Our content is reader supported. Things you buy through links on our site may earn us a commission
Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

An Interview with Silvia Benso

Our readers are the source of our support. Purchases made through links on our website may result in a commission for us.

An image of Silvia Benso is depicted in the accompanying illustration. It was taken from the website of Culture.org, which was uploaded in May 2004.

Imagining that one owes something—like kindness, deference, or reciprocity—to fellow humans is not a difficult concept. But, the idea of what is owed, why it is owed, and how far the obligation extends has caused people to disagree throughout history.

Additionally, animal-rights activists have suggested that humans have responsibilities toward animals; whether one agrees with this or not is up to them.

Even stranger is the suggestion that one should show kindness to inanimate objects—such as a chair or a spoon. As philosopher Silvia Benso notes, this notion may sound “crazy”.

In a discussion between the interviewer and Benso, author of The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics and professor of philosophy at Siena College in upstate New York, at a three-week retreat in the beautiful Umbrian countryside of Italy, Benso suggested that a successful account of ethical commitment necessitates conceiving of the ethical demands made on us by things.

The interviewer’s conversation with Benso arose out of a retreat that the interviewer refers to as “philosophers’ summer camp,” while others like to call it “Collegium Phaenomenologicum.” Benso emphasized that a world in which “things” are only seen as objects is a world in which ethics cannot be fully comprehended.

He further stressed that an ethic of things must be considered when contemplating what matters about the differences between us and other entities.

— As stated by Jill Stauffer

I. THE ETHICAL APPROACH OF MISFIT TOYS

The idea of misfit toys has been around for quite some time. It refers to toys that may not fit the popular mold or be accepted by the majority.

The concept of misfit toys has become a means of embracing ethical values, such as inclusivity and acceptance. By recognizing the misfit toys, we are showing that every type of toy is valued and appreciated.

In your work The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics , you posit that not only people and animals, but also things make ethical demands on us. How are you coming to this conclusion?

SILVIA BENSO: It is easy to understand that human beings and animals put ethical requests on us (even if we differ about the precise form of such a moral code) since we can recognize some similarities between ourselves and other people, and between animals and us.

This viewpoint is exposed when we contemplate how much simpler it is for us to acknowledge that our dogs and cats make ethical requests of us than to acknowledge any ethical demand from shrimp, mussels, and germs.

We are still guided by an anthropocentric attitude. Therefore, talking about the ethical demand of a seat or a spoon appears to be absurd.

So, instead of being based on similarity, let’s suggest that ethics has to do with otherness. It is a matter of safeguarding all forms of otherness, both human and nonhuman.

An ethical obligation arises as a consequence of the other’s difference from us, not their likeness (or lack thereof).

Consequently, doesn’t it make sense to admit that things also have an ethical demand on us? Whereas we can find common ground with humans and animals, we cannot do the same with “things”.

Thus, if ethics is about otherness instead of sameness, shouldn’t what is more different than the other human or other animal also be part of the ethical framework?

BLVR: What would be the purpose of having a moral code that only applied to some but not all? I’m not certain, however, so please elaborate. What is the necessity for people to involve “items” in ethical conversations?

SB: A basic way to phrase it is that people should stay away from clutter. The more complex way to put it is that items should not be relegated to the position of mere objects. It’s a dual requirement of justice.

We must include items in ethical discourse in order to make sure justice is served–both to ourselves and to the items.

At the present moment, while we are speaking, it is the holiday season.

If I were to visit any store, I would observe the numerous products that people purchase in a rush, conscious of the fact that in a few months, these items will likely end up in either a garbage bin or a box in some attic, unrecognized by anyone.

The transformation of items into objects, endlessly reproduced and reproducible with minimal expenditure, without any value to preserve or cherish, is the foundation of our contemporary capitalism and consumerism.

BLVR: Oh, wow. It’s like the island of misfit toys you’re talking about.

SB: What was that?

BLVR: The classic holiday movie Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is centered around acceptance of those who are different. It serves as a thought-provoking story on morality!

SB: I was raised in Italy, so I’m not familiar with what you’re referring to.

BLVR: To cut a long story short, Rudolph is excluded from playing reindeer games due to his red nose. He teams up with an elf who is an outcast for wanting to be a dentist instead of making toys.

This duo teaches us the importance of accepting all kinds of people. Along their journey, they arrive on an island of misfit toys that were not loved by any kid. These toys included an ostrich-riding cowboy, a swimming bird, and a water pistol that shoots jam.

This serves as an analogy for the waste of consumer society. Eventually, Santa and his reindeers embrace Rudolph and the elf dentist’s differences, and find a home for all the misfit toys. The end.

SB: I understand.

BLVR: I, too, can attest to how that tale had a constructive influence on me that I only recognize in hindsight.

It’s plain to anyone with a basic understanding that consumer society has a plethora of injustices. We take advantage of underdeveloped countries, treat workers unfairly, and pollute the environment in the production and disposal of our goods.

We acquire more and more things, yet in the end, we have little regard for them.

We should make an effort to reflect on the unfamiliar rather than trying to pigeonhole it into something familiar. Maybe then, “misfit” will no longer be associated with a negative connotation.

Saying that, from an etymological standpoint, an object is something that is placed in front of us; something that we can use to meet a variety of objectives, be they practical, theoretical or any other type.

Take a spoon as an example; often it is seen as a tool employed to bring liquids to one’s mouth or to stir soups. However, it is much more than that.

We typically refer to objects like spoons as “things,” and it is undeniable that things have many practical uses. But, does this mean that we truly understand what a thing is? Is it time for us to contemplate what a thing truly is beyond its instrumental purpose?

According to Heidegger, “the thing” is an area for coming together. It is a location for the unification of the elements of the earth, the atmosphere, the deities, and the humans, he claims.

Anyone who has never read Heidegger might find this concept strange, and even those familiar with his writings may consider it an odd notion.

SB: In a poetic way, I believe this description captures something which holds truth: an object is more than what meets the eye. Even something as common as a kitchen spoon encompasses the four dimensions Heidegger mentions in its unity.

To illustrate, think of the spoon’s materiality – it could have stayed a tree, offering a diverse range of materiality. Moreover, it has had limitless uses and abuses in its lifetime, or the sauces it will have been used to make.

There is a presence of both natural and historic time, with its shape, consistency and durability all stemming from the concerns and constraints of its makers’ situations. All these elements, and many others, are present in the spoon.

Yet, they are all present only in their absence, as none of them can be seen, heard or touched.

A space where a connection, a convergence – as Heidegger puts it – can be experienced is given by the thing itself. When confronting a thing, we have the potential to come into contact with the relation.

BLVR suggests that “things” can create an area of ethical interconnection. In other words, when something exists as an object, it can enable us to acknowledge a relationship with not just other people, but also with the thing itself.

This can lead to moral inquiries, since ethics is the result of associations.

Affirmative, was the response.

We are called into relationships with objects in ways that are distinct from the way we relate to other people. These objects refer to beyond themselves.

Yes, we are alluding to something beyond what is tangible and present in their entirety – a dimension which transcends the present state.

BLVR: All right. Consequently, items point to more than just themselves. How is this “more than” defined? Objects direct us to a reality that is outside of what is assumed, and this serves to remind us of our ethical responsibilities….

Frequently, what is “beyond” can be described as “empty,” whereas in this particular instance, you are alluding to something that is something “other” than emptiness.

One could ask, why should I put forth effort if there is nothing beyond this reality? But if there is “something else,” then there is cause for alteration, revolution, dedication, and involvement; and ultimately, reason for optimism.

BLVR: However, you are not discussing matters related to theology.

SB: I’m not referring to a “beyond” in the religious sense of an afterlife, but a contrast between what is and ought to be that is relevant in this world. If a beyond is seen as “otherwise”, it opens up the potential for the future. In contrast, if a beyond is seen as “nothing”, it limits us to either the current moment or the past.

This is why Nietzsche, who previously repudiated any faith in an afterlife, ultimately spoke of the “eternal recurrence of the same”.

BLVR: According to Nietzsche, it is essential to accept the past as it was, and not attempt to alter it. Contempt towards something that cannot be changed is in contradiction with the “will to power,” so if humans want to prevail, they must recognize that the past is irretrievable.

The only thing that can be altered about the past is the approach we take towards it. When the will concedes this, it is then liberated to make decisions about what it can and live life in the present.

SB suggested that the “otherwise” should come from a sincere, devoted engagement in the current world, which requires a persistent effort to improve the situation. This is not achieved by fleeing the reality, but rather through a dedicated involvement in it.

An ethic that encompasses all “things” brings forth this area. Why isn’t it simpler to specify what these “things” consist of?

SB suggests that the difficulty of discussing objects is due to their nature of defying categorization and our tendency to attempt to put them into boxes of our own preconceptions. This “otherness” in things is what renders any discourse about them somewhat inexpressible and uncertain.

BLVR: You argue that items can make a moral requirement. How does this expression take place?

The notion of language being verbal does not necessarily apply to the language of things. Even the idea that animals have language can pose the same challenge.

Although things are present and all around us, it is possible to ignore them and reduce them to objects. This does not mean that they are no longer there, but rather that we have chosen not to react to their presence.

The appeal is still there, however, it is our own unresponsiveness that is not.

What is it about life that makes certain matters unavoidable?

SB suggests that, even Plato acknowledges that human beings are not just composed of spirit, but also embody physicality. To exist means to inhabit a body, and to inhabit a body implies being surrounded by and impacted by the material world.

We are subjected to the influence of external forces even when we may not want to be, as physical bodies make us susceptible to these things. The desire for something else holds no bearing on this fact.

SB: Absolutely. Conditions are a component of our human life. We think we can control them, and make an effort to, when we attempt to categorize them into objects. The reality, though, is that it is the conditions that shape us.

We might try to reduce all conditions to objects, but in the end something is left untouched, something eludes us: our ultimate end is a demonstration that we are impacted by conditions.

BLVR: What is the connection between death and this?

SB: We are finite beings and cannot control the entirety of the world, and death is a reminder of this fact. Death is almost always the result of some outside force that we cannot control, such as diseases, aging, etc.

It is problematic to view death as a defeat, which is why we strive to overcome it, yet medicine can only delay it and not conquer it.

Rather than seeing death as a limitation, we should consider it as an element of life–without it, we would not be humans, but rather gods, angels, or demons.

II. RELEASE YOUR EGO: THE OTHER PERSON IS THE FOCUS OF THE WORLD

BLVR: Alright. Returning to the discussion of this world. What does it signify that we can reject our past but still not ignore it?

SB: We don’t need to be confined to our prior decisions; there is no predestination. We can always go in a different direction. This liberty, the capacity to undo the ties of the past, is the only opportunity to make a shift, and also the only way to be moral.

We can never forget our history, since we are all accountable for it. We must not relive the events of Auschwitz, and it is only through remembering that we can prevent a repetition.

As Walter Benjamin puts it in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, the memory of our ancestral slaves, who have suffered, helps to nurture a dream of freedom for future generations.

BLVR: In your work The Face of Things, you point out that Narcissus is “unable to observe the depths of the brook, the feeble nature of the stream, and the unceasing flow of the water – all he can see is himself.”

You then go on to assert that this attitude is the same held by Western philosophy towards “things” in general. Could you elaborate on this idea?

My stance does not agree with the notion that Western thought is a recognition of the self in its environment. The German idealists, and particularly Hegel, espouse this idea more so than others and could be considered highly narcissistic.

In Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel’s journey begins with natural consciousness, which perceives things as being outside of itself, and culminates in absolute Spirit as something which has achieved complete recognition of itself. To Hegel, everything is a creation of Spirit or Mind and the external is seen as the inside in its outer form.

Hegel viewed this growth of self-awareness as a constructive progression. On the other hand, the Frankfurt school, such as Adorno and Horkheimer, and later Levinas, focused on the damaging, diminishing parts of the undertaking.

Not even Nietzsche could dodge this egocentric posture. Taking into account the world in terms of interpretation, Nietzsche’s so-called “perspectivism”, disregards the possibility of reality having its own stand. Perspectivism suggests that reality is only legitimate to the one interpreting it.

Nietzsche’s conclusion from this was that there is in truth no reality, only what is brought to it by the interpreter.

It is not solely my opinion that this project relates to objects. There are many people who disagree with the idea that a moral code should be applied to them.

The tradition of Western philosophy can be traced back to Socrates, who was primarily focused on the wellbeing of humans. Therefore, objects are viewed as being part of the environment in which humans exist and are given the chance to demonstrate their abilities.

Things become objects of utility, with the human subject occupying the center of the universe. The mathematical approach of Descartes, which was in effect prior to him, seeks to make objects comprehensible by reducing them to human concepts and allowing them to be dominated by humans.

BLVR: If we make ourselves the focal point of the universe, we are disregarding the fundamental nature of the non-human world.

This notion implies that we are capable of managing and altering this realm as we please. This is likely the reason why you suggest the importance of a code of ethics in regards to the environment.

This would help encourage us to reconsider what it means to be human and how to coexist on this planet together as a species.

SB affirmed.

BLVR: What is your opinion on Adorno’s assertion that, in the wake of Auschwitz, philosophy must contemplate in a manner that would prevent a recurrence of what had taken place there? Can such contemplation be realized? What would it look like, and where would it originate?

SB: I unequivocally agree with that statement. We can’t keep using ways of thinking that ultimately bring about the obliteration, metaphorical or physical, of the other by forcing them into our thought process.

Is it possible to come up with an alternate way of thinking? I am hopeful that we can; otherwise, we will be facing a series of death camps.

BLVR: Evidence from recent history shows how serious this risk is and how it has become a reality.

SB believes that we need an attitude of humility when it comes to thinking.

We have to adjust our thinking to value difference over the same, the outsider over the self, giving over taking, hearing instead of speaking, a kind of Christian poverty instead of strength, non-aggression instead of violence, and so on. It’s essential for us to take an other-centered approach, instead of a self-centered one.

BLVR: In The Face of Things , you mentioned that “the lack of ethical considerations in Western philosophy is not due to the actual murdering of metaphysics, but instead because of the refusal to acknowledge the murder and the one committing it.” Could you explain this further?

SB: To illustrate, let’s imagine that you are in need of food and ask me for some bread. Although I might refuse, my response acknowledges that I perceive the “I” and “you” in our relationship, and my decision to deny your request (rightly or wrongly) is based on that recognition.

On the other hand, if I don’t even hear your appeal, instead automatically categorizing it as a result of your own laziness, then I am effectively disregarding the very possibility of our relationship. This is highly unethical.

BLVR: One of the less noticed wrongs of everyday life appears when we cause other people to feel unseen.

Naturally, sometimes the comments people communicate to me when I pay attention to them in place of disregarding them are not about our shared humanity but rather the negation of it. It is a complicated matter.

One’s ethical capabilities are denied when they do not respond to the hunger of another. Without acknowledging the other person, there is no ethical perspective and the individual is left to make moral decisions based solely on their own views.

This results in a self-centered outlook, with no consideration given to the other person and their needs.

Is it possible for humans to escape ethical considerations?

SB: To put it simply, an “outside of ethics” is an impossibility. This is because, as a matter of fact, we are always already connected to one another.

This implies that we are constantly in an ethical relationship. Western philosophy has often disregarded this idea, refusing to accept the other’s distinctiveness. This is what makes it unethical.

It denies the fact that the connection between us even exists, and thus the act of denying takes place.

An ethic concerning things is essential as it allows us to recognize that the opacity of otherness can never be fully grasped, and this is something that needs to be respected or recognized, whether it be a person, animal, or thing.

SB affirmed in the affirmative.

Can we simply say what “Western” philosophy is or has to say? What connotations do we have when we speak of it? What kind of ideas are we condensing when we use this term?

SB suggested that it is not easy to define Western philosophy. He noted that what he had proposed was an attitude or orientation which is not comprehensive of the field.

There are, however, particular positions within the Western tradition which do not fit the generalization, but they are seen as the exceptions. He concluded that it is not easy, and in fact impossible, to state what Western philosophy is.

No one can deny that Western philosophy is focused on humans, not on animals or inanimate objects. When these other elements are discussed, it is only done so indirectly and almost as an aside.

What is meant by an ethical requirement?

Someone or something is making an entreaty to be allowed to exist in their own unique way, not to be constrained to a certain classification. Heidegger mentions a “letting be” that is not accurately labeled as an ethical gesture.

Levinas speaks of how another individual faces us with an unvoiced demand: “Thou shalt not kill”. This is a request from the other, to treat them with respect in their own character, not because of any moral quality of the requester.

This can hardly be seen as an obligation, since it is very much possible to disregard the substance of the demand.

BLVR enquiries: Is it possible to disregard the call of the other while still not having a realm beyond ethics? Does the call of ethics have any strength?

One can affirm that ethical demands are forceful in their capacity to be revealed and comprehended. The message of these demands is always quite evident: “Let this otherness be”.

Nonetheless, ethical demands do not possess any power, if power is understood as might, domination, or the capacity to impose one’s will. On the contrary, ethical demands emerge from a place of total powerlessness, not from a place of supremacy and strength.

If the strength of ethics were physical force, then the ethics suggested in Plato’s Republic by Thrasymachus, in which goodness is simply seen as what is beneficial to the most powerful, would be replicated.

Using force to get what you want is often referred to as “might equals right.”

It is true that ethical requirements cannot be imposed through physical force or violence. It is possible to disregard, decline, or refute such appeals.

That is why I am uncertain if they should be labeled “imperatives” and would rather refer to them as invitations or requests. These entreaties are presented to us as possessors of a power that we are asked to put on hold.

BLVR: What could be the source of this authority? What could potentially cause us to surrender our own authority in the name of morality?

Our ability to influence others through the smallest of actions, by simply our presence, is the power we possess.

Spinoza famously named it ” conatus essendi. We can use this power for either good or bad, so what prevents us from using it for harm? That is a difficult question to answer. There is something extraordinary in recognizing our shared humanity that is so good.

III. ETHICALITY AS AFFECTION AND DISORDER

BLVR: Is there a simple way to explain ethics? Can it be likened to morality?

SB: Ha. Right. A very basic query. Perhaps we should consider ethics as plural to indicate that there isn’t a single, all-encompassing way of being ethical. Aristotle affirms that “existence” can be expressed in various ways.

Thus, the ethics of things would be unlike the ethics with which we answer to the requests of a fellow human being, or an animal. Not superior or worse, not higher or lower–just diverse.

BLVR: It is ethical to recognize the relationship between oneself and others.

SB: Thus, ethics is not necessarily morality; it does not necessitate a set of rules or commands to be followed to be considered good.

It is quite possible that ethics could result in a moral code, yet it does not have to. Moral and legal systems are obstacles that define the parameters of ethical relations.

BLVR: Laws issued by legal institutions can only take into account situations that were foreseeable. Ethics, on the other hand, are necessary for when justice needs to be done for those who are oppressed by circumstances that were either unpredictable or that could not be anticipated. In addition, sometimes laws from institutions do not do justice.

SB: It’s an effective way to conceptualize it. Additionally, morality does not need originality. Ethics, on the other hand, needs it, since you must consider what the best response is to the other’s needs.

BLVR: Ethics is chaotic and lacking in regulation!

SB suggested that to properly understand ethics, one must decipher the attractiveness of the opposing perspective and revise their own understanding of subjectivity.

BLVR: Here’s another straightforward query: What does one mean by the term “subject”?

SB: It is hard to answer that question due to the current philosophical discussion about the deconstruction of a human subject as usually understood in terms of self-awareness, self-sufficiency, agency, autonomy, and so on.

While the deconstructive enterprise has been essential for bringing the classical concept of subjectivity to a crisis, it carries a danger that we may end up with no understanding of subjectivity at all.

Then, how can we talk about human identities, obligations, and actions? To have ethics, we require an account of subjectivity, of how people come to be the people they are. Yet, it is evident that we need a conception of subjectivity that is not focused on the self.

Deconstruction can help us to re-envision what it means to be a subject, envisaging the subject as one who is shaped by the call of the other and constituted by this call in his or her identity.

BLVR: Rather than being self-sufficient and only accepting obligations of their own choosing, the subject answers the call of “the other”. Thus, the question arises: who or what is “the other”?

SB: This is an especially hard point to make, due to the inquiry requiring an identity to be assigned to something that, by definition, has no identity – since it is “other”.

BLVR: To have an identity is to be equivalent to oneself, as “A = A” implies. This idea of self-sufficiency is why the other does not enjoy the same identity.

One can easily answer that the “other” is any individual or anything that is not oneself. This is not because the self is the reference point for the other’s distinction, but because it is the other’s uniqueness that serves to differentiate them.

This may not be very informative, however it is the most one can say without reducing the other’s identity.

Considering the word “difference”, what significance would it have if it could only signify what was expected before?

SB noted that otherness is reflective and provides a place of belonging for a wide range of entities, including humans, non-humans, animals, plants, objects, and spiritual entities.

BLVR: In your book there is a lot of discussion about love and desire. What separates a desire that is not born from a feeling of lack?

The essential difference between generosity and selfishness lies in the desirer’s disposition. Generosity arises from a desire that comes from the designer’s own fullness and richness, while selfishness is driven by a need to fulfill personal wants and needs through the other.

This disregards the other, and also eliminates the possibility of being surprised and enamored by the other. As a result, a love that seeks self-fulfillment is doomed to become tedious and dull.

To quote Tina Turner, one might ask, “What part does love play in all of this?”

SB: All things. So, why should we restrict respect for differentness to humanity alone? We are just looking at love from a human-centered point of view.

Is philosophy still justifiable as a “search for truth” and a “love of wisdom” based on what has been discussed?

SB: Indeed. It is only when philosophy acknowledges the authenticity of the “other”, the “other’s” divergence from my sameness–even if it implies it is impossible to classify them philosophically–that it can be viewed as a quest for truth.

Otherwise, philosophy is just an ideology. To quote Levinas, philosophizing should also incorporate a “wisdom of love”, a form of understanding that safeguards the “other’s” distinction from me. This is what love is all about, preserving the one who is unlike me.

One could ask: what is philosophy? Is there a distinction between continental and analytic philosophy? This inquiry may not appear to be what people consider “philosophy.”

SB: To continental philosophy, the act of questioning is of greater significance than the task of assigning terms or reconciling divergent philosophies.

Accordingly, any success is simply an opportunity to start new inquiries. I firmly believe this to be the quintessence of Socratic philosophy.

It Could Be Worth Your While to Check Out

The notion that we should all strive to be environmentally conscious is gaining traction. Increasing numbers of individuals are becoming more aware of the need to protect our planet’s resources, and taking steps to do so.

There is a growing appreciation for the importance of reducing pollution, conserving energy and encouraging sustainable practices.

People are increasingly recognizing the necessity of taking responsibility for the environment in order to ensure its health for future generations.

Leave a Comment