The term has its origins in the 1944 film Gaslight in which a husband does exactly that to his wife, his crazy-making efforts symbolized by the rise and fall of the gaslights in their home. In this book, one of my goals is to try and figure out exactly what people are after when they characterize gaslighting as ‘trying to drive someone crazy.’ I argue that gaslighting is best understood as a form of interpersonal interaction aimed at fundamentally undermining someone. More specifically, the gaslighter aims to make his target experience herself as incapable of reasoning, perceiving, or reacting in ways that would allow her to form appropriate beliefs, perceptions, or emotions in the first place. He seeks not only to induce in her this unmoored sense of herself but also to make it a reality. I argue for a detailed account of gaslighting that fits this basic characterization, analyze its immorality, and argue that a close look at gaslighting can help us understand other aspects of social life—from racism and sexism to the structure of interpersonal trust.
Now, on my account, because gaslighting paradigmatically takes place over long stretches of time and involves specific patterns of bad conduct, the gaslighter’s motivations cannot be the sort—as Hume would say—“broken out in a sudden flash.” Instead, they must be the kinds of motivations that the gaslighter is pretty reliably disposed to have. They are part of his character. And this focus on issues of character is one thread of my work on gaslighting that ties it to other work of mine, both in contemporary ethics and on Hume.
Some of my recent work, for instance, explores the relationships among different kinds of judgments we make about people. Sometimes we make judgments of character—she’s mean, malicious, manipulative, kind, thoughtful, or generous. Sometimes we evaluate people in what I call the “medical mode.” Judgments in this category concern whether a person is psychologically well or not—’has her feet on the ground’ or ‘is emotionally mature‘ vs. ‘has serious daddy issues,’ ‘is in denial’ or ‘project much?’ And sometimes we make judgments in yet a third mode of evaluation, one that I (following Hume) call the evaluative mode of “natural abilities.” This is the evaluative mode we’re using when we speak of someone’s having a ‘knack’ for something, or of their being ‘smart’ or ‘talented.’ People tend to assume that the dispositions picked out by these different modes of evaluations are different dispositions altogether. Or to put it more technically, people tend to assume that character traits, mental illnesses and aspects of mental health, and natural abilities or inabilities are different natural kinds. I’ve argued that this is quite wrong. Sometimes, the very same disposition is properly regarded as all three. For instance, someone who consistently accuses others of that of which she is herself guilty has a tendency to project, that tendency might well amount to cruelty, and if she’s especially good at getting the projected charges to stick (in terms, say, of others’ perceptions), we might aptly say she’s got a talent for it.
Another dimension of my work on character involves an interest in the character-focused sub-category of attitudes that P.F. Strawson called “the reactive attitudes.” Consider what it’s like to be angry at someone. We experience anger as presenting the world to us in a certain evaluative light—roughly, someone has done something wrong. We also experience anger as making a kind of demand: a demand for an apology or reparation. In that way, anger is not just a response to wrongdoing (hence “reactive” attitudes), but also an emotion through which we hold people responsible. Notice, though, that when we are angry with someone, what we are angry about is paradigmatically something they did—an action. Anger is ‘action-focused.’ I’m especially interested in reactive attitudes that are, in contrast, ‘character focused.’ I’ve argued, for instance, that contempt can be an appropriate reactive response to a particular subset of vices—those vices which consist in a steady disposition to violate one’s most basic obligations. Think, for instance, of how differently you would respond to someone who once cheated on their spouse vs. a philanderer. Or the difference between how you might respond to someone who lied vs. someone who is fundamentally dishonest. It’s the latter kind of cases, I’ve argued, that are the appropriate occasions for contempt.
But it’s not all darkness and vice! On the positive side, in a series of co-authored articles I’ve argued with Adam Leite that love in friendship and romantic relationships is properly thought of as a reactive attitude. On our view, when things go well, friendship and romantic love is a response to certain kinds of virtues—those which make one well-suited for the very kinds of intimate relationships in which friendship and romantic love have their proper home, that is, friendships and romantic relationships! Love in these contexts is also a particular mode of valuing someone. On our view, for instance, part of what’s involved in the particular mode of valuing or loving someone—when we love someone, we value them in a way that gives us reason to have special concern for how they’re doing. That’s one reason why if Josey says she loves Amy, but also says she’s not any more interested in how Amy is doing than anyone else, we’ll think that either Josey doesn’t understand what ‘love’ means, or doesn’t understand what loving demands of her.
All of which actually brings us back to Hume, in two ways. First, it was recognizing that Hume thinks of love as (something like) a reactive attitude that first started Adam and I talking about what it would mean to give an account of love in which we fully took on board that view. Second, and at a level of fine-grained detail: it is Hume’s criterion of virtue that allows us to illuminate certain aspects of love. Consider, for instance, this question: why would it make sense to love someone (as opposed, say, to merely admire them) for their virtues? Well, I’ve argued that for Hume, virtues are traits that make us well-suited for some “relations of life.” Friendship and romantic relationships are two examples of “relations of life.” And on our account, love is the appropriate response to the virtues of intimacy—precisely those virtues that make one (on Hume’s account and ours) well suited for friendships and romantic relationships. So why does it make sense to love someone for their virtues? Well, in short, because you are loving them in response to their being well-suited for precisely the kind of relationships you seek to be in with them.
That view about the virtues is one piece of my longstanding work on Hume’s ethics. I’ve been working for some time on a book in this territory that is near fruition. The overarching theme is the evolution of Hume’s moral philosophy, and some of that involves, as you might expect, Hume changing his views about particular subjects in ethics. But in fact, I argue, more than anything else what changed for Hume over the course of his lifetime was his views about what moral philosophy is and ought to be. For whom should moral philosophy be written? What should the goal(s) of writing in moral philosophy be? What are the appropriate methods for a moral philosopher? Hume answered these and other questions about the nature of the project of writing moral philosophy in different ways over the course of his lifetime. That, in and of itself, is a fascinating subject of investigation. But reading Hume’s work with an eye to these questions also allows us to see that in some respects, Hume was answering different questions than scholars have thought. And that, in turn, allows us to understand aspects of his theory we haven’t accurately understood before!
Kate Abramson is an Associate Professor at Indiana University and Director of Undergraduate Studies. Abramson’s areas of specialization include Hume, contemporary ethics (especially issues in moral psychology and character), and philosophical feminism. Her recently completed monograph, On Gaslighting, is now forthcoming from Princeton University Press. She is also in the final stages of completing a monograph on Hume’s moral philosophy tentatively titled, The Artifice of Nature.