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E. Moral Philosophy: 1st Student Essay

David Seaman

Why must others count in my deliberations?

This question is at the heart of ethical discussion. It is possible to find an answer like Hume in the 'natural sympathy' which exists between humans, or maybe a belief in the 'goodness of the heart'. This sort of subjective morality seems capable of providing an explanation for much altruistic behaviour, but has several shortcomings.

One thing subjective morality lacks is a true motivating force for the rational person, especially when faced with competing forces such as fear or greed. There is also no clear reason to include all others equally in my deliberations. Maybe I have more natural sympathy for some people than for others, and in that case would be much more inclined to be act altruistically towards just those people. Hume might dispute this, saying that our sympathy extends to all, but as a practical fact there does not seem any reason why this should always be the case. Finally subjective morality, by itself, does not provide any basis for identifying the true values and needs of others so my good intentions are in any case liable to be misdirected.

Having rejected subjective morality as a good rational basis for including others in my deliberations, next look at what seems a purely objective approach. We all share a world and the same external reality. When this world is viewed from an impersonal, disinterested standpoint the uniqueness of 'I' tends to fade away and be replaced by a community of people. This disinterested view is objective (in the sure sense that external reality is objective) and fair (in the sense that everyone is sure to be included). So it seems to be where the rational person might wish to live a moral life. Moral decisions are made by collecting as much information as possible about the external world and applying the information fairly to the benefit of all.

Of course this seems rather unworkable in practice but, even if it were possible to become such a disinterested saint, there are also substantial philosophical objections to this approach. I have my own unique viewpoint on the world, a viewpoint on reality that is coloured and enriched by my values. By attempting to make moral decisions based on an objective and fair assessment of external reality my own individual values, and those of everyone else, are in danger of being ignored. So everyone is forced into a straightjacket of standardised desires, and it is not possible to reconcile this with a morality which tries to satisfy an individual's real desires.

The only reality I truly perceive is my egocentric view onto the world. My view of every object is made personal by my private values. My values reflect my wants and desires and my view of reality highlights those things that are important to me and those things that I want to change. A perspective without values, were such a thing possible, could be imagined as a featureless void with nothing warranting any attention. My view on reality is objective in a different kind of way, it is the part of reality that is available only to me. No one else can have the same view on reality, it forms my unique valuational perspective.

Having discovered my own unique perspective on reality, is it now necessary to accept that everyone else also has their own unique perspective? To avoid having to make this jump it might be possible to be a solipsist. The solipsist believes that his perceptions are all there is, and there is nothing of reality that is independent of his experiences. Being a solipsist would make little practical difference to day-to-day life but, from an intellectual point of view, most would find it a lonely and uncomfortable position to be in.

For the solipsist there are no facts or truths independent of his experience, reality has no external plan, so he knows there are no tests for the soundness of his judgement. The solipsist can have no firm ground and is left in the incoherent position of being able to believe in nothing firmer than a dream world. This incoherence of solipsism means that it must be rejected in favour of a view that my perspective is not all there is. I look around the world and observe other people and it becomes logically necessary to accept that everyone has their own unique perspective on reality. Each object in the world presents different facets to different people, all representing the myriad different values that can be connected to that object. My own viewpoint cannot be the only valid valuational viewpoint on the object or on the world.

In order to avoid solipsism I have to accept the viewpoint of the other, but there is no possibility of actually experiencing any other viewpoint. When someone else talks about her values they are translated into the world of facts and their uniqueness is lost. However there is still much which remains, and inevitably by listening to her I am incorporating something of her values into my own perspective. My views are always incomplete, but by listening to and watching others they can become less incomplete. For this reason I have to accept that my judgements, which are always necessarily based on my current values, are provisional and open to criticism from others. Of course this openness to criticism and the authority of the other requires mutual respect. My actions are mine alone to make, but a realisation that my values are only part of reality means that others have to count in my deliberations.