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pathways (letters)

27 February 1997

Dear Barry,

Thank you for your letter of 15 February with course notes on Unit 1 of Reasons, Values and Conduct, and also your letter of 23 February. I greatly appreciate your kind comments about Pathways.

As you can imagine, I have invested an enormous amount of time and effort into seeking to make Pathways a success. While I have met my objectives in academic terms, however, I still find myself envying the success of other organisations that do not aspire to the same virtues of intellectual honesty, such as the Scientologists or the shadier 'School of Economic Science' (followers of the mystic Gurdjieff, though they will not tell you, if you ask). To a large extent, of course, their attractiveness to potential recruits depends 'giving people what they want'. Yet I cannot help feeling that, if only I could find a (cost-effective!) way of promoting Pathways and the Philosophical Society more widely, many more people would want that too! — Well, I still have enough work to occupy me until at least mid-summer; after then, I shall be bending my mind to that difficult problem...

Now to your course work:

1-3. meaning of ethics Two points here are of crucial importance: first, 'The unique contribution of philosophy has been to seek to persuade solely by means of rational argument' (1); secondly, 'Yet the desire to understand purely for the sake of understanding cannot so easily be denied' (3). The question of the basis of ethics or of values is as much a theoretical problem as a practical one.

4-6. choice of actions The philosophical problem I am addressing here — in a way, the theme for the whole enquiry — is 'how knowledge of a mere fact or object can leave us with no option regarding the way we are to act' (4).

You raise an interesting question in your example. If you do notice that you have been given too much change, then obviously you cannot defend your conduct in keeping quiet by saying, 'Normally, it is my policy not to look.' But can that policy itself be morally defended? I would argue that we are indeed under a moral obligation to take all reasonable steps in ensuring that we do not receive goods we are not entitled to. (We are not expected to go to any lengths.) How much care we take over our potential losses, meanwhile, is irrelevant (though not, of course, if you are poor with a family and any money lost means food out of their mouths).

7-12. moral judgement You've got the basic idea. Whether or not it is necessary to think that 'our morals should be standards for everyone', moral judgement involves legislating on a case, and therefore some form of generalisation. (Just what form is a question we shall be considering later on.) Now, to take your case of the beggars on London Bridge, one need not assume any clash between your professed moral 'beliefs' and your practice. The question is of what policy to adopt that would have some measure of consistency, i.e. a policy that would be 'universalisable' or capable of being expressed in the form of a rule. If you give all the time, you will be quickly be recongised as a 'soft touch' and be pestered unfairly. On the other hand, to say, 'I don't believe in giving money to beggars because they only spend it on drink or drugs/ they could get a job if they wanted to/ the starving people in Africa need it more' is more likely than not merely a mask for meanness. Yet if you only give sometimes, it is difficult to justify when to give and when not to give. Perhaps here, paradoxically, is a case where the right thing to do is be inconsistent in your giving.

13-19. subjectivism/objectivism 'The subjectivist and the objectivist are concerned to show what it is that gives someone the right to expect the same moral behaviour of others.' — An interesting alternative to the question, 'Why should I be moral?' Very good. The arguments pan out the same way in either case, as one would expect.

Moral objectivism and subjectivism do not correspond exactly to ethical rationalism and naturalism. An ethical naturalist might seek to argue that it was in virtue of certain 'natural facts' that moral values are objective, not subjective. One line is that moral virtues and vices constitute 'natural' goods and evils, conditions under which human beings either reach the fulness of their potential or become distorted and wither. It is against this kind of argument, however, that Moore made his famous accusation of a 'naturalist fallacy'. (Or a sociobiologist might triumphantly announce the discovery of a 'moral gene'; but cf. 2/43). By contrast, Hume's naturalism makes no pretence of giving support to the objectivist cause.

There is nothing in the idea of an objective basis for values that implies that we cannot make moral judgement on the basis of feeling. Our moral feelings can be a reliable guide to right action, and, in the good or virtuous person, will be. Moral 'intuitionism' makes the stronger claim that it is ultimately a feeling or intuition that discloses the existence of objective values, an intuition which cannot be justified by rational argument.

In your example of the cocaine seller, there is no reason why in principle the subjectivist and objectivist cannot agree in condemning the actions of the pusher. Their disagreement over the ultimate basis for their value judgements need never come up for discussion. The subjectivist does not claim that every moral issue should be resolved on the basis of our immediate feelings or knee-jerk reactions, but only that our feelings provide the ultimate basis for our moral judgements.(Similarly the intuitionist does not claim that immediate intuition is sufficient to decide every moral issue.)

On this particular question, I would argue that the doctor prescribing Valium honestly believes she is helping her patient. Whether she is right is a matter for debate. By contrast, the drug pusher (as opposed to someone who supplies drugs to his friends) is not interested in the harm that his product causes, so long as his customers continue buying. (By this criterion, though, one should condemn cigarette manufacturers whose own secret research confirms the addictiveness and harmfulness of their product.)

20-21. freedom of will To separate mind and body as you suggest would not be a very satisfactory solution to the problem of free will. Suppose Descartes is right, and mind and matter are totally different 'substances'. The material world is governed by cause and effect, but what about the mental world? Here there is an input in terms of experience and an output in terms of interpretation, reasoning, and decision making. Surely there must be the same formal relation between input and output as in the case of material causes and effects. The same mental input, subjected to the same mental processes must give rise to the same mental output. — But suppose just for the same of argument that this was not so. Faced with a practical situation that calls for my decision and action, my body will obey the rule of cause and effect. If my mind fails to follow suit, that can only be if, from the inside — and hidden from the view of those who witness my physical actions or hears my physical speech — I feel that my body has been taken over by an alien force over which I have no control.

22-23. relativity of moral conduct Yes, you've got the three alternatives right here. When it comes to cases, we simply have to argue on the basis of the way we see things, there is no choice. Of course, it can be very relevant that other societies appear to have different views. Possibly, we may succeed in expanding our sympathies or our vision. But equally, we may find we come up against a brick wall. The possibilities of dialogue may come to an abrupt end. Then it is important to appreciate the difference between saying, 'They disagree with us, therefore they must be wrong,' and, 'They disagree with us, therefore we fail to understand them.' On the first of these two latter alternatives, but not the second, the last resort is to go to war. — The question of relativity and the question of tolerance are important, related issues.

Yours sincerely,

Geoffrey Klempner