Thursday, September 22, 2011

Why must others count in my deliberations?

To: David S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why must other persons count in my deliberations?
Date: 9 February 2005 11:15

Dear David,

Thank you for your third essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Why must others count in my deliberations?' which you sent on 5 February.

In this essay you make a good attempt at summarizing the argument in the Moral Philosophy program. However, you also give a good, brief critique of the Humean answer to this question, in terms of 'natural sympathy'.

Your last point against Hume is that, 'Subjective morality, by itself, does not provide any basis for identifying the true values and needs of others so my good intentions are in any case liable to be misdirected.' I liked this. We are all familiar with examples of people whose 'good intentions' cause havoc because of the limitedness of their vision. I wonder what Hume would have said about this. Hume would readily allow that 'natural sympathy' can be found in the world of non-human animals as well as the human world. It is not, in itself, an intellectual capacity. Yet there is another sense of 'sympathy' which entails the kind of imaginative projection which only an intelligent being can do. In this sense, it could be said of someone that they were full of 'natural sympathy' but totally failed in their attempt to sympathise.

Moving to the idea of a disinterested view, you say, 'By attempting to make moral decisions based on an objective and fair assessment of external reality, my own individual values and those of everyone else are in danger of being ignored.' So everyone is forced into a straight jacket of standardised desires'.

This looks wrong to me. I don't think I intended to make this claim. I wanted to say, merely, 'By attempting to make moral decisions based on an objective and fair assessment of external reality, *my own* individual values are in danger of being ignored.' This is because the individual values of each person must necessarily have equal weighting in my moral calculation. This is how you get preference utilitarianism. The preference utilitarian does not deny that different people have different preferences, as a matter of objective, observable fact. The claim is that the moral standpoint is one where I do not give preference to my preferences.

But this sounds odd too. What is it to have preferences which one does not give preference to? For example, I prefer not to be starving. Other things being equal, if this condition threatens I will look for food. However, other things are not always equal, because there are other people starving too and their hunger is equally important from a moral standpoint. What I do about this depends on economic considerations, in the wide sense - the most efficient use of my energies in maximizing preference satisfaction.

Here's the original offending passage (from unit 4/84): 'The disinterested standpoint automatically renders all values invisible; or, to vary the metaphor, paints them all in a uniform shade of grey. And without an account of a basis for *rationally preferring* certain values to certain other values, there can be no acceptable proof of an objective basis for moral conduct.'

As the discussion of Anscombe and 'reasons for actions' shows, preferences are not just a brute 'given'. In order to meaningfully say that I 'want' a saucer of mud, I must have some conception of what makes a saucer of mud desirable to me, a 'desirability characterisation' which could be understood by any speaker of the language (without necessarily having to agree to it, of course). E.g. 'I want to fill my nostrils with the rich river smell.' How is this understood from the disinterested standpoint? We are not considering Nagel's 'view from nowhere', where there is no way to comprehend how anything can be desirable because of its smell (or even what a 'smell' is). The disinterested standpoint does not require this. It merely requires that I ignore the fact that one particular human being is 'I'.

What I should say is simply that accepting the necessity of the disinterested standpoint in this latter sense negates all preferences other than the purely bodily or sensual, i.e. all preferences which involve my projects, my personal relationships etc. (These are points Williams makes in his debate with Smart in 'Utilitarianism For and Against').

My other question relates to your final paragraph. In the program, the 'authority' of the other occurs at two points, in the theory of values and in the theory of conduct. My knowledge of what I want, my values, is not incorrigible. People can deceive themselves about what they want. So this is necessary one role for the other. However, the moral point of view is one where I recognize that the other has values too. The distinction between the theory of conduct and the theory of values (units 8 and 9) assumes the rejection of solipsism and anti-solipsism.

All the best,