Book Reviews

Alice Crary, Inside Ethics: On the Demands of Moral Thought, Harvard University Press, 2016

In this original and insightful new work, Alice Crary proposes that we see human beings and animals as creatures that are “inside ethics,” which is to say that they possess “characteristics that are simultaneously empirically discoverable and morally loaded” (4). This view rejects what Crary sees as the dominant paradigm in moral philosophy, wherein empirical observations about human beings and animals are viewed as morally neutral and shorn of any evaluative characteristics. Her view has implications for a range of topics in moral philosophy and bioethics, including debates about disability, moral status, moral individualism, animal ethics, and animal mindedness. Here, I’ll focus primarily on summarizing chapters 1-3—which contain what Crary refers to as the work’s central argument—before turning to a few thoughts and criticisms of that argument.

Chapter 1 lays out the broad paradigm in moral philosophy that Crary opposes—that of seeing human beings and animals as “outside ethics,” or devoid of empirically discoverable and objective moral characteristics. She traces the tendency to see human beings and animals as outside ethics to what she describes as a “hard metaphysic,” where objective moral values are not viewed as part of the fabric of the world, but things that we impose on a world that is itself morally neutral (14). Chapter 2 is devoted to arguing for the work’s central claim: that human beings and animals have empirically discoverable and objective moral characteristics.

In making this argument, Crary begins by establishing what moral characteristics are and discussing how we ascribe them to humans and animals. Moral characteristics are ethically inflected psychological categories—such as, for example, jealousy, guilt, fear, or happiness. Importantly, these categories “resist any meaningful reduction or translation to physical terms” (37). This is because, in applying these psychological categories to humans and animals, we necessarily invoke certain ethically loaded conceptions of what makes a good human or animal life that are not themselves reducible to physical terms (80). When, for example, researchers set out to study jealousy in dogs, “their efforts depend for their success” on an “understanding of canine life and of the place of jealousy within it” (79). Psychological characteristics are, in this sense, “only at home in human and animal lives in which some things matter in that they are, say, to-be-feared, to-be-sought, to-be-eaten, to-be-protected, or to-be-befriended” (88). In other words, we bring ethically loaded concepts of what makes a good human or animal life to bear on our understanding of the psychological characteristics of humans and animals.

But there is still the further claim that such moral characteristics are objective and empirically discoverable; in other words, that one can apply these characteristics in a genuinely descriptive manner. It might be the case, for example, that in attributing the concept of jealousy to dogs, we make a mistake—perhaps even a mistake that stems from a problematic tendency toward anthropomorphism on our part. If this thought is right, then our claims about dogs being jealous or afraid would not be truth-tracking or objective; they would be merely subjective expressions of our own emotions, preferences, or biases.

Crary resists this possibility by proposing that we reconceptualize our understanding of objectivity. She thinks that her opponents—in denying that moral characteristics are objective—rely on what she calls a narrow conception of objectivity. The narrow conception of objectivity takes the world to be “available to thought” in a manner that is “unmediated” by concepts (55). Further, proponents of the narrow conception think that this kind of connection with the world provides a firm foundation for empirical knowledge. Proponents of the narrow conception would deny that moral characteristics are objective because objectivity, for them, involves accessing the world in a manner unmediated by normatively- or morally-inflected concepts. To argue against the narrow conception of objectivity, Crary marshals arguments made by Wittgenstein, McDowell, and others, who resist the idea that there exists a non-conceptual “given” that can provide this kind of foundation for empirical knowledge (47-55). These arguments lead Crary to suggest a “wider” alternative to the narrow conception. Proponents of this wider conception of objectivity deny the existence of a non-conceptual “given” that can provide a foundation for empirical knowledge and affirm the conceptualist view that deploying normatively loaded concepts is necessary for acquiring empirical knowledge. If this wider conception of objectivity is right, then Crary has opened up a space in which we can start to see the ascription of moral characteristics to humans and animals as objective and truth-tracking—in other words, we can start to see humans and animals as “inside ethics.”

But in relying on a conceptualist view to defend the wide conception of objectivity in chapter 2, Crary recognizes a threat to her argument that non-human animals are “inside ethics” in virtue of their psychological qualities. This threat comes from the fact that conceptualist doctrines like the one that Crary defends in chapter 2 are often taken to imply that non-human animals “lack any but the most primitive qualities of mind” (93). In order to avoid this, and thereby show that our attribution of morally inflected psychological qualities to animals is not misguided, she urges us to recognize a continuum of concept-use that runs from being governed by immediate, biological drives, to primitive concept-use, to full rationality. She thinks that, just like we consider young children to be primitive concept-users, we should think about many non-human animals—she focuses primarily on dogs—in this way (113-18). So we should read certain dog behavior, for example, as trustworthy as opposed to “merely predictable” (120). Showing how conceptualism needn’t result in skepticism about animal minds allows Crary to claim that non-human animals have empirically observable, objective moral characteristics, so that when we label a dog’s trustworthy behavior as such, we are not engaging in mere misguided anthropomorphism.

The latter chapters of the book draw out what Crary sees as the moral upshot of understanding humans and animals as “inside ethics”: the recognition of moral characteristics in humans and animals calls for certain forms of moral response, like attention and concern (88). Furthermore, given that our empirical knowledge of humans and animals’ psychological qualities must draw on ideas about what matters morally in their lives, she argues in chapter 4 that this means that all human beings and animals are of moral concern, qua their status as human beings or animals (121). Chapter 7 applies her view to two issues in applied ethics: eating animals and experimenting on them. Here, she focuses on two nonfictional works: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals and the documentary Project Nim (255). She argues that both works urge us to see animals as “inside ethics,” insofar as they portray various animals as “living lives of significance” that deserve certain sorts of moral attention, like sympathy or respect (265).

Throughout the work, Crary claims that her argument shows that all humans and all animals are inside ethics (121). However, I wonder whether—by Crary’s own lights—she is in fact able to retain this claim (121). Given her commitments, it seems to me that the scope of creatures who are inside ethics must be either narrower or broader than this: either it is the case that not all animals are inside ethics, or it is the case that all animals as well as all plants are inside ethics.

Let’s start with why the scope may have to be narrower. Consider Crary’s  response to McDowell’s arguments about animal mindedness. McDowell draws a distinction between world and environment (1994, 105-07): humans occupy a normatively structured world, while non-rational animals merely occupy environments that are structured by mere biological imperatives. For McDowell, this means that all animals are not minded in the relevant sense and are controlled by mere biological drives. Crary’s denies this universal claim by showing how some animals are not best characterized as mere automata, following only biological drives (107).

However, in this discussion, Crary exclusively focuses on the ways in which domesticated animals, like dogs, are inside ethics (113-18). We can see how it makes sense to speak of dogs “who are integrated into household routines” as trustworthy as opposed to merely predictable, for example, because they are trained to abide by social norms in various ways (120). Trained dogs would be capable of having some degree of the “free, distanced orientation” from immediate biological impulses that McDowell attributes exclusively to rational human beings (1994, 117). But what of non-domesticated animals, wild animals, or animals that otherwise take no part in the human social world? By arguing that dogs are at least proto-concept-users, Crary may have successfully blocked the implication that all animals are mere automata; however, that does not entail the further claim that all animals, including non-domesticated ones, truly possess the kinds of psychological qualities Crary is interested in. Given this, I think Crary needs to give an argument for why non-domesticated animals possess such qualities. If such an argument is not forthcoming, then it seems like all Crary has shown is that domesticated animals are properly described as “inside ethics.”

There are (at least) two ways of avoiding this problem. One would be to argue that there is more than one route to being a concept-user. Perhaps, for example, domesticated dogs and wild bottlenose dolphins are both concept-users, but in different ways. This seems to me the most promising route out of this problem, but Crary does not develop this line of thought in Inside Ethics.

A second route is to drop the commitment that moral thought in her sense is truth-tracking or objective. Perhaps we ascribe concepts like fear or shame to non-domesticated animals anthropomorphically. Maybe there is even a case to be made that we should anthropomorphize non-domesticated animals this way, insofar as it increases sympathy for them or amplifies concern for their welfare. In other words, perhaps there are independent reasons we should think about creatures as being “inside ethics,” even if that sort of thinking is not objective or truth-tracking.

However, if Crary drops this commitment to objectivity, she runs into other problems. Namely, it then becomes unclear why we shouldn’t consider a much wider class of creatures to be “inside ethics.” Why not, for example, see individual plants as things about which we can have morally loaded empirical knowledge? After all, in order to understand features of any given plant—why its leaves droop at night, or why its stems turn certain colors when lacking nutrients—we must draw upon ideas about what makes life good for plants of that kind. Goethe, for example, takes up this attitude toward plants in his work The Metamorphosis of Plants:

The nub of tranquil life, kept safe and dry,
Swells upward, trusting to the gentle dew,
Soaring apace from out the enfolding night.
Artless the shape that first bursts into light—
The plant-child, like unto the human kind—
Sends forth its rising shoot that gathers limb
To limb, itself repeating, recreating… (2009, 2-3)

Here Goethe clearly anthropomorphizes plants, attributing to them certain kinds of psychological properties that they do not, in fact, have. But there is no question that this poem attempts to achieve a certain kind of sympathetic understanding of the goods of plant life, and what it might mean for that life to go well. Does this mean, then, that we must extend moral concern to individual plants, as Crary suggests we should to humans and animals? This would make the scope of beings that are inside ethics much broader than Crary claims. This implication would also be unwelcome: if beings that are “inside ethics” call for “certain forms of moral attention and concern” (88), and if plants, too, are inside ethics, then it seems we must devote moral attention and concern to individual plants. This requirement could make moral thought far too demanding.

Crary needs the objectivity component of the project in order to block this move. With this in place, she could argue that our interpretation of a plant as possessing psychological properties— “trusting to the gentle dew,” for example—is mere poetic anthropomorphism, because we know that plants do not possess concepts, and are thus not minded in the relevant sense. But this move risks coming at the cost of Crary’s commitment to the idea that all animals—not simply domesticated ones—are “inside ethics,” since the apparent moral features of non-domesticated animals may also be appropriately characterized as mere poetic anthropomorphism. What is in fact included inside ethics may therefore be either broader or narrower than Crary claims.

That said, this work has much to offer, and is a breath of fresh air in many respects. Crary is right that the argument of her second chapter fleshes out and defends previously undefended aspects of Philippa Foot’s project in Natural Goodness (2001). Inside Ethics can also be read as a way of elaborating upon and defending Cora Diamond’s brief, suggestive, and intriguing remarks in her famous essay “Eating Meat and Eating People,” wherein Diamond urges us to think of non-human animals as creatures deserving of pity (1978). Crary’s work also poses a distinctive and welcome challenge to the dominant trend in moral philosophy of seeing living beings as “outside ethics,” and calls for those who subscribe to that outlook to defend it. Though not without its flaws, Inside Ethics ultimately offers a fresh way of thinking about moral philosophy that is stimulating, ambitious, and original.

Hailey Huget
Georgetown University
Washington, DC, USA


Diamond, Cora. 1978. “Eating Meat and Eating People.” Philosophy 53 (206): 465-479.

Foot, Philippa. 2001. Natural Goodness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. 2009. The Metamorphosis of Plants. Cambridge: MIT Press.

McDowell, John. 1994. Mind and World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.