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pathways (letters)

8 December 1997

Dear George,

Thank you for your letter of 27 November, in response to unit 7 of The Possible World Machine, on the topic of Morality.

You divide your remarks between the question, 'why we may feel the need for morality' and 'how do we go about practising it?'. My first comment is on your characterisations of these two general headings. I agree that there are two sets of questions here. However, I am not sure that you have quite hit on the principle of the classification. Let me explain.

Your answers 1-4 are some, though not all, of the answers that might be given to the question, Why should I be moral? This question asks for reasons, in the sense of considerations that would persuade someone to be moral, someone who regards 'being moral' or 'not being moral' as different options that they must choose between. However, there is another question one might ask, which does not look for reasons for being moral, but rather seeks an explanation of the fact that individuals are moral or choose to be moral. In a precisely analogous way, one might ask for reasons for believing in God, i.e. a proof of God's existence, or alternatively a psychological/sociological explanation of why people believe in God. The point to make in both cases, is that when we explain why someone holds a certain belief, we are implying that the belief need not in fact be true. Morality, or belief in God, may be a mere illusion.

It is true that in the case of morality, considerations that explain why we are moral can also be employed in a reason-giving explanation. Yet even so the two responses explaining and persuading remain distinct.

Let's look at 1-4 in this light. I shall give the reason-giving interpretation:

1. Kant sought to give a proof of his 'categorical imperative': if you accept the proof then you are bound to respect the laws of morality (just what those laws may be is a further question which Kant also attempts to address). Alternatively, you can give a sociological explanation of why certain individuals believe in the existence of absolute moral laws.

2. 'Without a moral code life just would not work' gives a reason for individuals in a 'state of nature' to attempt to agree on a set of rules to live by. This is essentially Hobbes' approach in Leviathan.

3. The question is, Why do people 'feel a need to be seen as moral'? 'If you are seen to be moral others will trust and like you' is not necessarily a reason being moral. In the Republic, Plato takes this as a starting point and then asks, suppose you could get away with being immoral; would there still be a reason for being moral? (he uses as a thought experiment the 'Ring of Gyges' which confers invisibility on its wearer). Part of his answer is that happiness involves living in a state of internal 'harmony', which cannot be achieved unless one lives in harmony with a justly ordered society. The need to 'see oneself as moral' arises because we have a moral conscience. But that in itself is not a reason for being moral: the amoralist or immoralist will do all they can to shake off what they see as the result of mere social conditioning.

4. Talk of consequences divides up into a Hobbseian explanation and a Platonic/Aristotelian explanation: 'If you want X then you should be moral'. Whatever X may be, the explanation sought is, in Kant's terms, a hypothetical imperative. If the only reason that can be given for being moral is a hypothetical imperative, then it is always open to someone to say, 'But I don't want X'. That is why such a high premium is set rightly in my view in seeking some form (not necessarily Kantian) of categorical imperative. (This is something I set out to do in Reasons, Values and Conduct. That was a 'plug', by the way!)

Coming to the second division of the classification, which you characterise as the question, How do we go about practising morality?, I would argue that the issue here is to do with the definition of a moral reason or a moral judgement. The basic point about moral reasons is that, as a matter of strict logic, moral reasons override all other reasons. This is well illustrated in the case of the 50 Pound note, so I shall stick to the example.

Someone might say, 'One is not morally bound to hand the note in all circumstances.' Just what the circumstances are is, of course, a matter that might be disputed though most of us would agree that there are some. In that case, if the circumstances do genuinely fall under the 'exceptional' heading, then there is no moral obligation to hand the note in.

Someone might say (gazing at a display of video games in the shop window) 'I know I ought to hand the note in, but it's burning a hole in my pocket'. Perhaps if they had not passed by the shop on the way to the Police Station they might have done the honest thing. But in the end they succumbed to weakness of will. In that case, the subject acknowledges that they have done something wrong in spending the money.

Someone might say, 'I know that handing the note in would be the morally right thing to do, but on this occasion I choose not to do what is morally right'. The only sense I can make of this is that the subject is talking about what others would regard as 'morally right' in this case. 'Others would say I was doing wrong, but I don't agree.' What does not make sense in my view is the idea that one can fully acknowledge something as the morally right thing to do and then simply choose not to do it.

Yours sincerely,

Geoffrey Klempner