Stanley Cavell: morality as one way of living well

I have been dipping into the works of Stanley Cavell for 20 years, but my recent reading of Tony Laden’s Reasoning: A Social Picture and my re-reading of Cavell’s The Claim of Reason have given me, I think, an inkling of Cavell’s whole view. He is a dense and difficult author, and I found it rewarding to type the quotes embedded in this post because each word, emphasis, and parenthesis rewards consideration–and you miss a lot if you read too fast.

A standard view of morality might treat it as (ideally) a comprehensive guide to good judgment and good action. It should cover everything that is good or bad, from minor questions to the relations among governments. In fact, everything that we do should be subject to moral evaluation. Morality should be internally coherent, or correspond to some kind of moral truth, or both. If there is actually no moral truth, then morality is not what it purports to be and is really just a set of conventions, biological urges, or subjective opinions.

Cavell instead views morality– “mere morality”–as a particular way of engaging other people at a human scale:

(I may just mention here that I would not accept as the best case of morality (or of moral judgment) the prohibition of some hideous deed that all normal people must agree is hideous (for example, as I think more than once has been offered to me in public discussion, You oughtn’t to torture children.) Mere morality is not designed to evaluate the behavior and interaction of monsters. Similarly, commandments (e.g., the ten) concern matters that ordinary human beings are subject to and tempted from.) [p. 265]

So we are not moral insofar as we obey the Ten Commandments. Instead, here is an example of how two people interact when they are being moral:

Questioning a claim to moral rightness … takes the form of asking: ‘Why are you doing that?’, ‘How can you do that?’, What are you doing?’ [etc.] …. The point of the assessment is not to determine whether it is adequate; … the point is to determine what position you are taking, that is, what position you are taking responsibility for–and whether it is one I can respect. What is at stake in such discussions is not, or not exactly, whether you know our world, but whether, or to what extent, we are to live in the same moral universe. What is at stake in such examples … is not the validity of morality as a whole, but the nature or quality of our relationship to one another. [The Claim of Reason, p. 268.]

So morality is a quality of a relationship. But not just any relationship that is peaceful,  agreeable, satisfactory to both parties, or indeed desirable is a moral one. You could reach agreement by negotiation and bargaining, by appealing to someone’s authority, by applying a law, or because you were passionately in love and not concerned with reasons. Those might be fine ways to live; they are different from morality. Meanwhile, morality does not necessarily generate agreement:

Morality must leave itself open to repudiation; it provides one possibility of settling conflict, a way of encompassing conflict which allows the continuance of personal relationships against the hard and apparently inevitable fact of misunderstanding, mutually incompatible wishes, commitments, loyalties, interests and needs, a way of mending relationships and maintaining the self in opposition to itself or others. Other ways of settling or encompassing conflict are provided by politics, religion, love and forgiveness, rebellion, and withdrawal. Morality is a valuable way because the others are so often inaccessible or brutal; but it is not everything; it provides a door through which someone, alienated or in danger of alienation from another through his action, can return by the offering and the acceptance of explanation, excuses, and justifications, or by the respect one human being will show to another who sees and can accept the responsibility for a position which he himself would not adopt. We do not have to agree with one another in order to live in the same moral world, but we do have to know and respect one another’s differences. [p. 269]

Cavell’s disagreement with standard views could just be semantic; he could be using the word “morality” for a narrow range of relationships, when some people make it broadly synonymous with ethics or justice. But I don’t think so. A controversial and interesting aspect of his theory is the idea that morality is one particular institution or set of practices, good for certain purposes but separate and discontinuous from other valid practices. Morality is not culturally relative or merely a matter of taste or opinion, but it is a choice. If that is right, it opens a set of questions that Cavell has extensively explored but that most people overlook. For instance:

  • Should you be moral or solitary? That question makes no sense if being moral is doing what’s right or good. Then you should evaluate whether being social or solitary is best, under the circumstances. But if morality is about close and intimate relationships, then we can fairly ask how much of it is good, for whom, when. In Cavell’s writings on Thoreau and Emerson, he is very interested in the virtues and drawbacks of the solitary life as an alternative to the moral one. Thoreau had a strong ethic when he lived on Walden Pond–but that was different from trying to live in the same moral world with other human beings (although as a writer, he did that too).
  • Should you be moral or pursue excellence? According to standard views, you should be moral, and one hopes that morality can accommodate excellence. But for Cavell, morality has a narrower scope. A team of scientists on the verge of the cure for cancer need not be organized morally. They should follow ethical and legal norms, and they are pursuing the human good, but their relationships are not necessarily moral in the sense that Cavell means. Indeed, we would be annoyed and disappointed if they spent all their time coming to understand and respect each others’ values. They should be focused on their goal, as should artists and mystics. Again, morality is one valuable way of life but not everything.
  • What allows us to have the kind of intimacy that permits morality? In Cavell’s interpretations of Shakespeare’s tragedies, he portrays skepticism as a barrier to morality. If you demand some kind of reason or basis for your relationships with other people, it is an excuse to avoid loving them. Thus morality is incompatible with deep philosophical inquiry.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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