9 August 1997
Thank you for your letter of 27 July, with your notes on unit 8 of Reason, Values and Conduct. You are right that the theory of subjective and objective worlds could be viewed from the standpoint of idealism, though the argument for the primacy of the standpoint of the agent — an essential step in establishing an objective basis for moral conduct — involves rejecting that possible interpretation, as entailing an unacceptable 'double vision'. The existence of one unique objective world is by no means guaranteed by the two-worlds theory: I would argue that such a world exists for us so long as we share a common language and a common 'life'. — Perhaps on these terms it could be argued that reality does necessarily fall short of the ideal.
Now on to unit 8:
145-151 values You seem to have most of it. The crucial point here, which will have become clearer to you in unit 9, is to note the fundamental difference of approach of between the theory of values and the theory of conduct. In allowing others to correct me with regard to my value judgements, I am allowing that, in certain circumstances 'others can know me better than I know myself'. Meanwhile, from the standpoint of the theory of value, I am free to place differing values on the values of others. It is a reflection of how much I value them. In these terms, some persons might count for a lot, some only a little and some not at all. It is only from the standpoint of a theory of morals that I make the 'discovery' that all persons count (though still not necessarily equally).
152-154 objectivity In recent philosophy, there has been a strong movement towards regarding moral values by analogy with Lockean secondary qualities. The idea is that the 'moral facts' as such need not be visible to every rational being — they are not visible to the amoral psychopath — but they are visible to those whose sensibilities have been appropriately trained. So, yes, on this view, we possess in our power of moral discrimination — moral 'conscience' if you like — an 'organ' that functions analogously to organs of perception. It is important for the structure of my argument to make clear that this is not an approach which I want to take, for the reasons given.
I do also have an additional — possibly fatal — objection to the 'secondary quality' theory of morals which is this. Take someone who has been fully trained in the use of our moral vocabulary, whose moral sensibilities have been suitably sharpened and refined. It is logically conceivable that such a person could undergo a conversion (call it a mental breakdown if you like) whereby they continued to be able to make all the moral discriminations that we make, but no longer attached any importance to them. Such an amoralist could live a 'double life' masquerading as a moralist, or even a moral philosopher, while secretly carrying out the most horrible crimes.
By the way, McDowell was my supervisor for my graduate studies at Oxford so I have something of an 'inside' view! (He's now the Head of Department at Pittsburgh.)
155-158 freedom of choice The point here is to recognise the contrast between a case where our values 'leave us no choice', and the case where different courses of action are consistent with what we believe in. I am arguing that it is 'what I believe' in respect to values that is, for me, objective. It is not something that is a matter for my subjective choice, the way that driving to the university via the Botanical Gardens, or alternatively driving via the Inner Ring Road is a matter for my subjective choice. (You are of course 'free' not to sign the petition, just as you are 'free' to choose to stop eating. But you won't pursue those lines of action unless you have a reason to.)
Now, someone can be fooled into thinking they are making a choice when they aren't. But here, one must take care to describe the example accurately. On your drive to Edinburgh (in your radio controlled car) you do genuinely make choices — say, whether to turn the steering wheel left or right. It is only that the effect of those choices is not what you take it to be. Putting someone in chains is not the only way to reduce their freedom of action.
159-161 intentionality The android is my example, not Daniel Dennett's. I am merely illustrating the consequences of his view of what he terms the 'intentional stance'. I am sure he would agree with the observation I make here.
Dennett's strategy for accounting for the intentionality of mental states — best illustrated in his first book Content and Consciousness (Routledge 1972) — is to see the ultimate source of all purposive behaviour in evolution. The theory of evolution is our 'programmer'. That is what explains why we possess brains, brains which are not only the products of evolution, but which are structured in such a way as to 'evolve' during infancy so as to develop the flexible response to situations characteristic of human intelligence. In science fiction scenarios, one meets up with intelligent androids who ultimately owe all their mental capacities to their programmer. But, unlike Deep Blue, or Deeper Blue, their thoughts and desires are their own, just like ours. The only thing that is different is that we are made of different 'stuff'. (Whether such a feat could ever be pulled off is another matter. I have serious doubts. Interestingly, in Blade Runner, the androids' mind's are pieced together like a scrap book from copies of human memories.)
162-165 valuational perspective The short answer to your question is that 'my pains are mine and yours are yours'. Here, arguably, is just one case where it is impossible for our valuational perspectives to coincide. I can care ever so much about your pains and you can care ever so much about mine; but is still not true that I feel your pains or that you feel mine. — Now it might be argued in response to this that the real difference is not one of values but rather of knowledge. You can't appreciate just how I have to shift my weight to ease this back ache. Suppose by some miracle of science, however, that human beings could know everything there was to know about each other's pains and pleasures. In addition, suppose that everyone came to place equal value on all pleasures and equal disvalue on all pains, irrespective of who was feeling them. — Well, suppose I do suppose this fantastical possibility: 'So what?' is the obvious retort!