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pathways (letters)

15 April 1997

Dear Barry,

Thank you for your letter of 6 April, with your essay for units 1 — 3 of Reason, Values and Conduct on the question, 'Why be Moral?'

Regarding what you say about moral dilemmas, it is true that either course of action can be 'right' or 'justified' in the sense that (if we are aware of all the relevant facts) we would not criticise or punish someone for the unavoidable harm or suffering that their choice of one or other action caused. My point is that recognising that others could not reasonably criticise my action does not relieve me of the burden of the dilemma.

Your essay, which incidentally I enjoyed, did not really address the topic I had in mind, although I cannot blame you for that. The question, 'Why be moral?' is deliberately ambiguous. However, the ambiguity I had in mind was between the question, 'What grounds can be put forward for recognising the validity of moral considerations?' (where the question then divides between grounds that appeal to an agent's self- interest and those which are 'categorical', i.e. provide objective reasons for moral conduct), and the question, 'Why are we moral?' where explanations in terms of the need for preserving social order, or the process of child development, or even evolution and genetics might be relevant. Only in the first case are we dealing with the question, 'Why?' in the sense of persuasion.

The individual we are seeking to 'persuade' would be the amoralist, someone who is not a 'moral being' in your sense. The criterion for an adequate account is not, as I point out earliy on in the course units, that any actual amoralist (supposing we could find one) would be persuaded: that is an empirical matter. What we are looking for are reasons that we can see are valid reasons, even though we are not the one's who need persuading.

This is the question you dismiss very quickly (I would argue, far too quickly). Part of the problem lies in your definition: 'to be moral is to behave in a way that one believes is the right thing to do'. Then was Peter Sutcliffe moral? Surely this gives a necessary but not a sufficient condition for 'being moral'. Moral behaviour always is 'the right thing to do', but believing something is right does not make it so. (Then of course we still have the question just what is the right thing to do in any given case, i.e. just what 'being moral' requires of us.)

Then you go on to argue that 'as man is a reasoning being he has no choice but to be a moral being'. That would be so only if one could first establish that there are overriding, non- self interested reasons for being moral. A philosopher who held a 'subjectivist' view would argue that being rational, i.e. acting in a coherent way, does not necessarily entail being morally rational. (Sure, amoral individuals 'could not live together as a society', but that does not show why I, the solitary amoralist, should not live as a parasite on society, relying on the fact that others are not like me.)

In short, an 'objective foundation for moral conduct and values' would consist in reasons for 'being a moral being', in the light of which an amoralist (an individual who was not a 'moral being') would be seen to be irrational — although they would not necessarily 'see' this. I think part of the problem with talk of 'being a moral being', as something distinguished from acting morally in a particular case, is that it is unclear whether one has in mind someone who has the potential to be persuaded to be moral (which includes the amoralist), or, alternatively, someone who is moral but nevertheless suffers lapses: the question you address in your essay.

So now we move on to the question how as 'moral beings' we can fail to do what we recognise as 'right'. Both of the possible 'answers' you suggest are of considerable interest in their own right, though not necessarily adequate as a solution to the problem of weakness of will. 'The first is that we do not possess knowledge of what is right but only think we do.' Socrates would argue that someone who says they 'know' what is right but then fails to act on it thereby shows that they didn't really know but only thought they did. You take an altogether different tack, suggesting that no-one ever really 'knows' what is right because moral truth is transcendent. But in that case the distinction between those who do 'know' (and show by their actions that they know) and those who only think they 'know' know is obliterated. What use or relevance is transcendent moral truth if we can never know what that truth is? Traditionally, such knowledge depends upon the authority of the Deity. (Hence the grandiose setting for the story of the Ten Commandments.) The 'test' you suggest of immutability over time merely establishes consistency in our talk of transcendent moral truths, but gives no indication of how such talk could ever be validated. (I would argue in any case that moral values can be subject to relativity and change and still be 'objective': but that is another story.)

Your second possibility puts me in mind of a Dutch film I saw on TV a few years ago (and I notice in the papers was repeated at the week end): 'The Vanishing'. It is a true 'horror' film (in fact, I switched off during the middle because I could not bear to watch, then switched on again, because I could not bear not knowing what happened!) Without giving the plot away, an evil murderer contrives to keep up the appearance of living a normal life, married, with children etc. To explain his crime, he tells the story of how as a boy he once jumped off a high wall knowing that he would be injured 'just to prove his will was free'. Can we understand this? The difference between the film and your story is that in the film the murder requires meticulous planning, whereas a motorist has the power to put a murderous decision into effect instantly. Yet in fact cases of either sort appear very infrequently, and, when they do, there is always some story to tell. Freedom of the will does not mean that we are free to escape the 'space' of moral reasons; although, occasionally and disastrously, this can happen. An individual goes off the rails (as in Dunblaine) or a motorist succumbs to 'road rage'.

The 'vertigo of possibility' is a theme of existentialist writing. Sartre tells a story of a woman about to be married consumed by the thought that she is 'free' to choose to sell her body as a prostitute. The point is, however, that we are not playthings of fate, who at any moment might find ourselves for no apparent reason doing something morally despicable, or injuring ourselves or others. Nor on the other hand are we mechanically 'compelled' to do certain actions or avoid others. Yet (so long as we remain rational beings) there are certain things we simply will not do. The 'vertigo' is an illusion, albeit a necessary illusion.

All this is a rather long way from weakness of will, however. To be intelligible as an act brought about by weakness of will, the temptation to do the deed has to be sufficiently powerful to cause the agent to veer from what they would otherwise have chosen to do. But of course talk of 'causing' is a cop out. (In the course units I reject the idea that reasons have to compete with non-rational motivations.) The will is free: but only to choose according to the 'strongest' reason. Then how is it that moral considerations, supposedly 'over-riding', get over-ridden?

Yours sincerely,

Geoffrey Klempner