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The case for an ethics of dialogue


To: Walter F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The case for an ethics of dialogue
Date: 24 September 2004 11:26

Dear Walter,

Thank you for your email of 13 September, with your fourth essay for the Pathways Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'How would you characterize the central claim made in rejecting the ethics of the disinterested standpoint in favour of an ethics of dialogue?'

In answering this question, it is important to distinguish between the question of what a theory claims or states, and the argument for that theory. Although it is true that examining the argument for a theory can be an important clue to what exactly the theory claims, these are still different questions.

In formal terms, an argument for a theory, T would be some proposition or set of propositions A, such that if A then T. To discover exactly what claim is made by a theory, on the other hand, we are concerned with what *follows* if the theory is accepted, i.e. we are interested in some proposition or set of propositions B, such that if T then B.

It is therefore not relevant (or, at least, not immediately relevant) to this question exactly what reasons we have for rejecting the ethics of the disinterested standpoint. Someone might dismiss all this 'airy fairy metaphysics' and assert that the ethics of the disinterested standpoint is too demanding, or conflicts with some other principle they believe in.

What follows, if we reject the ethics of the disinterested standpoint in favour of an ethics of dialogue?'

One seemingly negative consequence, which as you correctly point out does seem counter to our intuitions, is that 'having an inclination to favour one's family, friends, nation, etc. would lack much face validity'. While it is true to say that, 'It requires a good understanding of the commitment to overcome this impression', that is hardly an argument one could use against someone who made this objection.

More needs to be said here. It is a matter of justice and fairness, that if I am interviewing people for a job, I do not reject the best qualified candidate in favour of my brother-in-law. Here is a context where my role demands the performance of certain duties - to consider each application fairly, and to judge objectively. (It is also true, as we have seen in the case of moral dilemmas generated by conflicting 'roles', that there may be other circumstances to take into consideration: e.g. my brother-in-law will be deported back to the Sudan unless he can show that he has been offered a job in the UK.)

On the other hand, most would agree - and it is indeed enshrined in law - that one has overriding duties towards one's spouse which preclude, e.g. being required to testify against one's husband/wife in court.

This brief indication shows that there is really quite a lot to say - which I do not discuss in the program - about the details of how a moral view which in principle permits partiality would work in practice.

Saint Francis is a good example of a person whose actions would be regarded, in traditional moral theory, as 'supererogatory', or above and beyond the requirements of moral duty (there is a discussion of the question of 'saints and heroes' in unit 15 of the program). From the perspective of the ethics of dialogue, what characterizes the 'saint', I would argue, is an extraordinary power of perception. The saint sees more clearly than the rest of us do.

This has positive and negative consequences: the further you see, the greater the distance that your sense of moral obligation extends, the less important seem the things close by you. Saints - and heroes - have a firmness of resolve which appears, and indeed is, a form of ruthlessness.

It would not necessarily be a good thing if we were all like St Francis - although it is also undoubtedly true that the world would be a better place if we were *more* like him. That is how the examples of saints and heroes serve to inspire ordinary folk like you and I.

You make a very timely point about people trained to negotiate with terrorists and hostage takers. You say, 'Although they usually can't accommodate their demands, at least, they can show an unlimited willingness to understand and demonstrate that this is not weakness.'

This does raise, for me, an issue about how the practice of an ethics of dialogue is perceived which deserves an essay to itself. It is easier to trust someone whom you know has strong principles which they will always adhere to, no matter what. It is perceived as 'weakness', a lack of resolve, when a person does not always do the same thing in similar circumstances. It is part of the 'game theory' aspect of moral dialogue which I touch on that this too is an issue which must be addressed by the skilful practitioner of the ethics of dialogue.

All the best,