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Where does goodness come from?


To: Reiner L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Where does goodness come from?
Date: 15 October 2007 12:17

Dear Reiner,

Thank you for your email of 3 October, with your essay for the Associate program posing the question, 'Where does goodness come from?'

You have found a novel way of raising one of the fundamental questions of ethics, and linking this to the mind-body problem. Your conclusion is, if there is no dualism, there can be no goodness.'

To take things backwards, I agree with that statement, but not in the sense that you intend. If -- per impossibile -- we were not able to distinguish the 'logical space of reasons' from the 'logical space of causes' (in McDowell's sense, see 'Mind and World' Harvard 1994), then the only 'goodness' that could be defined would be a crude naturalistic one in terms of 'good for X' where X is a recognizable benefit that can be defined in materialist terms.

Evolutionary biology might make some headway here, in explaining how a sophisticated system of 'morals' might develop purely as a means to each agent's self-interested end, but this is not the 'goodness' that you or I intend by that term.

However, your inquiry is hampered at the start by a failure to distinguish between two very different notions of what it is to be motivated for, or by the good. Kant's philosophy represents, in its purest form the idea that the moral law is a rational constraint on action -- a view with which I ultimately concur, although the account that I would give is very different from Kant's. (See my 'Naive Metaphysics' Ch. 13).

The alternative view is represented by Hume's theory of natural sympathy. Perhaps you have overlooked this because it seems inevitable that we would seek an explanation for the 'evolution' of natural sympathy in materialist terms. However, that is all water under the bridge so far as the agent is concerned. If I have the non self-interested desire for the well-being of another human being, then that is my desire. If you ask, 'But where did that desire come from?' there doesn't have to be any interesting reductive answer. A brick fell on my head, and suddenly I 'see' the feelings and needs of others when before I was uncaring and selfish. Logically, that 'explanation' (or, rather, refusal to seek an explanation) cannot be faulted.

G.E. Moore in his short book 'Ethics' gives the classic refutation of the argument that if I desire something which benefits you, and that desire is satisfied, then my motivation is self-interested because I 'got what I wanted'. On the contrary, argues Moore, the very fact that I truly desired something good for you shows that my motivation was altruistic and not self-interested in this particular case. Of course, not all our apparently 'moral' actions are like this. But Hume, for one, accepted the overwhelming evidence that at least some are.

So we have two very different accounts of the 'desire for good' in the running. My main objection to the Humean view is the same as Kant's: that it leaves the question whether I 'ought' to be moral beyond rational discussion. No arguments can persuade me, the most that you can do is get me to 'see' things that might affect my frame of mind, i.e. motivate me to form the second-order desire that I should be the kind of person who has first-order moral desires. Aristotle's description of 'the good life' is, arguably, an account which takes this form. If you accept the picture that Aristotle draws, then you will acquire the motivation to develop the appropriate 'habits' of a person who desires the good and moreover has the strength of will to act on that desire.

I am talking about the debate between an 'objective' and a 'subjective' view of the ultimate basis for moral motivation. There is 'goodness' either way but arguably its metaphysical character is profoundly different.

Davidson's argument in Mental Events, which you cite in your essay, is based on the principle of the 'anomalousness of the mental', or the holism of explanations in terms of beliefs, desires and intentions. The problem identified by Davidson is that the very same action can, in principle, be explained by more than one combination of beliefs and desires. Whether one views moral motivation as ultimately having an 'objective' or a 'subjective' basis, makes no difference so far as the holism of the mental is concerned. The question turns on whether 'goodness' should be included amongst given Human desires -- so that the presence or absence of this desire is merely a contingent fact about a given agent -- or whether moral motivation is (as I believe) one of the principles governing the very nature of rationality.

Thus, the question, 'Where does goodness come from?' can be understood in two radically different senses: we may be seeking an explanation in terms of biology, psychology, sociology, history which makes it intelligible that human beings are sometimes motivated by the good. Where does altruism come from? Your daughter believes that there is such a thing; the psychological egoist denies this. Even with the egoist's arguments out of the way, there is still much work to do.

The second sense of the question, however, is whether there is a rationally compelling argument which one can give for choosing good in any given case. If there isn't, and we rest content with a 'subjective' account, then the worry is that, despite the authority of Aristotle, there will always be the possibility that one might find oneself in circumstances where it was rational, all things considered, to accept the Godfather's 'offer that you cannot refuse.'

All the best,