blocks us from distangling ourselves completely from those we perceive as wronged.
Deeply entrenched wrongs, and disgusting defenses of existing wrongs, are sadly pretty common in the US in the cases of racism, rape culture, sexist double standards, transmisogyny, poverty and plenty of other cases.

Point two – A clue

But none of that really addresses our theorizing, except in as much as theories are products of activities of debate and discussion as well as contemplation. At the level of theory, moral outrage can play a variety of other roles too. Most primaly, it is an intuition pump, saying, here is a topic to engage with. It can help us find problems worth confronting. It can help us tighten our understanding of where the real problem or underlying problem is, so as not to be overly sucked into side issues. Even within a complex situation, a little flash of outrage, might serve as a clue that some aspect of the situation hasn't been adequately looked at yet. Outrage sometimes comes with a note of incredulity, how the hell could anyone take that position? When that happens it is often a clue that we haven't understood the motivations of the outrageous position sufficiently (while also strongly warning us not to share those motivations). Still, we can often more effectively oppose a position, if we more thoroughly understand both it, and the things underlying it, and outrage can serve as a clue here as well as a spur. Secondly, outrage can serve as a final gut-check on theories we might be tempted to advance. Again, it holds us in check from advancing the theory, but it also serves as a clue that something in our analysis is not functioning correctly and we need to find it and fix it.

Point three – One of our roots.

Theorizing needs to serve a purpose in our lives and society, outrage is sometimes part of the story of how that works.

We cannot afford to spend out lives entirely in theorizing. I leads to ourselves being sadly underdeveloped, and in extreme cases to poverty, starvation, irrelevance, wasted potential, and impotent compassionlessness. Rather theorizing has to be part of what we do and who we are, both as individuals, and as social groups and whole societies. But the theorizing needs to be grounded in larger projects. We have options about what those projects are. In some ways we are doomed to our freedom, and thus are the options we choose for our projects. It's not just that we have to act, but that our actions and theorizings need to be aspects of a larger sense of project, self and purpose. And some projects we can choose are bad choices. The relentless pursuit of money for its own sake to the exclusion of all else, is ultimately extremely limiting for out own selves, and damaging to our society. A careful discussion of projects I approve of and disapprove of gets into issues of religion and spirituality, and beyond the scope of this little philosophical doodle. But things that strive to make ourselves wider and more complex, or that strive to entangle ourselves with the wideness and complexity already in the world, are projects I approve of. In particular, both promoting justice, and empathizing with the downtrodden, are among the good projects we can choose. Not just outrage as an emotion, but moral outrage in particular, can serve as a link between out theorizing, actions, and the projects of promoting justice or helping the downtrodden. Here the function is not just spurring our actions, but connecting our actions more fully to who we are, getting down into our own roots, making our philosophy mean something rather than be an especially complicated form of mental masturbation. Somehow or other, our theorizing needs to ground itself deep within ourselves, and outrage is not the only way to accomplish this, but it is one of several plausible strategies.

OK, that's what comes to mind tonight. If you folks have further ideas, give them to me so I can pass them on to Kevin Timpe.

Post Script -  Point 4 - a Trap or distraction

Moral outrage can also be dysfunctional.   Sometimes we are so worried about being "in the right" that we give up being helpful.  Sometimes we make the perfect the enemy of the good.  Sometimes we can be distracted by our own anger.  Sometimes we miss the point someone is trying to make because the example they attempt to use to illustrate it is so outraging.  Sometimes, we can stew in our outrage in dangerous ways.  Sometimes we feel so impotent in the face of the outrageous, that the outrage just makes us feel weaker and weaker.  I'm not trying to overglorify outrage.  It can certainly misguide as well, but it can and often does function rightly within the economies of our psyche.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the discussion of my post, BP. I think you have a lot of interesting things to say here. It's been a long week, and I just put 8 kids to bed as part of a bday party, and I'm tired. So for now, let me just say that your final point that outrage can also be dysfunctional is definitely right. I don't think that outrage is always properly aimed or veridical. But what I was trying to get at in the post is when and under what conditions it can be. So thanks for the helpful discussion that I think helps address that.