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Why should others count in my deliberations?


To: Lalita K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why should others count in my deliberations?
Date: 7th September 2010 13:48

Dear Lalita,

Thank you for your email of 26 August, with your third essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Why should others count in my deliberations?'

In your essay, you present an accurate summary of the position which I have argued for: the third alternative between solipsism and anti-solipsism.

The Humean moralist eschews the question, 'Why?' I just do allow others to count. That is my nature. To a Humean, the correct response to this essay question is to reject it. There is no ultimate reason, no 'why'.

There is another position, according to which all action is motivated by self-interest. This provides a kind of answer to the question why I should allow others to count in my deliberations. Narrow selfishness is ultimately self-defeating. By allowing others to come, I serve my true 'self-interest'.

What's wrong with that? For one thing, as Plato saw when he described his thought experiment of the Ring of Gyges, it is not at all clear that the only way for me to be happy is through living the ethical life. In the Republic he goes to great lengths to demonstrate that the amoralist necessarily has a 'disordered soul'. But ultimately, this is just something you have to SEE. The kind of well-being which the soul seeks can only be achieved in harmony with others.

But we still want to know, 'Why?' The main argument of this program hinges on the fact that there is more to say. If I merely say, 'You just have to see,' then my opponent can simply retort, 'Sorry, I don't see.'

What can we use to turn the argument here? Any motivation that we appeal to is only contingent. This is the point Kant makes about hypothetical imperatives. If I say to the amoralist, 'If you want X, then you should allow others to count,' then the amoralist is free to respond, 'But I don't want X.'

It can't be something we just 'want'. There must be something more. Hence, 'solipsism does not provide a coherent metaphysic upon which I can interpret my world.' - This is where one needs more argument.

Why isn't the solipsist metaphysic coherent? Because what it describes is a world without truth. Truth isn't something you can just 'want' or 'not want'. Without truth - without a basis for the distinction between truth or falsity - the very activity of making a statement is pointless. The world of the solipsist isn't a world but only a 'mere dream'.

The source of truth comes from the other. To recognize the right of other persons to make statements which contradict mine, their authority to correct my judgements - as opposed to their mere utility as 'measuring instruments - is the minimal requirement for a concept of truth, the notion of a world.

Why must others count in my deliberations? The only language I have to express my needs and wants is a language I share with others. That is what we have proved. There is no 'truth for me', there is only truth. Words have basically the same meaning - or are at least capable of having the same meaning - in my mouth or in yours.

My reasons are reasons for me, but your reasons are also reasons for me - for example, 'I am hungry', 'I am in pain'. The only basis I have to discriminate between myself and others is that I am (usually) in a better position to look after my own interests, which is true. But that merely contingent fact does not excuse me from considering the needs and interests of others.

Two philosophers from very different traditions whose ideas seem to come together in laying out this argument are Ludwig Wittgenstein and Emmanuel Levinas. The argument against the solipsist, the idea that truth arises from a 'public language', is essentially Wittgenstein's argument against a 'private language' (see his 'Philosophical Investigations'). However, it was the continental philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (e.g. in 'Totality and Infinity') who saw that the relation between self and other is radically asymmetrical, rather than symmetrical. The other is, in a sense above me, not on the same level. We are not 'two of the same', because the distance between self and other is ultimately unsurpassable.

My Wittgensteinian gloss on this, is that what raises others to this level is the fact that they are the very pillars upon which my world rests, the necessary condition for there being such a thing as truth.

All the best,