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Ethics based on the idea that everyone lives every life


To: Richard G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Ethics based on the idea that everyone lives every life
Date: 17 April 2007 10:30

Dear Rich,

Thank you for your email of 8 April, with your first essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'How would you attempt to convince someone who had not studied philosophy that there is something important at stake in the dispute between the subjectivist and objectivist account of moral judgement?

As you yourself admitted, you haven't really answered the question. However, you have set forth a theory which illustrates the question.

There is a tradition in moral philosophy which seeks to reduce questions of what is 'objectively' right or wrong to plain factual questions concerning what states of affairs bring about human pleasure and pain, happiness or suffering. The general term for theories based on this idea is 'hedonism'. These theories are also 'consequentialist' because the rightness or wrongness of an action is judged purely in terms of its consequences as measured by the predominance of pleasure over pain or pain over pleasure.

Why would one want to do this? Well, the alternative seems to be that there is no objective 'rightness' or 'wrongness' but merely what we as individuals prefer to do on a particular occasion. Subjectivist moral theories accept this on one level, but try to explain why on the whole we 'prefer' to be moral, in terms of the benefits that each individual perceives in choosing the moral option, even when this means giving up the prospect of pleasure or accepting a degree of pain. Some of these subjectivist inspired explanations are psychological - human beings are 'naturally constituted' to be sympathetic to the needs of others - while others are based on self-interest. In the long run, it is argued, it 'pays' to be moral.

It is clear from your essay that you don't like subjectivism. I don't either, so that's something we can agree on. However, imagining that we were attempting to explain why we don't like subjectivism to someone who has not studied philosophy, what would one say? My best argument is the 'offer one cannot refuse'. However, 'sympathetic' I may be, or however much it 'pays' to be moral, circumstances could arise where the 'right' thing for me to do was something very bad - if the Godfather's 'offer' was good enough. And that is a result which I don't like at all.

Consequentialists who argue that the 'best' action is, e.g. the one that brings about the 'greatest happiness for the greatest number' believe in an objectivist account. The problem is, why should anyone believe this? The motivation for taking a moral point of view is not explained. It is left as a mere choice for each individual, to be moral or not.

Your idea seems, in effect, to attempt to do away with the subjectivist/ objectivist split by putting forward an empirical hypothesis. If the hypothesis is true, then it is in my own self-interest to be moral.

The first step is to recognize that we are not always right about what we think will bring us enjoyment or pleasure. There is the 'subjective' belief, 'If I do X I will get pleasure' and the 'objective' fact, 'I did X and I got/ didn't get pleasure'. This is a distinction which moral subjectivists are happy to accept. Prudence in pursuing one's own pleasures is not the same as morality. The more prudent you are, the more carefully you estimate and calculate pleasures and pains, the happier your life will be (in theory).

However, if it turned out that it is factually true that 'we live each other's lives' then the prudent thing to do - or what is in my own self-interest - corresponds with what is moral. There would no longer be room for debate between subjectivists and objectivists.

As I hinted in my email yesterday, this 'solution' leaves vital questions unanswered. Intuitively, it seems pretty clear that if I hurt someone for my own gain, then on this theory I am really 'hurting myself'. Knowing this, I avoid hurting them. The problem is that there are many cases where this test doesn't give a clear result. There is no way to calculate the 'best' action without making additional assumptions.

For example, do you really want to be a preference utilitarian? This is the theory that the best action is one that maximizes 'desire satisfaction' without making any judgements on whether desires are good and bad in themselves. If you are not a preference utilitarian, what other principle will you use to calculate the best action? Are you prepared to question the assumption of consequentialism? Are you prepared to question the assumption of hedonism? Both these options need to be considered.

I haven't said anything about the 'we live each others lives' theory itself. Let's assume that it might possibly be true. Would that be enough for you? Then your position would be similar to Pascal when he made his famous 'Wager'. If I accept that there is the tiniest possibility that there exists a heaven and a hell, then the relatively small effort needed to be moral is well worth it.

On the other hand, if you feel that the theory must be true, or be believed to be true, in order to be effective in motivating moral behaviour, then the onus is on you to provide a demonstration of its truth.

All the best,