Sometimes it's hard to find ways to apply the lessons of philosophy to our daily lives. When I think of Plato's cave, I find myself impressed with the idea from an aesthetic standpoint--flickering lights and all that--but really, what am I going to do with that when I'm arguing the finer points of politics or literature with my illustrious colleagues here at HUP?
That's why I like Stephen Darwall's new book The Second-Person Standpoint. The book's subtitle is "Morality, Respect, and Accountability," and (surprise!) that's just what the book is about. More fundamentally, it's a book about human relationships, as evidenced by the term "second-person," which implies the verbal back-and-forth inherent in any discussion of moral obligation.
Here's an example: I'm standing around, enjoying a sandwich and maybe a nice cup of coffee, and you come up to me, look me in the eye, smile, and then stomp on my foot as hard as you possibly can. And then you stand there, still looking me in the eye, with your foot pressed firmly on top of mine. You might not even know this, but I broke my foot about six months ago, it's just healed, and for you to be waltzing up and stomping all over it--well, it really hurts!
What, exactly, am I to do here? I can't walk away, because you've got me pinned down. And I need that foot removed from on top of mine, pronto. So what do I do? I ask you to remove it. And you say "okay," pick up your foot, and now everything's hunky dory.
Seems simple enough, right? Sure, if you don't bother to think about it. But Stephen Darwall is paid to think about it. He would point out a lot of things about this encounter that you or I might not notice. For example, I told you to get the %^&* off my foot, right? And you did it. Because we're both reasonable people and you felt obligated to comply with this entirely reasonable request. But how did I know this strategy would work? In the language of moral philosophy, what gave me the authority to make this claim upon your will?
The answer is that we implicitly share a set of moral obligations that underlie our every interaction. They're unspoken, but powerful--when I tell you that you've got to stop hurting my foot, you know that under this pact we share (as members of a "free," "rational" community of humans), you've got to accept this demand as valid and take that foot somewhere else. And if you don't, I've got the right to seek some kind of accountability from a higher power, one who has even more "authority" than you or I do.
This is just one example, and a fairly absurd one at that. But Darwall connects the concepts of "respect," "authority," "accountability," and "dignity" in ways that make it clear just how these ideas act in our daily lives. It's very "concrete" philosophy, in a sense. And he's not above using the Blues Brothers to make his point. Read his address to the American Philosophical Association for an example of how philosophers can make their points with accessibility and flair. Then head on over to the main HUP site for more on The Second-Person Standpoint, including a table of contents, excerpt and ordering information.