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Difference between a solipsist and a psychopath


To: David G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Difference between a solipsist and a psychopath
Date: 20 May 2005 11:16

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 15 May, with your second essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, ''A psychopath is a solipsist who puts his metaphysical beliefs into practice.' - Is it possible to be consistently a solipsist in theory but ethical in practice? What would that mean?'

I can say with a reasonable degree of confidence that you are the only student on the Pathways Moral Philosophy program (in nearly 10 years!) who has ever attempted this question.

What on earth was I driving at? Let us see.

You make a very strong case that for the metaphysical solipsist, there cannot be such a thing as a 'moral' reason.

Anything which looks like a moral reason is merely ersatz, something which resembles a moral reason in being concerned with an 'other', but in reality is merely concerned with an aspect of the self.

It is also true, as you state very clearly, that there is no basis on which the solipsist's judgement about what is 'moral' can be sound or unsound other than the solipsist's own belief or impression of soundness. Whatever the solipsist thinks, morally speaking, goes, as for everything else.

Taken together, that makes a pretty conclusive case against the idea of a 'moral' solipsist.

However, looking at the question, there are two things that one might pick on. First, what exactly is being 'ethical in practice'? Suppose you knew someone who was a confirmed metaphysical solipsist - a fact which you were able to establish beyond doubt through your numerous (futile) philosophical attempts to convince him otherwise - who was in fact, in his 'practice' a very ethical person? Is that so absurd? It doesn't seem to be. Of course, given what you say about the impossibility of a solipsist being moral, all this would show is that your friend's behaviour, to use Kantian terminology *conformed with the moral law* but was not *motivated by the moral law*. Your friend behaves morally, but his reasons are not, and cannot be genuinely 'moral'.

I think that is something with which I would agree.

But there is another thing which occurred to me. One could turn the question around and ask whether it was in fact possible for your friend, who showed all the outward signs of believing that other persons are not merely features of 'my world', to really believe the solipsist theory.

What is it to 'hold' or 'believe' a philosophical theory? Is it just being able to come out with the appropriate words when you get into an argument with someone who holds a different theory? That is surely not sufficient - after all, your friend could have been pulling your leg all these years. He's not a solipsist, but just loves to pretend that he is one.

OK, well let's suppose that your friend isn't pulling your leg. He really believes that he is a solipsist. Can't he be wrong about this? He could say, 'Look, I'm a solipsist and being a solipsist means never having to say you were wrong about anything!' But if he isn't a solipsist but only thinks he is, then he certainly can be wrong.

This is a point that doesn't just apply to the case of solipsism. There might be other philosophical theories where there seems to be scope to argue that someone who holds the theory doesn't really believe it, they only think they do.

- This seems plausible as an explanation of what I was trying to get at with the question. At least so far.

The next step is more ominous. Let's say that your friend grasps the point (finally). But he is determined to maintain to the bitter end that he IS a solipsist. The argument might go like this. You point out that his moral actions give the lie to his solipsism. As we have seen, Kant held that it is possible to act 'morally' without the action being genuinely moral. So one line would be that it is perfectly consistent for your friend to be a solipsist and act 'morally' - because he isn't really being moral. However, you can point out that this kind of behaviour is totally irrational. There is no reason for him to behave this way. If he wants to prove he really is a solipsist then...

And if he took that final step, would that be sufficient to show that he really was a solipsist?

I would say no. There is such a thing as a psychopath. That is a proven fact. It is possible to be a solipsist in practice. But it is not possible to be a solipsist in theory. You can give the arguments for solipsism. You can assert philosophical views which entail solipsism. But you can't really believe it.

All the best,