4 June 1997
Thank you for your letter of 26 May, with your course notes for unit 6 of Reasons, Values and Conduct.
About a week before I was due to give my talk, I decided to switch topics to one that was more immediately relevant to the moral philosophy programme: 'Moral Perspective and the Authority of the Other'. I enclose a copy, out of interest. Basically, the argument attempts to 'short cut' the triadic version of the argument (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) which I give in the moral philosophy programme. I didn't read the paper out but 'talked' to it, and we had an interesting, if rather unfocussed discussion. I think they were keen to see how I would 'perform'!
I am still thinking about a version of my paper on the fear of death for a special edition of Philosophy Now dealing with 'the meaning of life' — but though the editor gave it a cautious go-ahead, it will be tough fitting the article in the set 1000 word limit! The argument relies heavily on my metaphysic of subjective and objective worlds.
106-110. an argument against solipsism Solipsism, or 'transcendental solipsism' is just another name for egocentric subjectivism. It is the theory you get when you refine the original solipsist or egocentric intuition by applying Kant's 'Refutation of Idealism'. I.e. to have any coherent experience at all, or indeed to be a subject of experience it is necessary that my experiences 'represent' or be 'as of' a world of objects 'external' to my mind. What ultimately 'exists' or is 'given' however, is just the 'this' from which the story of an 'external world' is constructed. There is no side to the objects that populate my 'external world' other than the side they present to me, or to my transcendental 'I'.
Talk of the necessity of an 'external standard' can be misleading. Any standard I can use or appeal to is necessarily internal. Rather, in acknowledging the incoherence of solipsism I acknowledge that there is a perspective which my perspective can never include, a standpoint from which my judgements may be criticised that I cannot ever come to occupy: the standpoint of the other.
I like your example of the taste of coffee. But first we have to think what the (transcendental) solipsist would say. Insofar as any subjective experience of something necessarily (according to Kant's argument) tracks some objective property of the thing perceived, certain factual consequences capable in principle of being investigated would follow either from the proposition, 'the coffee tastes the same as it did yesterday' or from the proposition, 'the coffee tastes different from the way it tasted yesterday'. Say, I used Columbian beans instead of Brazilian, or I carelessly allowed the coffee to boil, or the jug was not washed out properly.
However, suppose now that in parallel with my gradually 'forgetting' which taste I mean to refer to by the term 'coffee' there are other, compensating errors in my 'theory of an external world'. Perhaps this is not the best example, but you can see how, in principle, the grossest errors of judgement — perceptual or otherwise — could insulate themselves from collision with the facts, so long as everything was ultimately to be judged from a single perspective.
111-115. Anti-solipsism as an antithesis: perspective of 'others' I agree with everything you say here, except for your use of the term, 'Absolute'! Absolute idealism is one version of anti- solipsism. Other versions are Berkeleian immaterialism, materialism etc. (I would certainly be interested to see an argument that my triadic argument for a 'two worlds' theory fails to appreciate how absolute idealism alone succeeds in accommodating the reality of the I-perspective. If it did succeed in doing this, then there would be no need for a 'synthesis'!)
116-117. Rawls' theory If I understand you correctly, your argument is that the long- term consequences at any attempt at re-distribution of life's goods in the name of justice would be worse — on average worse, and/or worse for the 'worse off' — than allowing people the freedom to better themselves under the 'prod' of hardship.
A different line altogether against Rawls would be to insist, with Nozick (in his book Anarchy, State and Utopia which made a huge impact in the 80's) that any attempt at re-distribution conflicts with a view of human beings as having inalienable 'rights'. If I agree to work for you for a low wage, I have no right to demand extra financial support for myself and my family financed through extra taxes paid by you and others who are better off than me. That is theft. If I want more, I should work harder, or drive a harder bargain.
Your consequentialist line is similar to the famous — or infamous — 'invisible hand' theory of economics, whereby our collective self-interest is best served through each individual pursuing his or her own economic self-interest without interference from the state. (Come to think of it, I think that this is also in Nozick, but it is not the argument he ultimately relies on.)
I would say that, leaving the factual argument aside — i.e. ignoring the question whether the consequences would indeed be better if we left well enough alone — it is still necessary to decide how on principle those consequences are to be evaluated. So you have not in fact succeeded in side- stepping the debate between utilitarianism and the maxi-min criterion, or any other competing principle. Rawls' intuition is that a better overall 'average' is not necessarily preferable to a society where effort is put towards reducing sharp inequalities, at a cost of reducing the overall sum. I agree, however, that the story of the 'veil of ignorance' seems fishy.
118-120. moral dualism Your summary here seems a little unclear, but I take it that you have got the point that the consequences, in terms of overall happiness, for a society that strictly practiced the principles of utilitarianism would be worse than if people believed, or had inculcated in them a non-utilitarian ethic.
Regarding your comments, I would ask, What is the function of utiliarianism as a metaphysical principle, if it allows me to continue to follow my own non-utilitarian morality in the belief that doing what my intuitions or conscience tell me is right would work out 'best for all' in the en'? Ordinary persons are simply not fit to apply utilitarian principles in moral reasoning, or at least apply them consistently. That is Hare's point. On the question of moral dilemmas, I would argue, contrary to what you say, that utilitarianism will never, at least according to the theory, be stuck with a moral dilemma — even though we may be stuck with one in our everyday moral reasoning — because there will always be a fractional difference in the consequences of two different courses of action.
121-125. towards a third alternative The utilitarian recognises that all we can do, if we wish to make our actions conform to the principles of utilitarianism, is make our best practical judgement on the probable consequences of our actions. The mere possibility that a severely disabled infant will turn out to be a 'Stephen Hawking' (who so far as I can recall in fact acquired motor- neurone disease and was not born disabled, though I may be wrong about this) is no objection to the practice of non- voluntary euthanasia. We first have to make a judgement concerning probability. Anything is 'possible'. We might occasionally murder a future genius, but it is more likely that the total suffering our policy eliminates will outweigh the loss of benefits. Some — including myself — find that view, and that project objectionable in itself.