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Bradley's dialectic of self-assertion and self-sacrifice


To: David S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Bradley's dialectic of self-assertion and self-sacrifice
Date: 10 March 2005 11:06

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 25 February, with your fourth essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Describe the structure of the dialectic of self-assertion and self-sacrifice. Can the dialectic be resolved?'

This is a good essay, and I also agree with a lot of what you say.

The example of Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics is an novel way of illustrating the pitfalls of a morality of pure self-sacrifice, although it could be argued that (as you point out) the fatal defect in the laws of robotics is their rigidity.

Total self-sacrifice by no means entails enslavement. It was surely a fatal error on behalf of the programmers to require robots to obey human orders. A human being, as a moral agent, obeys an order for a reason. For example, you obey an order because 'its the law', or because the person giving the order is your boss - or indeed the slave master wielding the whip. By contrast, Asimov's robots appear to suffer from an irrational compulsion, which fatally damages their capacity for moral agency.

A person who, inspired by strong religious faith takes up work in a leper colony could be said to have embraced a life of self-sacrifice. But this is a free choice, and not self-enslavement.

I think one problem may be that you have tended towards conflating the dialectic of self-assertion and self-sacrifice with a different issue: the question of fanaticism versus non-fanaticism, as raised by Richard Hare. The fanatic is one who holds a set of moral beliefs which he believes ought to be held by everybody. Anti-abortionism is fanatical, according to Hare's definition. But so is pro-abortionism. It turns out (as I argued in the program) that for Hare there is only one possible non-fanatical option: preference utilitarianism.

There is an echo of Hare's rejection of fanaticism in the ethics of dialogue, in my recognition of a duty to respect the values of others, including their moral aspirations and ideals even when these conflict with mine. The difference is that there is a necessary limit to this process. Ultimately, I cannot judge things from purely disinterested view. I have a capacity for judgement honed by my unique life and experiences, and it is this judgement which I exercise in seeking to do what I conceive to be 'right', recognizing all the while that others will not necessarily see things as I see them, and moreover that I myself, being fallible, sometimes decide on a course of action which I later realize was 'wrong'.

Bradley was very much aware that there is a spectrum of possible choices between the two extremes of self-assertion and self-sacrifice, and no 'correct' position on the spectrum. He was in fact responding to a problem raised by Henry Sidgwick, at the end of his 'Methods of Ethics', where Sidgwick deplored the fact that, recognizing that each person has a right to pursue his own self-interest, there appeared no way to square this with the demands of morality.

Bradley's solution is to recognize that morality is more complex than Sidgwick conceived it. There is no 'right' answer to how self-sacrificial or self-assertive one ought to be. It is a life choice. That is the point. Bradley saw this primarily in the context of higher human aspirations, towards the pursuit of knowledge, or art, or spirituality. For example, to live the life of a hermit who spends his day in prayer is an act of self-assertion. We don't condemn the hermit because we recognize the legitimacy of this kind of life choice.

You gave the example of Peter Singer arguing that we should all give 10 per cent of our income to help the poor. This hearks back to the tradition of 'tithes' (does Singer mention this?) once practised in many Christian communities and still practised by the Mormons today. It could be argued that tithes are a sound rule of thumb that everyone can agree on, regardless of whether some persons can afford to pay a larger amount. In the absence of this kind of structure, however, each individual has to make a choice for him or herself. But I do not see this as a choice between 'self-assertion' and 'self-sacrifice'. It is a question of economics: what is the best use I can make of the resources at my disposal.

I don't want to give the impression that there is no problem or conflict. The clash between self-assertion and self-sacrifice is one of the basic forms of moral dilemma, and as I argued at the beginning of the program we cannot require ethics to provide a formula for resolving all moral dilemmas. On the contrary, it is recognition of the reality of the moral dilemma which drives home the depth of ethical questions.

All the best,