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Moral deliberation and the slippery slope


To: David G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Moral deliberation and the slippery slope
Date: 12 October 2005 12:38

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 1 October, with your fourth essay for the Moral Philosophy program, entitled 'The Slippery Slope', in response to the question, 'Once you give up the principle that others should always count equally in our moral deliberations, you are on a slippery slope which ultimately leads to the morality of 'anything goes'.' - How good is that argument?

I found it difficult to disagree with your argument or your conclusions, as these are more or less exactly what I would say. However, the title of the essay was inspired by a genuine sense of uneasiness that my ethics is altogether too easy and undemanding. Throw all your 'universal principles' out the window and just judge each case on its merits. Don't feel obliged to be impartial, because partiality is OK.

It might be said that some would find it very demanding to have to make a judgement about every case and not be allowed to rely on a fixed framework or set of rules. But that ought not to be too much of a worry. Judge each situation by your lights - whatever those lights are - and you can't go wrong. There is no yardstick except your own unique point of view as a moral agent.

The locus classicus for these issues is the very interesting clash between Bernard Williams and Jack Smart in 'Utilitarianism for and Against'. In that book Williams came up with his now famous example of the firing squad. (You are an unlucky tourist who finds himself in the middle of a civil war. A military commander offers you the opportunity to choose one of a group of rebellious villagers to be summarily executed. If you don't choose, they will all die.) Williams argued, against the consequentialist view, that there is a case for case for 'integrity', refusing to make a choice even if the resulting consequences are worse. Later, in another article, he seemed to partially rescind his view, recognizing that taking a stand on one's integrity can in at least some cases be seen as a case of 'moral self-indulgence'.

Slippery slope arguments is a general topic for moral philosophy which does not only apply in this case. For example, there is the much argued over issue of 'where to draw the line' in terminating pregnancies, and whether there is indeed a coherent position that one can take on this issue.

Just because we don't always know where to draw the line doesn't mean that wherever the line is drawn is arbitrary. So, as in the case of deciding how much others are to count in my moral deliberations, or how much preference to give to one set of claimants against another, there are clear cases and difficult cases. The fact that there are difficult cases should not be allowed to obscure the normal state of affairs, where as moral agents we approach each situation armed with a set of priorities and the vision to carry our projects through with these priorities clearly in mind.

But isn't this all too easy? Is what I have just described a realistic picture of our situation as moral agents, or is it more correct to say that we find ourselves bewildered by dilemmas and conflicting claims, with no clear vision of how such clashes are to be resolved?

And what is the role of dialogue? The more we are prepared to enter into dialogue, the deeper will be our appreciation of the other person's point of view. Inevitably, this involves stretching one's sympathies. But how far can this process go? where do you call a halt? I want to say that there is also legitimate space for calling an end to the process of dialogue. After talking, it's time for action. You can't talk forever. You can't resolve every dilemma.

It seems to me that we are dealing with a case of 'flip sides'. The very fact that the 'ethical dialogue' view accepts the reality of moral dilemmas is its strength and also its weakness. The very fact that there is no yardstick except your own point of view as a moral agent makes it easy to decide and also very difficult.

Ultimately, the best one can say in favour of the position being advocated is that it is the most realistic. It recognizes, in a way that other moral theories fail to recognize, the immense complexity of moral decision making. But, equally, this counts as a serious weakness from a political standpoint. It is usually not a good idea to let on that you are prepared to question the principle of impartiality.

All the best,