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Why must others count in my deliberations?


To: Matthew A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why must others count in my deliberations?
Date: 20 October 2006 11:25

Dear Matthew,

Thank you for your email of 12 October, with your essay for units 7-9 of the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Why must others count in my deliberations?'

You give an admirably clear statement of the problem. Hume's account of natural sympathy explains why in fact we do allow others to count in our deliberations, but not why they must do so.

Kant offers a vision of two worlds, the phenomenal and the noumenal, where the sheer recognition of the fact that we exist in the noumenal worlds as rational beings is, or is held to be, sufficient to motivate action which accords with the Categorial imperative. The problem, however, is that the content which this gives as a recipe for constructing moral imperatives is insufficient for moral guidance in the world in which we find ourselves, as empirical subjects.

The simplest example would be, the maxim, 'Everyone ought to look after his own interests' is no less justified than the maxim, 'Everyone ought to look after everyone's interests.'

From Kant, you move onto Hare, observing that his theory of moral statements as prescriptions yields an answer to our question, only if one accepts preference utilitarianism, as the only basis for making moral decisions which does not foist one's own preferences upon others.

You say, 'Hare is driven to preference utilitarianism because he lacks a metaphysics that allows him to weigh up the relative merits of my preferences against those of others.' Hare would repudiate any attempt at constructing such a 'metaphysic' on the grounds that it clashes with the one certain principle of his theory: that a judgement, to be moral, must be universalisable. Any attempt to introduce additional content is 'fanaticism', i.e. deviation from the pure principle of universalisability.

From Hare we move to Nagel. This is the most interesting part for me.

In the program, I am not advocating Nagel's theory, although a lot of what is said sounds close to Nagel. For reasons which will become apparent in a moment, call the theory I am opposing to Nagel's the 'asymmetric' theory.

First, the things Nagel and I agree on. In some sense, recognition of the falsity of solipsism is sufficient for recognition that others must count in my deliberations. In his book 'The Possibility of Altruism', Nagel argues that my 'belief in other minds' is an INTERPRETATION of my recognition that others must count in my deliberations. Not only do the two go together, but the former in some sense philosophically illuminates the latter.

To explain what he means, Nagel gives the example of personal identity. The 'interpretation' of prudence, or the belief that my future self must count in my deliberations, is my 'sense of personal identity'. To have a sense of personal identity just is to be motivated by prudential considerations. Someone who was incapable of prudent action would lack a sense of personal identity.

According to this picture, there is something 'in' or 'about' others which is the same as I have - just as in the case of prudence, there is something in or about my future self which is the same as I have now.

The objection is the same in both cases: it is perfectly possible for me, fully recognizing my identity with the GK who will exist in a year's time, to act in spite of 'myself', to deliberately do things which GK one year on will bitterly regret. Similarly, as you point out in the context of discussing Hume, the sadist gains pleasure from torturing his victim only on the condition that he believes that the suffering he causes is 'real'.

This breaks the crucial connection that accounts for the 'must' in 'Others must count in my deliberations'.

Like Nagel's theory, the 'asymmetric' theory starts from the rejection of solipsism. Where it differs is in the recognition of the impossibility of viewing myself and the other as 'two of the same'. The recognition of the reality of my subjective world, contrary to what Nagel claims, is not the belief that 'everyone has a subjective world'. That would in effect be the disinterested view. The point about the subjective world is that you can't 'get out' of it, you are stuck there.

In that case, we need an alternative formula for what is involved in rejecting solipsism. This is where 'recognition of the authority of the other' comes in. Solipsism is false, because it lacks the prerequisites for a concept of truth. Truth necessarily involves a reference to others, an acceptance of the validity of a standpoint other than my own from which my beliefs and actions can be validly judged.

It would be possible, in theory, for a solipsist to have unlimited 'knowledge' of the world, and of the psychological states of others. But even this would not be enough for a concept of truth - for the very reason that it fails to allow room for the validity of another perspective.

But now comes the crucial part. I argued that even if I accept the 'reality' of the other in Nagel's theory, that does not provide me with an 'ought', a reason why I 'must' take the other into account. Mere metaphysical 'belief' does not translate into action.

By contrast, in the asymmetric theory, merely 'believing' this or that can never be enough to prove that I am not a solipsist who uses other persons as 'measuring instruments'. There is no 'belief' that the other is real, no proposition which I can state which conveys the content, 'I reject solipsism'. There is only action which actually takes account of others.

All the best,