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Existence of 'I' and the question of solipsism


To: Walter F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Existence of 'I' and the question of solipsism
Date: 29 June 2004 12:21

Dear Walter,

Thank you for your email of 21 June, with your third essay for the Pathways Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'What difference does the existence of 'I' make to the nature of things? - Discuss with reference to the question of solipsism and its refutation.'

You give an accurate summary of the state of play after the refutations of solipsism and anti-solipsism.

I agree with your remark regarding Roger Bannister. My past self, even the past self of yesterday or one hour ago, is just another subject in the world, alongside you, Roger Bannister, the Queen etc. The absolute 'I' which arises 'from the ashes of solipsism' exists only in the moment.

This perhaps helps us to understand the point made by Sartre about 'bad faith': that the only thing that counts in a decision not made in bad faith is my *present* valuational perspective. The decisions, plans, values, attachments of the numerous GKs who exist in the past are mere data so far as my present situation - the situation which calls for a decision - is concerned. In a moment, everything can change, as Sartre deftly illustrates in his novels.

As you note, moral action requires taking the valuational perspectives of others into account - and as we have seen, all others count, 'at least potentially'.

This is something I have not discussed, but it is worth dwelling on the contrast between 'others' and all my former selves, who apparently do not 'count' at all.

Is there anything analogous to a 'moral' obligation which I have to one of my past selves? Suppose I once made a solemn promise to myself, 'I will never give up Philosophy'. One bright morning, I wake up to discover that the trail has gone cold. Philosophy no longer interests me. Undoubtedly, at times like this we do feel that we are 'doing something wrong', and not just because our friends, family etc express shock and surprise at our 'about face'. If it is wrong, however, it is not morally wrong.

Also, one should be suspicious of 'moods'. (Maybe one could argue that this is something Sartre does not take sufficiently seriously. ) If you 'know' yourself well, and this kind of thing has happened to you before, then you will not make any hasty decisions based on what might prove to be a passing mood.

The answer is that vows made to oneself serve an important purpose. They are part of the struggle to remember, to see clearly, who we are. But such vows have no moral force. They are merely a device justified by their practical value to the person who makes them.

What is the ethics of dialogue? Where exactly does 'the dialogue' take place?

I think here in your discussion of Claus Fuchs you may be confusing the distinction between truth and judgement.

A simple example: I judge that the car in front of me is 45 feet away, by imagining three average sized cars fitted into the space between my front bumper and the other car's rear bumper. (Warning: this may not be accurate!) However, the truth of the judgement, 'The Toyota is 45 feet away' depends upon the actual distance between the two cars at the time when the judgement is made. (A police camera on the bridge above will give the operator a much more accurate judgement, but even here we must allow some margin of error.)

The concept of truth, as applied to ethical judgements, involves the notion of what would transpire if we were able to enter into dialogue with all the parties affected by our decision. As such, it is an ideal, like 'the actual distance between x and y at time t'.

In the case of Claus Fuchs, there were importantly non-moral as well as moral issues. Fuchs apparently believed that passing atom secrets to the Russians would lessen the chance that atomic weapons would be used in an actual conflict. Whether or not he was right about this is not a moral question.

In Fuchs' moral calculation - assuming that he did what he believed was right - the fate of mankind was the overriding consideration. In other cases of espionage, the issue of loyalty might have greater prominence. Arguably, to give away my countries industrial or economic secrets for the benefits of mankind at large would be wrong because it would be disloyal.

As Fuchs walked along the Santa Fe river debating with himself, loyalty to the flag may well have been a consideration, despite what I have just said. To betray one's country is what it is. But larger issues were involved, and he had to keep reminding himself of this.

In general, when we make a moral judgement, we conduct an internal dialogue, allowing the other parties to 'speak' to us in our imagination. Some persons have better judgement than others, in the sense of being able to more accurately represent the other's point of view, but this is not the same as being more moral. The calculating villain is also very good at accurately estimating what others want or what they would say.

'Truth' in morals is a very difficult thing to estimate. As I explain in unit 11, this should not daunt us, or cast doubt on the validity of positing a 'reality' which we aim at when we make moral judgements. Nor should be concerned that we can never really 'know' whether our decision hit 'the truth' or not. The moral thing to do is make the best decision we can by our own lights. If we find the situation too complicated to think through, or if we think that our judgement may be swayed too much by subjective factors then the moral thing to do is seek advice from someone wiser.

All the best,