Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Counting others unequally in one's deliberations

To: Trevor T.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Counting others unequally in one's deliberations
Date: 16 July 2002 16:31

Dear Trevor,

Thank you for your letter of 6th July, with your fourth essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Once you give up the principle that others should always count equally in our moral deliberations, you are on a slippery slope which ultimately leads to the morality of "anything goes"' How good is that argument?'

I must admit that it was not clear - until the very last paragraph - that this was the question you were answering. The essay looked more like an answer to the question, 'On what basis do we (or should we?) make moral decisions?'

Thus, the utilitarian decides on the basis of the moral law, 'The greatest happiness for the greatest number' together with their empirical beliefs concerning which actions are most likely to bring about that end.

Dawkins' man reasons on the basis of the principle of gene selfishness. This has the consequence (which you have not noticed) that if another human being does share all my genes -- my perfect identical twin -- then I should consider that individual's interests equal to my own. So it is not correct to describe this as a recipe for self-interestedness, although it is not a moral principle either.

Hobbes' man, on the other hand throws his lot in with society and its laws for ultimately selfish reasons. However, it should be pointed out that this is far from being the only basis on which respect for the rule of law might be grounded.

Finally, those who believe in 'conscience' or 'higher ideals' accept that in some sense all human beings are equally deserving of my consideration, for the ultimate truth is that we are all one.

In each of these cases, it is possible to construct an argument against allowing some individuals to 'count' for more in my deliberations than others. In utilitarianism, the greatest happiness principle requires that the same amount of happiness counts for the same, irrespective of the individual in whom the happiness happens to reside. In a society ruled by law, every individual must be regarded as equal in the sight of the law, otherwise the law (and the monarch or state responsible for upholding the law) loses the ability to command respect . In a Spinozistic reality where there is ultimately no difference between you and me, I must as a matter of sheer logic count your needs as equal in importance to my own, irrespective of who 'you' happen to be.

However, it is not clear on any of these three scenarios that the conclusion you want goes through.

Consider utilitarianism. The ultimate aim is the greatest happiness for the greatest number. However, some philosophers (Bernard Williams, for example) have argued that *in the interests of* the greatest happiness for the greatest number, it might not be best if individual people made their moral decisions by appeal to that principle. The easiest case in which to see this is the person who is just not very good at forming a realistic prediction of the amount of happiness or unhappiness their action is likely to cause. More interestingly, it could be argued, strictly on utilitarian grounds, that a society made up of individuals who ignored ties of family and friendship would be on the whole worse off so far as happiness was concerned than a society where it was accepted that one's first duty is to those close to one.

Let us now consider the claim that 'everyone is equal in the sight of the law'. The law is not the same as morals. We may have equal rights under the law, but the law has nothing to say about personal altruism or selfishness, or all the degrees in-between.

Finally, the question of 'higher ideals'. In the Moral Philosophy program, I consider the practical consequences of a metaphysical view such as that of Spinoza or that of Schopenhauer, where one seeks to obliterate the distance between 'self' and 'other'. However, I argue that there is another metaphysical view, no less 'idealistic', which seeks its foundation on the 'otherness of the other', on the infinite distance that separates the other from me, in virtue of which I cannot reduce the other to a mere obstacle or tool. This metaphysical theory also yields objective reasons for taking the interests of the other into consideration at all time, i.e. objective reasons for being moral. What it does not do, however, is supply any guidance on how this should be applied in practice. It would be impossible to summarise all the argument here, but the upshot is that each case is unique. There is no general formula for doing good, such as 'taking a disinterested view at all times', or 'striving for the greatest happiness for the greatest number'.

Where does that leave us? The 'slippery slope' objection, as I see it, is as much a challenge within this general metaphysical view. What is required to meet the objection (and I am not saying that I am clear about exactly how it should be met) is showing how we can justifiably say, 'This far and no more' in a situation where we are required to form a judgement of how much of a 'weighting' we should give to the furtherance of our own ideals and projects, or the well being of those closer to us.

All the best,