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Philosophical Topics

Volume 49, Issue 1, Spring 2021

Social Visibility

Matthew Congdon
Pages 123-144

The Aesthetics of Moral Address

Acts of interpersonal moral address depend upon a shared space of social visibility in which human beings can both display themselves and perceive others as morally important. This raises questions that have gone largely undiscussed in recent philosophical work on moral address. How does the social mediation of interpersonal perception by forces such as ideology shape and limit the possibilities for moral address? And how might creative acts of putting oneself on display make possible unanticipated forms of moral address, especially under ideological conditions? In this paper, I propose that we can make progress towards answering such questions by treating moral address as a fundamentally aesthetic phenomenon. I begin by drawing examples from literature that invite the idea that humans and animals possess ethically value-laden features that are open to empirical view, and argue that approaches to moral address that do not avail themselves of this idea face serious limits, focusing on Stephen Darwall’s The Second-Person Standpoint. I then illustrate the role of the aesthetic in moral address by offering a reading of the “Capitol Crawl,” a 1990 direct action in which people with disabilities left behind assistive devices in order to ascend the stairs leading to the US Capitol. Drawing from some ideas in Iris Murdoch, I argue that the aesthetically striking features of this collective act of moral address are inseparable from the moral demands it expresses, and that, read as an aesthetic whole, its morally expressive power extends beyond the discursive while nevertheless remaining a part of the space of reasons.