I am pleased to kick off another discussion forum on books recently reviewed in NDPR. The series gives book authors a chance to respond to their reviewers. We also invite reviewers to chime in, as well as anyone else who is interested. This forum is on Bennett Helm’s latest book, Communities of Respect: Grounding Responsibility, Authority, and Dignity (OUP 2017), reviewed in NDPR by Caroline T. Arruda. Normally, I would first post the OUP description of the book, followed by some flavorful passages from the review. But Bennett has written a rather robust response to the review, and in so doing he makes clear both what his book is about and what aspects of the review he thought involved misconstruals, so I’m going simply to let him start off this discussion in his own words.
WHAT FOLLOWS IS WRITTEN BY BENNETT HELM:
Thanks to Caroline Arruda for engaging with my book with her review, and thanks to PEA Soup for the opportunity to respond and hopefully provoke further discussions. Unfortunately, the review involves significant misconceptions of what I am up to in this book and of the kind of account I offer, so I want to take this opportunity to clarify. The account I offer ends up rejecting deeply entrenched views of the mind and of persons, so perhaps it is not surprising that there would be misunderstanding of my central aim. Moreover, my theory is quite systematic and wide-ranging, developed over 25 years and two prior books (and a separate dissertation), with each building upon the rest. Thus Communities of Respect really is part 4 of a longer series, in which I investigate what it is to be a person by considering the nature of: (1) caring in general (Helm 1994), (2) personal values (Helm 2001), (3) interpersonal values in intimate relationships (Helm 2010), and now in this book (4) interpersonal values in non-intimate relationships (Helm 2017).
1 Central Aim
So what is Communities of Respect about? Arruda says, “the self-described aim of Helm’s account is to explain the grounding role that communities of respect play in responsibility attributions”. That’s not quite right. I’m not interested merely in responsibility attributions so much as understanding what it is for a person to be responsible at all. More important, however, my “self-described aim” is much broader. As I put it at the very beginning of the book (Helm 2017, 1):
My aim in this book is to argue that a certain kind of community, which I shall call a “community of respect”, is fundamental in three interrelated ways to understanding what it is to be a person. First, it is only by being a member of a community of respect that one can be a responsible agent having dignity; such an agent therefore has certain rights as well as the authority to demand that fellow members recognize her dignity and follow the norms of the community, norms compliance with which they likewise have the authority to demand from her. Second, there is an important interpersonal dimension of the identities of persons. Inasmuch as the community’s norms can prescribe or proscribe both actions and values, they define a certain (partial) form of life that in turn can shape the identities of its members in ways that others have the authority to enforce. Finally, all of this is grounded in a distinctively interpersonal form of practical rationality in virtue of which one has reasons to recognize the dignity and authority of fellow members and so to comply with their authoritative demands, as well as to respect (and so comply with) the norms of the community. All of this tells against widely-held individualist understandings of persons—or so I shall argue.
So I’m trying to say something about (a) what it is to be a person as a responsible, autonomous agent having standing and authority, and therefore rights and dignity, within a particular sort of community; (b) the identities of persons; and (c) the essentially interpersonal kind of rationality to which persons are subject. In all of these ways, we persons would not be persons except for our participation in communities of respect, and this requires that we reject common, individualist understandings of autonomy and responsibility, of identity and self-determination, and of practical rationality.
My central argument for this conclusion starts, as Arruda correctly notes, from a broadly Strawsonian attempt to make sense of responsibility in terms of the reactive attitudes. In line with an orthodox reading of Strawson she says, “On P. F. Strawson’s influential account of the reactive attitudes, we are justified in holding both ourselves and others morally responsible just in case it is appropriate to praise or blame them (or ourselves) for their (or our) actions”. Note the order of explanation here: we start with an account of when it is appropriate to “praise or blame” someone—to feel one or another reactive attitude towards them—and in terms of that account we then understand what it is for someone to be responsible. That is, the appropriateness of the reactive attitudes is explanatorily prior to someone’s being responsible. While this seems to be the way Wallace (1994), for example, understands responsibility along Strawsonian lines, Arruda correctly notes that this is not how I understand things. Rather, I think we ought to reject the explanatory priority this reading assumes for the appropriateness of the reactive attitudes over our being responsible, thereby making it possible to say both that our reactive attitudes are appropriate—are “warranted”, as I shall say—in part because they are directed at responsible agents, and that someone is a responsible agent because they are a warranted target of the reactive attitudes. (I shall address the obvious circularity in this claim below.) My reasons for rejecting such priority are grounded in my background account of the emotions and caring; consequently it is important to get some of that background on the table.
2 Emotions and Import/Caring
A central aim of much of my work has been to understand the connections between various types of emotions and various forms of caring. The basic intuition is that to care about something is to find it to be worthy of attention and action. Given that we would find it hard to make sense of someone as caring about something if they were never affected by it emotionally, we should turn to the emotions as central modes of the relevant sorts of attention and action. Thus, to care about something—for it to have import to one—is for it to be the focus of a rational pattern of emotions. Making sense of this requires understanding more clearly what I think emotions are.
Concerning my account of emotions, Arruda says: “For him, emotions have both cognitive and conative features … (13). But what makes emotions unique is not simply that they have both of these characteristics. It is that they have what Helm dubs a ‘focus’ (37). Their focus is … a function of what is ‘rationally important to us’ (37)”. To be honest, apart from the mention of the focus as an object of emotions, this is not recognizably my view. (Note, by the way, that this phrase, “rationally important to us” is Arruda’s phrase, not mine: I reject that characterization of the focus.) This requires further explanation.
The focus of an emotion as I define it is “the background object having import to the subject whose relationship to the target makes intelligible why the evaluation of the target in terms of the formal object is warranted” (Helm 2017, 37). We can best understand this abstract description via a concrete example; here’s the one I give in the book. Safe inside my house, I might nonetheless be afraid of the kids playing baseball in the street. In feeling fear, I implicitly evaluate them as dangerous; here, the kids are the target of my fear, and dangerousness is the formal object of fear—the evaluation characteristic of this emotion type. But why would it make sense for me to feel the kids to be dangerous? This is where the idea of an emotion’s focus comes in: the kids are dangerous because of their relationship to my car, which their game threatens, and because I care about my car—because it has import to me. Thus, my car is the focus of my fear.
This idea of an emotion’s focus is fundamental to understanding the rationality of emotions, for each emotion is a kind of “commitment” to the import of its focus and hence to feeling other emotions with the same focus in the relevant circumstances. Thus, my fear of the kids commits me to feeling relief when my car remains undamaged, to feeling anger if they had broken a windshield, as well as to being worried about the approaching hailstorm (and saddened or upset when my car takes hail damage). In each case, given my emotional commitment to the import of my car, I ought to feel these other emotions with the same focus. Indeed, given the broadly Davidsonian/Dennettian conception of mind I accept, such an “ought” in terms of which we explain the psychological just is a norm of rationality, and these emotional commitments thereby define a distinctive kind of rationality—a rationality of import, as I call it. Such rational patterns of emotions with a common focus make such a focus be a worthy object of my attention and action and so something I care about, something that has import to me. So I claim both that emotions are “intentional feelings of import” and so are assessable for warrant in terms of whether their focus really does have that import, and that the import of the focus is constituted by these rational pattern of emotions. Neither has ontological, rational, or explanatory priority over the other. (Note that the—non-vicious!—explanatory circle here is analogous to that with respect to the reactive attitudes and responsibility; that’s no accident.)
So Arruda is right to think that the focus of an emotion is to be understood in part in terms of import, but it is a mistake to think that the focus is simply a “function” of import: that would be to accept the priority of import over the emotion that I explicitly deny.
This same misinterpretation leads Arruda, in spite of correctly recognizing that on my account emotions have a “unique attitudinal structure”, wrongly to claim that on my view “emotions have both cognitive and conative features”. While that is the mainstream view, it is one I have been arguing against for my entire career. The distinction between cognition and conation is standardly made in terms of the notion of a direction of fit: cognitions have mind-to-world direction of fit and thereby are assessable for truth in light of epistemic rationality, whereas conations have world-to-mind direction of fit and thereby motivate action in light of instrumental rationality. However, I explicitly reject the notion of direction of fit as applying to the emotions because I reject the explanatory and ontological priority this notion of direction of fit presupposes.
All of this is fundamental to understanding what I’m trying to do in talking about communities of respect and the reactive attitudes.
3 Reactive Attitudes, Respect, and the First-Person Plural Perspective
Since offering this basic account of caring/import in terms of the emotions in my dissertation, I have extended it to understand more complex kinds of caring/import, including valuing (Helm 2001) and loving (Helm 2010) by appealing to distinct classes of emotions and the distinct rational patterns they form. My claim in Communities of Respect is that the reactive attitudes form distinctively interpersonal rational patterns constitutive of our respect for members of a community and the community’s norms, all as a part of our reverence for the community itself. Making sense of this claim requires fleshing out in more detail what the reactive attitudes are.
According to Arruda’s version of my view, the reactive attitudes “are appropriate responses to the states of affairs to which they are directed given that they reflect the grounding norms of the communities of respect of which one is a part (225)”. Well, maybe. I don’t understand what this notion of a “grounding norm” is supposed to be—a notion to which Arruda repeatedly appeals but which is not mine. (The idea of “grounding” suggests that the norm that does the grounding is ontologically or explanatorily prior to that which it grounds; again, I reject any such priority here.) Rather (as Arruda rightly goes on to quote), I understand reactive attitudes to be emotions focused on a community of respect and subfocused on one or more of its members and norms. This means that in having a reactive attitude, one thereby recognizes and responds to the import of its focus and subfocuses, including (a) the import of one or another communal norm as binding on its members and (b) the import, the dignity, of its members as having both standing as bound by the norms and authority as able to hold others to those norms as well, all as a part of recognizing and responding to (c) the import of the community itself as a community of respect. Hence, a reactive attitude is warranted only if it is properly responsive not just (as Arruda says) to the import of the community’s norms but also to the import of its members and of the community itself.
If the reactive attitudes constitute our respect for members and norms in virtue of their forming certain rational patterns, what patterns are these?
As with other emotions, the reactive attitudes involve a kind of commitment to the import of their focus (and subfocuses) in terms of which we can explain their coming in these rational patterns, and here my understanding of the reactive attitudes is somewhat broader than typical. As with non-reactive emotions, these patterns involve both positive and negative emotions as well as not only the standard backward-looking reactive attitudes but also forward-looking reactive attitudes, such as, I argue, trust and distrust: my trust in you commits me to feeling gratitude when you uphold that trust or resentment when you betray it. I also extend the class of reactive attitudes to include emotions like esteem, contempt, self-esteem, and shame, for, I argue, these “character-oriented reactive attitudes” are part of the same rational patterns of other reactive attitudes, and they make sense not only of communal norms of action but also communal norms of character—communal values.
Yet what is most distinctive about the reactive attitudes is that their commitments to import—the rationality of import they involve—is essentially interpersonal. In resenting me, for example, you call on me to feel guilt and on witnesses to feel disapprobation or indignation. Such interpersonal calls make it such that, other things being equal, we all ought to have these corresponding reactive attitudes, which means that our reactive attitudes come in interpersonal, rational patterns. Thus, the reactive attitudes are not merely modes of recognizing the import of a community and so of its members and norms; their call is a way of pressing that import on others, thereby holding the perpetrator accountable in a way, I argue, that can account for the distinctive phenomenology of praise and blame.
Moreover, that such rational patterns of reactive attitudes are essentially interpersonal implies that the import such patterns constitute is itself essentially interpersonal: it is the import the norms, fellow members, and the community have not just to you or me individually, but to us jointly. In other words, the respect we have for the members and norms, and the reverence we have for the community itself are our respect and reverence, jointly: it is we who respect the members and norms, and I do so only insofar as I am one of us. Consequently, the relevant perspective from which to make sense of these patterns of reactive attitudes and the respect and reverence they constitute is a first-person plural perspective (and not, as Darwall (2006) claims, a second-personal perspective).
4 Essentially Social Nature of Persons
This understanding of the reactive attitudes as constituting communities of respect has profound implications for the essential sociality of persons. However, Arruda once again seems to misinterpret me. As she says, “Helm means that persons are social in two analogous senses: first, we can display respect for other members of the community; second, in doing so, we show respect for the norms that ground the community such that we treat them as binding and authoritative (77–78). Simply put, on Helm’s view, we are part of communities of respect in that we display proper respect for its members (including ourselves) in light of the warrant of its norms”. Now we might interpret the way “we” figures in this passage either distributively or collectively. In the absence of any explicit claim to the contrary, the most natural way to read it is distributively: it is true of each of us, individually, that we display respect for others and for the norms, so that each is a member of the community if this is true of him or her. And this distributive reading is encouraged by other claims Arruda makes, such as this one: “In Helm’s language, each member of the community grants other members authority and judges the community’s grounding norms to be binding from the ‘first person plural’ standpoint (177–8)” (my emphasis). Here it seems that the first-person plural perspective is something each of us individually can somehow attain by virtue of individual actions of “granting” others authority and “judging” norms to be binding. (Let me note here that I reject this talk of “granting” and “judging” for reasons to which I shall return shortly.)
It should be clear that this is not my point; in fact, this undercuts the very point I’m trying to make in appealing to the first-person plural perspective and in arguing for the essential sociality of us persons. Rather, it is we collectively—the community itself—who respect each other and respect the community’s norms, and I do so only insofar as I am one of us, a member of this community. It is a central challenge of the book, occupying me in Chapters 3–5, to clarify and justify what is meant here.
Even construed collectively, however, Arruda’s description provides an incomplete account of our membership in communities of respect. To be a member of a community of respect is not merely to respect its members (including oneself) and norms; rather, it is to be an appropriate subfocus of the overall interpersonal, rational pattern of reactive attitudes we display or, equivalently, to be someone whom we jointly respect as a member. Consequently, what matter here are not simply this member’s reactive attitudes but those of the community generally. Indeed, the interpersonal, rational pattern of reactive attitudes subfocused on this member might be in place, thereby making her be a member, even though she herself rejects that membership. This last point helps us see why Arruda’s talk of each member “granting” authority to others or “judging” the norms to be binding is misplaced: that others have authority over me or that I am bound by the norms is not something in my power to “grant”. Rather, that authority and bindingness requires our joint respect for each other and the norms.
More important for understanding my project is that Arruda’s review as a whole inadequately captures my point in talking about the essential sociality of persons. Look again at the long passage from page 1 of the book that I quoted above—the passage in which I lay out my aim in this book. There I identify three senses in which I think we persons are essentially social, only the first of which partially figures in the review:
- Sociality and Responsibility. Given my rejection of ontological and explanatory priority, I argue that both the following are true: (a) that to be a responsible agent one must be responsible to certain norms, norms to which one can be held responsible by oneself or others through their reactive attitudes, and (b) that being held responsible itself presupposes that one has standing (and authority) in the community—that, in effect, one already is responsible. In part, this implies that to be responsible requires having a capacity for reactive attitudes, a capacity that one can develop and sustain only as a member of a community of respect. Hence, we persons are responsible agents—indeed are persons—only because we are members of communities of respect. This is the first sense in which we persons are essentially social.
- Sociality and Identity. In earlier work (Helm 2001), I argued that a personal value is an element of the kind of life one finds worth living, and a person’s identity consists of the at least minimally structured collection of such values. However, part of what I claimed above (Section 3) is that the rational patterns of character-oriented reactive attitudes (like esteem and contempt) constitute communal values: elements of the kind of lives we jointly find worth our living. In this way, the community can prescribe (or proscribe) elements of the identities of its members, so that our identities as persons are in this important respect essentially social.
- Sociality and Rationality. In jointly recognizing each other’s authority as members, we thereby recognize the reasons we each have to comply with the authoritative demands of others. Even if I reject a particular norm as binding on me, the authority others have to demand compliance with it provides me with reasons (albeit defeasible reasons) so to comply. This means we must reject standard Humean conceptions of practical reason according to which all reasons I have for doing something depend on my subjective motivational set, and others can present me with practical reasons only by appealing to my subjective motivational set. Nonetheless, this does not mean (contrary to what Arruda suggests) that in order to be autonomous I must somehow “grant” others the authority to provide me with such reasons. Again, this is not something any of us can do individually; rather it is we who have authority over ourselves. Our capacity for practical reason is thus in an important sense essentially social, which raises important questions, not recognized by Humeans, about the connections between such social reasons and individual reasons grounded, for example, in personal values.
In short, in these three ways we must reject an individualist conception of responsibility and autonomy, identity, and practical rationality—an individualist conception of persons—and instead recognize that we persons are essentially social creatures.
5 Circularity and Relativism
I now turn to the central criticism Arruda raises concerning whether my response to worries about circularity leads to an untenable relativism.
I have noted several times in the foregoing that my account is circular, and I have claimed that it is not viciously so. I have rejected the idea that any of the emotions, various forms of caring (including respecting and revering), various forms of import (including dignity), membership, norms, the community, etc.—that any of these is ontologically, rationally, or explanatorily prior to the others. Consequently the account I offer is holistic in that the parts can be understood only in terms of the whole and the whole only in terms of the parts. This sort of holism is pervasive in the world; to give two obvious examples, think about beliefs or desires and the mind or about rooks and chess: neither part nor whole is intelligible apart from the other. The same goes, I argue, for the reactive attitudes and respect and for respect (or the standing and authority of members or the bindingness of norms) and communities of respect. These holistic conceptual circles are not vicious precisely because in each case a central feature of the holism is the rejection of priority—a priority that is presupposed by the charge of viciousness.
Arruda is not satisfied with this sort of response, for she thinks it leads to an untenable relativism. In presenting this objection, Arruda distinguishes between procedural and substantive rationality, and argues that my account of the patterns of rationality in emotions involves only procedural rationality, whereas what I need for my central claims is an account of substantive rationality. This is because internal rational conflicts within the pattern of emotions constitutive of import only amount to a kind of internal inconsistency that does not on its own point to how such inconsistency can be rationally resolved. As Arruda puts it, such inconsistency “will not tell us anything about whether any particular emotion is, on its own, appropriate to have, nor will they provide us with an independent perspective from which to evaluate the norms from which the emotions gain their foci” (my emphasis). If I cannot make room for substantive rationality, then, Arruda concludes, my view entails a kind of relativism that undermines both my “justification for … the reactive attitudes” and my hoped-for development of my account of communities of respect into an account of metaethics.
It is not clear precisely how Arruda understands this distinction between procedural and substantive rationality. As I understand it, an attitude is substantively rational only if it successfully fits how things really are, thereby getting the world right; by contrast, an attitude is procedurally rational when it follows from other attitudes I have, irrespective of whether these attitudes fit how things really are. So, in Williams (1981)’s example, given that I believe this is gin and I want to drink a gin and tonic, it would be procedurally rational for me to want to mix this with tonic and drink it; however, given that this is actually petrol, that would not be substantively rational. Note, however, that this way of making the distinction presupposes mind-to-world direction of fit and hence that we’re dealing with attitudes at least some of which are properly cognitive. That this is how Arruda understands matters is evident from one of the phrases I emphasized in quoting her in the previous paragraph: she thinks we can have an “independent” perspective on what has import to us, where that independence is, presumably, the independence of the world to which our emotions ought to conform.
We can now see that this criticism fails to address the kind of position I have been offering. For that assumption of mind-to-world direction of fit is one I explicitly reject, and by rejecting it I reject the thought that the distinction between procedural and substantive rationality applies to the rationality of import. What has import to one is not independent of the patterns of emotions one has; similarly, what it is rational to think is not something that can be determined independently of what has import to us. Moreover, this makes it clear why it is improper for Arruda to ask (as in the passage I quoted two paragraphs back) about whether a particular emotion “on its own” is warranted: the warrant of particular emotions depends on their rational place within a broader pattern of emotions constitutive of import.
Of course, we might raise questions not merely about what in fact has import to someone but rather about what ought to have import to them. I have explicitly addressed such questions in the context of personal values (Helm 2001) and in the context of love and friendship (Helm 2010), though it would take me too far afield now to try to address them again here. Nonetheless, the same sort of question might be raised within communities of respect: what norms (or what members) should we accept within this community of respect? Here I simply note that while this is a question that can arise within some communities of respect, it is not one that properly arises within all of them. Some norms, like norms of etiquette, simply are relative to the communities whose norms these are. While such norms may change and evolve over time, there may be no sense in which such changes are intelligible as improvements or not. I do not find this relativism at all worrying: it is a relativism in the phenomena I am analyzing. Moreover, such relativism does not undermine my central aim of providing a general account of communities of respect quite generally and drawing out the implications this has for the social nature of persons.
Of course, as Arruda notes, I do conclude the book by offering some tentative and speculative thoughts about how this account of communities of respect might be extended to make sense of morality. Here I take it that a successful metaethics must at a minimum be able to make sense of the possibility of moral improvement, and so I would regard it as problematic if understanding the moral community to be the community of respect of all persons prevented us from making sense of this. Nonetheless, I do not now see any reason to think this will happen, and I am currently working to flesh out the details in my next book.
Darwall, Stephen L. 2006. The Second-Person Standpoint: Morality, Respect, and Accountability. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Helm, Bennett W. 1994. “Significance, Emotions, and Objectivity: Some Limits of Animal Thought.” PhD thesis, University of Pittsburgh. https://philpapers.org/rec/SEA.
———. 2001. Emotional Reason: Deliberation, Motivation, and the Nature of Value. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. http://www.cambridge.org/us/academic/subjects/philosophy/philosophy-general-interest/emotional-reason-deliberation-motivation-and-nature-value.
———. 2010. Love, Friendship, and the Self: Intimacy, Identification, and the Social Nature of Persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://global.oup.com/academic/product/love-friendship-and-the-self-9780199567898.
———. 2017. Communities of Respect: Persons, Dignity, and the Reactive Attitudes. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://global.oup.com/academic/product/communities-of-respect-9780198801863.
Wallace, R. Jay. 1994. Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Williams, Bernard Arthur Owen. 1981. “Internal and External Reasons.” In Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers 1973–1980, 101–13. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.1