Attending – patient contemplation focused on a particular being – is a central ethical activity that has not been recognized by any of the main moral systems in the European philosophical tradition. That tradition has imagined that the moral agent is primarily a problem solver and world changer when what might be needed most is a witness.
Moral theory has been agonized by dualism – motivation is analyzed into beliefs and desires, descriptions of facts and dissatisfactions with them, while action is represented as an effort to lessen dissatisfaction by altering the empirical world. In Attending Warren Heiti traces an alternative genealogy of ethics, drawing from the Platonism recovered by Simone Weil and developed in the work of Iris Murdoch, John McDowell, and Jan Zwicky. According to Weil, virtue is knowledge, knowledge is embodied, and the knower is nested in an ecosystem of relationships. Instead of analyzing and solving theoretical problems, Heiti aims to clarify the terrain by setting up objects of attention from more than one discipline, including not only philosophy but also literature, psychology, film, and visual art.
The traditional picture captures one important type of ethical activity: faced with a moral problem, one looks to a general rule to furnish the solution. But not all problems conform to this model. Heiti offers an alternative: to see what is needed, one attends to the particular being.
Warren Heiti is a Professor of philosophy and liberal studies at Vancouver Island University.
McGill-Queen’s University Press, July 15, 2021
In 1943, Simone Weil proposed to supersede the declaration of human rights with a declaration of obligations towards every human being’s balancing pairs of body and soul’s needs, for engaging and inspiring more effectively against autocratic and populist currents in times of crisis. We claim that Weil’s proposal, which remains pertinent today, may have been sidestepped because her notion of needs lacked a fundamental dimension of relationality, prominent in the ‘philosophical anthropology’ underlying the (different) visions for a new political ethos of both Judith Butler and Carol Gilligan. From the radical starting point of innate morality common to all three thinkers, we, therefore, indicate how an enriched notion of interlaced needs, encompassing both balance and relationality, may restore the viability of a declaration of human obligations as a robust source of inspiration. In this combination of balance and relationality, Butler’s notion of aggressive nonviolence is key.
Article in Ethics, Politics & Society. A Journal in Moral and Political Philosophy, no. 4 (2021), pp. 175-188.
This thesis explores the role of attention in morality as presented by Iris Murdoch. The aim is to offer a clear and detailed understanding of Murdoch’s concept of attention, its metaphysical presuppositions and its implications for morality, and, if Murdoch’s view as developed here is found to be plausible, to suggest how attention can be considered to play an important role in morality. The moral concept of attention presented in this work involves particular epistemic attitudes and faculties that are meant to enable the subject to apprehend moral reality and thus achieve correct moral understanding and moral responses.
The thesis is divided into three parts. The first part (Chapters 1 and 2), clarifies Murdoch’s metaphysical picture on which the idea of attention is grounded. The metaphysics involves a dual commitment to value as both existing in reality and as a transcendental condition. While the two ideas appear incompatible, I suggest a framework against which Murdoch’s claim that an evaluat ive consciousness apprehends a value external to itself might be understood. The second part introduces Murdoch’s moral psychology, and explores how the faculties, attitudes and character traits related to attention are involved in moral understanding (Chapters 3 and 4). The two parts come together in Chapter 5, which focuses on how the exercise of attention can be understood as enabling moral perception. The last part (Chapters 6 and 7) continues the moral psychological exploration of attention, by focusing on the self, viewed both as interference and as indispensable means in attaining moral understanding.
The analysis of Murdoch’s thought is conducted through close readings of her work, discussions of the secondary literature, as well as by clarifying and developing key points through readings of Simone Weil, from whom Murdoch derives the idea of attention.
PhD dissertation, University of East Anglia School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication Studies Department of Philosophy, September 2015
Related: Simone Weil, Venice Saved, ed. & trans. by Silvia Panizza & Phillip Wilson, Bloomsbury Academic, 2019
Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 57, No. 1, Mar., 1997, pp. 73-93
in Dunaway, John M. & Springsted, Eric. O., The Beauty that Saves: Essays on Aesthetics and Language in Simone Weil, Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, pp. 99-107