It’s not so hard to imagine that you might owe something, say, kindness, deference, or reciprocity, to your fellow human beings. However, the history of thinking about ethics and morality is fraught with the kinds of disagreements human beings can fall into over just what is owed, why it is owed, and how far the obligation extends. As if things weren’t confusing enough, along come the animal-rights theorists and activists with their suggestion that human beings also bear responsibilities toward animals. You may or may not agree. And what about things? Do I owe kindness to a chair? As philosopher Silvia Benso admits, “to speak of the ethical demand of a chair or a spoon sounds crazy.”
And yet she is here to tell us that it is not crazy, and, what’s more, that conceiving of the ethical demands made on us by things is essential to any successful account of human ethical commitment. In other words, a world in which “things” are relegated solely to the status of objects is a world where the field of ethics cannot be understood for what it is. Ethics is about “the other,” that which is different from us. And what is more “other” to a thinking human being or a breathing animal than an inanimate chair? Thinking through what matters about difference must include an openness to the ways in which difference exceeds our capability to recover everything about it into our preconceived categories of reason. Thus, Benso, author of The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics and professor of philosophy at Siena College in upstate New York, suggests that we need an ethic of things. This interview arose out of some conversations that took place at what the interviewer likes to call “philosophers’ summer camp” but which many others prefer to call “Collegium Phaenomenologicum,” a yearly three-week retreat in the beautiful Umbrian countryside of Italy. The bulk of the dialogue was conducted over email between San Francisco, California, and Loudonville, New York.
THE BELIEVER: In The Face of Things, you wrote that “what has made Western philosophy unethical is not the committing of the metaphysical murder, but the denial of the murdered and of the murderous act.” What do you mean?
SILVIA BENSO: Let me give you an example. Let us say that you are hungry, and you ask me for some bread. I hear you and, for whatever reason, which becomes my justification or reason for action or inaction, I say no. My refusal may not be good, it may be immoral, it may be selfish, but at least I responded to you, although negatively. I recognized you and your appeal to me. I recognized that we are in a relation, an “I” and a “you,” and I decided, rightly or wrongly, to reject your appeal. I can, and should, be held responsible for my rejection, but it is a rejection predicated on a recognition of you as you. Let us now imagine that, given the same situation where you are hungry and ask me for bread, I do not hear you because I have already inserted you into my system of categories where whoever is hungry owes it to his or her own laziness. Thus, I ignore that you are even there, with your hunger and your request directed to me. This is deeply unethical in the sense that what is denied is the very possibility of the relation, the fact that you are there.
BLVR: One of the unacknowledged evils of everyday life arises when we make other human beings feel invisible. Of course, sometimes the things people say to me on the street when I acknowledge them instead of ignoring them are not about their humanity or mine, but rather the denial of all that. It’s complicated.
SB: Yes. But in the situation where someone is hungry and I do not hear or acknowledge that hunger, what is denied is the possibility of ethics altogether; there is no you, there is only me on the scene, and my categories of classification. So, in this scenario I am situated outside of ethics, and if any judgment of morality follows, it is constructed on the basis of what I see to be moral or immoral, not on your presence and its demands. It is an entirely self-centered view.
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