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Hume's challenge to moral statements


To: Roger W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume's challenge to moral statements
Date: 28 August 2006 12:47

Dear Roger,

Thank you for your email of 20 August, with your 'positioning essay' for your ISFP Fellowship dissertation, 'Hume's Challenge to Moral Statements'.

As you present it, Hume's challenge raises the spectre of the 'rational psychopath'. The first question to ask is why this is seen as such a threat.

You allude to an argument which occurs early on in the Moral Philosophy program to the effect that when the stakes are raised high enough any defence of morality based on rational self-interest is liable to fail. As I would put it, there will always be an 'offer I cannot rationally refuse'.

On this view, nothing less than a demonstration that a psychopath would necessarily be 'irrational' will do. This is not the same, of course as an argument that would, in practice succeed in persuading the psychopath. Each of us is arguing against the 'psychopath in me'.

If Kant is right about the categorical imperative, then this defines what it is to be rational, and therefore meets full on the rational psychopath challenge. But is there a contingent assumption lurking here? You suggest that it is the claim that 'we experience ourselves as free rational agents'. But maybe we're not free after all, then what?

If we are not free rational agents, Kant would argue, then there is no such thing as rationality. There is no such thing as logical inference, or any reasoned judgement of any kind. We are merely natural creatures tossed about by the laws of cause and effect.

However, as you will be aware, there are other ways of digging at the categorical imperative.

I accept the challenge as stated, in broadly Kant's terms although my own 'solution' would be different. But does the challenge have to be understood in that way?

What if it could be shown that the situation of the rational psychopath - or the 'amoralist' to use a less loaded term - would in fact be intolerable, or practically impossible? Then the response, in effect is, 'You imagine that you could be an amoralist but that is only because you have failed to think things through'. This isn't the same as appealing to some hypothetical imperative, 'If you want X then you should not be an amoralist', but rather, 'You couldn't be an amoralist even if you tried.' I seem to recall Bernard Williams using this kind of argument in his short book 'Morality'.

Alternatively, one can reject the challenge.

This is arguably what the early Wittgenstein does in putting the very question of justification out of bounds. (I like the idea of including a section on the early Wittgenstein.) This is a 'rational' response insofar as it throws into question the challenger's terms of reference.

Another alternative is to reject the challenge by simply ducking it. This is what the various 'conventional' solutions that you canvas seem to do. Like Hume, the other philosophers like Searle and Kovesi are basically saying, 'You can't have that but we can give you this.' There is no rationally based system of ethics but there is a pretty solid 'institutional' foundation for ethics.

For me, the most intersting challenges come from Nietzsche and Marx.

Nietzsche simply doesn't have a 'problem' with the amoralist. The idea that we have moral obligations to everyone he rejects out of hand. There is no 'categorical imperative'. His problem is not with the challenge to moral statements but rather with the challenge to value judgements, and the main opponent is the nihilist. There is no question of an analogous move to Kant in arguing that nihilism is somehow 'irrational'. Nihilism is a real, historical threat and also a practical challenge for anyone who does not want to be driven to the conclusion that life is meaningless.

Marx, from your account seems out of this game altogether. The very idea of a 'challenge' that has to be met by 'argument' ignores the fact that ideas are mere products of relations of production. The 'problem' of moral judgements will be solved when the relations of production themselves change.

This is putting the point rather superficially. What I would like to see is a philosophical challenge, in a Marxian spirit, to the traditional philosopher's 'let's see how we can defeat the rational psychopath' game.

There is lots here to work on. The main question is whether you are going to use the Humean challenge or challenge of the amoralist merely as a framework to explore the various approaches to founding a system of ethics that have been proposed, or whether on the contrary you want to focus on the challenge itself and the different ways of dialectically responding to it.

All the best,