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pathways (letters)

27 May 1997

Dear Barry,

Just a quick note to answer the points you made in your letter of 18 May.

1. The simple maximising principle underlying utilitarianism does indeed 'strike a balance' between self-assertion and self-sacrifice. I am to count the satisfaction of my desires, or the maximisation of my happiness and minimisation of my pain as exactly on a par with that of others. I have as much right to these things as anyone else: as much, but no more.

2. Quantum indeterminacy represents a possible restriction to the Principle of Sufficient Reason as applied to physical explanation. Evidence that indeterminacy holds at the fundamental level (i.e. evidence against a 'hidden variables' theory, as supplied by the slit experiment, so I recall) is evidence against the PSR in that particular application of the principle. It does not follow that the PSR is invalid when applied to the moral justification of actions. — You need to provide an argument here first.

3. The signpost represents my moral knowledge. Now, moral knowledge is not a matter of merely remembering something that has been drummed into you. It is a living thing. Having had my moral sensibilities appropriately trained, I see what would be the right or wrong thing to do in this present situation. But — tragically, or poignantly — I can still come to doubt my own knowledge, if sufficient pressure is brought to bear from outside. I therefore do not like your amendment to the example.

4. On thesis/antithesis/synthesis: I can only repeat the point made before, that the interest of this three-stage argument lies in the fact that thesis and antithesis appear to exhaust the alternatives. An illusion is being rejected, or a mental straitjacket is being removed. If it were not for that fact, a 'synthesis' would merely be an eclectic hotchpotch of bits cobbled together from competing theories.

5. Utilitarianism recognises that there are practical limitations on calculating 'utilities'. If I have to calculate all the consequences before I give, then I will never give at all. (The delay in making a decision, and the effort in making the calculations themselves carry an in principle quantifiable 'disutility'.)

6. The transcendental solipsist (i.e. the one who takes on board Kant's 'Refutation of Idealism') does not say, 'my consciousness is the only thing that exists'. 'I' can only exist in a world as an empirical subject tracing a path through space encountering various objects along the way. Ultimately, however, all that exists is the given from which a theory concerning 'I' and 'objects in the world' is constructed. Hence the formulae, 'the world is my world,' or, 'I am my world.'

— I hope this is helpful!

Yours sincerely,

Geoffrey Klempner