Speaking Prose All Our Lives

MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: Oh, really? So when I say: Nicole bring me my slippers and fetch my nightcap,” is that prose?


MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: Well, what do you know about that! These forty years now I’ve been speaking in prose without knowing it!

Molière, The Bourgeois Gentleman, 1670

A humanist ethics demands that the secular foundations of morality be put in terms sufficiently compelling as to make a claim on anybody who submits to the standards of rational discourse. Sounds daunting, but maybe we should take our cue from Monsieur Jourdain. There he was, thinking he had an onerous assignment ahead of him in learning to master this highfalutin “prose,” only to discover that he’d been speaking prose ever since he’d been speaking at all. Similarly, we’ve been thinking inside a humanist ethics for almost as long as we’ve been trying to understand how to conduct ourselves ethically at all.

By rational discourse I mean the process of offering reasons, whether good or bad, for one’s beliefs and actions. Call anybody who does so “rational.” By this minimalist standard of rationality, almost everyone qualifies as rational, since just about everyone—other than tyrants, exasperated parents, and Yahweh—offers more in the way of a reason beyond the barest “because I said so” or “because I want to and I can.” Just as soon as a person embarks on backing up actions with reasons, no matter how dotty or downright criminal, he’s caught in the calculus of moral reasoning, with implications to be drawn, whether or not he personally assents to their drawing.

So suppose you have something I want—say it’s a rare book. I take it because I want it. You register a protest and ask me why I think I have a right to take what was yours. I have two possible responses. I might say I have no right at all, but I’ll do what I can get away with. I expect others to deal similarly with me and will feel no sense of indignation or outrage when the tables are turned, since I no more recognize my own rights than anyone else’s. I fastidiously avoid all judgments of that sort, as well as the emotions with which they are entangled. And so I shall never have the inclination to wail, “How could she have done such a thing to me? Doesn’t she see the harm she’s causing me?”—as if that should have provided her a reason for acting otherwise. If that’s the tack I take, and I’m truly consistent in never allowing myself to feel wrongfully used by others, then there’s not much to be done for me, morally speaking. I’m an ethical outlier—or outlaw—and no moral reasoning can touch me.

In fact, you’d have more of a chance getting my pet capuchin monkey to grasp Kant’s categorical imperative than you would me. (Full disclosure: I don’t have a pet capuchin monkey. But since capuchins have demonstrated righteous indignation when treated unfairly—when one got some cucumber for performing an action for which another was rewarded with yummy grapes it hurled the cucumber at the researcher—you really would have more of a chance with the monkey.)

But suppose I do offer some action-justifying reason, one that applies exclusively to me, something along the lines of: “Well, of course I have a right to do as I do since I’m me and, being me, everything about me is decisively important, a fact as clear as day to me. You are not in a position to understand how what impinges on my well-being changes the very feel of all the world, since you’re not me. In fact, it happens that no one else is. And this unique self-identity is precisely why I have the right to do as I want.”

Now, as a reason, this is clearly less than adequate. Reasons are collapsed arguments, and this argument, which attempts to establish that I, being me, have rights that no one else has, is flawed, as you will no doubt do your best to get me to see. You will point out that you could make precisely the same argument, even using the exact same words, though, of course, the indexical terms—“I,” “me,” “mine,” “you”—will change their references when uttered by you. You might further point out, (trying to keep your exasperation in check), that everybody could make the selfsame argument I’ve just made, each of them insisting on the privileged self-identity he or she enjoys by virtue of being he or she, so that (you summarize) I’ve hardly succeeded in distinguishing myself and my rights from the pack.

In other words, not a great deal of subtlety is required to get the process of moral reasoning chugging along, once it’s initiated on one’s own behalf, other than being able to contemplate the interchangeability of points of view—a thought-experiment that even young children are able to accomplish and which every right-thinking caretaker exploits to the hilt when, correcting their charge’s savagery, they implore, “just imagine how you would feel if someone did that to you.” It’s an argument that demands the child to grasp something of the generalizability of moral reasons, and what’s more than wonderful is that it generally works (with the added oomph supplied by the brain’s ability to mirror the emotional states of others).

Once reason-giving gets underway, its drift is for a person to see herself, morally speaking, as one among others. Whatever trait it is she recognizes about herself, in virtue of which she mounts moral protests on her own behalf, can, in principle, hold true for others. If she  matters—and how many would deny the antecedent of this conditional?—then so, too, do others.

But exactly which others? How many of them? If it’s interchangeability of points of view that convinces me that I’m not unique in my mattering, then am I obligated to acknowledge the mattering only of those others with whose viewpoints I can contemplate an exchange? What if I’m the sort who just can’t contemplate the viewpoints of very many others—certainly not with those of a vastly different socio-economic status from my own or a different ethnic background?

The brain’s ability to mirror the emotional states of others is not altogether automatic; certain judgments we make about others can switch it off. You may tell me I should be able to manage such contemplations and get my lagging insula activated, but, sorry, it’s beyond me. Does my mental incapacity relieve me of moral obligations that less narrow-minded others have accrued? Obviously not. The particularities of psychology give out far before ethical obligations do—which is why moral psychology cannot yield ethics and why moral arguments, typically associated with the field of philosophy, are indispensable. Arguments prod us not only to recognize the blind spots in our own moral frameworks but also to extend ethical commitments to unfamiliar cases, pressing us to draw the implied consequences whether we’re inclined to do so or not.

To get beyond “because I want to and I can,” a person must recognize that whatever the characteristic or trait she recognizes in herself that convinces her she has the goods to mount a moral protest on her own behalf is generalizable beyond herself. But how far beyond herself? That depends on what the reason-supporting trait I so clearly discern in my own case is supposed to be. What am I seeing about myself that makes me know immediately that there are certain ways that I simply cannot be treated or I’ll start hurling bits of cucumber in protest?

Is it the mere fact of my qualia-saturated consciousness, of my having experiences, some of which can be excruciating? If that’s the morally significant trait then my moral reasons are applicable to all creatures sufficiently evolved to writhe in torment. Or is the morally relevant trait not so much bare sentient consciousness but rather self-consciousness, my having an awareness of myself as an entity distinct from other entities? I share self-consciousness not only with virtually all people above the age of eighteen months but also with certain non-human animals—including the great apes, chimpanzees, elephants, bottlenose dolphins, orcas, and European magpies.

The minimal test for self-awareness is the mirror test: mark a creature with a scentless dot somewhere on its body where it can be seen in its mirror reflection and see if it reacts, perhaps by trying to rub the dot off with a paw, claw, or trunk, or posing to get a better look at the oddity. Self-awareness seems closely related to having a preferential commitment to one’s own self—why’s he getting grapes and I’m only getting lousy cucumber?—which yields self-conscious creatures more complicated opportunities for both glee and grief.

Or perhaps the morally relevant trait I find in myself is my (so to speak) “narrative” self. I am both author and subject of an ongoing narrative of my life, including its purposefulness and passions, which provides an additional layer of opportunities for both joyfulness and sorrow. To have a narrative self is not only to be aware of the particular entity that I am, but also to be invested heavily in that particular entity’s mattering—otherwise what is the point of this life-long narration? It’s a hellish thought for any narrative self to entertain that, for all the difference she makes, she might as well not have shown up for her existence at all. (This is, of course, a major attraction of religion: everybody is promised mattering in the eyes of the Lord. Some of us, so happily self-assured in our own mattering, miss this aspect of religion’s deep appeal to those whose lives don’t otherwise yield much sense of mattering.)

If being a narrative self is what I find most morally rich about myself (and I do), then it’s a moral richness that’s entailed in every human life, and maybe in some non-human lives as well (a possibility suggested to me while observing the inhabitants of the Addo Elephant National Park of South Africa). It’s a moral richness replicated in every singing, sobbing corner of the globe. Every layer of mounting complexity—sentient consciousness to self-consciousness to the narrative self—carries mounting obligations for moral attentiveness. Anguish—whether in a factory-farmed animal, a non-comforted child, or a young woman dragged into a life of enforced prostitution—is everywhere intolerable.

I have been arguing for the moral effectiveness of arguments. Moral reasoning makes us better—from the first glimmers of generalizability that caretakers instill in their very young charges to the abstract arguments of a Jeremy Bentham or an Immanuel Kant. The effectiveness of moral arguments is a fact often overlooked by people who like to claim that no progress, either theoretical or practical, has been made in the field of philosophy. This is historically inaccurate. All humanitarian developments started out as theoretical moral arguments.

For example, in the seventeenth century John Locke was among the first to mount an abstract argument against slavery: “Freedom of men under government is, to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power erected in it; a liberty to follow my own will in all things, where that rule prescribes not; and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man, as freedom of nature is to be under no other restraint but the law of nature.” Once people began to feel the force of the anti-slavery argument, the very same logic could be co-opted to address gender inequality, as it was by the first theoretical feminist, Mary Astell: “If all men are born free, how is it that all women are born slaves? As they must be if the being subjected to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of men, be the perfect condition of slavery?”

The Enlightenment philosopher Bentham mounted a case for gay rights almost two centuries before the Stonewall riots: “As to any primary mischief, it is evident that it produces no pain in anyone. On the contrary it produces pleasure. . . . As to any danger exclusive of pain, the danger, if any, must consist in the tendency of the example. But what is the tendency of this example? To dispose others to engage in the same practices: but this practice for anything that has yet appeared produces not pain of any kind to any one.” He also made an argument for animal rights, which helped to eliminate certain animal-tormenting forms of entertainment, and whose logic may yet modify the processes by which we procure our food. “The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ nor, ‘Can they talk?’” Bentham wrote. “But rather, ‘Can they suffer?’”

Of course, for moral arguments to work—to impel our actions—they must be transformed into moral passions; by the time they light our fire, reasons are felt far more than they are thought. They strike us then almost as givens. But precious little is given to us, morally speaking, beyond the first-person instances.

By now, the idea of requiring an elaborately reasoned argument that, say, slavery is wrong seems preposterous. Imagine these lines inserted into Molière’s comedie-ballet:

MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: Oh, really? You think we can discern the difference between right and wrong all on our own, with no help from On High?

PHILOSOPHY MASTER: Most clearly. You yourself are perpetually doing so.


PHILOSOPHY MASTER: Well then, please summon that foreign slave of yours to fetch us a Bible.

MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: My foreign slave? What do you take me for? Nicole is handsomely remunerated!

PHILOSOPHY MASTER: But it is written: “Both your male and female slaves, whom you shall have, shall be of the nations that are round about you; of them shall you buy male and female slaves.”

MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: Such immorality you quote! Where did you get it?

PHILOSOPHY MASTER: Leviticus, 25:44.

MONSIEUR JORDAIN: Okay, well that bit is wrong.

(With apologies to Molière)

Like Jourdain, we hear the word “slavery” and our moral indignation flares, which is what allows us to continue addressing wrongs that still need righting by employing the word “slavery” metaphorically. (Does Monsieur Jourdain give Nicole full-paid maternity leave?) The activist success of the many arguments first formulated abstractly within moral philosophy has obscured its steady heady activity. The same people who sneer that philosophy never accomplished anything are oblivious to the provenance of the moral “intuitions” that they harbor within them.

As secular humanists, we’ve always known that we’ve got a good thing going in our commitment to reason. But the case is stronger than generally acknowledged. The very way to get a good thing going—and growing— is through the commitment to reason. To rally round moral reason is not to dismiss moral passion. Without that urgent knowledge of what’s rightfully coming to us, no moral reasoning could sink its line into us, tugging us first to think of, and eventually to feel for, the multitudes morally interchangeable with ourselves. To co-opt a chiasmus of Kant: moral arguments without moral passions are empty; but moral passions without moral arguments are blind.