Thursday, 22 January 2009

Peter Lucas on dignity and self-knowledge

At today’s philosophy research seminar, Peter Lucas (pictured) summarised one theme of a substantial piece of work he’s been doing on dignity and self-knowledge. Taking as his starting point a notion of the respect of dignity, he first outlined a Kantian idea. On this familiar line, respect for dignity is respect for self-regulating agents. Thus it’s respect for another’s autonomy. Further, that we ought to have a respect for dignity (which surely doesn’t follow from any of the plain facts about a person’s autonomy) can follow providing we additionally bind ourselves by the categorical imperative. This leads naturally to the thought that respect for another’s autonomy, not treating them as a mere means to an end, suffices for respect for dignity.

Peter, however, wanted to outline a defence of a more substantial notion of the dignity of others as also involving their capacity for self-knowledge. Now this is a broader project based on a additional philosophical investigation. Today, to give an illustration of this idea in limited time, he appealed to Andrea Dworkin’s work in the 1980s. A key idea was that respect for dignity involved avoiding objectification. Now Dworkin suggested three ways of objectifying people (a conjunction), to be avoided of course. The first was a merely Kantian notion: treating others as means not ends. But the others were fetishisation and stereotyping.

Concentrating on the sexual objectification by men of women, Dworkin – according to Peter - placed pornographic representation as the primary vehicle of sexual stereotyping leading women to struggle to live up to a merely debased conception of themselves. But, further, because the object of men’s sexual interest was a mere pornographic conception – and thus a mere object - rather than a real woman, this interest was fetishistic.

Given that on Dworkin’s account (as reported) women were also complicit in the maintenance of the debased stereotype, this involved not a simple denial of their subjectivity but an occupation of it. Hence simply respecting dignity as autonomy was not enough. We should also avoid behaviours and forms of communication that lead to a debased self-conception.

Peter suggested that Dworkin’s account of objectification had philosophical roots both in Sartre’s discussion of sado-masochism (where sadism requires an element of dishonesty in not merely indifferently treating subjects as objects but humiliating subjects but knowingly so treating them, keeping their subjectivity in half-view) and Marx’s account of alienated labour. But he ended on two practical thoughts. First, that there were dangers concerning genuine capacity to consent whenever someone was ‘an object of knowledge and an object of manipulation’ in scientific trails, for example. Second, that it was possible for even scientific truths to be a basis for a debased self conception.

He attempted to motivate that final thought with the imaginary case of a young woman who has the aptitude for a well paid career but one that requires significant training and investment from a company as well as herself. She knows, however, that the chances of women of her age taking a career break a few years later are significant and that that is costly for the company whose aims she values. Should this knowledge be taken into account?

Well not by an employment selection panel! They have to ‘put it out of play’ for fear of discrimination (glossed at this point in the presentation as ‘judging individuals inappropriately’). But neither should she as it ‘offers the victim an inappropriately restrictive (possibly debased) self conception’. It would be ‘dishonest’.

Now I suspect that the final thought is not interestingly true. The idea that truths might be perniciously stereotyping seems very odd to me. (It might be true in a not very interesting way simply because if the thesis is ‘scientific truth can sometimes be a basis for a debased self conception’ then that does not specify how the debased conception depends on the truths and how much might is taken elsewhere by other beliefs. If I have been persuaded that professional philosophers are the scum of the earth and I truly believe myself to be – for the moment! – a professional philosopher, then that will lead to a debased self conception: one which requires that innocent truth to hold pernicious sway.) But after trying a few moves and counter-moves on each other over the last few weeks, I doubt that either of Peter or I will persuade the other of their view in the near future. Today, however, I wonder whether it was made more plausible by some key moves (Wittgensteinian trickery perhaps!) earlier on in the presentation which I will attempt to summarise.

With a G&T in hand now, my worry is this. If one has reason to think that being the object of a conception is pernicious then both the final thoughts will be well motivated. Merely to be subject to conceptualisation would be a bad thing. So if – pre-philosophically – stereotyping means something like forming an overly simplified conception, that merely pragmatic defect can inherit the moral overtones of being the object of a conception and the case of the potential employee works out the way Peter intends. (Before we put it through a philosophical mill, stereotyping is bad because it is bad to over-simplify in one’s conceptions. That’s not to say that simplifying through conceptual subsumption is generally a bad thing, though I often hear that in discussions of diagnosis in the philosophy of psychiatry.)

How do we get to the idea that being the object of a conception is a bad thing? Through the idea that to be interested in, or through, or via, a conception is to be interested in an object. And in the case of sexual interest, then that’s a fetish. But it seems very odd to think that a conception of someone is itself an object in the way a shoe is. (I fear for neo-Fregeanism if this were so.)

(In discussion Peter suggested that in festishistic interest, the object of interest represents something. That’s why one is interested in it. But:
a) that seems to open up a regress. Not all interest could be indirect in this way. It must terminate in interest in something / someone for their own sake. But if one is ever interested in Y because Y represents X and one is interested in X simpliciter, then why could there not be a fetishistic interest in X if it were, say, shoes, and one’s interest was in it simpliciter? Now one might attempt to sidestep this by weakening the notion of representation. So it is not that the fetish ‘object’ has to represent something but, rather, one is interested in it because it exemplifies a general concept, a concept, that can be of something else (eg. interest in someone because of the shoes they wear). But if so,
b) that requires that in non-festishistic interest one is never interested for a general conceptual reason and that seems wrong (maybe one is attracted to the merry sound of her voice; his serious mood etc). Brutely to be interested in someone idiographically or non-conceptually smacks of the myth of the given. (That a concept can be of something else is just the Generality Constraint.))

It seems more likely that a post-porn interest – if the general story were right – gets women wrong, is a bad conception. Now it may be that it’s a bad conception because it’s some variant on a ‘conception-as-object’. But if so it will not generalise to make mischief with the idea that being the object of a (general conceptual) conception is to be conceived as an object in anything other than the innocent sense that if the conception aims at objectivity, it aims to get you right.

I should add that I’ve not touched here on the key idea: that respect for dignity involves respect for self-knowledge. That I find an increasingly attractive thesis however quickly a connection to objectification can or cannot be made.

PS: Peter kindly responded to this summary of his talk. Given that it runs to a few paragraphs I've posted it, whole, here.