By Thomas Meagher
Anna Julia Cooper begins her essay, “What Are We Worth?”—a chapter from her classic book A Voice from the South (1892), considered by many to be among the very first black feminist texts —with a recollection of a statement made by Henry Ward Beecher. Beecher was for a time the most prominent abolitionist in the United States—more prominent, even, than his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Beecher’s statement? That if African people were to vanish, the world would lose nothing of value.
It is an indispensable lesson of philosophy that efforts to deploy an argument for odious ends do not entail the incorrectness of that argument. In the same way that it is fallacious to appeal to authority—as might somebody saying, “If even a top abolitionist like Beecher agrees African people are of no value, then it must be true” —it is fallacious to disqualify an argument because of its association. In “What Are We Worth?” Cooper rejects such a fallacious appeal. Suppose that Beecher is correct about the framework of worth. Is his claim about African people true?
This, of course, raises questions for which study of human beings is necessitated: one cannot know the value of one’s contributions without having examined them. Here, though, a profound issue is raised, for—as the Haitian scholar Anténor Firmin had argued in The Equality of the Human Races (1885)—the framework for the human sciences had been worked out such that it was taken as an a priori given that whites were superior to people of color. In other words, the question of the worth of African and Africana peoples had already been “resolved” for the European sciences, whose task was by and large to find “evidence” in support of this founding presupposition rather than to examine the relevant evidence soberly and accurately.
What was afoot was a form of mauvaise foi or bad faith, in which one opts to believe what one knows to be false. The truth can be unpleasant, and bad faith is the move to value comforting falsehoods over unpleasant realities. It is a form of valuing, then, deriving not from rational assessment but from sentimental attachment. Cooper knows the danger of premising a system of ethical value on sentiment. It is easy to appeal to sentiment to resolve the question of who is good or bad, of what deed is right or wrong, and so on. Such appeals, of course, require no intellectual or philosophical rigor, though many of them shroud themselves in veneers that make it easier to surmise that such rigor has not fled the scene. Hence, Cooper argues that Beecher’s framework should be taken seriously: that we ought to ask, soberly and without sentiment, whether the world is better off with us in it.
That the human sciences have been erected in bad faith, of course, means that antiblack sentiment is part and parcel of them. Cooper notes, for instance, disparities in the way that racial statistics are kept. In the domain of crime, there are no shortage of racial distinctions made: much effort is put into recording the race of criminals, ultimately, because this is regarded as evidence of black inferiority. That this is reflective of antiblack racism at each level of the system—from how the laws are written, to how police are trained, to how prosecutors pursue cases, etc.—is of course evident in those statistics, but bad faith appeals to such statistics simply to affirm its racist sentiment. By contrast, Cooper looks at labor statistics and finds race totally absent, for instance, in the figures on cotton production. What blacks produce is racially anonymous: their contribution is statistically recorded as mere laborers, not as black laborers—it is their crimes that merit racial demarcation, not their contributions.
Cooper, though, understands that a rigorous study of black people changes the equation dramatically. Value, she argues, is relational: it is produced where one’s contributions exceed what has been invested in one, and it is wasted where such investments are squandered. A transcendental condition of value, she shows, is labor. It takes work to produce value. She goes further in showing that a transcendental condition of such work is education: education is labor that makes labor functional and hence more valuable. Every human being is a product of some form and degree of education; hence, every human being is a product of many labors.
The human being is thus somebody in whom investments are made. Sentimentally, Cooper notes, we regard human infants as possessing extraordinary value. Yet unsentimentally, the human infant has the value of a leak to a ship: it is drain on our efforts. The infant has a parasitic existence, requiring an extraordinary investment from a mother, a family, a society. Part of the sentiment involved, though, is hope, for one hopes that one will produce an adult who will provide a return on the investment.
We may thus say of adults that they are people in whom an extraordinary amount has already been invested even though, in ordinary cases, they have typically produced little of value prior to adulthood. Adult responsibility demands that one repay the debts incurred by childhood dependences. To ask, “What am I really worth?” is, Cooper argues, to deal with the issue that one may simply be a drain on the world, a parasite who benefits from the labor of others without producing something of a value to compensate.
With regard to Beecher’s claim, the significance is clear: African and Africana peoples are those in whom very little has been invested. They are those whose education is impeded, whose basic needs are met in miserly fashion, whose opportunities for contribution are systematically constrained. The investment made by an antiblack racist society in black people is less than meager. And yet a sober assessment of the evidence shows that their contributions to such societies are typically extraordinary, not only in terms of brute labor but also in terms of inventions, artistic expressions, and a raising of intellectual standards. The Beechers of the world regard black people as infantile and dependent on white guardianship. An unsentimental assessment, though, shows that the relationship is the inverse: whites have erected a world in which they are licensed to be infantile by way of a parasitic dependence on oppressed blacks.
The introductory-level course in ethics is a requirement in many colleges and universities. It is often a course whose value appears, from the vantage of many students enrolling, asserted a priori by administrators who don’t know any better. “What is this course worth?” is a question many students ask of it, and there is certainly no shortage of students who, having taken such a course, give an a posteriori response: “Nothing.”
It strikes me, then, that part of the task of the teacher of such a course is to demonstrate its value. And, indeed, this task means ultimately that the teacher demonstrate the value of thinking philosophically about ethical questions. Cooper’s text, I believe, is thus peculiarly well-suited for teaching such a course for a variety of reasons.
The dominant frameworks in professional academic moral philosophy are those familiarly known as deontological, consequentialist, or virtue theoretical. The typical approach of these are, respectively, to assess the rightness or wrongness of acts (deontology), the amount of value added by acts (consequentialism), or an elaboration of those good habits that are a characteristic of a good life (virtue theory). A fairly typical intro-level ethics course offers an overview of these approaches followed by a survey of topics (e.g., abortion, euthanasia, etc.) to which such theories might be applied.
We note, though, that Cooper’s position does not fit neatly within any of these frameworks. Hers is clearly not a deontological ethics concerned with the obligations constraining a given course of action. Like consequentialism, it is concerned with producing a surplus of value, and like virtue ethics, it is concerned with life as a whole rather than merely acts. If it is a consequentialist ethics, it is not act-consequentialist or rule-consequentialist but rather life-consequentialist. Even then, though, it would seem to involve an element familiar to the deontological insofar as Cooper suggests a duty to make one’s life worth more than has been invested in it. Cooper’s focus on the good life rather than the good act would seem to put it in the terrain of virtue ethics, yet there is a crucial way in which such a label would be misleading. The general framework of virtue ethics is to elaborate those good habits (virtues) and bad habits (vices) that one ought to cultivate or curtail, respectively, in order to develop a good character and live a good life.
Yet it is worth noting that the impetus to virtue theories have often been related in crucial respects to roles. For instance, Aristotle was interested in the virtues proper to a good citizen, a man to be regarded as an equal in the public sphere of politics. Aristotle was less interested in giving an account of what is virtuous for a woman or for a slave. Likewise, much of the genealogy of virtue ethics’ re-emergence in 20th century academic philosophy can be found in those who took religious inspiration. That is to say, many turned to virtue ethics because they understood that there was moral wisdom in, for instance, doctrines on what it means to be a good Christian that the academic debates in deontology and utilitarianism were lacking. For many, virtue theory was a way of implicitly answering the question: How can I be a good person of faith? We may also note, for instance, the recent growth of the field known as virtue epistemology, which asks questions pertaining to good habits for inquiry and the development of beliefs.
Virtue theory, then, could be seen as a way of answering the question, “What does it mean to be a good x?” where x denotes a type of role to be fulfilled by human beings. Yet one may raise the question of whether “human being” can validly be denoted here by x, insofar as the human being is one whose relationship to roles is subject to choice. There may be virtues that are true of anyone fulfilling a given role (e.g., the roles of parent, teacher, student, etc.), but it does not necessarily follow that these are the same virtues at play, for instance, when one is choosing what roles to take on. In other words, one might contend that virtue theory is better-suited to answering the question, say, of how to be a good parent than of answering the question of whether one ought to become a parent at all.
Relevant here, of course, is that many people become parents without having chosen to be so. And, indeed, there are roles that are imposed rather than chosen, of which Cooper—born a slave—was acutely aware. Cooper could have focused on the question of how to be a good “Negro” in a society that demands subservience of blacks, raising the questions of what the virtues of a black person struggling under such circumstances are. But the reality is that there are many roles that are imposed and need, ultimately, to be abolished. That such abolition may not be achieved within a lifetime or a generation, though, means that a mere “ethics of abolition” or “ethics of liberation” may be insufficient. For if liberation via the abolition of oppressive roles is a meaningful ethical demand—one calling, ultimately, for forms of political agency—it does not follow that it is an exhaustive ethical doctrine. That is to say, to resolve the political question that one must work to subvert illegitimate roles imposed upon oneself and others is not to conclude the range of ethical questions one will confront as a human being.
In short, then, Cooper understood the folly of reducing the struggle against antiblack racism and misogyny into ways of letting black people and women off the hook for larger ethical demands. To confront an illegitimate situation did not mean to be licensed to place questions of human value to the side. Nor did it mean bracketing political questions of liberation altogether for, as her abundant use of historical examples demonstrates, those who fight for liberation produce a better future through their labor for which subsequent generations are indebted.
Cooper thus was concerned with not replicating a folly that beset many approaches to ethical theory and moral philosophy. The point is well illustrated through a racist joke that, similar to her treatment of Beecher’s remarks, Cooper adeptly breaks down to identify its philosophical kernel of truth. The joke goes that a sultan had a collection of fine porcelain plates that were damaged in a calamity. Only one plate remained intact, albeit with a substantial crack. The sultan sent the cracked plate to a Chinese specialist to be replicated. After a long wait, the replicas were received, alongside an outrageously large bill. When the sultan protested the cost, the specialist replied that the source of the expense was all of the plates that had to be made and then discarded because they were broken while trying to replicate the crack.
Cooper uses this to argue that there are many human lives of great potential value—indeed, many even in which much has already been invested—that are wasted because insufficient care is taken to see through the investment. More to the point, there are those who foolishly seek to “reproduce some theoretically-desirable crack,” that is, there are many lives whose potential value is squandered due to efforts to make them adhere to a mold for which they are an ill fit. Not all education, Cooper notes, is productive for all human beings. Yet many assert that there are some things that all must learn and simply declare that those who struggle to learn them are failed people, rather than people who have been mis-educated.
The point is a critical one in regard to the introductory-level ethics course. Teachers of such courses know that their students have diverse vocations and varied strengths as learners, as well as diverse backgrounds and interests. If ethics is conceived in univocal terms, as conforming to a singular and all-encompassing model, there are many students whose capacities for thinking philosophically about their choices might be impaired rather than emboldened. The same can be said for philosophy as well: philosophy is diverse enough to broker a variety of approaches, yet some teach it as if it were monolithic and invariant. Cooper—an educator who wrote frequently about education—was keenly aware of the need for pluralistic approaches to teaching, a commitment that the tendency toward academic hyper-specialization may tend to impede.
Indeed, Cooper closes the essay by raising a very critical question. It ultimately does not matter, she contends, how logical, well-argued, or well-spoken moral philosophy is if it does not contribute to producing better human beings. History is, of course, replete with examples of learned peoples, even ones whose philosophical views on morality appear more or less sound, who nonetheless demeaned, abused, or oppressed those around them, or contributed to oppressive regimes. That such people can be shown, ultimately, to have acted unethically does not mean that they had not learned, in rigorous fashion, philosophical answers to moral questions. This is to say that the value of an education in ethics is contingent and requires a posteriori assessment; it is not an a priori necessity that one who has learned a rigorous moral code will be a valuable human being.
A typical philosophical response to such a challenge would be to spend much time examining how true such a contention is. Yet the argument implies the possible folly of such an approach, insofar as it is also not an a priori given that such meta-ethical reflection will produce better human beings. Cooper was weary of efforts to solve social problems by making a fetish of deliberation; there are ways of investing in debate to the point of inaction. But human problems, she argued, could not be addressed by fretting over them; they require, ultimately, that one solves them through living.
What is the role for philosophy in such living? Here we come to a question that, I take it, it is essential for ethics courses to raise and seek to answer. It is one thing to provide students with certain philosophical tools and leave it up to them how they shall use them. But it is quite another to use the ethics course as a way of demonstrating, ultimately, that living well requires forms of philosophical reflection. Many texts taught in such courses go to great lengths to demonstrate the soundness of their prescriptions, yet it is quite another thing to demonstrate the value of pursuing sound arguments. Teaching Cooper’s text, though, provides a simple way to put on the table a question from which many courses in ethics flinch: what is a philosophical approach to ethics worth?
Some readers may here protest that this is off the mark, for, after all, why should the teacher assign texts that might cast doubt upon the value of the course? Two responses are in order.
First, such doubt is, for many students, present regardless. Many simply enter the classroom thinking moral philosophy worthless. It may be unlikely that such students are willing to re-evaluate their stance unless the teacher is willing to pose the question in seriousness and make it an active object of reflection.
Second, Cooper’s position, though it calls into question the value of philosophy, is clearly not anti-philosophical. In other words, though Cooper was willing to go beyond philosophy to examine the truth of her claims, she did not reject philosophical inquiry; she simply demanded of it that it be of demonstrable value, a demand, ultimately, that her theory puts upon any human activity whatsoever. If the text is willing to put the value of philosophy up for debate, attention needs to be paid also to the subtext: it was through a philosophical examination that Cooper was able to raise the question. Cooper, in the end, was trying to examine the question of human value without subordinating it to feeling or whim. The question called for the elaboration of intersubjectively-meaningful criteria, since one cannot ultimately justify one’s value merely through some assertion that one likes oneself. To take the argument to its logical conclusion, then, would suggest that one cannot favor philosophy out of mere sentiment; it must make manifest its value.
In short, then, Cooper’s essay provides an entrée into a question for which instructors and students of any intro-level course should seek to demonstrate an answer: why is philosophy valuable? Why does it matter whether one’s choices are made with philosophical deliberation or without it?
A virtue of Cooper’s writing is that she does not presume that these questions could only be answered through philosophical discourse; there was, after all, a human world to be studied, empirical facts to be learned and evaluated. A weakness of many courses in ethics, for instance, is that they proffer ethical theories that would call for empirical and a posteriori knowledge of human life but abstain altogether from such thorny questions as are to be found in philosophy of human sciences. Cooper, clearly, did not suffer from this weakness, as her many reflections on human study make evident. But nor did Cooper reduce the question to one of a positivist assessment of philosophy’s value, as many students are wont to do (e.g., to think that a philosophy course’s value was equivalent to the average difference in lifetime earnings between students who had taken it and those who had not). Ultimately, her essay shows why philosophical reflection—the elaboration and refinement of criteria, the critical assessment of evidence and the norms thereof, radical reflection on the transcendental conditions of valuation, etc. —is something that human life demands.
In short, if the intro-level course in ethics is one in which the question, “What are we philosophers worth?” is already implicit in the minds of our students, then Cooper’s text is one that it may behoove us to teach.
Thomas Meagher is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. His research areas include Africana philosophy, phenomenology, existentialism, political theory, and philosophy of race and gender. He is set to defend his dissertation, “Maturity in a Human World: A Philosophical Study,” later this month. He will be conducting research as a Du Bois Fellow this summer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and will be a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Quinnipiac University.