Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Why others must count in my deliberations

To: Vasco K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why others must count in my deliberations
Date: 11 May 2004 11:49

Dear Vasco,

Thank you for your email of 29 April with your third essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Why must others count in my deliberations?'

You approach this on the basis of the question: 'I am the 'numero uno', so what is in it for me?'

As you know, there is a long tradition going back to Plato and Aristotle of approaching the problem of ethics in this way. The initial air of paradox (that we are apparently seeking selfish reasons for being moral) gives way to the conviction that this is the only possible kind of answer - if we are being honest with ourselves - that can have motivating force for us.

I happen to disagree with this - for the reasons that Kant gives. But things are complicated, as you will see.

From a Kantian perspective, your question takes the form of a hypothetical imperative: 'If you want X, then others must count in your deliberations.'

Rejected candidates for 'If you want X' are:

'If you care about what people in authority tell you...'

'If you feel sympathy for others...'

'If you acknowledge the law of duty...'

(Towards the end of your essay, however, you recognize that feelings are important. I think we agree there is something wrong with Kant's unfeeling misanthrope who manages to do the right thing, out of pure dispassionate respect for the moral law.)

After considering what follows from the proposition that 'our life is a life of interaction with others', you come up with a more viable candidate:

'Only by accepting the other as part of me or my life can I fully realise myself, I live in a world populated by others and only if they recognise me as I recognise them [do I] truly exist.'

In other words, 'If you want X' translates into:

'If you want to fully realise yourself...'.

Stated in these terms, perhaps you can see the objection which will be raised against your answer: the individual who has no interest in 'realising himself', who is simply interested in sheer power, or the pursuit of pleasure will not be moved by this appeal. Instead of giving reasons why others *must* count in my deliberations, you have given reasons why others must count in my deliberations, *if* I want X, for some suitable X.

Kant's response is to insist that the moral imperative is categorical, not hypothetical. It does not make any assumptions about what I want. The difficulty for us is seeing how this could possibly work.

I agree with you, in a way, that numero uno is important: hence the dialectic of solipsism and anti-solipsism, and the theory of subjective and objective standpoints.

As I see it, however, this is not a question of 'What's in it for me?' Such appeal can only generate a hypothetical imperative. And that is not strong enough to generate a *must*.

From the point of view of metaphysics, the question of morals is part, but not the whole of the question, 'What is a *coherent* way to conceive reality?' As a matter of logic, an incoherent theory cannot be true. We do not have a choice whether or not to care about truth. (If you are not convinced of this last statement, consider what it would mean if someone 'didn't care' that a particular belief of theirs was false.)

I won't go through the whole argument, because you know it already. In any case, it is not my aim to indoctrinate you with my views. My aim here is simply to contrast the defence of morality which depends on hypothetical imperatives, with one which attempts - successfully or otherwise - to dispense with hypothetical imperatives.

(Interestingly, there was a question posted this week on Ask a Philosopher regarding a famous paper by the British philosopher Phillippa Foot, 'Morality as a system of Hypothetical Imperatives' (1978). 'What does Phillippa Foot mean when she suggests that Kant's view of 'ought' is relying on an illusion as if trying to give the moral ought a magical force?' - The short answer to this question is that Foot believes that the very notion of a 'categorical' imperative is incoherent. The only way that an imperative can acquire motivating force is through an 'if' clause.)

The crux of my 'metaphysical' argument for morality is that:

1. The world of a solipsist is a world without truth. Only by recognizing the reality of standpoints other than my own can there be truth for me.

2. Recognition of the reality of standpoints other than my own can only be achieved through moral action.

Here there is an 'if' clause ('if you care about truth'). However, what distinguishes this 'if' clause from the others we have considered is that we do not in fact have the choice of whether or not to care about truth.

All the best,

Geoffrey