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Refutation of solipsism as a basis for ethics


To: David M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Refutation of solipsism as a basis for ethics
Date: 23rd September 2008

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 15 September, with your second essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'What are the consequences of the refutation of solipsism for an account of the basis of moral conduct?'

It might seem to go without saying that solipsism can only furnish a 'subjective' account of the basis of moral conduct while the rejection of solipsism entails an 'objective' account. However, that inference might yet be questioned.

What is, or would be an 'objective' account of moral conduct? What we require of such an account is that it provides a compelling reason why I must take others into account when I act. This reference to 'others' is rather general and vague. However, we can state as a minimum requirement that it is capable of generating reasons for action which do not depend on my prior desires. Whereas, on a subjective theory of moral conduct, any reason that I have for taking another person into account when I act depends on the contingent fact that I care about that person or what happens to them.

For example, suppose that I see that you are hungry. I have food, and I am a moral person. According to the subjective account, what makes me a moral person is that I have certain desires, such as the desire not to see another human being suffering hunger. That is what motivates me to act, and share my food with you. If I didn't have the desire, then there would be no reason to do anything.

The objectivist doesn't like that account because it makes moral or immoral behaviour depend on a contingency. Subjectivism accepts, in Hume's words, that 'reason is the slave to the passions'. Any reasoning we do according to the subjectivist is merely about means and ends, or the best way of satisfying our desires whatever those desires might be. It is contingent whether I happen to have moral desires or not.

A transcendental solipsist might believe that they have an objective account (as I explain in the program: the general formula is that other persons are the means to my self-realization). With the benefit of greater insight, we can say that the solipsist is wrong to believe this. The point is that this is something that needs to be shown, and can't just be assumed.

Nor does it go without saying that the rejection of solipsism entails an objective account. There are plenty of subjectivists about morality (a good example would be J.L. Mackie in his Pelican book 'Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong) who would vehemently reject any accusation that they are closet solipsists.

What this essay question is inviting you to do is sketch an argument for an objective account of morality on the basis of the rejection of solipsism, and say something about the form of the resulting theory.

You state the main point: 'In an anti-solipsist world, as a conscious subject I stand on equal footing to anyone else.'

What moral theories are suggested by that claim? Two theories considered in the program are Kant's Categorical Imperative, and Mill's Utilitarianism.

The Categorical Imperative may be 'glossed' in these terms as stating that the term 'I', in any reason for action which is compelling for me, can in principle be replaced by a term referring to another person in a similar situation, without lessoning the force of that reason. For example, if I am hungry that is a reason which is no stronger than my recognition that you are hungry, assuming I have a choice between giving the food to you or taking it for myself. You and I are 'on an equal footing' in that respect. The consequence is not that I should sacrifice myself for your sake, but only that I should give equal weight to your needs and mine.

You can see from this why Mill believed, in his essay 'Utilitarianism', that his principle of the 'greatest happiness for the greatest number' was merely articulating the consequences of Kant's Categorical Imperative. He was wrong about this, because the idea of 'maximizing utility' adds a feature which Kant never intended, and which is inconsistent with Kant's idea that there are principled reasons for each moral decision, regardless of the consequences. However, the same idea of 'being on an equal footing' is crucial to Mill's theory. If everyone in the world is on an equal footing to me, then any action I do must aim at the 'best' (however defined) for all.

Are these the only possibilities? I don't think so. I find something deeply unsatisfactory about an objective theory of morality based on the disinterested view, or the idea that each of us is on an equal footing with everyone. A philosopher who shares my views is Bernard Williams. See for example his contribution to Smart and Williams 'Utilitarianism For and Against' (Routledge).

A continental philosopher who has developed a similar line of argument is Emmanuel Levinas, in his theory of the 'otherness of the other' and the idea that the self and other are not 'two of the same' but rather related in a fundamentally unequal way, which in a sense places the other higher than me rather than on the same level.

The idea of a 'rejection of anti-solipsism' is my take on this; my contribution to the debate. The most I can claim is that it puts me in the same 'ball park' area as Williams and Levinas. Neither of those philosophers, however, would put the case in terms of a 'three-part dialectic' of solipsism, anti-solipsism and the rejection of anti-solipsism.

All the best,