Mathew Abbot: Against Moral Blindness

The Look of Silence and the Problem of Monstrosity


In Beyond »Moral Judgment«, Alice Crary defends a version of moral objectivism which turns on the idea that participation in moral life involves sensitivities, affective responses, and acquired proclivities: subjective capacities which nevertheless allow us to be responsive to objective features of the world. In defending this claim, Crary draws on the paradox of rule-following outlined in Ludwig Wittgenstein's »Philosophical Investigations«, which showed that the mastery of a conceptual practice cannot depend on "the internalization of some sort of algorithm" ( Beyond Moral Judgment, 23). Against traditional sceptical and anti-realist interpretations, however, Crary argues that Wittgenstein is not asking us to relinquish the notion of objectivity. Rather, he wants us to see that "our concepts... are resources for thinking about aspects of t he world to which our eyes are only open insofar as we develop certain practical sens itivities" (25).

In this paper, I work to clarify the notion of moral vision underlining Wittgensteinian objectivism with an account of Joshua Oppenheimer's 2015 film »The Look of Silence«, which is a kind of companion piece to 2012's »The Act of Killing«. The film depicts a series of confrontations between optometrist Adi Rukun and warlords and gangsters involved in massacres carried out during Indonesia's anti-communist purges, some of whom were responsible for the brutal murder of his brother. Many of the interviews were carried out under the pretext of conducting eye tests, and the optometric equipment Rukun affixes to the faces of the perpetrators – who often appear quite cavalier about or even proud of their deeds – functions as a stark metaphor for their failures of moral vision. If Stanley Cavell is right to say that "morality is not meant to check the conduct of monsters" (»Companionable Thinking«, 102), then monsters can nevertheless disquiet morality. In particular, I argue, they cause disquiet by tempting us to say that there are agents who simply lack the means to see moral features of the world. As I try to show, resisting this temptation means resisting the idea that 'seeing the world differently' can count, on its own, as a reason for holding (or failing to hold) a certain moral view; it means giving up on the related idea that the world's features can be sorted into the moral and the non-moral . As with the student described by Wittgenstein – who seems to the teacher to have mastered what it means to add two to a number until he suddenly starts adding four – responding to moral monsters means accepting that our shared means of making sense can come up short. But this gives us no licence to think they do not inhabit – and see – the same world as we do.