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pathways (letters)

4 April 1997

Dear Barry,

Thank you for your letter of 23 March with your course work for Unit 3 of Reason, Values and Conduct. From what you say, I think the objection Raphael is referring to (I don't have the book with me) derives from F.H. Bradley's Ethical Studies, in the essay, 'Pleasure For Pleasure's Sake'. This particular objection (which is one of an array which Bradley deploys against Mill and other utilitarians) applies to 'hedonistic' theories generally (i.e. theories that define human values — with or without a requirement of moral impartiality — in terms of happiness or pleasure). The objection is, in Bradley's words, that pleasures are 'perishing particulars'. A past pleasure, apart from the possible pleasure its memory is still able to induce, is no longer a 'good', i.e. something we can regard as an attained value. The only recourse for the agent is to seek more of the same, in a never-ending quest.

Bradley is not committed to saying that more happiness or pleasure necessarily brings with it more unhappiness or pain. Someone who had an endless supply of pleasures might remain happy and contented right up to the time of their death. (It is difficult for us to maintain the line that such a person 'was not really happy'.) However, it is quite likely in practice that the all-out pursuit of pleasure would, at least for more reflective persons, end in despair as the capacity of different pleasures to excite one's appetite wore off. (Hence the extreme and perverted forms of the pursuit of pleasure exhibited by the Roman orgy.) But this is strictly speaking a different claim from the purely logical point about 'perishing particulars'.

In Mill's defence, it might be said that, unlike Bentham, he saw happiness far more in terms of active self-fulfilment and self-realisation than in passive enjoyment. The 'pleasures' of art or philosophy are of far greater value, he claimed, than the pleasures we share with the 'lower' animals. (Hence the famous quote, 'It is better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.') However, Bradley attacks Mill's modified version of hedonism with great ferocity, pointing out that Mill simply does not have a coherent account of how 'higher' and 'lower' pleasures are weighed up, or indeed how they could ever be seen as sharing a common currency.

I am very glad that you are finding ethics difficult, by the way!

— o O o —

44-48. nature of moral values You are right to conclude that the key point here is that 'any judgement I make is my own'. (At this stage, I would be equally happy with, 'Any judgement we make is our own': I begin to investigate the clash between the judgement of 'I' and the judgement of 'we' in Unit 5.) Of course, I/we can be wrong. Whether 1/we believe on God or not, all there is to go on is my/our own judgement.

The argument that 'if there are objective moral facts, there can be no dilemmas' has of course been set up as an object for attack: that is really the crux of this unit.

49-55. moral dilemmas You make a good point here — which deserves to be developed — about the difference between the insider's view of a moral dilemma, and the view of an outsider. I don't think that the point is to be made by trying to second guess which particular judgements an outsider would make. ('An outsider's viewpoint of the officer would be that the officer should not destroy evidence.' — That is not my view!) It is rather that an outsider can only view the dilemma in a 'generalised' way, which necessarily blurs its force, whereas the insider is the only one in a position to see the dilemma sharp and clear (which does not necessarily mean he will!).

I would not go as far as to assert that 'all choices are of equal value but...'. Let us say that the grading is cruder the more generalised a view one takes. (The compiler of the guide book is himself an experienced climber, who no doubt takes advice from, or talks to many other experienced climbers in order to come up with the optimal general grading.)

59-63. moral objectivism The logical point about 'ranking' is that it would suffice for moral objectivism that some courses of action are objectively better than others (some pupils do better in the test than others). It is not necessary that one be able to state, of any two courses of action picked out of all those available, which one is objectively better (which of the pupils who came second equal did better).

You offer a gloss on this by suggesting that 'there is a single morally objective direction which is right, but in that direction there are a number of morally right actions to be taken depending on an individual's convictions'. The problem here is, as we have already seen, an individual's convictions — no matter how long one takes to think the problem through — do not suffice to pick out a single correct 'path'. I would go along with you as far as to say that, of two persons faced with a similar dilemma, and both unable to make a choice, we might judge that one was thinking in the 'right' way about it, was sensitive to the considerations that mattered, while the other was on the wrong track altogether.

However, I emphatically do not want to say that, when faced with a moral dilemma, we can rest assured that, having done our best to think the problem through, it is all right in the end to spin a coin (which is what you are implying in your example). This is what distinguishes the peculiar force of moral dilemmas from other dilemmas (for example, the job offers — provided one takes care to make the example morally neutral!) The sense of the weight of the decisions we make — a weight that cannot be thrown off simply on the grounds that we are unable to decide their relative moral value — is what gives rise to our appreciation of the 'mystery of ethics, the transcendence of moral demands in relation to purely factual or pragmatic concerns' (64).

An existentialist philosopher might talk instead here of the 'absurdity' of moral decisions. I do not think that there is as much distance as first appears between this judgement and the claim about the 'mystery' of ethics. The difference is perhaps more to do with how optimistic a view one takes of the prospects for ethical inquiry: at just what point we can have no more use for the services of the 'moral philosopher'.

— Good luck with your essay!

Yours sincerely,

Geoffrey Klempner