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Ethical truth and ethical dialogue


To: Charles R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Ethical truth and ethical dialogue
Date: 14th December 2010 12:18

Dear Charles,

Thank you for your email of 4 December, with your fourth essay for the Pathways Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'According to the ethics of dialogue, how is it possible for moral judgements to be true? What does your answer to that question show about the nature of truth?'

This is a well thought out essay with which I can find very little to disagree. In reading this, I also felt that I had just a glimpse of your attitude to your pastoral work, enough to reassure me that we are very much on the same wavelength so far as the ethics of dialogue is concerned.

You establish right from the start that 'true' is not an objective thing in itself but rather a description which we apply to statements or judgements. At the very least, it signals agreement (as in your example, 'Yes, that's true, he is handsome,') but it would be an error to assume that we can lump all applications of 'true' together as merely 'expressions of agreement'. As you argue, in at least some cases, there is an objective reality which exists whether we like it or not, and whatever agreements we may come to regarding that reality are right or wrong, accurate or inaccurate depending on how things are regarding that objective reality. An entire nation of flat earthers would not make a whit of difference to the actual shape of the earth.

This entirely reasonable distinction leads you to posit a fundamental divide between 'objective' truths, such as my example of the shape of the earth, and 'subjective truths', such as the question facing your anxious couple, whether or not to seek an abortion. In both cases, disciplined, responsible inquiry, avoiding self-deception, applying every means and every test at our disposal is considered necessary if we want to 'reach the truth of the matter', yet in the first case there actually exists a 'truth to be reached', while in the second case the 'truth' in question is merely a product of the process itself. There is no independent standard or goal with which our judgement can be ultimately compared, no objective judge on high observing our attempts to reach a decision, only ourselves.

And yet, you yield to the temptation to offer a formula for the aim of moral dialogue: 'the safety, health, happiness and well-being of all concerned'. Aren't these things ultimately measurable? That's what philosophers in the utilitarian tradition have believed, such as Bentham and J.S. Mill. Of course the calculation is immensely difficult, and we need to make practical decisions about where to place the 'cut-off' point in order to meet the urgent demands of a particular situation. Nevertheless, there is in this case an objective standard that we are aiming for, just as in the case of the shape of the earth. At a certain time in human history, it was perhaps not possible using the tools at one's disposal to determine whether the earth was flat or not. Similarly, given the urgent deadline for making a decision, the effects of fatigue (so often ignored by moral philosophers, a perceptive point), it was not possible for the couple to determine whether or not an abortion would, ultimately, best promote the 'health, happiness and well-being of all concerned'. Yet there was something objective, wasn't there? The couple will never know whether they made the 'right' decision, though in time they may believe that they did -- or that they didn't -- but does that mean that there is no objective 'right' or 'wrong' here?

You will have guessed that I'm not a friend of utilitarian philosophy, and this line of reasoning seems to me to undermine the very idea of an ethics of dialogue. Yes, the couple were fatigued. We can speculate how the dialogue would have gone if the fatigue had been less, or the deadline further away. Maybe, even, we can talk of an 'ideal limit' of ethical dialogue, in a similar way as the American philosopher Peirce talked of the ideal limit of scientific inquiry. That would at least provide a kind of ersatz 'objectivity' which avoided the error of positing ethical 'facts' on a par with empirical 'facts'. But this should not mislead us into imagining that the answers we seek from ethics are somehow 'like' the answers we seek from empirical inquiry.

(In the program I suggested the possibility of a rapprochement between the notions of truth as applied to ethics and scientific inquiry. There is a possible world, not too unlike the actual world, where science is less successful than it is in our world, where empirical truths are more a practical question, and thus more similar to ethics, than a theoretical one. However, like you, I accept that there is a distinction to be made, albeit one that has vague boundaries in certain cases.)

If ethical dialogue does not aim at an 'objective truth', what, then is its aim? Surely not mere agreement. We already know that people can agree and still be wrong (as did so many citizens of the Third Reich). We need another term of evaluation. I would suggest one that figures prominently in existential writings, authenticity. A solitary individual seeking to be 'authentic' is a dangerous thing (I don't think that Heidegger's flirtation with the Nazi regime is an accident). Yet when two or more are gathered together in dialogue -- a dialogue from which no concerned individual is excluded -- a different notion of authenticity emerges, a sense of responsibility not just for my own self and my own life, but for others to whom my obligation is absolute and unremitting, the Other who stands above me. This is how I understand the ethics of Buber and Levinas.

All the best,