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Why must others count in my deliberations?


To: Frank Z.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why must others count in my deliberations?
Date: 15 May 2007 09:46

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your email of 6 May, with your third essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Why must others count in my deliberations?'

Your essay raises several difficult issues that need to be untangled. However, I am actually not sure where you stand on the question of acts which are not required by duty in response to a recognized right, such as giving to charity or helping someone even though that person has no 'right' to our help.

So before I go into the more complex arguments, consider the following scenario. There is a beggar who regularly walks the streets near your office. You have had several encounters with this thoroughly unpleasant person who won't take No for an answer and curses you when you refuse (rightly in your view) to give anything. One day, as you are walking to work, you notice the beggar importuning some other hapless pedestrian when the beggar falls to the ground. Approaching closer, you can see the clear signs of a heart attack (you once did a course in first aid). The other pedestrians walk hurriedly by. You can easily do the same, and allow this man to die thus getting rid of a persistent nuisance, or you can call an ambulance on your mobile phone. Without hesitation, you call. Is this proof that the beggar has a right to life, or to be aided by you? Yet the difference between the case of the beggar and other persons whose lives we are able to save is only one of degree - a degree of distance and of the effort or cost of the action to ourselves.

I'll leave you to think about that.

The first strand we need to unravel is the question of what follows from the rejection of solipsism. I have argued that there are two alternatives: anti-solipsism and the theory of two worlds. According to anti-solipsism the only coherent moral standpoint is one of 'detachment'. This leads, by one route, to the ethics of utilitarianism and the strict requirement that we should take into account the needs of every conscious being in the universe. Similarly, from the point of view of the Kantian Categorical Imperative the only important question is the 'right thing to be done' regardless of the moral agent's own interests.

On the alternative, two worlds view, my obligations vary with the distance of others from me, although ultimately every individual 'counts for something and not nothing'. This is the basis of the view that one's obligations towards one's friends and family are stronger than towards people who you don't know. My greatest obligations are towards myself.

The argument for the two worlds view is that recognition of the reality of others - and consequently their moral claims - is a necessary condition for there being a world for me. This is a controversial claim. However, a similar view has been argued by the Continental philosopher Emmanuel Levinas who bases his ethics on the ultimate asymmetry of self and other rather than, as in the disinterested view, on their ultimate symmetry. (Levinas' magnum opus is 'Totality and Infinity'.) Levinas is a difficult thinker, especially for English readers relying on translations. However, his basic premise - the absolute 'otherness of the other' - is not so difficult to grasp. My respect for another is based not on recognition that he is basically 'the same' as me, but rather on the fact that he has an aspect which is beyond my possible knowledge. Each of us is however in a similar situation in that we are situated beings, whose view of the world is necessarily from a perspective, by contrast with a hypothetical God's 'view from nowhere'.

In the Analytic tradition, the argument that our obligations are not towards everybody equally has been forcibly put by Bernard Williams (see B. Williams and J.C.C. Smart 'Utilitarianism For and Against' Routledge). I have a lot of sympathy with Williams' view. He develops his case, not from a metaphysical standpoint but rather with the help of intuitive examples which emphasise the importance of a sense of 'personal integrity' and a one's attachment to one's projects and values.

I therefore don't agree with you that the reason why others count in a person's deliberations is the one given by psychological egoism, but agree (for different reasons) that the 'I' is important, and for this reason my family, my friends, my society, my country. The elements that define our values and who we are cannot be removed from the equation without rendering life pointless. As the American business philosopher Tibor Machan recently quoted to me, 'We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don't know' (W.H. Auden).

All the best,