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Why should others count in my deliberations?


To: Nicola A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why should others count in my deliberations?
Date: 29th April 2011 14:03

Dear Nicola,

Thank you for your email of 18 April, with your third essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Why must others count in my deliberations?'

First of all, we need to separate to very different senses in which others might 'count' in my deliberations.

At the beginning of your essay you say, 'Everybody in our deliberations must count, even people we may not like, as whatever choices we make will affect that person because otherwise they would not even be considered in our deliberations in the first place... We may not like someone but if we have thought about them in any way then they count.'

In this sense of 'counting' it is also true that, e.g., traffic lights, the labels on medicine bottles, wasps, the weather forecast etc. count in my deliberations. That is to say, I take them into account because this has consequences for me (getting knocked over, getting poisoned, stung, drenched etc.). What we are concerned here is with the prudential evaluation of consequences. The assumption behind prudential reasoning is that I am seeking the best outcome for myself, and I have to take account of how the world is, the things that I encounter or may encounter in the world, in order to do this.

Among the things I encounter in the world are people. From a purely prudential point of view I have to 'take them into account', because they have the potential either to aid, or to thwart, my intentions.

The question, of course, concerns a different kind of 'counting'. The question is why I should care about the consequences of my actions for other people, for their sake, rather than in terms of how their reactions to my behaviour might affect me and my plans. In other words, 'Why be moral?'

As you note, there are persons who behave as if 'all this world is their stage'. People who do this consistently are categorized as psychopaths. However, more people do this sometimes, when they fly into a rage and do things they would not do in a calmer state of mind. The philosophical problem is what reason can be found to justify our natural and for the most part reliable sense that the consequences of our behaviour for others is something that matters, something we care about.

Scanning through your essay, I find two arguments, although these are expressed rather briefly. I will examine each one in turn.

'Basically I think we should all treat and respect others as we would wish to be treated.' Superficially, this could be read as just an expression of your point of view, your ethical 'faith'. This is what you believe, but not everyone does believe this. However, it can also be seen as a compressed argument. Who am I? What makes me special? Insofar as I have attributes which no other human being has (e.g. currently sitting at a desk at 45 Wolseley Road), this is true of every living human being. Each of us is unique in our own special way. This idea that I am 'special' cannot be used to justify the conclusion that, e.g. a psychopath would draw, that the only thing that matters is what affects me. 'Because I want it' is not the only legitimate reason.

This argument relates to what we discussed earlier in the program in relation to the 'principle of sufficient reason' and the 'disinterested standpoint'. The problem is that, as it stands, it allows very callous behaviour. For example, suppose I believe in total self-sufficiency. Accepting food from you when I am hungry would violate that belief. Therefore I will not offer you food when you are hungry.

Your second argument is, 'You cannot refuse the existence of all the other 'I's... it would mean that you think you existed as an 'I', but nobody else did, but if this was true... then we wouldn't be affected by other 'I's. But we are affected by other 'I's, and so therefore, they must exist just as we do!'

In other words, the reason why others *must* count in my deliberations is simply that they *do*. This is a brute matter of fact. I am affected, I cannot feign indifference. I recognize here a view which the philosopher David Hume argued for, that the basis of ethics lies in 'natural sympathy'.

The strength of this position, which is basically a moral subjectivist view, depends on the perceived impossibility of offering any argument or justification for the natural belief that others 'must' count in one's deliberations. Philosophers who seek such an argument are in error. That's what Hume believed. Whereas Kant held that an argument can be found, demonstrating some kind of 'objective' and not merely 'subjective' basis for our moral beliefs. -- Both equally ethical philosophers, who differed on a fundamental point of principle, so far as ethics is concerned.

All the best,