Oct. 23, 2013 by Olivia Drake
Elise Springer ’90, associate professor of philosophy, is the author of the book, Communicating Moral Concern: An Ethics of Critical Responsiveness, published by MIT Press in September 2013. View photos of her recent book signing celebration in this Wesleyan Connection story.
Modern moral theories have crystallized around the logic of individual choices, abstracted from social and historical context. Yet most action, including moral theorizing, can equally be understood as a response, conscious or otherwise, to the social world out of which it emerges. In this novel account of moral agency, Springer accords central importance to how we intervene in activity around us. To notice and address what others are doing with their moral agency is to exercise what Springer calls critical responsiveness. Her account of this responsiveness steers critics away from both of the conventionally familiar ideals—justifying and expressing reactive attitudes on one hand, and prescribing and manipulating behavioral outcomes on the other. Good critical practice functions instead as a dynamic gestural engagement of attention, reaching further than expressive representation but not as far as causal control.
To make sense of such engagement, Springer unravels the influence of several entrenched philosophical dichotomies (active vs. passive, representation vs. object, illocution vs. perlocution). Where previous accounts have been preoccupied with justified claims or with end results, Springer urges the cultivation of situated critical engagement—an unorthodox virtue. Moral agency can thereby claim a creative and embodied aspect, transforming the world of action through a socially extended process of communicating concern.