How Accounting for Human Rights Reveals Mental Imperatives
Our intentional states are not always beyond the reach of ethical evaluation. There exists an underexamined class of duties specifically concerned with the activities and content of our minds. In much of philosophy, an overapplication of the descriptive/normative distinction for types of claims has undermined the degree of visibility cognitive duties are ultimately able to obtain, marginalizing them from mainstream discourse. This over-distinction has particularly obscured the important roles ethical inquiry might play in the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language, and metaphysics — all of which are concerned with conceptual clarity. A humanist account of human rights serves as a case study in which these duties are particularly salient and can help reveal how our culpability may extend beyond material action and into even some of our most theoretical cognitive spaces.
What I’m calling a cognitive duty is any ‘ought’ that belongs to a class of obligations concerning the voluntary movements and content of our minds. These are questions of how our agency should operate “internally.” It also concerns questions of what is mentally voluntary, and whether we are culpable for only those internal acts of choice which result in some kind of objective change in the material world, or also those whose effects remain totally “in house” and causally closed. A study of cognitive duties is concerned with the identification and examination of how and when ethical concerns become relevant to intentional states. It is the search for and investigation of mental norms.
An accessible example of a common mental norm is the obligation to conceptual clarity, especially when those concepts are understood to have justificatory force in decisions that impact human wellbeing. The rights that humans are understood to have depend on the shape and clarity of the concept, “human.” What we decide it means to be a human, both as an empirical fact and a subjective experience, directly gives form to the boundaries and claims we assign to human persons. The descriptive claims we make about such things as what consciousness is, what it means to suffer, our image of the good, or what dignity entails all work to form the bedrock of how we seek to regulate our treatment of people as such. From a consequentialist perspective, the fidelity of those descriptive claims becomes a priority because of its ‘downstream’ effects. But the ways in which our conceptual models identify and confer ideas such as dignity in themselves may also generate a kind of conceptual imperative, independent of outcomes. The mere recognition of a certain innate moral status can be seen as a kind of Kantian cognitive duty. While utilitarian motivations for conceptual rigor are easily visible, deontological reasons to clarify our ideas may be just as compelling, and harder to dismiss. Both teleological and deontological claims about the internal operations of human agency can be understood to address cognitive duties.
“Humanism” can be understood as both the explanatory project of defining humanity, as well as the applied project of structuring rules in light of that concept. The humanist mission involves an inquiry into what makes humans distinctive, the nature of “the human condition,” and the claims and entitlements humans have as humans. It also translates into an advocacy of such values as “human dignity,” “human flourishing,” and “human rights.” The articulative side of that project is often identified as “descriptive” while its applied advocacy is labeled “normative.” These two categories of claim are meant to align with the is/ought distinction commonly associated with Aquinas. It’s worth our while to interrogate how well this distinction describes and parses the humanist project, and its ability to accommodate the realities of where ethical considerations make contact with conceptual work more generally.
The question of what makes humans distinctive is of particular importance to those concerned with human rights. Humanism has a specific interest in the existence and nature of the ‘special status’ that humans are thought to have. For many humanists, the axis around which this special status rotates is the phenomenon of human consciousness. Defining the necessary and sufficient conditions to achieve human consciousness is an important explanatory task for the humanist. The degree to which humans are conscious is seen as having special value, manifested in what is understood as a uniquely free mode of being — human agency. Identifying human consciousness as ‘special’ confers -or generates- a ‘value.’ The conferral and generating of values, however, appears to be a kind of normative act — both because of its connection to human rights, as well as the status is assigns to humans tout court. Upon close examination of the conceptual work humanists do in articulating what humanity even is, we find a nominally descriptive task that is also highly normative.
Beyond formulating a model of what sets humans apart from the rest of the natural world, there’s also the matter of understanding the ‘what it’s like,’ or the ‘there-being’ of human experience. The ways in which we understand and articulate human subjectivity inform such ideas as ‘dignity’ and ‘flourishing,’ as well as ‘ability’ or ‘reasonableness.’ Such ideas play a major role in how societies and individuals assign rights and duties, as well as praise and blame. How we come to conceive of our experiences as subjects not only impacts how we treat other people, but even our ability to accurately conceive of ‘the other’ in the first place. The more we are able to understand about the types of experiences we share as humans, the more we are able to make contact with the conceptual spaces of others, expanding and refining our own. Such work once again requires a certain commitment to conceptual clarity. In our theories of mind and language, our expressions of individual striving, or our construction of humanistic ontology, we do more than simply describe human experience, we implement it. Once again, we find in the humanist project a descriptive endeavor that seems to present a lot of the same features as a normative practice.
By the time we get to what’s more commonly acknowledged as the ‘normative’ stage of application and advocacy in the humanist project, we’ve already encountered plenty of utilitarian and duty-based normative acts. In order to lay the explanatory groundwork required to advocate for human dignity, flourishing, and rights, values were assigned, capacities ranked, and experiences foregrounded. Because the issue of human rights is understood to have very high stakes, humanism serves as a good case study for why there’s a duty to do certain kinds of conceptual work well before engaging in the task of practical application. Furthermore, it appears that the metaphysical and taxonomic work that takes place in the explanatory stage defines and confers various kinds of values and statuses that may uncover cases of inherent worth, necessitating certain degrees of conceptual care and rigor, subject to ethical evaluation.
In the case of the humanist account of human rights, the terms “descriptive” and “normative” may be more useful as relative sequential designators that help to orient us within humanist ethical reasoning than as mutually exclusive types of philosophical claim. As demonstrated in the examples above, they can perhaps more accurately and usefully be used to refer to “phases” in the overall process of ethical reasoning. As terms of sequential priority, the descriptive and the normative refer to the explanatory and applicative phases of a process that has ethics threaded straight through, from concept to practice. They reflect the sense we often have that conceptual work is prior to applied action, but they don’t seek to constrain ethical work to the procrustean bed of the ‘normative,’ quarantined from conceptual work.
In efforts such as the humanist project, the commitment to conceptual rigor takes on an element of moral obligation. But what is it that is different about understanding conceptual clarity as a “duty,” and not simply as an ordinary “goal?” When engaging with the calculations of logic and mathematics, for example, the need for fastidious clarity and methodological precision seems built into the task. The whole point of the endeavor is to get to an objectively true conclusion that necessarily follows from the circumstances or quantities given as objectively true premises. Accuracy is both the means and the end. But would we say that mathematicians have an obligation to use consistent symbols and procedures, or is it more accurate to say that they have an interest in doing so? An interest implies that it behooves one to employ conceptual rigor, but it doesn’t go so far as to show if or how conceptual clarity obliges. What both the utilitarian and deontological stakes of the humanist explanatory effort show is a case in which it not only serves humanists to get an account of humanity “right,” but it also exposes how the dignity and claims that emerge from the descriptive task feed back into it, generating and uncovering obligations and duties that go beyond methodological utility.
If, in cases such as the humanist account of human rights, we find that we have a duty to do a certain kind and quality of conceptual work, then it may feel like the matter of our personal virtue is being put at stake when we engage in some forms of descriptive inquiry. This may in part explain why some philosophers come to overapply the descriptive/normative category distinction. When engaging in what is agreed to be purely descriptive conceptual work, the need to consider ‘externalities’ is greatly diminished or eliminated. If duties have infiltrated the conceptual space, however, it may seem like the degree of imaginative freedom of movement has been diminished. The question of what models we’re “allowed” to make or operate within becomes relevant. Descriptive spaces may not necessarily always offer a refuge from ethical culpability.
Does that then mean that all descriptive inquiry is in some significant sense ethical reasoning? If not, how do we know when it is or isn’t? The answer may not be satisfyingly binary. It’s likely that some minimal measure of ethical liability is going to be found in any situation in which human agency plays a role, however slight. Wherever free will goes, there follows accountability in more or less equal measure. The question then becomes one of degree, concerned with how much of a role a person’s free will plays in a given conceptual work. Returning to logic and mathematics, there is a great deal of conceptual space that is defined by necessity. While the ends to which certain puzzles and calculations are applied certainly admit of ethical responsibility, many of the operations and symbols themselves appear to be relatively immune to ethical evaluation. It is almost entirely in the realm of application that conceptual work such as logic and mathematics takes on an ethical dimension. In this case, the descriptive/normative distinction seems to function reasonably well.
In all but the most abstract conceptual spaces, however, it’s much more difficult to find norm-free descriptions. It’s not easy to identify an extra-ethical vacuum in which to work with concepts such as ‘the mind,’ ‘society,’ ‘language,’ or ‘humanity.’ None of these ideas are as exhaustively bound by necessity in the ways logic and quantity are. Each concept is identified and defined according to choices that free agents make with their attention, articulation, and value judgements, however tacit. Beyond an interest in diligent calculation, such concepts additionally oblige those working with them to engage ethical reasoning that takes account of such factors as human dignity. Does that then imply that philosophers of mind, for example, should not engage with such ideas as epiphenomenalism over fears of how it could serve to undermine humanity’s special status? On the contrary. It’s a commitment to the truth, and a deference to a human’s right to know it, that not only allows, but compels philosophers of mind to engage with the theory in good faith, affirming or dismissing it based only on the strength of the claim. We see here why the duty is to conceptual rigor. It’s truth, not assurance that most respects and enriches human agency, and a commitment to descriptive clarity gives priority to the right humans have to access it.
If we take seriously Kant’s claim that human dignity entails a right to the truth, then we can see how descriptive claims become subject to ethical evaluation at least partially in light of how “truth seeking” they are, or how much truth they reveal or obscure. Inasmuch as we are free, we are duty bound to create explanatory accounts that are not only internally consistent, but also in alignment with all else that is reasonably believed to be true. While some of the most abstract contents of our minds may only have internal rules of noncontradiction to consider, those that aim to give an account with any external explanatory or justificatory force immediately become subject to normative considerations.
What about mental contents that are neither true nor false? So far, we’ve been looking at descriptive, model-making uses of our internal agency, which are often subject to verification. But our minds contain much more conceptual content than what simply attempts to explain that which is the case. We also have imaginative content that is subject to our agency, as well as the choices of attention we make regarding media diet, aesthetic pursuits, judgements, and various intentional states. While it’s at times difficult to determine how much conscious control we have over these kinds of mental matters, insofar as we do have control, they are human activities subject to ethical appraisal.
But it’s difficult to assess such cognitive contents according to how true they are. It feels like a category mistake to ask whether we ought to hold the image of a painting, or the lyrics to a song, or a daydream in our minds in reference to how true each may be. We don’t ask whether it’s accurate to engage in some particular fantasy or another, but rather whether or not it’s good to do so. But what kind of good is being referenced, if not the true? The common intuition often seems to be that it’s a kind of virtue ethics that informs those sorts of moral evaluations. The question seems to be a matter of what kind of values are being cultivated by our free mental acts. Again, both consequentialist and duty-based claims can be brought to bear. From a utilitarian perspective, the claim is that we ought to cultivate those values most likely to influence our behavior in ways that contribute to the overall happiness and wellbeing in the world. From a deontological point of view, we have a duty to conceive of others both accurately and with regard to their baseline ethical status. That also means that we owe it to ourselves to cultivate mental contents that are “worthy” of our unique dignity. Apart from the true, there also appears to be a form of the good we might call “virtue,” by which we are able to evaluate exercises of mental agency.
Using the humanist account of human rights as a point of entry, we’re able to see how normative concerns inform both explanatory and applicative phases of ethical reasoning. The need for conceptual rigor is made clear by the stakes of the humanist project. Exploring further, it becomes clear that conceptual clarity isn’t just required because of its ‘downstream’ effects, but also because of how it assigns status and value. Wherever our free agency acts upon cognition, there are both teleological and deontological obligations to which we are morally bound. Our explanatory efforts and epistemic standards, as well as our voluntary imaginative content and intentional states, are all fair game for moral evaluation. So why do we so often try to eradicate duty from cognitive spaces?
Jean-Paul Sartre expanded Kierkegaard’s term “bad faith” to refer to cases where one part of the self hides the truth from another. The truth he thought we were most fearful of was the degree to which we are free. Albert Camus thought that bad faith was used to engage in a kind of “philosophical suicide,” in which we ‘kill’ the part of our psyches that registers the unique measure of freedom our human agency imposes on us, as well as its attendant culpability. What both thinkers were pointing out was how squeamish humans can be about the degree of responsibility that comes with our agency, and how we often seek to bracket out that agency in our descriptive models of the world in order to hide from the fact that we are ‘doomed to be free.’
Often, the overapplication of the is/ought distinction can act as a manifestation of that bad faith. The exposure that we sometimes feel when confronted with how much of our experience is marbled throughout with agency can tempt us to “hide from our nakedness,” concealing ourselves behind what are “only descriptive claims.” Nonetheless, as the humanist account of human rights demonstrates, there are very few claims that are “only” descriptive. Likewise, there are various other applications of our mental agency that each come bundled with their own unavoidable ethical obligations and constraints. What emerges is an entire area of potential study where we examine closely how our freedom obliges us in what we do with our minds.
A philosophical inquiry into cognitive duties presents the chance to inform and expand how we conceive of mind, language, and metaphysics, as well as media, art, and culture. It also threatens to erode the ‘ethical shield’ reason and empiricism are sometimes relied upon to provide. Instead, we’re left with a program that sees the free subject as an integral part of the models we make, always taking into account how ethics follow agency into every cognitive space. Perhaps most interestingly, the study of cognitive duties offers philosophers the opportunity to see the often-overlooked connections between such awkward binaries as the analytic and the continental, reason and intuition, or the phenomenal and the ethical. By acknowledging and incorporating ethics back into the mental activities from which it has sometimes been exiled, we gain access to a more integrated and holistic approach to philosophy. At the very least, we’ll no longer be engaging with it in bad faith.
Daniel Gellasch writes philosophy and criticism on Medium and beyond. He is the Director for Outreach and Programming at the Hoffberger Center For Professional Ethics at the University of Baltimore, U.S.A.