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Does 'moral' imply 'disinterested'? (1)


To: Mark Q.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Does 'moral' imply 'disinterested'?
Date: 21 January 2005 13:02

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 9 January, with your second essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Does 'moral' imply 'disinterested'?'

You say, 'The yes answer would seem to be predicated upon the natural goodness of mankind.' Is that necessary so? Certainly, that is one way in which people might be motivated to behave in a disinterested way. However, the claim that 'moral implies disinterested' is a claim about what being moral entails - what we have to do in order to be considered to be acting 'morally' - rather than a claim about the ultimate motivation or justification for being moral/ disinterested.

In other words, a philosopher who did not believe in the 'natural goodness of mankind' might still claim that to be moral is to act in a disinterested way.

I agree that 'being moral... goes against the grain at times'. If being moral implies being disinterested then arguably that goes more against the grain than if being moral makes (as I believe) less strenuous demands (at least in that respect).

What you say under points 1, 2 and 3 is relevant to the question whether moral implies disinterested. Let's consider each in turn:

1. According to you, the desire to do good is the desire to do the action which leads to the greatest good. That is the position taken by the utilitarians J.S. Mill and Jeremy Bentham. 'Always seek to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number.' However, there are other notions of 'disinterested', e.g. Kant's Categorical Imperative: 'Act only on that principle that is capable of being willed as a universal law'. But is it the case that someone who desires to do good necessarily desires to do either of these two things?

2. You make some good points here about the difficulty of knowing what is the morally right thing to do in extreme situations, such as Hitler's Germany. Wouldn't someone who set out to produce 'the greatest happiness for the greatest number' be totally at a loss to decide what to do, faced with the very real prospect that his or her heroic act of defiance might not produce any positive benefit at all? What good are your moral principles, if to achieve any good at all you have to go against everything you have ever believed - that it is wrong to murder, steal, lie etc?

3. It is one thing knowing the good and another thing doing it. Champions of the disinterested view of morality are led to the conclusion that no-one in the real world is ever really 'moral' - not even Mother Theresa. That might fit the Christian view that we are all basically sinners, but I find it deeply unpalatable.

These are all reasons for doubting that moral implies disinterested. However, it takes a stronger argument to prove that moral cannot mean disinterested. In the Moral Philosophy program, I attempt to show this - but I am very much aware that moral philosophers who take Mill's or Kant's line would strongly disagree with me.

To be moral, I would argue, is to be prepared to take the interests of the other into consideration at all times. Not as an impartial, disinterested judge, but rather in the way that someone engaging someone else in dialogue might do. We should not seek to impose our morals, our values on others without being prepared to consider their side of the story. This is the real predicament of humankind: that we are not all in agreement about the good life. The evidence is in the News every day. That is not an excuse for easy-going relativism, but on the contrary makes tough demands - demands which we can fulfil if we are prepared to enter into dialogue openly.

The ethics of dialogue recognizes the tragedy of human life. That there are no ultimate answers to our deepest ethical dilemmas. We can only do our best to 'do the right thing' by our lights, individually or collectively, conscious that even if we are praised for our actions, there will be many who condemn us.

All the best,