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Foundations for Moral Relativism

J. David Velleman

V. Sociality and Solitude1

Note de l’éditeur

A second, expanded edition of this book has been published:

Texte intégral

  • 1 Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an essay with the title “Society and Solitude” (Society and Solitude: Twe (...)

1The moral universe of relativism is a scary place. Bad enough that there are physical black holes; relativism raises the specter of moral black holes as well, places where the laws of morality collapse. The fear is not just that there can be ways of life in which this or that unsavory practice turns out to be morally permissible; it’s that there can be ways of life that draw no distinctions remotely like our distinction between right and wrong, so that nothing is either permissible or impermissible in a sense that we can recognize as moral.

2Lucky for us, the nearest physical black hole is 1,600 light-years away — nearby on a cosmic scale but far enough away for us to sleep at night. What would it take to reassure us likewise about moral black holes? Realists and rationalists have the comfort of believing that moral black holes are impossible: wherever there are people, they believe, recognizably moral norms are in force. But what comfort is there for those of us who are relativists? We must look for comfort in the possibility that moral black holes are very far away, not in physical space, of course, but in moral space, the space occupied by possible ways of life.

3For this kind of reassurance, empirically minded moral philosophers typically look to natural selection as favoring the development of moral motives such as sympathy and altruism, or an instinctive sense of fairness. The reason for this emphasis, I think, is once again the sense of moral danger, the sense that there might never have been a distinction between what’s right-ish and what’s wrong-ish, much less between right and wrong. Realists and rationalists try to rule out this possibility in advance, but others must admit it, and then they find the force of natural selection tempting as a replacement for a priori necessity.

4I have nothing against sympathy and altruism, but like Kant, I believe that morality has more to do with valuing the personhood of people than with promoting their interests or feeling their pain. I also side with Kant in believing that personhood consists in rational nature; I’ll have something to say in a moment about the aspects of rational nature in which I believe personhood to consist. Unlike Kant, however, I think that valuing personhood is rooted in human nature, not in requirements of pure practical reason. My aim in this chapter is to give an a posteriori account of some ways in which personhood is naturally valued by human beings.

Objective Self-Awareness

  • 2 “The Objective Self”, in Knowledge and Mind: Philosophical Essays, ed. Carl Ginet and Sydney Shoema (...)

5Our response to personhood is expressed by Thomas Nagel, reflecting on personhood in himself. Nagel asks,2

[H]ow can I be merely a particular person? The problem here is not how it can be the case that I am this one rather than that one, but how I can be anything as specific as a particular person in the world — any person.

  • 3 Nagel, “The Objective Self”, 225.

How can I be anything so small and concrete and specific?
I know this sounds like metaphysical megalomania of an unusually shameless kind. Merely being TN isn’t good enough for me: I have to think of myself as the world soul in humble disguise. In mitigation I can plead only that the same thought is available to any of you.

6To some, Nagel may sound disappointed with his personhood. To my ear, however, he is expressing a sense of wonder, albeit wonder at finding himself to be a wonderfully humble phenomenon.

7Why is Nagel amazed at being anything so concrete and specific as a particular person? Did he think he was a universal? There must be something he felt himself to be, in contrast to which his concrete specificity amazes him.

  • 4 Exactly how there can be such a self-conception is a vexed question, which, fortunately, needn’t be (...)

8Before dealing directly with these quotations from Nagel, I will have to discuss a feature of personhood that they express, namely, a person’s objective self-conception. The self-conception that Nagel expresses is not just the subjective, egocentric conception of the world from the perspective of an unrepresented ‘I’; it’s the conception of himself as a creature with this very conception of itself. This self-conception is objective in the sense that it represents its subject as its subject in the world — a member of the objective order, standing in an objective relation to this very thought.4

  • 5 I think it is possible that some of the higher apes have an objective self-conception. If they do, (...)

9An objective self-conception is distinctive of persons and, I believe, constitutive of their personhood.5 My basis for saying that it is constitutive of personhood is functionalist. If you want to know what it is to be a person, I say, look for ways in which it is characteristic of persons to function, and then look for what those functions have in common. What is common to the characteristic functions of persons, I will argue, is that they require and manifest an objective self-conception. I will not survey an exhaustive list of the functions that are characteristic of persons, but I will cover many functions that only and almost all persons perform: making plans that resolve an open future; participating in conversation and in joint intentions; and enjoying distinctively personal modes of togetherness and apartness — that is, of sociality and solitude.

10Many of the functions that I discuss will turn out to be functions for which we value persons. What we are thereby committed to valuing, I will argue, is the capacity that makes those functions possible, namely, the capacity of persons to think of themselves as inhabitants of the world, thinking this thought.


  • 6 Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason (Cambridge, MA: Harvard university Press, 1987), 2.

11I’ll start with the role of an objective self-conception in plans. Plans are central to our agency, which is in turn central to our personhood. Michael Bratman puts the point like this:6

The central fact is that we are planning agents. We frequently settle in advance on more or less complex plans concerning the future, and then these plans guide our later conduct. So much, anyway, is included in our commonsense understanding of the sort of beings we are. As planning agents, we have two central capacities. We have the capacity to act purposively; and we have the capacity to form and execute plans. The latter capacity clearly requires the former; but it is plausible to suppose that the former could exist without the latter. Indeed, it is natural to see many nonhuman animals as having only the former capacity and to see our possession of both capacities as a central feature of the sort of beings we are.

12Like Bratman, I believe that planning is central to the sort of beings we are; I also claim that an objective self-conception is central to planning.

13Some philosophers of action believe that plans have as their objects actions without agents, as expressed in the infinitive or gerundive of the verb. The attitude of planning to hang a picture, they believe, has as its object ‘to hang a picture’ or ‘hanging a picture’. Yet I may plan, not to hang the picture, but rather that the picture be hung, or that we hang it together, and all of these plans seem to share a deep structure despite their differences at the surface. In order to support all of them, this structure must have an argument place for the intended agent or agents, who may or may not be mentioned when the plans are expressed. What gets expressed as the plan that the picture be hung is fundamentally a plan that someone or other hang it; what gets expressed as the plan to hang the picture with you is a plan that you and I hang it together; and so what gets expressed as the plan simply to hang the picture must be a plan that I hang it. In each case, there is some determination, implicit or explicit, as to the agent of the intended act.

  • 7 See Gilbert Harman, “Practical Reasoning”, The Review of Metaphysics 79, no. 3 (1976): 440—448; and (...)

14The attitude of planning to hang a picture thus includes a conception of myself as someone by whom a picture can be hung, just as it might be hung by someone else, either with me or alone. Indeed, it has to include a conception of myself as hanging the picture because of having hereby planned to hang it, not because I was already going to hang it anyway. I have to plan my own actions from the first-person perspective, but I simultaneously have to conceive of myself as an efficacious inhabitant of the objective world, and I have to conceive of my plan as itself efficacious in prompting or guiding me to act.7

  • 8 Of course, plans do not make the future metaphysically open; they make it only epistemically open. (...)

15This feature of plans accounts for the openness of the future from the planner’s point of view.8 ‘That I hang a picture’ is potentially a fact about the future, whereas ‘to hang a picture’ and ‘hanging a picture’ are not. When I plan to hang a picture, I represent what is going to come true as a result of my plan: I am going to hang a picture, because of having hereby planned to. If I planned instead to sell the picture, then I would represent something else as coming true as a result of my so representing it. I can therefore represent different ways the future will go, and in most cases, it will go that way, and for the very reason I have represented, namely, that I represented it that way. With respect to myself and the picture, then, there is no single way that I must represent the future in order to represent it correctly. From my planning perspective, the future is open: it will go however I think it will.

The Turing Test

  • 9 Alan Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”, Mind 59, no. 236 (1950): 433—460.
  • 10 I explore this research in Chapter II.

16Our need for an objective self-conception is suggested by the work of computer scientists following in the footsteps of Alan Turing.9 Turing’s eponymous test is a measure of a computer’s ability to simulate a person. Computer scientists since Turing have discovered that in order for a computer to be recognized as a person, it must present a coherent persona, and so it must have a third-personal model of the person it is simulating.10

17There are two ways to explain this discovery. One explanation is that the computer needs a representation of the person to be simulated precisely because, being unlike a person, it needs guidance from a representation of what to simulate. This explanation presupposes that a real person doesn’t need a representation of the person he is, because he already is that person. According to the alternative explanation, the reason why the computer needs guidance from a representation of the person to be simulated is that the person himself is guided by a representation of the person who he is. In other words, a computer simulates a person by coming to resemble him precisely in virtue of acting on a representation of him, as he does.

  • 11 Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”, 446.
  • 12 Of course, an un-psittacine parrot would also need a second-person conception of his examiners. In (...)

18The latter explanation suggests that a person and a computer will pass the Turing Test in the very same way. Turing himself pointed out that his “imitation game” was often used as a test for humans rather than machines — for example, in a viva voce examination “to discover whether some one really understands something or has ‘learnt it parrot fashion’.”11 Turing probably meant that a parrot cannot answer follow-up questions; yet a parrot that could answer follow-up questions would still answer “in parrot fashion” unless it had an objective self-conception. Let the examiner say, “Speak up, please”, and the parrot would be stumped. In order to speak up when asked, the parrot would have to conceive of itself as a speaker in whom this request was intended to evoke a recognition (like this one) of the need to speak louder.12

  • 13 This is Grice’s analysis of assertion, in Studies in the Ways of Words (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ (...)

19Indeed, an objective self-conception is prerequisite to the simple speech act of telling someone something. Telling someone that p requires the intention that he believe p as a result of recognizing this very intention — an intention that contains a conception of oneself as the speaker and of itself as an intention that can be recognized.13 Without that objective self-conception, we would be parrot-like communicators, squawking at one another rather than conversing with one another.

Awareness vs. attention

20My insistence on the role of an objective self-conception in personhood may seem to suggest that persons are continually thinking about themselves. No such thing is intended. The verb-phrase ‘to think about’ connotes not just awareness but attention, and self-directed attention is no part of the functions that I am describing.

  • 14 I discuss this phenomenon, and its significance for the philosophy of action, in “The Way of the Wa (...)

21Consider that you sometimes “forget yourself” in an activity, a phenomenon that Daoists call “non-action” and some psychologists call “flow”.14 When you forget yourself in an activity, you don’t lose your first-personal awareness of performing it; what you lose is your objective awareness of yourself as the agent, an inhabitant of the world who is doing something and is hereby aware of doing it. In short, you lose your objective self-awareness. Since forgetting yourself in this sense is the exception, the rule must be remembering yourself — that is, maintaining your objective self-awareness.

22Yet when you “remember yourself” in an activity, you aren’t “thinking about” yourself, either; your objective self-awareness is merely implicit. On those very rare occasions when I wear a suit, I don’t watch myself wearing the suit; I don’t think, “Now I’ll wear my suit across the street.” But when I cross the street, I put the idea of crossing the street into action, and it isn’t the idea of street-crossing in the abstract, or of someone or other’s crossing the street; it’s the idea of myself crossing the street, and the self in that idea is wearing a suit. So I tend to square my shoulders a bit, walk a bit slower, pull in my gut.

23I sometimes forget about wearing a suit and plop down on the damp grass. What I have forgotten in that case is not anything that I was “thinking about” in most senses of the phrase; it’s something of which I was merely, only implicitly aware. So until I forgot myself, my behavior was being guided by a whole lot more than I was thinking about in the sense that requires attention or explicit thought. One of the implicit thoughts by which it was guided is a conception of myself as a person presenting a well-dressed appearance that doesn’t go well with a slouch.


24An objective-self conception is essential to many forms of mutuality that are distinctive of persons. Consider joint intentions. When one intends to do something jointly with others, one must conceive of them as likewise intending to do it with oneself. Thinking of the other as so intending requires one to conceive of oneself as an agent with whom the other can intend to act, and to conceive of one’s own intention as an intention that the other can thereby reciprocate. Joint intentions therefore require an objective self-conception.

25Joint intentions are far more common than is generally noted by philosophers. They are essential even to the collective activity that consists in avoiding other collective activities. Subway riders intend to defuse bodily proximity by averting their eyes, but only if others intend likewise, since they intend to return unwanted stares, and they feel free to stare at others who aren’t going to look anyway. Mutual neglect is also in force on a busy street, insofar as everyone intends to leave everyone else alone, provided that they intend likewise. Thus, joint intentions are operative even when people are doing nothing together besides doing nothing else together, and all of these joint intentions require objective self-awareness.

26Like all objectively reflexive thought, joint intentions are self-referring. When I intend to do something on the condition of your intending likewise, “intending likewise” means having an intention with the same content as mine mutatis mutandis. The content of this intention depends on the content of its stipulation that you intend likewise, which depends in turn on the content of the whole intention. The content of my intention therefore yields a regress of contents depending on contents depending on contents, and so on ad infinitum.

  • 15 For discussion of this problem, including references, see the Appendix to my “How to Share an Inten (...)

27The content of such an attitude is not finitely completable. Some regard this incompleteness as a problem, but I don’t see why we cannot have attitudes with incompletable contents, so long as they have some content that is finitely complete. A British publisher used to place this notice on its copyright pages: “This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.” No one was alarmed by the incompleteness of this condition.15 Those alarmed by such cases are philosophers with a theory of attitudes and propositions — a theory almost universally accepted by philosophers but, I would say, in need of revision precisely because of its alarming implications.

28An objective self-conception is required for joint attention as well as joint intention. When two people watch the sunset together, rather than merely side by side, each sees the sunset as being likewise seen by the other. You see the sunset as being seen also by the other, and as being seen by the other as being hereby seen by you. Your visual experience therefore represents you as seen by the other as having that very experience — an objectively reflexive representation.

29Joint attention and joint intention are often combined. Imagine that you are viewing a painting in a museum while standing next to a stranger who is viewing the same painting. In your peripheral vision, you see him in front of the painting; you presume that he sees you in his peripheral vision as well. But you don’t quite see whether he is looking at the painting. (For all you can see, he might be reading the legend next to it.) Or maybe you don’t quite see whether he is seeing you look at the painting. (For all you can see, it might be the case for all he can see that you are reading the legend.) In short, you and he may have common knowledge of standing side by side in front of the painting, but you have not entered a state of joint attention to it.

  • 16 This change need not involve the sensory content of your visual experience — the arrangement of col (...)

30Now imagine that you enter a state of joint attention. Each of you not only sees the painting but sees it as being likewise seen by the other, which entails its being seen by the other as being likewise seen by yourself. The representational contents of your visual experiences are now causally dependent on the direction of one another’s gaze: those contents will change if the other looks away, since you will no longer see the painting as being jointly seen. Each party’s visual experience is thus under the control of both gazes: what each sees is dependent on where both look.16

31If you are visiting the museum with a companion, you probably have a joint intention to pay joint attention to the various paintings in turn. That is, each of you intends to join the other in viewing the next painting, but only while the other is like-minded; both intentions allow for breaking the joint view of the painting if either shows signs of intending to do so; and each intends to move on in that case, so long as the other intends likewise. So the direction of both gazes is determined by both intentions and, in turn, determines both visual experiences. Where each of you looks depends on where both of you intend to look, and where both of you look determines what each of you sees.

  • 17 “Sexual Perversion”, The Journal of Philosophy 66 (1969): 10.

32An objective self-conception may be essential to the distinctively human form of sexual arousal. Writing in a different context, Nagel says, “Sexual desire involves [...] not only perceptions of the sexual object, but perceptions of oneself.”17 He continues:

[Romeo] notices, and moreover senses, Juliet sensing him [...] Juliet [...] senses that he senses her. This puts Romeo in a position to notice, and be aroused by, her arousal at being sensed by him. He senses that she senses that he senses her. This is still another level of arousal, for he becomes conscious of his sexuality through his awareness of its effect on her and of her awareness that this effect is due to him.

33Obviously, Romeo can enter this erotic hall-of-mirrors only if he thinks of Juliet as aroused by his own arousal — a thought that requires an objective self-conception, of himself and his sexuality as sexual objects for her.

  • 18 I discuss the emotion of shame in “The Genesis of Shame”, Philosophy & Public Affairs 30, no. 1 (20 (...)

34Of course, animals feel sexual arousal, and our sexual response has evolved from theirs. The point is that objectively reflexive thought is crucial to what has evolved. The reason why dogs aren’t ashamed when seen mating is not that they are shameless, like exhibitionists; it’s that they are utterly incapable of shame, because they cannot imagine being seen as failing to conceal themselves.18 The kind of sexual arousal that Nagel describes — the kind that’s distinctive of persons — involves the conception of oneself as exposed to the gaze of another in a state that would ordinarily be concealed.


  • 19 “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy”, in Responsibility and Judgment, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York: Sc (...)

35Finally, an objective self-conception is necessary for the distinctively human way of being alone, which Hannah Arendt characterized as solitude. “Solitude”, she wrote, “means that though alone, I am together with somebody (myself, that is).”19 In other words, solitude entails keeping oneself company.

  • 20 “The Capacity to Be Alone”, in The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies (...)

36The capacity for solitude is what Donald Winnicott had in mind when he wrote that a child learns to be alone by being alone in the presence of another.20 A child is alone in the presence of another when, instead of jointly attending to a toy or book, the child and the other attend to separate activities while remaining jointly aware of one another’s presence. The child then acquires the ability to lie snugly in bed aware of his parents talking softly downstairs aware of him lying upstairs snugly in bed. From there he can make the transition to solitude, because his awareness of his parents’ awareness of him has led him to notice that he is someone there in bed, someone who can keep him company in bed, hence that he can keep himself company.

37None of these instances of objective self-awareness involves self-directed attention or explicit thought. One can watch the sunset in solitude without focusing on oneself, but if one weren’t aware of being by oneself, and of being hereby aware of that fact, one wouldn’t be watching in solitude; if one is to watch in company with another, being one of the company must enter one’s awareness, even though the sunset has one’s undivided attention; when working with another on a joint project, one attends to the project, but if it is truly to be a joint project, then one must conceive of oneself as a member of the reciprocally intending pair; and that goes as well for the pair whose joint project unfolds in bed. Thus, objective self-awareness is central to many settings, both solitary and social, where explicitly thinking about oneself would be out of place.

Valuing Objective Self-Awareness

38I have tried to show that an objective self-conception is crucial to a wide variety of functions that are characteristic of persons. The list now includes central elements of rational agency, such as perceiving an open future and planning for it. It also includes distinctively personal forms of apartness (solitude), togetherness (companionship), and interaction (conversation, sex). I now turn to various ways in which we value personhood conceived as the capacity for these distinctive functions. My first example of valuing personhood was Thomas Nagel’s amazement at being a particular person. It is now time to face the question: What is so amazing?

39What amazes Nagel about being a particular person, recall, is that he is “anything so [...] concrete and specific”. This amazement at his own concrete specificity must have a foil in something else about himself with which it contrasts. What is it about himself that makes Nagel’s concrete specificity so amazing to him?

  • 21 Nagel, “The Objective Self”, op. cit., 225.

40Nagel himself contrasts his concrete specificity with the size and grandeur of the universe. He says:21

I begin by considering the world as a whole, as if from nowhere, and in those vast spaces TN is just one person among countless others, all equally insignificant. Taking up that impersonal standpoint produces in me a sense of complete detachment from TN. How can I, who am thinking about the entire, centerless universe, be anything so specific as this: this measly creature existing in a tiny morsel of space and time, with a definite and by no means universal mental and physical organization? How can I be anything so small and concrete and specific?

41There are two contrasts at work in this passage. The first is a contrast in size, between the vastness of the universe and the “tiny morsel of space and time” that Nagel occupies. To my mind, however, the crucial contrast is the second, which is between the centerlessness of the universe and Nagel’s “definite and by no means universal [...] organization”. Centerlessness is a feature of the infinite — there is no median integer — whereas Nagel is finite, or as he puts it, “definite and by no means universal”. What amazes Nagel is that this by-no-means-universal creature can be thinking about the centerlessly infinite universe, can encompass the universe in thought. The wonder, in other words, is that a concrete and specific individual can think abstractly about everything there is. And the shameless megalomania to which Nagel nearly confesses would be based on the assumption that only “the world soul” could contain such an idea.

42There is indeed something remarkable about the capacity of a concrete individual to quantify abstractly over everything — something remarkable, that is, about the disproportion between the universality of the quantifier and the particularity of the creature who thinks it. That disproportion is what amazes Nagel, I believe, as he shifts attention from the universe to his measly self.

43Nagel could have felt magnified rather than diminished by the disproportion. And he could have been impressed by the even more remarkable disproportion between his own finitude and his infinitely regressive thoughts, which themselves partake of infinitude, albeit abstractly, in the determination of their content. That is, he could have been impressed by his capacity to have thoughts whose content implicitly involves the incompletably many iterations of self-reference.

  • 22 Personhood involves many dimensions of psychic depth, of course. Charles Taylor explains “our ordin (...)

44A person has what you might call psychic depth.22 The description of someone’s eyes as deep pools is trite but not, for all that, untrue. What we see when we look into someone’s eyes is his self-awareness, because we see him seeing us likewise, hence seeing us seeing him, ad infinitum — a regress in which he goes on endlessly seeing himself being seen. If we are paying proper attention, we marvel at the bottomless depth of the self-awareness that is embodied in this particular, concrete human being. If only Nagel had concentrated on his capacity for such self-awareness rather than the measly creature who has it, he would have been impressed by himself for being a person.


  • 23 This section expands upon my previous writings about love: “Love as a Moral Emotion”, Ethics 109, n (...)

45We don’t have a word for this sense of wonder at personhood, but we do have a word for an emotion of which it is often a part. It is often a part of love.23

46When we philosophers talk about love, we are almost always talking about a twine of attitudes and dispositions, strands of which may include attraction, affection, attachment — plus identification, sympathy, benevolence — also loyalty, gratitude, pity — not to mention nostalgia and pride. The reason why we are talking about many of these things at once is that we are usually talking about our feelings for people whom we would describe as loved ones: friends, family, lovers. In the context of these relationships, I would say, love is more of a syndrome than a single emotion.

47So I don’t see much point in talking about what love is. Still, I think that there is one strand of emotion that almost always runs through love and for which we have no other term: it’s the emotion that I have described as amazement at the personhood of another.

48Asya Passinsky has independently arrived at a similar view, based on Kant’s theory of the sublime. She believes that love is an experience of the beloved as sublime — specifically, as mathematically sublime, in the sense defined by Kant.

  • 24 The Critique of Judgment, trans. James Creed Meredith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), Book II, §23 (...)

49Kant says that our sense of the sublime involves “a representation of limitlessness, yet with the super-added thought of its totality”.24 We experience the sublime when a magnitude outruns the capacity of our imagination but can be encompassed by our reason, as when we find that we cannot count to infinity but can grasp it intellectually. We feel displeasure when the imagination despairs of reaching the infinite and pleasure when reason triumphs in grasping it. The tension between pleasure and displeasure generates our sense of the sublime, according to Kant.

50In my view, the limitlessness of the beloved is to be found in his capacity for objectively reflexive thoughts, with their implicit regress of self-reference. The totality of this unimaginable regress is represented not just in our intellectual grasp of the regress itself but in our grasp of its being implicit in thoughts entertained by a concrete, specific individual. When we register the tension between this limitlessness and its totality, we have an experience of the sublime, and that experience amounts to a component of love.

  • 25 In his essay on the absurd, Nagel writes: “ [H]umans have the special capacity to step back and sur (...)

51(It stands to reason that the experience I am describing should be the experience of the sublime, given that it is the inverse of Nagel’s sense of being a measly little creature, which might be described as the experience of the ridiculous.)25

52The mere knowledge of someone’s personhood is not an emotional matter: before one can get emotional about someone’s personhood, one has to notice and pay attention to it. Even when Nagel is not attending to the fact that he is TN, he is certainly aware of it. He isn’t amazed, however, until he confronts his personhood face-to-face. He marvels at being a particular person only when he attends to the contrast between his finite particularity and his infinitely recursive thoughts.

53Similarly with our appreciation of one another’s personhood. We can look one another in the eye without consciously registering that we are seeing and being seen like this and that our visual experience is therefore incompletably recursive in content — more colloquially, that both of us are looking into bottomless pools.

54Sometimes, though, mutual awareness is not necessary to seeing someone as self-aware. Some people just strike us as there in their faces, as if the lights are on and there’s somebody home. We almost never speak to them, much less become acquaintances, even less friends. If, against all odds, we become lovers, however, we will say that it was love at first sight, and we won’t be guilty of retrospective projection. At first sight we really did feel an important part of what we will feel then.

55People scoff at the idea of love at first sight. They are right to scoff if the idea is that a single look can provoke the entire syndrome; they are wrong if they think that it cannot provoke an important component of the syndrome — an important strand even if not the whole ball of twine.


56The amazement of love is not our only evaluative response to the personhood of others. We also value personhood in appreciating the personhood of our friends.

  • 26 Nicomachean Ethics, ed. and trans. Roger Crisp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), VIII. (...)
  • 27 Ibid., IX.ix, 179.

57Aristotle’s theory of friendship includes a role for companionship and joint intention. He starts out by describing friendship as “two going together”,26 and he later contrasts the case of people living together with “the case of cattle, grazing in the same place”.27 When cattle merely graze in the same place, they are not grazing together, because they are not jointly aware of doing so. They are like children engaged in what we call parallel play.

58Visiting a museum is a human sort of grazing, but visiting with a companion is not just a case of grazing in the same place, or parallel play; it’s a case of two going together. The point of visiting the museum with a companion is to join in viewing the paintings out of a joint intention so to view them, thereby having a shared activity and a shared experience. Although you naturally prefer some friends over others as partners in museum-going, and you prefer friends over strangers, grazing the galleries with a companionable stranger may be preferable to going alone. The mere personhood of another person, which makes him eligible for going together, is of value even in the absence of any personal relationship. And conversely, one of the many values in personal relationships is that they provide ready access to companionship of the kind that you would value even in a companionable stranger.


59Another way of valuing personhood is to take pleasure in solitude. Pleasure taken in one’s own company does not come from finding oneself entertaining. Entertaining oneself, keeping oneself occupied, are distractions from solitude. The pleasure of solitude comes from simply contemplating one’s capacity for being company to someone — in this case, oneself. It thus comes from appreciating one’s own personhood.

60Sometimes one’s own company is not enough, and then the awareness of having only oneself for company turns from solitude into loneliness. One longs for more company, which would be an enlargement of one’s own. What one longs for, in other words, is to enlarge one’s solitary self-awareness to include the shared self-awareness involved in joint attention, joint intention, and other forms of mutuality. One thereby appreciates the value of what one is missing, the personhood of others, and also the unrealized potential in oneself, which consists in one’s own personhood.

61So there are many ways in which humans value personhood: love and sexual arousal; pleasure in solitude, in companionship, and in friendship; loneliness. These ways of valuing personhood are mutually reinforcing, both dispositionally and occurrently. The capacity to savor solitude enhances one’s capacities for companionship, friendship, and love; loving someone in particular enhances friendship and companionship with him, and of course sex as well.

62I think that a similar function is served by the much-derided phenomenon of love at first sight. The amazement that can turn out to have been the beginning of love usually leads nowhere but still alerts one to the value at which full-blown love would stand in wonder. Feeling incipient love for a perfect stranger thus enlivens one’s capacity for appreciating personhood in other ways. It may be followed by reflective solitude or depressing loneliness or the thought of a real-life lover, all of which are further ways of valuing personhood.

Valuing Personhood

63I have tried to show that these evaluative responses have as their objects manifestations of the same phenomenon, namely, the objective self-conception that makes persons the amazing creatures we are. I hope you will agree that the responses I have catalogued are not culture-bound. Enjoying both solitude and companionship, suffering from loneliness, being wowed by a beloved, feeling the buzz of mutual arousal — these responses aren’t peculiar to any place or time. They are rooted in human nature.

  • 28 In “What Good is a Will?” (Action in Context, ed. Anton Leist [Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter/M (...)

64In calling these responses natural, I do not mean to imply that they are naturally selected. I don’t think that valuing manifestations of objectively reflexive thought is necessarily adaptive, but then, I don’t think that evolutionary theory is the place to look for what is moral in human nature. All I claim is that valuing personhood is a part of human nature — witness the way it figures in the universally human ways of being together and being alone. It appears to come along with the cognitive capacity for objectively reflexive thought, which may itself have been adaptive for other reasons.28

65Because these evaluative responses are rooted in human nature, they constrain the ways of life on which human beings are likely to converge — provided, of course, that they are free to converge spontaneously, rather than herded together by powerful individuals or interest groups. Left to coordinate on their own, members a human community will favor ways of life that are hospitable to valuing persons as humans naturally do — hospitable, that is, to the uninhibited enjoyment of solitude, companionship, friendship, love, and sex. Such ways of life are unlikely to be moral black holes.


1 Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an essay with the title “Society and Solitude” (Society and Solitude: Twelve Essays [Cambridge, MA: The Riverside Press, 1870]). I wish it were relevant.

2 “The Objective Self”, in Knowledge and Mind: Philosophical Essays, ed. Carl Ginet and Sydney Shoemaker (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 212. See also “Subjective and Objective”, in Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 196-213; “The Limits of Objectivity”, in The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Vol. I, ed. Sterling M. McMurrin (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1980), 77-139; and The View From Nowhere (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), Chapter IV. The View From Nowhere is perhaps the most widely read of these works, but its chapter on “the objective self” is, in my view, considerably watered down. I recommend the paper entitled “The Objective Self” in the volume edited by Ginet and Shoemaker.

3 Nagel, “The Objective Self”, 225.

4 Exactly how there can be such a self-conception is a vexed question, which, fortunately, needn’t be answered here. Especially fortunate is that forms of reflexive thought have been extensively explored by John Perry. See his “Self-Notions”, Logos (1990): 17-31, and “Myself and ‘I’”, in Philosophic in Synthetischer Absicht, ed. Marcelo Stamm (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1998), 83-103. See also “The Problem of the Essential Indexical”, Nous 13, no. 1 (1979): 3-21. The last two pieces are reprinted in The Problem of the Essential Indexical and Other Essays, Expanded Edition (Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications, 2000). Note that whereas Perry focuses on the reflexive thought by which a person thinks of himself, I focus on that by which a person also thinks of this very reflexive thought. The phenomena of interest to me involve thoughts that are self-referring in the sense that they refer not only to their subjects but also to themselves.

5 I think it is possible that some of the higher apes have an objective self-conception. If they do, then they are persons, in my view. This consequence of my view does not strike me as a counterexample, since I think that some of the higher apes just might be persons.

6 Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason (Cambridge, MA: Harvard university Press, 1987), 2.

7 See Gilbert Harman, “Practical Reasoning”, The Review of Metaphysics 79, no. 3 (1976): 440—448; and Change in View: Principles of Reasoning (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1986), Chapter 8.

8 Of course, plans do not make the future metaphysically open; they make it only epistemically open. I discuss this phenomenon in “Epistemic Freedom”, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 70, no. 1 (1989): 73-97; reprinted in The Possibility of Practical Reason (Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, 2000), 32-55.

9 Alan Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”, Mind 59, no. 236 (1950): 433—460.

10 I explore this research in Chapter II.

11 Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”, 446.

12 Of course, an un-psittacine parrot would also need a second-person conception of his examiners. In addition to conceiving of me as “this creature”, he would have to conceive of those creatures as “you”. Whether the latter conception is possible without the former is another vexed question that, fortunately, need not be answered here.

13 This is Grice’s analysis of assertion, in Studies in the Ways of Words (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989). Grice’s analysis doesn’t work as an analysis of assertion, since assertion doesn’t necessarily involve the intention to be believed. Telling does involve that intention, however, and so it fits Grice’s analysis.

14 I discuss this phenomenon, and its significance for the philosophy of action, in “The Way of the Wanton”, in Practical Identity and Narrative Agency, ed. Kim Atkins and Catriona Mackenzie (New York: Routledge, 2008), 169-192.

15 For discussion of this problem, including references, see the Appendix to my “How to Share an Intention”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 57, no. 1 (1997): 29-50; reprinted in The Possibility of Practical Reason, 200-220.

16 This change need not involve the sensory content of your visual experience — the arrangement of colors and shapes in your visual field. What changes is the representational content of the experience. This change in representational content may be experienced as a Gestalt switch, as the relations between the represented items are perceived to change.

17 “Sexual Perversion”, The Journal of Philosophy 66 (1969): 10.

18 I discuss the emotion of shame in “The Genesis of Shame”, Philosophy & Public Affairs 30, no. 1 (2001): 27-52; reprinted in Self to Self: Selected Essays (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 45-69.

19 “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy”, in Responsibility and Judgment, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York: Schocken Books, 2003), 49-146.

20 “The Capacity to Be Alone”, in The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development (London: Karnac Books, 1990), 29-36.

21 Nagel, “The Objective Self”, op. cit., 225.

22 Personhood involves many dimensions of psychic depth, of course. Charles Taylor explains “our ordinary use of the metaphor of depth applied to people” in terms of how a person evaluates his own motives. See “What Is Human Agency? ”, in The Self: Psychological and Philosophical Issues, ed. Theodore Mischel (Oxford: Blackwell, 1977), 114 ff. In this sense, only some people are deep. But being either deep or shallow in this sense requires objective self-awareness, which makes all persons deep in my sense.

23 This section expands upon my previous writings about love: “Love as a Moral Emotion”, Ethics 109, no. 2 (1999): 338-374, and “Beyond Price”, Ethics 118, no. 2 (2008): 191-212. The first is reprinted in Self to Self: Selected Essays (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 70-109.

24 The Critique of Judgment, trans. James Creed Meredith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), Book II, §23, Acad. 244, 90.

25 In his essay on the absurd, Nagel writes: “ [H]umans have the special capacity to step back and survey themselves, and the lives to which they are committed, with that detached amazement which comes from watching an ant struggle up a heap of sand. Without developing the illusion that they are able to escape from their highly specific and idiosyncratic position, they can view it sub specie aeternitatis — and the view is at once sobering and comical. ” “The Absurd”, The Journal of Philosophy 68 (1971): 720.

26 Nicomachean Ethics, ed. and trans. Roger Crisp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), VIII.i, 143.

27 Ibid., IX.ix, 179.

28 In “What Good is a Will?” (Action in Context, ed. Anton Leist [Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter/Mouton, 2007], 193-215), I discuss the possibility that rational agency is an evolutionary spandrel — that is, a product of adaptations but not itself an adaptation.


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