on this page

Or send us an email

Pathways home page

Letters to my students

How-to-do-it guide

Essay archive

Ask a philosopher

Pathways e-journal

Features page

Downloads page

Pathways portal

Pathways to Philosophy

Home   Barry 1   Barry 2   Barry 3   Barry 4   Barry 5   Barry 6   Barry 7   Barry 8   Barry 9   Barry 10   Barry 11   Barry 12   Barry 13   Barry 14   Barry 15   Barry 16   Barry 17   Barry 18   Barry 19   Barry 20

pathways (letters)

11 December 1997

Dear Barry,

Thank you for your letter of 24 November with your second attempt at Essay 3, 'What are values and where do they come from? How are my values integrated to for a "unique valuational perspective"?'; and also your letter of 4 December with your notes on unit 12 of Reason, Values and Conduct. As you will probably have guessed, my response to the first piece has been delayed by the rush to complete the Pathways units by Christmas!

There is now just one unit left to write, unit 15 of Ancient Philosophy, on the arguments of the sophist Gorgias. It will be an apocalyptic experience: of all the Sophists Gorgias appears the greatest enemy of all the philosopher stands for. His main claim to fame is a piece entitled 'On What Is Not', which basically sets out to destroy the credentials of the kind of reasoning used by Presocratic philosophers such as Parmenides and Melissus, arguments which had up until that time been treated with respect even by philosophers who were unwilling wholeheartedly to embrace their conclusion, that reality is 'The One' or 'What Is', homogeneous and unchanging. This loss of naive faith in the power of reason had a profound effect on Plato (this is especially apparent in the second part of his dialogue Parmenides) and is the driving force behind Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Plato wrote a dialogue, the Gorgias, which attacks the Sophist's hedonistic philosophy with some ferocity.

I must admit I had a chuckle when I came to the bit in your essay about the hiker with his mobile phone. Tell me it isn't true! Good examples such as this and it does work very well in underlining the point you are making can make an essay.

However, I have to point out that, contrary to what you seem to have supposed, in dealing with the claim 'others must count' one has already moved forward from the theory of values to the theory of conduct. You say right at the end, 'Many different actions may be possible', consistently with my recognition of the claims of the other, 'but for me to know which action I ought to take, a theory of moral conduct is required'. This is in fact a claim I reject. A theory of conduct is not capable of being used as a decision procedure, or a tool for resolving moral dilemmas. At least, not the theory of conduct I am arguing for. With the theory of utilitarianism, or, arguably, with a Kantian theory of unbending principles, things are very different. To fully grasp these kinds of ethical theory is in principle to possess the means, which someone who does not fully grasp the theory does not possess, of answering every moral question. On my view, by contrast, the task of the philosopher is to explain how questions of moral conduct can be objective. Just what judgements we make in a particular situation depends, not on philosophical knowledge, but on wisdom and experience.

What the essay question called for was an account of values and the formation of a valuational perspective that abstracts altogether from questions of moral conduct. A significant portion of your essay does address this question. But even at the beginning, for example when you talk of your pleasure being 'added to the total world pleasure' you stray over the line into moral considerations. Values as such do not have to be justified in such terms. Of course, not all my values consist of things that give me pleasure. As you rightly note, I value the interests of those persons to whom I stand in various forms of relationship.

Values as I have defined them in the context of a theory of values form a very mixed bag. There are the things I personally like, and the interests of persons close to me. But I can also value a subject of inquiry such as philosophy; works of art (I value the photographs of Lee Friedlander and Robert Frank, but not the items shortlisted for this year's Turner prize); a place such as the local park. One very pertinent question which I do not raise is whether further rational considerations may be brought to bear on the values we embrace other than those I mention. The existence of a subject called 'aesthetics' says there are; but that is another story.

I do talk in the text, however, of the integration of one's personal values following basically aesthetic considerations (10/200). This could be seen as the heart of the essay you were invited to write. But you will not find the answer in the text.

With the above comments in mind, do however have a look again at what is said in the text about the relation between the theory of values and the theory of conduct. It is crucial to my strategy to make a distinction here, and to insist that even so values are 'objective not subjective'. On other theories, such as utilitarianism, there is no scope for such a distinction.

If after all this you are keen to write the essay again, you might consider whether you might not like to do this as part of your continuing studies towards the Associate Diploma.

Now to unit 12:

226-231. how much others must count You seem to have got the point here. One question raised by your comments which I now realise (too late!) that I should have given more attention to is the difference between acts of benevolence such as giving to charity, and acts which honesty demands of us, such as pointing out that the shopkeeper has given us too much change or returning the bank note found in the street. Some philosophers talk of 'rights' here. The beggar does not have a 'right' to being given money by me, whereas the tax man (according to the law of the land) does.

229-234. rationale in moral judgement The notion of the moral judge, or the ideal moral judge, is central to the idea of a rationale for moral judgements that does not depend on a decision procedure (cf. my remarks on the end of your essay). As you recognise in your comments on fox hunting, the big question is what one does when all concerned parties cannot be made to agree. The answer, I think, is that this is one of the things that the law is for. As a society, we have to make these kinds of decisions, or, rather, support a legislature that makes these decisions for us. When the same kind of irresolvable dispute arises in the private sphere, there may be no such ready solution. (But then again there may be: the Housing Association agrees that henceforth football and transistor radios will not be permitted on the Green.)

235-237. Forms of dialogue Good. One aspect of the irresolvable conflict of points of view which I might have emphasized is its connection with moral dilemmas: when the irreconcilable points of view are located in the same person. This underlines the fact that failure to disagree cannot necessarily be put down either to a lack of knowledge or unwillingness to attempt to see things from the other person's point of view.

238-242. self-assertion and self-sacrifice Good!

243-245. objective judgement In the ethics of dialogue, to 'consider things objectively' is not to attempt to consider things from a neutral or disinterested standpoint but simply to enter into dialogue in a spirit of good will and openness. In such a spirit, it can and in fact should be the right thing to do to let the other person know how strongly you feel. What is so problematic 'in the world we live today' (if one can make such a generalisation) is that the good will and openness are so sadly lacking. In a situation of mutual fear and suspicion, if I fail to be open with you, or you with me, we should not necessarily be criticised for that. It may be that we are taking quite reasonable precautions. Yet there comes a time when an 'existential choice' becomes possible, where the risk remains but is manageable nonetheless. Then belief in the ethics of dialogue would make a difference.

Yours sincerely,

Geoffrey Klempner