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  • Inside Ethics: On the Demands of Moral Thought by Alice Crary
  • Hailey Huget
Alice Crary, Inside Ethics: On the Demands of Moral Thought, Harvard University Press, 2016

In this original and insightful new work, Alice Crary proposes that we see human beings and animals as creatures that are “inside ethics,” which is to say that they possess “characteristics that are simultaneously empirically discoverable and morally loaded” (4). This view rejects what Crary sees as the dominant paradigm in moral philosophy, wherein empirical observations about human beings and animals are viewed as morally neutral and shorn of any evaluative characteristics. Her view has implications for a range of topics in moral philosophy and bioethics, including debates about disability, moral status, moral individualism, animal ethics, and animal mindedness. Here, I’ll focus primarily on summarizing chapters 1–3—which contain what Crary refers to as the work’s central argument—before turning to a few thoughts and criticisms of that argument.

Chapter 1 lays out the broad paradigm in moral philosophy that Crary opposes—that of seeing human beings and animals as “outside ethics,” or devoid of empirically discoverable and objective moral characteristics. She traces the tendency to see human beings and animals as outside ethics to what she describes as a “hard metaphysic,” where objective moral values are not viewed as part of the fabric of the world, but things that we impose on a world that is itself morally neutral (14). Chapter 2 is devoted to arguing for the work’s central claim: that human beings and animals have empirically discoverable and objective moral characteristics.

In making this argument, Crary begins by establishing what moral characteristics are and discussing how we ascribe them to humans and animals. Moral characteristics are ethically inflected psychological categories—such as, for example, jealousy, guilt, fear, or happiness. Importantly, these categories “resist any meaningful reduction or translation to physical terms” (37). This is because, in applying these [End Page E-4] psychological categories to humans and animals, we necessarily invoke certain ethically loaded conceptions of what makes a good human or animal life that are not themselves reducible to physical terms (80). When, for example, researchers set out to study jealousy in dogs, “their efforts depend for their success” on an “understanding of canine life and of the place of jealousy within it” (79). Psychological characteristics are, in this sense, “only at home in human and animal lives in which some things matter in that they are, say, to-be-feared, to-be-sought, to-be-eaten, to-be-protected, or to-be-befriended” (88). In other words, we bring ethically loaded concepts of what makes a good human or animal life to bear on our understanding of the psychological characteristics of humans and animals.

But there is still the further claim that such moral characteristics are objective and empirically discoverable; in other words, that one can apply these characteristics in a genuinely descriptive manner. It might be the case, for example, that in attributing the concept of jealousy to dogs, we make a mistake—perhaps even a mistake that stems from a problematic tendency toward anthropomorphism on our part. If this thought is right, then our claims about dogs being jealous or afraid would not be truth-tracking or objective; they would be merely subjective expressions of our own emotions, preferences, or biases.

Crary resists this possibility by proposing that we reconceptualize our understanding of objectivity. She thinks that her opponents—in denying that moral characteristics are objective—rely on what she calls a narrow conception of objectivity. The narrow conception of objectivity takes the world to be “available to thought” in a manner that is “unmediated” by concepts (55). Further, proponents of the narrow conception think that this kind of connection with the world provides a firm foundation for empirical knowledge. Proponents of the narrow conception would deny that moral characteristics are objective because objectivity, for them, involves accessing the world in a manner unmediated by normatively- or morally-inflected concepts. To argue against the narrow conception of objectivity, Crary marshals arguments made by Wittgenstein, McDowell, and others, who resist the idea that there exists a non-conceptual “given” that can...


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