15 May 1997
Thank you for your notes on unit 5 of Reason, Values and Conduct, with covering note dated 4 May. At this stage of the programme, certain themes are no doubt beginning to sound familiar! As you have probably realised, the 'synthesis' of solipsism and anti-solipsism will take the definition of reality a stage further than the rejection of solipsism or 'subjectivism' in The Ultimate Nature of Things. We are now on territory covered by my book, Naive Metaphysics.
86-91. metaphysics and morality The only quibble I have here is with, 'a synthesis to combine the best arguments from the thesis and antithesis'. In the text I talk of acceptable or unacceptable elements. I am not looking for a mere compromise between the two opposed views, but rather a genuine third possibility overlooked by both.
The question of which charities I may, or ought to give to given that I have decided to give as much as I can reasonably be expected to give poses an interesting question for Kantian ethics. There is a strong argument here that one ought to 'go utilitarian' and calculate the consequences, both in terms of the material help given to each charity and also the example shown to other potential donors. 'Pleasing myself' (I could give it all to the fund to save tigers) is not enough.
Your discussion of 'we, we2 and we3' serves to underline what is not meant by seeking a disinterested standpoint. It is the needs and interests of others that I am required to take into account, not any actual judgements that they make, judgements which may be wrong. (Later, when I discuss the 'authority of the other to correct my judgements', the question is not whether I am willing to allow any particular judgement I make to be overruled by others, but rather a question of metaphysical interpretation: as a solipsist, I might use another person's superior power of judgement in a particular field as a 'measuring instrument' whose reliability I regard myself as having the ultimate authority to judge.)
When questions of group solidarity arise (striking miners, say) there can be an obligation to go along with the decisions of the group, or the accepted leaders of that group, even if they conflict with one's own best judgement. This is a quite different issue. There can be a genuine dilemma between the demands of loyalty, and giving in to what one sees as paternalistic meddling in one's private affairs. (There are occasions when it is important that a group act in unison or speak with one voice, but also occasions when it is wrong to silence dissenting voices in the name of group solidarity.)
92-94. solipsism as a thesis. 'What he really means is that he can not prove that others exist beyhond his perceptions.' This is scepticism, rather than solipsism. For the genuine solipsist, the question of proof does not even arise: every question I raise about 'the world' or 'others' concerns ultimately relates back to the world of my own perceptions, my own egocentric 'universe'. Note also that the immaterialist (Berkeley, e.g.) rejects solipsism but accepts that 'things out there' are ultimately constituted out of 'the same sensual properties' as my perceptions.
Regarding other solipsists, it is good to remember the formula: 'The solipsist I have to refute is the solipsist in me.' The fact that other people claim to be solipsists is not my problem.
Your example of Windsor Castle clearly demonstrates the difference between solipsism and immaterialism. For the immaterialist, the same problem arises of comparing perceptions with the 'ultimate reality': but at least it is our perceptions that are in question, not simply mine.
I argued in an earlier unit (2/43) that an 'altruistic gene' could not be what is meant by an 'objective basis for moral conduct'. If it were, then the immaterialist and the solipsist could with equal right embrace this 'objective moral fact' along with all other empirical facts that constitute 'my world' or 'our world'. Clearly, however, the immaterialist has attained a metaphysical viewpoint that the solipsist has failed to attain: the question is what consequences this has for the project of seeking an objective basis for morality.
95-99. consequences of solipsism '[I]t is unlikely that we can completely ignore our metaphysical beliefs when we get back into the real world.' The situation is far worse than this. So long as my metaphysical view remains that of the solipsist, principles of action based on the 'empirical world' would seem to be a mere charade. The only recourse for the solipsist is to seek a justification for moral conduct that explicitly recognises the truth of solipsism: hence 5/102: 'Within the invisible frame of solipsism, moral conduct in the form of the practical adoption of the disinterested view becomes the implicit means to an end...to make myself as perfect as possible'. No matter that I 'forget' this when I go down the pub: at least I have the security of knowing that my moral beliefs have a metaphysical grounding. But is it a grounding of the right kind?
100-105. arguments against solipsism 'Absolute solipsism' or absolute idealism to use the more familiar term does in a way consign moral motivation to the 'world of appearances'. In reality all is one, and there is no 'ought', only 'is'. However, insofar as the question of an objective basis for moral conduct is looking for a reason for being moral that gives moral values an equally objective status to facts as matters concerning which there can be objective judgement and not merely subjective preference it would seem that objective idealism is at least in the running for providing the metaphysical grounding for moral conduct and values that we have been seeking.
The difference between anti-solipsism that takes the form of objective idealism or immaterialism, and anti-solipsism which takes the form of 'realism' or materialism does not figure in the 'dialectical triad' that I am examining. That is of course not to say that the difference is insignificant: only that for the purposes of the present argument I shall not be making much of it. By now, it will be clear ow important it will be to keep an eye on the metaphysics programme as you follow the arguments here. (But do be careful not to be 'caught out' by occasional differences of terminology!)