Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Ethics and Experience: The Case of the Curious Response

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Ethics and Experience: The Case of the Curious Response

Article excerpt

Early this spring, I met a musician, the composer Pauline Oliveros, a beautiful woman like a grey rock in a streambed; and to a group of us, women, who were beginning to quarrel over theories in abstract, objective language--and I with my splendid Eastern-women's-college training in the father tongue was in the thick of the fight and going for the kill--to us, Pauline, who is sparing with words, said . . . "Offer your experience as your truth." There was a short silence. When we started talking again, we didn't talk objectively, and we didn't fight. We went back to feeling our way into ideas, using the whole intellect not half of it, talking with one another, which involves listening. We tried to offer our experience to one another. Not claiming something:,offering something. (Ursula LeGuin)[1]

This essay concerns the role of appeals to experience in moral deliberation. In what follows, I want to explore what it would mean to take LeGuin's advice seriously when writing about moral issues. In calling for attention to personal experience--particularly the experiences of women--LeGuin is adding her voice to those writers who have called for the integration of reason and emotion, the personal and the political, the public and the private. In moral theory, the attempt to overcome such dichotomies has been part of a general effort to reverse the segregation of intellectual inquiry from personal experience in moral deliberation. Indeed, a common theme in many of the works that might be collected under the rubric of "feminist ethics" is the centrality of personal experience. Yet how, precisely, should appeals to experience function in moral argument? Should personal experience be a privileged source for moral reflection? What authority does experience have in moral argument? How do we adjudicate conflicting appeals to experience? Although I cannot possibly answer adequately all of these questions in so brief a space, they will help frame my discussion.

We can begin by noting that the use of experience in moral deliberation is rarely critically examined and that the appeal to experience is often treated almost as a panacea. So if we are to understand how appeals to experience may serve an important function in moral deliberation, we must begin critically. Only then can we turn to a more constructive account of the role appeals to experience play in moral deliberation.

Some Problems with the Appeal to Experience

We can get a sense of some of the problems here by looking more closely at LeGuin's own uncritical celebration of appeals to experience. To be sure, there is much to affirm in this passage. Anyone familiar with academic conferences knows the sort of intellectual violence implied by LeGuin's comment about "going for the kill," and also how unproductive such academic fighting usually is. So I agree with LeGuin that offering your experience as your truth is frequently more productive than fighting in abstract "objective" language. Yet why suppose that offering your experience would put an end to argument? Why suppose that, if we only shared our experiences with each other, divisiveness would disappear?

To be fair, LeGuin does draw a distinction between "offering" and "claiming" and this distinction is important if we are to insist that the appeal to experience is the beginning rather than the end of moral deliberation. LeGuin is right: to offer your experience as your truth is not to claim that you have the Truth with a capital T It is a starting point, an invitation to conversation. However, once we acknowledge that the appeal to experience is not the end but the beginning of moral deliberation, we are in a position to see why such appeals are unlikely to have the sort of palliative effect on moral disagreement that LeGuin claims for them. An appeal to experience could only put a stop to argumentation if we misconstrue it as a move of last resort. Thus, LeGuin's remarks point to one significant danger here, namely, that experience will be treated as a sort of trump. …

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