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Alice Crary On Her Newest Book, Inside Ethics

November 28, 2016 at 11:13PM
Alice Crary On Her Newest Book, Inside Ethics

Marianne LeNabat sat down earlier this year with Alice Crary, Chair of Philosophy and Founding Co-director of the Graduate Certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies, to talk about her most recent book, Inside Ethics: On the Demands of Moral Thought, the role of ethics in philosophy, and what philosophy is for. 

Marianne LeNabat: What is the focus of your work?  What kinds of topics do you address?

Alice Crary: The straightforward answer is that I work in ethics.

Ethics as I understand it isn’t a specialized sub-discipline within philosophy, but emerges out of an engagement with many areas. Sometimes philosophers itemize sub-disciplines in philosophy: ethics as opposed to philosophy of mind, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language, etc. I don’t find it useful to compartmentalize my work like that.  I approach issues in ethics by working in those areas and others as well, including social and political philosophy.

ML: Are there ethical issues in particular that you work on?

AC:In my most recent book, Inside Ethics, I focus on the value of humanity, and the value of being an animal, taking up issues in animal studies and disability studies.  The treatment of animals is one particular concern, and cognitive disability is another. I wanted to combat ways of doing moral philosophy that neglected those cases in ways that seemed just seemed awful.

ML: What is distinctive about the ways that you approach these issues?

AC: Throughout my writings, I argue that the world that concerns us in ethics is brought into focus by moral thought and activity. My idea is that any adequate sketch of the sphere of moral thought needs to include, in addition to specifically moral concepts, efforts to illuminate the features of the world to which these concepts are responsible.

This account of moral thought may seem farfetched, quite untenable really. It’s an account that takes it for granted that we need moral capacities like moral imagination to adequately capture features of the world that moral concepts pick out and that, at the same time, presupposes that the real world is morally non-neutral. A presupposition on these lines is alien to most work in contemporary moral philosophy. It’s at least a tacit premise of most ethical research that reality is as such morally neutral. So, to make a plausible case for my preferred account of moral thought, I have to do significant work to defend this conception of reality. This is one of the projects that leads me to grapple with topics in philosophy of mind, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language, and other areas.

ML: What led you to the topic of animals?

AC: There are roughly two different things I can say here. Even before I was in graduate school, I was interested in the treatment of animals, in particular in advanced, industrialized societies like ours.  I saw us living in a world in which food production is increasingly industrialized, and I was horrified by factory farms. But I was also struck by things like deforestation and the pollution of the oceans, and hence the destruction, on a massive, global scale, of animal habitats.

A bit later, when I was already studying philosophy, I became interested – this is my second route into these issues – in how unsatisfying the answers were to ethical questions about animals, even from philosophers and theorists who, like me, were appalled at things that were being done to animals.  The case of animals became a route for me into thinking about moral philosophy, because the approaches in ethics that I had been trained in didn’t seem adequate to deal with that. I took this as a clue to suggest that there might be something wrong with them altogether.

So my book’s title – Inside Ethics – refers as much to human beings as it does to animals.  Its guiding insight is that, in all sorts of traditions, moral philosophers tend to outsource the empirical understanding of human and/or animal life to disciplines outside ethics.  That’s what I call placing them “outside” ethics.  And the book is about saying, no, you can’t do that.

Continue reading this interview here

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