GISELSSON, K. (2012). GROUNDS FOR RESPECT: PARTICULARISM, UNIVERSALISM AND COMMUNAL ACCOUNTABILITY. PLYMOUTH, UK: LEXINGTON BOOKS
Dr Giselsson, in Grounds for Respect: Particularism, Universalism and Communal Accountability, is seeking to answer the question, 'what grounds are needed in order to justify respect for others?' (p. 1). In this book the author covers a lot of ground. It helps to have some prior knowledge of the moral theories in question and to read the author's critique in terms of the central thesis question around which she structures her analysis. Seeking to establish a firm foundation for universal respect of all others, including animals, Giselsson firstly examines the humanist traditions in Western philosophy that have powerfully influenced moral and political theory in the Western tradition. She identifies that these theories have been criticised for excluding women, certain races and cultures, and animals. The author notes that it is criticism of the theories for not being universal enough that resulted in the emergence of anti or posthumanist ethical theories seeking to respond to such lack by offering alternative accounts of how particular others are worthy of respect. She claims that the exclusion of certain particulars may not be inherent in humanist accounts but, rather, occurred due to the way in which these theories were applied in a specific social context.
Giselsson also considers contemporary humanist accounts that seek to include particular others who were previously excluded. While sympathetic to contemporary humanist accounts, she outlines the problems with these theories as well as with utilitarianism, claiming that certain particular others may still find themselves excluded on these accounts due to their identification of the moral agent with rationality, autonomy, intuition or self-determination. Giselsson defends an ontological account of 'human being' that accounts for the communal nature of humans, relying on an account of reciprocal accountability that is thoroughly communal. This, the author posits, is a 'partial' account (p. 213) that seeks to balance the tension between the universal and the particular, seeking to establish a universal account of morality that is not solely based on the individual, autonomous and rational nature of human beings.
The first chapter details a history of universalism in the West, covering a great number of theories that form the canon in Western philosophy. Claiming that this overview is vital in order to analyse exactly what grounds are needed in order to justify respect for others, Giselsson covers the approach to universalism taken by Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, the Christian Scholastics of the Medieval period, the Renaissance thinkers, the thinkers of the Enlightenment - including Kant and Hume, Utilitarianism and Structuralism - and finishes with a brief recapitulation of the political context of the 20th century that saw the disillusionment with the ideals of the Enlightenment as the world witnessed a second world war, the effects of nuclear power, dictators and increased secularism. Many theorists are mentioned but the thread that ties them together is their use of universal humanist ideals.
Giselsson's view is that universalism and humanism are great ideals in theory but the instantiation of these ideals failed in particular socio- political contexts. The examples given that highlight this critique include movements that counter the anti-universal approach of such political regimes that have, at various times, excluded women, African Americans and animals. The author points out that these movements are based on ethical claims of equal rights and reciprocal accountability that are gener- ated from the very theories that claim to be universal. In seeking true equality, the backlash to certain unethical practices in the world gives us feminism, abolitionism and animal rights movements that claim that the voices of certain particulars or minorities have been ignored. In this way, the humanist theories themselves give rise to liberal and posthumanist or anti-humanist critique. Giselsson claims that such critiques are necessary but needn't demonstrate that universal theories or humanism in itself is flawed, 'And while the discussion above may show the many inadequacies associated with past conceptualisations of universalism, it does not then necessarily follow that universalism is of itself an intrinsically flawed concept. Rather, it may instead mean that an adequate universal conception of human being is still yet to be conceived' (p. 33).
The second chapter critiques the posthumanist accounts offered by Levinas, Derrida, Foucault and Lyotard who argue for respect for the par- ticular. Again, much ground is covered and Giselsson demonstrates wide reading of these philosophers along with a sound understanding of their complex theories. Giselsson does a good job of not reducing her critique to a simplified version of the theories she details, and instead focuses her cri- tique on the way the theorists cited deal with the notion of universalism, respect for others and reciprocal accountability. Here the author is con- fronting the counter argument to her own theory that these posthumanist accounts are viable alternatives to the accounts of universal humanism that preceded them. She deflates this claim by arguing that all of these theories rely on an assumption of universal respect for all: for all others, including the particular others who were excluded by the original universalist accounts, which is itself a humanist or universal claim.
Giselsson explains how posthumanist scholars were writing in the aftermath of the dashed hopes of a communist revolution. By detailing the theorists' social and political context, the reader gains a sense of the moti- vation for the approach of the philosophers critiqued, yet the author also points out that this disillusionment doesn't mean that claims of universality or humanism itself is to blame. In fact, the opposite could be said to be true as, 'In short, these arguments for particularism are ultimately grounded on unacknowledged assumptions of universal moral worth and respect. Indeed, the very force and appeal of their critique of humanism relies on such implicit assumptions; a force that is, in the end, founded on rhetorical appeal alone' (p. 72).
In this second chapter, Levinas' conception of the Other is critiqued.
Giselsson claims that, by rejecting ontology and phenomenology, the 'Other' is abstracted to a point whereby everything apart from the Self is an Other, which raises the question as to why we should respect any Other in particular, or hold anything apart from the Self in any kind of regard at all. The author examines Derrida's contradictory claim that we cannot go beyond humanism. She is, to some degree, sympathetic to this claim as even anti-humanist accounts stem from humanism itself. Yet Giselsson cri- tiques Derrida's claim that Western humanism is Eurocentric and violent towards the Other. Derrida argues that humanism should be deconstructed, with an alternative offered that doesn't dichotomise nature/culture or animal/human. Giselsson counters that what lies beneath Derrida's calls for deconstruction is an appeal to the humanist principle of respect and equality for the oppressed minority (p. 51). She makes a similar critique of Foucault, following Nancy Fraser, that Foucault uses a 'normative force' (p. 56, quoting Fraser) that tacitly relies on the notion of universal rights. Giselsson also objects to the fact that Foucault's decentralised theory of power still has room for inequality as he does not recognise the inequality of individual power relations that occur in a social and political context. To support this claim, she remarks that, in opposition to how Foucault uses the example, a young female and an adult male are not 'equal', as to claim they are ignores the practical social realities of sex, economics and politics. She rightly notes that in only allowing the Master/Slave dialectic to exist amongst groups, Foucault misses the Master/Slave dialectic that occurs between individuals. Foucault's 'anti-humanist and anti-universalist stance' (p. 63) makes it difficult to identify the disempowered and margina- lised within society and ultimately does not explain why we should care for another - it only really cements the idea that we should care for ourselves.
The final posthumanist theory Giselsson considers is Lyotard's claim that universal metanarratives are unjust because they silence other narratives; a claim which rests on the assumption that all narratives are universally valuable. She points out that Lyotard has been charged with relativism (p. 65) as he claims that narratives cannot be measured or weighted against each other. In laying the way for postmodernism, Lyotard attempts to maintain the notion of justice even as he rejects the notion of autonomy as, he claims, the self is self constructed (p. 67). Giselsson offers a common critique of Lyotard, Derrida and Foucault: all three explicitly avoid ontology and reject universalism, yet rely on universal assumptions of value in accounting for the particular. Their claims of respecting the voices of the particular that supposedly rest on anti-universalist grounds ultimately rely on rhetorical force alone due to the fact that such assump- tions actually rest upon the idea that particulars are worthy of respect, which rests on the universal claim that all voices should be heard.
In the third chapter, Giselsson considers how the posthumanist accounts of Derrida, Foucault and Lyotard have been applied in order to defend the claims of marginalised others such as indigenous people from Aboriginal Australia and Māori cultures, women, animals and technology. These examples highlight the tension between giving weight and value to the nar- rative of minorities and claiming respect for particulars, while at the same time trying not to claim an essential difference lest all comparison to equal respect is lost based on the counter argument that these particulars are so unique that they are not 'of the same kind' as other human beings and thus they may be able to be treated differently. This tension between a universal claim for respect and the acknowledgement of the importance of the parti- cular is at the heart of the issue with humanism and Giselsson acknowl- edges this is a practical concern, not simply a theoretical issue. The author notes this tension is a source of on-going 'immanent critique' that is occur- ring in the 'liberal-humanist tradition itself' (p. 81). '[C]laims for difference must attempt to balance a simultaneous call for respect for particularity and avoid the possibility that particular differences might be seen as the result of any essential conception of difference' (p. 81, author's italics). This is a key point; if difference is absolute or completely subjective and unique to the particular group, then how can we understand it at all? This is the charge of subjectivism that is levelled against Lyotard and Levinas (p. 82), and 'These are issues that again bring up the broader problems of not only universality and particularity, but of the individual and the communal - of political representation and what is commonly referred to as identity politics' (p. 82).
The fourth chapter considers utilitarianism, which bases itself on a uni- versalist consideration of the pleasure and pain experienced by sentient beings. One strength of this approach is its inclusion of animals into the moral sphere of consideration based on their ability to feel pain. Yet the weakness of utilitarianism is that it excludes certain human beings based on the account of personhood used rooted in the idea of rationality. Giselsson further claims that utilitarianism gives us no specific reason why we'd care about the suffering of others, as the claim that the moral agent will feel sympathy for the suffering of others is based on intuition and sentiment, as opposed to rational argument. Obviously not everyone has corresponding sympathies or intuitions and even if they did, these may not extend to ani- mals as utilitarians claim they should. The author also highlights the pro- blem raised with Peter Singer's theory that claims there is no such thing as intrinsic human value (p. 118), which raises issues such as infanticide and other scenarios whereby humans with mental disabilities may be excluded from the moral circle of consideration. She claims this leaves the vulnerable (like the elderly) exposed to possible exclusion from society if, for example, they feel pressured to not be a burden on society or their families and con- sider euthanasia (p. 125). By using this example, the theory of utilitarianism is shown not to provide a viable alternative to a universal or humanist account of morality as it still excludes particular others who are not consid- ered 'persons' even as it includes some nonhuman animals in the sphere of moral consideration.
In the fifth chapter the author considers current critical humanist the- ories that offer universalist accounts of respect that include previously excluded groups such as non-rational humans and animals. She offers a cri- tical account of the ethical theories of Jeff Noonan, Stephen Darwall, Christine Korsgaard and Martha Nussbaum. These theorists seek to improve upon enlightenment versions of humanism from the 18th century whose universality failed in practice. They have also criticised the posthu- manist and anti-humanist accounts of Derrida, Foucault and Lyotard and, in this way, Giselsson is following a similar pattern where she seeks to redress the mistakes of past humanist accounts, whilst pointing out why alternative accounts are inadequate when it comes to articulating why we should respect others.
In Jeff Noonan's account of selfhood it is the self-determination of indi-
viduals that makes us essentially human and able to recognise that we stand in solidarity with others and are thus worthy of respect. Giselsson points out that this account lacks the sense of the communal self and high- lights the essentially rational self who is self-determining. This automati- cally excludes non-rational human beings or those who are not in a position to be self-determining. She gives the example of an individual who is so disempowered or oppressed that they struggle to speak up for their own identity. It is the communal aspect of self that Giselsson identifies as an essentially human trait, and which allows other members of an indivi- dual's community to be able to speak up for them and recognise them as a member of this moral community and, as such, advocate for them (p. 139). 'This is not to deny the importance of self-determination, which … forms a vital part of indigenous political claims, but rather to highlight the fact that self-determination cannot be said to be the only issue of importance in regard to our understanding of human being - and therefore of human wrongs and injustice - for the assumption of human accountability might be said to pre-empt or precede the recognition of self-determination. That is, we would not insist on self-determination if we did not regard other humans as accountable to us in the first place' (p. 142, author's italics).
Stephen Darwall links rationality to respect and reciprocal account- ability, following a Kantian approach which sees humans as rational ends-in-themselves. The main difference between Darwall's and Giselsson's accounts is that Darwall focuses on the human being as essentially rational, whereas Giselsson wishes to include non-rational human beings in the moral sphere, and to account for how we morally consider non-rational animals, without conflating those two categories. Thus, while agreeing that humans are ends-in-themselves, she highlights the social nature of human beings, following Aristotle, instead of reducing the essential human nature to rationality or autonomy or self-determinism.
Christine Korsgaard believes it is our autonomy that leads us to respect the self-value of human beings as well as the value of others. Respect for the self, she claims, is made using judgments, which are made using public language (following Wittgenstein) as opposed to a private morality - which cannot exist as there is no such thing as a private language. In this way, even our judgements about ourselves rest upon shared values due to the fact they are constructed using language. This Wittgensteinian approach forms a key aspect of Giselsson's own theory of communal reci- procity, yet the difficulty Giselsson notes with Korsgaard's theory is that this private world of value, where the essential aspect of being human is autonomy as opposed to a sense of community, does not automatically include others or explain why we should care about the value of anyone other than ourselves.
Finally, Giselsson examines Martha Nussbaum's account of human cap- abilities. Nussbaum offers an extended social contract theory, following Rawls, that seeks to account for those that have been previously excluded, specifically the disabled, animals, and a consideration of global relations between nations. Giselsson points out that Nussbaum notes the difficulty with the traditional humanist theories - the distinction between the public and the private realms, whereby the private realm was the one in which women found themselves, performing unpaid labour and unable to engage in the public political realm as equal and reciprocal citizens with had full rights (p. 158). Nussbaum explicitly avoids any metaphysical claims, instead stating that her claims are a source of political and social principles required for the contemporary liberal pluralistic society. Giselsson argues in reply that 'Although Nussbaum wants to specifically avoid metaphysical justifications for her assumptions regarding inviolable worth and dignity, such assumptions act as a crucial basis of her critique of aggregate utilitar- ianism and her justification for not only cross-cultural respect but also in terms of respect for the disabled and animals' (p. 159). She notes that, with- out a metaphysical grounding, Nussbaum's claims do not rest on a solid foundation. She gives the example that Asian and African cultures find the concept of 'individual rights' problematic, highlighting the fact that people do not always have similar intuitions. 'Nussbaum does not acknowledge the heavy critique that the predominantly Western liberalist assumptions implicit in the very notion of human rights has received in recent years, particularly from Asian and African scholars who contest such an atomistic concept of the individual and argue instead for the acknowledgement of persons as members of communities rather than individuals' (p. 167).
The final chapter sees the author detail and defend her theory of communal accountability. Giselsson argues that respect for others must be justified on ontological grounds with a robust definition of what it means to be human. She claims that even antifoundationalist arguments for respect for the particular alluded to an assumed sense of humanism, namely that others, and particular others, should be universally respected. Yet she rejects any account that relies on intuition or sentiment as not providing stable grounds for a moral theory due to the fact that these are too easily influenced by subjective social and cultural factors.
Throughout the book, Giselsson has been critically thorough and con- vincing. The ontological foundation she details to account for the respect of others is only 'partial' (p. 213) but it is a good start, highlighting how the communal practice of reciprocal accountability is integral to how we interact ethically with others. The author explains that it is communities which hold members to account over breaches in its standards of value, and these values are shared and social. Here Giselsson relies on the notion of public, shared language and judgments following Wittgenstein as Korsgaard did, yet the essential human nature is not rational or autono- mous or self-determining, but, rather, it is communal. Values are held by the community as a whole and when a particular group challenges their inclusion or exclusion as members of a moral community based on their reciprocal accountability and equal rights, they are referring to a universal, shared standard of value, which, Giselsson argues, is the idea that human beings are ends-in-themselves. This Kantian notion is the universal stan- dard that transcends the particular, namely, the individual community and its practices. Thus, Giselsson's account allows for social change without collapsing into cultural relativism and also has space for cultural practices to be judged and to change over time. She notes, 'It might be thought here that such an argument precludes the possibility of individuals contesting their community's norms, or indeed of any contestation at all occurring, given the intrinsically social nature of norms argued for above. To the con- trary, what this implies is that what is needed to produce change to a com- munity's norms is communal consent to a change in those norms' (p. 191). At this point in the book, only a few specific examples of acceptable cultural practices are given, and this may be an area for further research and investigation. It seems that detailing particular maxims could be difficult, a problem many moral philosophers have faced when seeking to bridge the gap between the normative and applied aspects of their theories.
With respect to including previously excluded particulars on a universal humanist account, Giselsson struggles with explaining how we should treat and respect animals. The author builds her ontology on a definition of what it means to be human. This grounding is not biological alone (p. 195); instead it is to do with how we interact with others in communities. She claims that morality is necessarily anthropomorphic and therefore excludes animals, although it does allow us to care for animals based on our rationality. Following Kant, the author claims there is no reciprocal accountability between humans and animals (p. 195). Giselsson admits that how we should treat animals lies beyond the scope of this book (p. 212), yet she concludes that animals are not treated as ends-in-themselves. 'In this sense reciprocal accountability can be seen as the crucial difference in respect to relations between animals and humans and between humans and other humans, in that the possibility of reciprocal accountability is essential for justice to take place' (p. 177).
This explanation sounds like it implicitly rests upon a biological distinc- tion, as Giselsson is keen to distinguish between a being that is essentially human and a being that is essentially an animal. Any grey areas here could be difficult to account for; as her account is essentially relational, the non- reciprocal relationships between humans and animals may also be consid- ered akin to some relationships between rational and non-rational humans. If the difference recognised by the community isn't a biological difference, then what is it? The answer to this charge may lie in Giselsson's attempt to overcome the charge of self-refutation when it comes to her definition of 'human being' as a member of a moral community, made up of human beings (p. 194). When we ask, 'is x human?' we may reply that we know x is human because s/he is recognised as such by a moral community. Giselsson notes, 'Here it seems that something more needs to be said about the nature of what it means to be human. The practice of reciprocal accountability is perhaps not the only relational practice or characteristic that distinguishes then human from the animal' (p. 194). But then she goes on to say that in practice this question does not cause us any problems. 'Even when humans are described as animals, there is still a distinction made between human animals and nonhuman animals. So the question of just who is human is actually already assumed and quite uncontroversial' (p. 195). At this point I would argue that it is not enough for Giselsson to simply state this and further justification of this implied essential difference between humans and animals is required to ensure her account is robust.
However, despite these areas for further investigation, Giselsson's account for universal respect based on communal accountability instead of individual accountability gives due weight to the definition of humans as social and moral beings. This allows others to act on your behalf because they recognise you're a part of their community. Based on (potential) reciprocal accountability, Giselsson allows for the inclusion of children, irrational humans and others such as the severely disabled to be recognised and included in the human moral community, yet not be held accountable in the same way for their actions, as is the manner in which our legal sys- tem operates. In this way, the universal account is humanist without falling into the trap of excluding particular others from a moral account of being human, and it does not collapse into relativism by relying on subjective notions of intuition or sentiment. It walks the fine line of providing an ontological justification for respect for particular others, while maintaining humanist ideals of respect for all.