A Project in Shared Humanity

What are the preconditions for moral judgment?  In what matters may we be held morally agentic, culpable, or responsible as the true architect of our own actions?  In what manner do humor and its determinants find themselves inextricably bound to such moral questions, and our ability to realize fundamental relational resilience, mutual vulnerability and health in the most essential of our human connections?  How might we endure the tremendous sufferings of existence together, leaning on humanity in true universal affiliation?

David W. Shoemaker, professor in Cornell’s Sage School of Philosophy, Associate Editor of the journal Ethics, and recurring visiting faculty at the Lund-Gothenburg Responsibility Project occupies his research with questions such as those above-listed.  I had the great honor of sitting down with Profesor Shoemaker and exploring his collected work and thought. Shoemaker’s views of marginal moral agency are captured in his 2015 book Responsibility from the Margins, and of affiliative humor through secure interpersonal narrative in his developing book, Wisecracks.

Professor Shoemaker’s initial interest in moral responsibility emerged out of discussions between himself and his graduate advisor, Gary Watson, whose mark has not been lost in Shoemaker’s life and whose teachings indeed remain a staple of his courses.  Shoemaker largely disengaged from the discourse on responsibility for a long period of time following his graduate school years, discouraged and feeling the topic exhausted in that Watson “had answered all the questions and that there was nothing left to do.”

It required a disagreement to draw Shoemaker back into these discussions of freedom and attribution of blame.

So, when it came to “marginal” agency and “marginal” responsibility, there were people I knew who were undergoing Alzheimer’s dementia, or some people with various intellectual disabilities, or some people with autism, some people who had gone through clinical depression, and, in trying to find some people who had talked about this in the philosophical literature, it always went by in a blink of an eye, and the way they [including Shoemaker’s advisor] always addressed it was, well, they’re just not responsible.  I thought, well, this isn't the way things are playing out in real life, there is much more ambivalence that people have about these [marginal cases], people were cutting them some slack, but it seemed in other ways they were not cutting them some slack, and if we think of responsibility in part as determining responses that we have to other people and their expressions of practical agency, their responses were pretty ambivalent, and there was just nothing in the literature to capture that ambivalence.

Shoemaker attributes the divergence from his graduate advisor’s views in crucial part to a formative influence of noncognitivism in responsibility, a school of thought that claims statements which commit to value judgments, or distinguish right and wrong (moral statements) are neither true nor false.  In determining who is responsible and who is not, Shoemaker, under the assumption that what come first are our structures of desire rather than our evaluations and judgements of virtue and vice, entered into an exacting study of marginal cases in responsibility.  In so doing, Shoemaker launched into public consideration the notion that responsibility, construed with a greater respect for context and psychological condition, lends itself to a more moderate, inclusive theory of moral agency.  In such a “pluralistic theory,” where a plurality of moral views on responsibility are held with respect and worth, Shoemaker contends that, under certain circumstances, populations conventionally absolved of responsibility may indeed be wrongly excluded from a larger moral community of shared duty.

This project, embodied in Responsibility from the Margins, targeted at faithful attribution of responsibility, bears on a pressing issue which implicates both the philosophers that determine responsibility and those of us, really all of us, that on a daily basis excuse or condemn the actions of fellow humans.  The obligation to create a concordance between the exclusion of people from the condition of being responsible in theoretical determination and in our own reactions to others (especially for those in positions of power) is not only obvious, Shoemaker asserts, but contains a deeper truth regarding causality in assessing agency and how we respond to others as being responsible or not.

I’ve come to believe that responsible agency is, in fact, a function of our responses to other people so that what’s prior, what’s most fundamental is this practice of responses to other people … this is the connection to humor … that the best way to make sense of what’s funny is just by looking at what we are amused by, by looking at what people tend to be amused by once you’ve gotten rid of various obscuring factors.

Fundamentally, as the funny may be clarified through what makes us laugh, Shoemaker supposes that responsibility may be clarified through “the things that anger us, or the kinds of things to which we respond with gratitude, or with admiration, or with contempt or pride or regret, it’s the responses … we need to look to in order to understand responsible agency and humor.” 

Profoundly dissatisfied by the contemporary literature in humor as he had been by that of responsibility, which unthinkingly excluded those at the margins, Shoemaker once again discovered a poverty of insight, with the claim prevailing that the isolated source of our amusement was jokes … “punchline, setup, punchline … the kinds of things that interrupt conversations.”  From this dissatisfaction Shoemaker’s project Wisecracks was born.

That’s right, we’re not having a conversation [when a joke is told], it’s a monologue, it’s a presentation, it’s a performance, whereas the kind of stuff that I find … well we tell jokes sometimes, and you watch a comedy special on a Friday night and want to tell your friends about it … but most of the amusement in our lives comes from this interpersonal back-and-forth, it's part of the conversation, it doesn't derail the conversation.  So I was interested in those kinds of exchanges, and so calling those wisecracks, a kind of interpersonal amusement that depends heavily on contextual factors.  It requires this kind of exchange requires an interpersonal relationship that jokes don’t, but because it requires a certain context and interpersonal relationship, questions of morality arise.

The wisecrack, as Shoemaker understands it, frequently entails an aspect of sting or meanness or cruelty, which places it at odds with the many who insist upon humor’s necessarily being at no cost or offense to its subject.  Such a position is frequently defended, Shoemaker believes, by a radical relativism or subjectivism of humor in which what is funny is taken to be.

For full interview, see Professor Shoemaker’s personal website (interview linked at bottom of webpage).

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Professor David Shoemaker