I hate to point out that I find some aspects of Robert Brandom's philosophy to be morally rebarbative for two reasons. First, I don't think it follows from this that he's a bad person. I've never met him, but have had the pleasure to meet many of his students and I have every reason to think that he is a good soul. Second, I think that Brandom is one of the three most important living philosophers, and that the dialectic does in fact go through him. Unfortunately though, our age of media gotchaism has infected philosophy. Just as it's appropriate to judge a celebrity by their worst public moment, it's somehow appropriate to judge philosophers by the worst aspects of their systems. Heidegger's Nazism has absolutely nothing to do with the interpretations of Heidegger by the overwhelming number of American Heideggerians. But tying the Nazism to some part of his system (with more and less plausibility)* suffices in our debased celebrity culture. It's very convenient because it gives us an excuse not to read Heidegger.** Moreover, even if, unlike Heidegger, Brandom's rebarbative views about those who don't speak really is implicated deeply in his philosophical achievements, this wouldn't be a reason not to read him, any more than Cartesian vivisectionists mean we should stop reading Descartes.
Now here is a biographical prelimary. One of my daughter's best friends has apraxia of speech. Every weekend Audrey's friend with apraxia and her sister either come over to our house, or she goes over to their house. It's only recently that Audrey's friend with apraxia has started talking with her sister and Audrey when they are playing together. For a couple of years she didn't speak, and some people with apraxia of speech never talk. In addition, I know two people who suffered severe aphasia after a stroke. Both recovered their ability to speak. But for many people, aphasia is a permanent state. Finally, people born deaf in communities with no sign language often end up being permanently non-linguistic. There is a largish literature on people in this situation who are taught a first language at later ages, examining how their difficulties tie with the lessened ability to learn a second language as you get older. But many such people never learn a language.
I hope that anyone reading this will agree that any view that denies moral worth to those with severe apraxia, aphasia, and deafness is in fact a wicked view. And, to the extent that one can separate moral and epistemological concerns, anyone who actually knows or has studied people with apraxia, aphasia, and deafness who do not have language will not deny sentience to these people. Yet Robert Brandom does both.
What matters for us morally, and so ultimately politically, is not in the end to be understood in terms of goals available from the inevitably reductive perspective of the naturalist: paradigmatically, the avoidance of mammalian pain. It is the capacity each of us discursive creatures has to say things that no one else has ever said, things furthermore that would never have been said if we did not say them. It is our capacity to transform the vocabularies in which we live and move and have our being, and so to create new ways of being (for creatures like us). Our moral worth is our dignity as potential contributors to the Conversation. This is what our political institutions have a duty to recognize, secure, and promote. Seen from this point of view, it is a contingent fact about us that physiological agony is such a distraction from sprightly repartee and the production of fruitful novel utterances. But it is a fact nonetheless. And for that reason, pain, and like it various sorts of social and economic deprivation, have a secondhand, but nonetheless genuine moral significance .
Note that this is similar to the line that some social contract theorists and Kantians take about the moral status of animals. In themselves, animals have no moral status, but if we are cruel to animals we are more likely to be cruel to humans. But there is nothing wrong in itself with cruelty to animals, which would be fine if it didn't have the tendency of making adult humans cruel to one another. This is not an abstract problem, since the idea that cruelty to animals actually makes us cruel to one another is false, so long as the cruelty is mechanized and hid from most humans as it is in factory farms. For Brandom, pain as well as deprivation of animals or humans only has a secondary moral significance. It is not bad in itself, but bad only to the extent that it contingently contributes to actual moral harms, in this case preventing the creative exercise of language.
I'm not interested in the possible ableism of Brandom being committed to the idea that to be mute as a result of apraxia, aphasia, or deafness (plus lack of exposure to sign language) is to suffer a natural evil, indeed, the only natural evil admitted by Brandom's metaphysics. Such a view is clearly problematic, but I want to let it pass to focus on the aspect of his view that I find much more disturbing: his commitment to the idea that causing pain and deprivation, and death for that matter, to mute people is not intrinsically evil. This is morally outrageous as well as dangerous, dangerous given not only the systematic murder of the disabled as the run-up to the Holocaust, but also the way we continue to treat disabled people decades after the Holocaust.
Of course Brandom probably does think that the mute have a secondary moral significance, but (analogous to the Kantian and social contract theorist opponent of animal and children's rights) it can only be to the extent that mistreating them will cause those of us who can speak to be less likely to say novel things. I think that such a view would be outrageous even if its wide-spread acceptance wouldn't lead to more cruelty to the mute. But in fact, as with factory farming, it would lead to much more cruelty. When Stalin said that killing one person is a tragedy and killing a million a statistic, part of what he meant is that people adapt to systematic, widespread, and predictable cruelty. Again, think of factory farming mistreatment of animals. In no way does this make us more cruel to other humans. On the other hand, someone who learns to be cruel to the family pet probably will move on to humans. And it is, I think, a constraint on moral theorizing that one not be forced to say that opening salvo of the Holocaust, the organized murder of the disabled, was wrong merely because it led to other people saying less novel things. Not only is it not clear that this is true, but the connection to novelty is at best a non-sequitur.
I want to stop here, because any other criticism seems to me to weaken the severity of the charge. But there are a few other things worth pointing out in this context.
First, one of the most difficult things about reading Rorty is that his catchall term "vocabulary" is confusing precisely because it elides the distinction between saying something new in the sense of imparting new information and just using new words to say the same things. This was actually intentional on Rorty's part because he takes Quine to have deconstructed the distinction between information relevant to word meaning and collateral information involving that word.
But this is a misreading of Quine; what Quine did was undermine the way this distinction was being used to provide an account of necessity, where all necessary truths are true in virtue of meaning. Brandom, at his best, also shows how such uses of the distinction trace back to Kant and moreover undermine our ability to make sense of how we talk about new things. But Brandom also notes that in linguistic contexts, we have to mark the distinction. And many of Rorty's and Brandom's contexts are such. Consider the phrase "say things no one else has ever said" in the above quote. If by "things" you mean merely uttering new strings of words, yes, the awesome combinatorics of language makes it the case that people are saying new things all the time. But it's not at all clear why this on its own is important. In fact it's not, everyone might just be saying the same old things in new ways. How is that possibly morally relevant?
But even if by "things" you mean new strings of words with new meanings, it's still not clear why that's relevant. For an infinite number of "n" one can assert that there are n objects. There are always new things to say about the existence of larger numbers. But who cares? Instead, what Brandom must mean to reference is the ability to talk about new (in the non-trivial sense) and worthwhile things. He admits as much in the third to last sentence of the above quote, when he qualifies things with "new and fruitful." But then this seems to be begging the question. What's morally relevant is the ability not to utter sequences of words that have never been uttered before, but to use this ability to say new and fruitful things. But what makes an utterance fruitful? Brandom should say that an utterance is fruitful if it gets us closer to truth, goodness, and beauty, but he can't then circularly define "goodness" in terms of producing novel fruitful utterances. So we must conclude that Brandom's circle is not only morally vicious, but conceptually so as well.
Second, and related, Brandom's discussion of moral status is a false dichotomy. He pits vulgar hedonistic utilitarianism against he and Rorty's view that "conversation" is the only intrinsic good. If one had to pick, one should pick utilitarianism. But it's beyond silliness to think that one has to pick one of these. One can be a moral externalist/realist and a pluralist about the kinds of goods on offer in the universe. Again, truth, beauty, and goodness are a decent place to start.
Third, we need to be very careful to separate Brandom's quasi-existentialist (and hence quasi-Kantian) view from another form of Kantianism, one defended ably by Julian Friedland in his debate with me on my abortion post. Friedland was trying to defend the idea that pain might not be morally significant in the sense that the ability to empathize might not be a necessary part of being a virtuous moral agent. The (Parfit's?) fictitious planet of virtuous sociopaths is brought in to motivate this view. But it is consistent with this strong form of Kantianism (I'm not sure Kant subscribed to it) that suffering pain makes one a moral patient, that pain, pleasure, and deprivation do not merely have a secondary moral status (and I know that Korsgaard has written on this, but I haven't read it yet). In this context, the just sociopaths could reason their way into realizing that those of us who can't speak are still moral patients and moral agents. Though of course much would need to be said on this score. But Brandom's hyper-Kantianism can't accommodate this.
Finally, the manner in which Brandom argues himself (and Rorty) into such a wicked view that the only intrinsic normativity concerns the goodness saying novel things is beyond the scope of this post. But let me note that taking truth, beauty, and goodness (in a sense to include pleasure and preclude deprivation and agony) to be intrinsically valuable was never actually never a living option for Brandom, for three interconnected reasons: (1) because of he and Rorty's radical reading of Sellars' myth of the given which prevents pain from being both causal and normative, (2) their ultimate positivistic commitment to moral internalism, and (3) Brandom's dismissal of functionalist explanations that bootstrap beliefs and desires out of actions and pre-existing goal directing norms (not just survival and reproduction but beauty, truth, and goodness) as primary. Both (2) and (3) follow from the misreading of the myth of the given, though (3) gains plausibility from Brandom's false dichotomy between classical pragmatist views that define belief in terms of desire and acts and his own inversion of this. Again, this neglects views such as Mark Okrent's which have beliefs and desires simultaneously bootstrapping up out a realm of goals and acts. Contra Brandom's take on the myth of the given, I would say that we subscribe to it not when we think something is both causal and normative, but rather when we treat things that are normative and causal as if they were merely causal. In this respect, Brandom (but not McDowell) on pain is no different from empiricists on sense data.***
*A certain kind of existentialist voluntarism, emphasis on the wonder working powers of the German language, the way he articulates the history of being, and his critique of technology can all be tied to some of the German Romantic strains that led to Nazism. But even this is beside the point. Existentialism is false. Sympathetic readers of Heidegger's own essays on art and animals, and proper interpreters of the anti-Cartesian accomplishment of Being and Time's first division, see the language stuff as in fact hostile to his own project. The history of being stuff is a noble attempt at anti-foundationalism, but it leads either to a facile relativism, or the chauvinism of the language stuff. The critique of technology is correct. But these things stand or fall completely separate from considerations of their role in Nazism. And they are all distinct from Heidegger's anti-Cartesian accomplishment.
**Incidentally, most of the verbiage surrounding the analytic/continental split is in the service of having an excuse not to read relevant philosophy. It's no accident that the latest bout of Heidegger controversy has cropped up precisely when the old continental core of German Idealism, Phenomenology, and (Post-)Structuralism has been weakened in favor of a kind of applied Critical Theory. Believing that Heidegger's politics vitiate his philosophy allows you to feel no guilt about no longer teaching him.
***Note that McDowell's critique of bald naturalism is a critique of the view that prevents us from treating things as both normative and causal and his appeal to Aristotlean training in virtue is a justification of our doing so as well. In addition to my take on the myth of the given, I'd like also to argue that McDowell is actually a moral externalist. This would be along the same lines of Greco's argument that McDowell is actually an epistemic externalist. But that will require much more than a blog post. For McDowell though, the problem with sense data isn't that it's both causal and normative, but rather that once we realize that objects in our environment are both causal and normative, there is no reason to posit sense data.]