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Does 'moral' imply 'disinterested'?


To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Does 'moral' imply 'disinterested'?
Date: 9 April 2001 09:11

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your e-mail of 29 March, with your second essay for the Moral Philosophy program, on the question, 'Does moral imply disinterested?'

This is an fine piece of work. You argue your case articulately, and with impressive skill. There is also passion there. It is extremely valuable to me, to have this timely reminder of sense of the power and nobility inspired by the ideal of the disinterested standpoint.

As you have gathered by now, I do think that the ideal of the disinterested standpoint, fine as it is, becomes an error when erected into a moral theory. Rather than press my views on you, I will concentrate on the arguments that you bring forward.

Right at the beginning of your essay you make two claims:

(a) Morality consists of the 'guiding principles by which we make choices and which affect our lives and the lives of others'.

(b) A moral code 'enables a striving toward perfection, toward the best possible world'.

Both these claims can be questioned. (a) would not be held by a subscriber to situationist ethics, for example. A moral principle fulfils a role analogous to an axiom in a theory, from which theorems can be derived. Thus, the principle, 'It is wrong to tell a lie' is the basis from which we derive particular moral prescriptions, 'Don't put your income on the tax form as only ten thousand Pounds, because that would be telling a lie.' The situational ethicist's single rule of 'unconditional love towards the other' does not qualify as a 'principle' in this sense. (This is, of course, one of the main complaints made against no-principle views of morality.)

I would not deny that even in the ethics of dialogue, we are fully capable of making general statements such as, 'It is wrong to lie', 'It is wrong to steal' etc. But it is our grasp of the moral concepts that provides the basis for our ability to make these general claims, rather than the other way round. It is our grasp of the moral concepts that provides the basis for deciding upon the exceptions to these general rules, rather than our possession of an extended range of supplementary principles describing all the admissible exceptions.

However, (a) is arguably not required for a disinterested ethic. For example, the act utilitarian 'greatest happiness' principle is a decision procedure for making particular moral decisions. General principles, when they appear, are merely useful rules of thumb, rather than the ultimate basis for ethical decision making.

There is no denying the power of (b), the idea of 'striving toward perfection, toward the best possible world'. There is a deep issue here about whether, in making a moral decision, our main consideration is the world as it is, or the world as it might be. Knowing that I am going to be taken for a sucker, for example, is taking account of the world as it is. But why should that worry me? Is it not better to strive to set a good example, even at the risk of making myself a laughing stock? Ghandi, and his followers, would be a good example. Bertrand Russell was once asked what he thought of philosophers getting involved in political activism. If you believe you can make a difference, he said, then you should get involved. If you can't, then your actions are 'just silly'.

However, there is a question which takes priority over the question what would be the ideal state of things, or how one would like the world to be. That is the question, What am I to do? What does morality expect of me? What is it that reason demands of me?

This is where things get sticky. Do I pursue my view of what would be the ideal state of things, or do I give equal weight to the views of others? At one point, you say, revealingly, 'We are forced, perhaps, to guess what will bring the greatest possible satisfaction to others, even sometimes making a judgement against their own claims.' This has always been the central dilemma for utilitarianism: whether to take a paternalistic view, and strive to provide for people what we think they really need, or simply to give them what they want. People want things for themselves. They also have ideals, they want things for the world. Your ideals might be different from mine.

It seems, therefore, that part and parcel of this idea of the best possible moral world, or the state of moral perfection is the belief that there is, in fact, only one ultimate standard or concept of perfection. If you have a difference conception from mine, according to this view, then it follows that your vision is faulty.

It is significant that you mention Buddhism, for surely here is an example of an ideal which not all persons would share, that life is suffering and we should free ourselves from personal desires as much as possible. Let's all sit and meditate. - Speaking purely for myself, I find that vision singularly unattractive. A Buddhist will say that I am merely clinging to my illusions. A stand-off?

There is lots more in your essay that I haven't commented on. You say just the kinds of things one ought to say in arguing for the disinterested ideal, about the evolution of morals, and the conditional necessity of moral partiality. All excellent stuff.

All the best,