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Why be moral?


To: Rakia F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why be moral?
Date: 26 October 2007 13:17

Dear Rakia,

Thank you for your email of 18 October, with your notes on unit 3 of the Moral Philosophy program, and your first essay, in response to the question, 'Why be Moral'.

On the general question of 'understanding': Some of the things that you have difficulty with may be wrong or incoherent (when an academic philosopher says that he/she 'fails to understand' an argument this is generally intended as a criticism). But even where there is something coherent to be understood, you may not be ready at this stage to take it in.

The answer to the problem is to see your engagement with the text as a 'percentage game'. Provided that you can get sufficiently many good shots, you will have succeeded in extracting most of what is valuable or worth extracting. It is also possible that some of the points which fail to make an impression on you now, may come clear later when you have read more of the text and also looked at more secondary reading.

Unit 3

I am glad that you have got most of it.

On the question of ranking, the point (which I think you have seen) is simply that there is an alternative, intermediate position between a determinate scale of values with each decision assigned a different value, and no scale at all. Your question is, What do we do then? If there is no objective basis on which to decide between two alternatives which have been given the same ranking, does this mean that our decision is 'based on subjective feelings' after all?

Well, what do we do? A mere 'subjective feeling' is not a moral reason. The decision cannot be based on a whim, or because you like people who have blonde hair, or because today is Friday. So you act without reason. This is what we have to do. Any attempt to concoct a 'reason' where no reason exists would be a form of deception (or self-deception). I have tried to convey the sense of 'tragedy' in such cases, where we feel that the problem is too deep or too big for us, but we have to act anyway and bear responsibility for our action.

The case of moral dilemmas does not *prove* that moral decisions have an objective basis. Rather, it serves as an 'intimation' that something deep is there, that it is not just a matter of subjective likes or dislikes. Feeling the way we do about moral dilemmas, it is harder to agree (but not impossible, at this stage of the argument) with the subjectivist account of moral judgments.

Why be moral?

This is a good answer to the question, with which I have no real disagreements.

I think it is worth while to look closer at the claim that, 'Morality is the way people conduct themselves if they were, individually and collectively, to use reason in thinking about the choices that they face.'

David Hume, who gives a strongly subjectivist account of morality famously remarked that, 'Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them' ('Treatise of Human Nature' Book II, Part III, Section III). On Hume's theory, one of the passions which rule us is natural sympathy, and it is on this basis alone that morality can be 'rationally' based.

In other words, reason can only be claimed as an 'objective' basis if, as you say, there are 'objective facts' which reason is able to discern. These facts need not be (as I have argued) Platonic 'Forms'. An alternative account would be that there are logical constraints on human reason which can be discovered through philosophical argument.

In the program, it is argued that recognition of the 'reality of the other person' forms the basis for such an overriding principle of rationality.

This is where the argument gets somewhat complex: I want to give due recognition to the fact that each of us is 'stuck' in a particular time and place -- in a particular body. Despite this, we are able fully to acknowledge the 'reality' of other persons, and discover reasons for action not based merely on what we want, but rather on the recognition of the needs and wants of the other.

This is similar to, but distinct from the strategy used by Kant, who argued that the 'categorical imperative' is the overriding principle of rationality which guides our actions.

One philosopher who has appealed to the connection between moral reasons and belief in 'other minds' is Thomas Nagel (see, Nagel's book 'The Possibility of Altruism'). However, the thinker whose views are closest to my own is Emmanuel Levinas, in his account of the 'otherness of the other'. You might find it easier to look up articles on Levinas, as his writings are not very accessible to the student.

All the best,