Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Does 'moral' imply 'disinterested'? (2)

To: Michael S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Does 'moral' imply 'disinterested'?
Date: 28 January 2005 12:37

Dear Mike,

Thank you for your email of 18 January, with your first essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Does 'moral' imply 'disinterested'?'

This is a good piece of work. I like the strategy you have taken, of contrasting examples where our intuitions favour a 'disinterested' approach with examples where our intuitions go the other way.

Although I am pleased to see that we agree that 'moral' does not imply 'disinterested', I do not feel that you have fully made your case. In order to explain why, I need to make a bit of a digression.

One of the common accusations made against the moral philosophy of J.S. Mill is that of inconsistency. The defence of liberty in his essay 'On Liberty' comes into conflict with his advocacy of utilitarianism in his earlier essay, 'Utilitarianism'. Surely, there will be cases where, for the greater good, liberty to 'do whatsoever one likes so long as it does not cause harm to others' must be suppressed.

To bolster the accusation, critics point out that J.S. Mill's wife Harriet, who had very strong views of her own regarding liberty, had an increasingly powerful influence on his thinking.

I am the last person to attempt to defend Mill against inconsistency. Arguably, his distinction between 'higher' and 'lower' pleasures in Utilitarianism is indefensible, given the premisses on which his moral theory is based. Bentham saw, as Mill seems to have missed, that our very preference for so-called 'higher' pleasures can only be justified on the basis of its consequences. In Utilitarianism, Mill attacks philosophers who think they can discern moral values by pure 'intuition'. Against the intuitionists, there is no basis for moral right or wrong other than the objective, measurable, consequences of an action for human happiness or misery. In that case, what possible ground, other than intuition, can be given for preferring the higher pleasures to the lower?

Bentham, the more rigorously logical of the two thinkers on this point, has a simple argument. The writing of poetry, for example, gives more pleasure to others than pushpin (a nineteenth century bar-room game). In themselves, the pleasures of writing poetry and playing pushpin are equal. So when it comes to making a choice, it is the fruitfulness of a given pleasurable activity in generating further pleasures that must be taken into account.

However, if we allow Mill the distinction between higher and lower pleasures (on whatever basis we conceive the distinction to be ultimately grounded) then Mill does have a way to resolve the conflict between liberty and utility. In the section of On Liberty entitled 'On Individuality', he paints a picture of the ideal of human happiness or flourishing which makes exactly the point that you make about happy slaves. This is not true happiness because it does not represent the highest form of human flourishing. Better to be Socrates unsatisfied, Mill famously argued, than a pig satisfied.

With this on board, the defender of the equation of morality with the disinterested view escapes. We are obliged to seek the maximum of happiness/flourishing. Although chess, philosophy are admirable activities which demand the application of our highest powers, that still does not suffice to defend *my* desire to play chess or study philosophy, given the urgent demands of others.

So we are left in the same predicament as before. Intuition tells me that it cannot be wrong to pursue philosophy. The disinterested view asserts that it must be. How, then, can that intuition be defended?

In your footnote, you raise the issue whether the utilitarian (e.g. Hare's) two-level account of moral decision making is inconsistent. I actually don't think that it is. The important point is that we are talking about two different kinds of people. It is only the people with high intellectual capacity - the philosopher rulers - who can safely apply utilitarian reasoning. In the hands of the non-intellectual masses, utilitarian thinking is a potentially dangerous weapon whose inevitable misuse would lead to all sorts of grief.

This is obnoxious, certainly. Ridiculous, arguably. But not inconsistent with the idea that the objectively right action is the one which leads to the best consequences from a disinterested point of view.

All the best,

Geoffrey