Doing Your Mind

Research, comments and musings about active minds.

Moral affordances

I’ve just finished reading the young adult novel The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, which is a superb if sometimes infuriating read. The details of the plot aren’t too important for our present purposes, but a central component of the book is the protagonist Todd Hewitt’s relationship with the eponymous blade.

Not too long into the story Todd finds himself in a situation in which he has to react to a very threatening and violent situation. The title of the chapter is “The Choices of a Knife”, and the dilemma revolves around the affordances of the blade – how it shapes the relationship between the hero and his adversary.

In the cognitive scientific literature, much is made of the use of tools, and the ways in which they transform the cognitive processes of the tool user – usually extending them, making certain forms of action possible that are impossible or more difficult without. For the main part, though, these possible actions are determined by their physical consequences (Dennett, in Kinds of Minds for example, makes the simple point that a person with a scissors is capable of a different set of actions than a person without). The moral facet of the transformed actions in question are not ordinarily examined.

By titling the chapter “The Choices of a Knife”, Ness specifically focuses on the moral aspects of the tool, and gives us these words from the mouth of the first person narration (pp.83-84):

But a knife ain’t just a thing is it? It’s a choice, it’s something you do. A knife says yes or no, cut or not, die or don’t. A knife takes a decision out of your hand and puts it in the world and it never goes back again.

It is as though the morality is not simply in the person, or their intention, or the act, but partly in the tool itself.

Harry Heft (1989, 2001) has argued that affordances are neither entirely out there in the world, nor entirely a subjective matter of perception, but rather a relation between an agent and its environment that holds regardless of whether it is being paid attention to, intended or taken advantage of at any given time. He extends the concept of affordance beyond its normal physical connotations (e.g. that a chair affords sitting, or a particular surface affords walking) into the social domain (e.g. that a given area may be off-limits and therefore dangerous). Heft touches on but doesn’t explicitly discuss the possibility of moral affordances (he mentions, in Ecological Psychology in Context [2001, p.129], that both James and Gibson touched on the idea of an objective world of values).

I find the possibility of moral affordances and an objective world of morality and value intriguing. How would such an approach transform (if at all) our take on ethics and morality as they stand? Any such description of the moral order would demand that we have a proper account of the construction and maintenance of affordances within social domains though. That’s probably a good while off yet.

Dennett, D. C. (1996). Kinds of minds. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

Heft, H. (1989). Affordances and the Body: An Intentional Analysis of Gibson’s Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 19(1), 1-30. 

Heft, H. (2001). Ecological psychology in context. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Ness. P. (2008). The knife of never letting go. London: Walker Books.

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