The Intrinsic Pleasure in Seeing and Being Seen


1040 | [Continuing my study of Seanna Shiffrin’s essay, Promising, Intimate Relationships, and Conventionalism –]

I think that I did some good philosophical work in explicating some of my views to Barbara Herman today in an email concerning “promises” and also on the essay by Shiffrin. So I think I’ll take a snapshot of what I wrote, and put it in my journal for possible future reference:

“I think that she has a slightly different prioritization of values than I do. For instance, she values equality quite highly and speaks too much (I think) of things like “superiority” and such (eg, p.505, 506 et al). For me, a genuine friendship need not consider such things. Status is only incidental.

Her moral intuitions are also slightly too “paternalistic” for me, and though we may get to similar conclusions sometimes, I can see how during that process of getting to a conclusion we might run into some “argumentation style” problems. For instance, when she speaks of “autonomous agents,” (p.502) she must be presupposing that it is best if everyone ought to be “autonomous.” (Whatever that means for her.) But, it’s not clear to me that I am in the position to think that everyone should be “autonomous.” (Though, perhaps she is; I don’t know.) But I tend to think that it might even be best if some are and some aren’t, and each individual decides for herself whether she should be “autonomous” or not.

Also, Shiffrin says that “promising could arise without recourse to convention.” (p.498) She criticizes Scanlon for deferring to “the wrong of disappointing cultivated expectations,” and presumably, if this particular convention changes then Scanlon can no longer defer to the wrong of disappointing anyone by means of promises. Yet, during her argumentation-process Shiffrin herself gestures a similar deference to the practices of “the many” — eg, since a view that sees us all as “equals” is to shift the view from within “the one” to a view from nowhere looking out upon “the many.” And I just don’t think that [what I call] “moral” guidance can come from a view from nowhere (and perhaps this is what I somewhat disagree with Scanlon on, although I can see why he wants to carry on the tradition of that sort of view.) given the sort of thing “morality” is, and what I consider to be the proper “domain” of morality. (For my views on this, I’ve written a very simple outline of my views here:

In Plato’s Republic, book2, Socrates says that he finds justice to be both pleasant and beneficial. This differentiates him from “the many.” They consider justice to be beneficial, but not pleasant.

Basically, this is where my views of moral “obligations” and promises comes from — following the “Socratic” model. If promises are to be understood in a Socratic way, then making and keeping promises must be intrinsically pleasant somehow — yes, even the keeping part. And after examining about how I feel about it, I discovered that making and keeping promises just simply is the method of creating and realizing both friendships and “an external world,” from an originally isolated and solipsistic position; promises simply are part of the necessary “bridge” to come out of isolation — and my argument is that coming out of isolation is intrinsically pleasant, even without the additional “benefits” of coming out of isolation. (For instance, friendships with cats only take me out of my isolation to a degree. Sharing an understanding with cats is fine, but perhaps I also need friendships with philosophers as well, since there’s parts of me and things that I can see which can only be seen by fellow philosophers but perhaps not by cats, or even mothers for that matter.) And so, there need be no external obligation or duty to keep promises — whereas, ironically enough, there might need to be an external obligation (eg, a “good reason”) to break them. (And then perhaps counter-arguments to obligate one to return to keeping them “for some reason.”) On my view, as I had outlined in previous emails, keeping promises just feels good. This said, my view starts out more as an account (to help us remember, but not to motivate us since presumably, we’re already motivated but we forgot) for why we prima facie do want to keep promises, than as a “good reason” or an “argument” for why we should keep promises. I might even go so far as to say that if keeping a “promise” doesn’t feel good, then it probably wasn’t really a promise to begin with.

This said, I think Shiffrin ends up with the same conclusion as I do, about there being intrinsic value in making and keeping promises. We just get there in different ways, perhaps. Still, all her talk about “equality” and “status” and “superiority” and “power” and “vulnerabilities” makes me flinch just a tiny bit when I get to those parts, and it doesn’t make for the pleasantest reading.

As for “oaths” vs “promises,” I think that I can see the difference that you mean. But I don’t think that you understood me clearly, and that is likely my own fault — and so it seems that I have a lot of work to do to fix that.

In any case, it doesn’t have to be a matter of “honor” to think about whether I would like myself if I did some particular thing or not — eg, hurting my newly made friends, or being a source of distress/injury for them, etc. I do care about the welfare and pleasure of my friends, but only because it feels good to me to have friends in the first place — and I matter to myself, and I want to like myself and not just be “stuck” with myself for all eternity. (Perhaps this is where some may opine that I start to sound somewhat Korsgaardian.) [To note, I think that this is why Achilles returned to battle. In contrast to the conventional reading of Achilles’ character, it was not because of “honor” — ie because he was concerned with how others would esteem him according to their value-system. Achilles simply didn’t want to be someone who was the source of harm to his friends — and presumably, harm can be spiritual as well as sometimes being a physical injury, like death. And so it wasn’t “revenge” either. My paper, ‘The Wild Root of Morality‘ tries to show this “unconventional” view of Achilles’ character — which you had already read. Though, admittedly, Achilles may be difficult to understand for people who don’t live in the violent context of daily battles. But if one thinks abstractly — perhaps “Platonically” — I think that Achilles can be understood, even in a non-violent context.]

If I am not to become a convention-follower, or a “people-pleaser,” or one of the “oi-polloi,” (and I don’t want to be come one of these, because then I would lose “truth,” the most valuable thing that I could have) then I would do well to remember the “Socratic” way to Larissa, and remember that what is beneficial for Socrates is also intrinsically-pleasant for Socrates.”

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1101 | [Continuing my study of Seanna Shiffrin’s essay, Promising, Intimate Relationships, and Conventionalism –]

I think that the best part of Shiffrin’s paper is what she wrote here:

“If there is a duty to create the convention that arises from the requirements associated with sound moral relations with others, then the duty to comply with the convention cannot be completely described in terms of duties not to undermine or free-ride on a useful convention. The relevant duty would have deeper roots, more interpersonal at their source. The underlying duty giving rise to the impetus to create and maintain the convention would be a duty owed to those with whom one has or would have direct interpersonal relations. To breach a promise, then, would not merely be to act in a way contrary to those obligations associated with useful conventions, but, in doing so, to act in a way that was disrespectful of the moral claims of individuals with whom one has direct relations.” (Promising, Intimate Relationships, and Conventionalism, p.522)


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2125  | Just to understand Shiffrin a bit better, today I read one more of Shiffrin’s papers — a more recent one, 2012 I think — called ‘Are Contracts Promises?‘ The essay is basically about whether to regard/treat contracts as promises. Presumably, there’s an existing worry that treating contracts as promises will somehow lower the moral bar. I think Shiffrin’s view is that there is not a “substantive” reason to not treat contracts more like promises — and in fact, that there might be more substantive reasons to treat contracts more like promises.

Now, what she says at the end is a bit confusing to me and I can’t make sense of what she’s saying. She writes:

“A concluding consideration both about the meaning of the divisionist proposal and its fairness: although the expressive meaning of the law is not always simple to divine, as I have explored, one might worry about the expressive significance of the divisionist proposal. It would intentionally and deliberately hive contract from promise and, thereby, deliberately endorse a legal regime that provides no legal enforcement and no direct and general public recognition of promises as such. We often intend the law and our legal practices to convey, and they often are understood to convey, messages and patterns of what constitutes morally minimally acceptable (if not, as discussed above, optimal) activity. Against the backdrop of a legal system that includes a system of tort, a system of property recognition and enforcement, and a system of recognition of enforcement of individual rights, this omission might seem to convey that promises, bonds of trust and their breach matter less than these other goods and wrongs the system does recognize. On its face, it is hard to justify that hierarchy from a political point of view, given the tremendous significance of practices of fidelity and trust to a flourishing social system”(Bowles 2011: 47; Shiffrin 2007: 714).

Why should we think that suffering breach of trust does not rate public concern but that minor property damage or injury to reputation does? It would be hard for a moral agent to accept this hierarchy as a reasonable public rationale, even if its implementation might provide greater economic benefits in the aggregate and for particular promisors and promisees.”

What does this mean?

To start, I think that she means to say that there’s no reason to keep contracts (ethical concerns) and promises (moral concerns) “entirely” distinct. And in fact, by keeping contracts and promises “entirely” distinct, presumably the moral concerns will be “niggardly endowed” [as Kant would say] and have no substantive power.

[*To note, I am taking the “entirely” from a sentence just prior to this passage, where she says: “Thus, I doubt whether concerns about the effects of (a well-designed) contract law on our moral culture provide substantial reasons to treat contract and promise as entirely [emphasis added] distinct domains (assuming it is possible to do so) and I believe the contrary conclusion is more apt.” Now, does this mean that she thinks that they should only be somewhat distinct? Or entirely indistinguishable from one another? I think that the most sensible thing that she could mean is that there should be some overlap, so long as there isn’t a total overlap?]

And in her final words (which is the part that is difficult for me understand), she means that either:

(A) nobody is going to buy the story that moral concerns matter less than ethical concerns. And so, nobody is going to think that moral concerns and ethical concerns should be “entirely” distinct — since, presumably, the “divisionist” proposal implies that moral concerns matter less than ethical concerns.


(B) the “public” is not going to buy the story that we should care more about moral concerns than about ethical concerns — even if the “public” knew that caring more about moral concerns brings greater benefits for all involved, is more efficient and effective at achieving the same goals, and also leads to a more meaningful life for individuals.

I feel like there’s some difference that “intonation” might make in her last two sentences, and since I don’t have that, I can’t make sense of what she means. Maybe I need to have dinner with her or something to understand what she means. Or at least take a course or two with her. In any case, it’s a puzzle — but I am going to move on for now. I think that I get Shiffrin’s main point (if it truly is her point) — which is that she doesn’t want moral concerns to be “niggardly endowed.” I agree with her on this point, at least.