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Pathways to Philosophy


The Ethics of Dialogue

by Geoffrey Klempner

TO accept the reality of ethical claims means to accept that the other person must always count in my deliberations. As a matter of rational necessity, every individual counts for something and not nothing. This is the relatively modest version of Kant's categorical imperative which survives when transposed into the language of the ethics of dialogue. But this begs the question, Just how much others should count? Which features of the other's situation am I supposed to take into account? Or what is it that actually gets counted?

It is easy to understand how the belief that in philosophy every clear question we put to reason must have a clear answer — or, failing that, a sense of sheer impatience — might lead one to embrace a simple recipe that promises to solve the complex problems involved in negotiating moral claims at a single stroke. The most potent example of this is provided by the classic formulation of utilitarianism, as found in the writings of Jeremy Bentham, the philosopher whose ideas were taken up and developed by John Stuart Mill. The best action for me to do, according to Bentham, is the one that would maximise total happiness or pleasure for all sentient creation; counting my desire for happiness or pleasure as no more, but also no less deserving of satisfaction than that of any other sentient being. Unlike Mill, Bentham saw no need to prove that some pleasures are better or 'higher' than others. The pleasures of pushpin and poetry are equally good in themselves, Bentham famously remarked. It is only that certain pleasures — such as the pleasure of creating or performing, or developing our talents — are more fruitful in providing additional pleasure to other (while other pleasures have the reverse effect). All that is fully taken account of in the utilitarian calculation. A hedonistic theory of value thus provides the universal currency in which my moral obligations are to be weighed, measured, and 'counted' from a neutral or disinterested standpoint.

This tough minded theory remains one option for developing a theory of ethical conduct. However, it is far from being the only option. Our rejection of the idea of the disinterested view in favour of an ethics of dialogue means that we are not committed to neutrality in the way we prioritise moral claims or distribute goods; a powerful reason in itself for questioning the need for a pleasure or happiness currency, or indeed any other currency, for measuring the value of such goods. — When the young Marx in his 1844 Manuscripts railed against the evils of money and the reduction of all forms of value to exchange value, he not only attacked theories of capitalist economics that equated rationality with the pursuit of narrow self-interest, theories in which each agent ruthlessly pursued his own gain in driving the hardest bargain for goods or labour. He also went further in exposing the ideology of capitalist 'morality', whose main aim was to ensure that the processes of exchange were governed by rules of fair play, ignoring the huge inequalities of power between the negotiating parties. The ethic of charity, or giving something back to the needy — something we can 'afford', depending on our circumstances — was itself fatally polluted in Marx's view by its implication in a system whose worse effects it sought to ameliorate. Even today, it is hard to think of giving, or being charitable in any terms other than giving money, or its equivalent in time or labour. There is more than a little truth in the cliche that the most important act of charity is to give of our own selves; a gift whose value cannot be counted.

Rather than enumerate all the things that the ethics of dialogue is not, a more constructive approach, however, would be to explore from the standpoint of self and other how moral claims first arise and how they are negotiated. This way of putting the problem already alters the task radically. Other subjects make claims, or claims are made on their behalf; that is how the dialogue is initiated. Moral claims do not exist or have being in themselves, like tablets of stone handed down by a deity, or like so many pointers or arrows fixed into the nature of things, telling me and others alike what one must, may, or may not do. This is the most palpable consequence of our rejection of the disinterested view. A claim that objectively exists for me is not necessarily a claim that objectively exists for you, nor even a claim that would exist for you were you to find yourself 'in the same situation'. The fact that I recognise a particular moral claim as being binding on me, and in so doing endow it with authority and 'being' — not out of my subjective free choice but through my justified sense of the necessity and urgency of the claim in question — is one of the things that distinguishes me from other subjects, including those in a situation comparable in other ways to my own.

Talk of negotiation immediately puts one in mind of trade, or a quid pro quo. You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. In the ethical context, however, this is precisely not the intended meaning. One is not taught to 'Do unto others, if you want them to do unto you,' but rather, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' The moral thing to do is not to offer up acts of generosity or benevolence only in return for similar acts, nor indeed is it to exact revenge for acts of meanness or malice. In the simplest case the other makes his needs known, or explains to me how I have, perhaps unwittingly, hurt him. I then respond with appropriate help, or an offer of reparation. Simple enough to state in theory, one might think, but such an aim often proves notoriously hard to put into practice. In exploring some of the more patent difficulties, our task will be to articulate the essential structure of moral dialogue, and thus explain how engaging in moral dialogue can lead me to acquire reasons for action that I did not have before, reasons that derive from my recognition of needs, values and interests that are not mine. That is something we already know to be the case in the abstract; the problem is making that knowledge concrete, so that it can be applied in a practical context.

In trading I adopt a position. I may be eager to sell, but in a buyers' market I guard my tongue when negotiating with a prospective customer. This is not deception, but simply part of the rules of the game and understood clearly on all sides. I am looking for the best price for my goods, or else the cheapest buy. In moral negotiation, on the other hand, we each put our own selves on the line. We are expected to be honest, not simply in not setting out to deceive, but in telling the whole truth; or, at least, so much as the other would reasonably wish to know about the matter in question. Moral dialogue takes place, in the memorable phrase associated with Martin Buber, between an I and a thou (in German, an 'ich' and a 'du', as opposed to 'ich' and 'sie', the impersonal form of 'you': I and Thou R.G. Smith tr., T. & T. Clarke, Edinburgh). Yet the attitude of good will and openness towards the other is by no means a guarantee of a successful or satisfactory outcome. No two valuational perspectives can ever entirely coincide. Some systematic differences — like the fact that my pains and pleasures are mine and yours are yours — effectively cancel each other out (although even here, there is scope for clashes, as when the other refuses to acknowledge just how tired I feel, or how much this pain hurts me). Other differences are more profound, affecting the very way we see 'through the other's eyes'. My project may be all the world to me; but to you it is just one of the things I do, or perhaps am excessively obsessed by, but certainly not the be-all and end-all. The promise you made to X is, I agree, important; but I do not see why so much needs to be sacrificed in order to fulfil it. — And so on.

The upshot is to give a new dimension and also a new twist to the notion of a moral dilemma. The classic way to portray such dilemmas is in terms of the conflicting considerations affecting the judgement of a solitary individual who seeks to do the right thing. In a moral dilemma, it seems there is no single 'right thing' for me to do; yet knowing and acknowledging this, realising that I must act one way or the other, I still feel the burden of my choice. The fact that others will criticise me whatever I do is ultimately of secondary importance; the crucial point is the way I myself perceive the dilemma, the fact that the dilemma weighs on me, even after I have made my decision. However, when we look at the matter from the point of view of the primacy of moral dialogue, my moral dilemma becomes, in effect, a dialogue that can never be concluded. Others, for their part, may not even see the dilemma facing me as I see it, but fall firmly on one side or the other. Or they may see a different, or possibly even more complex dilemma than the one I am prepared to acknowledge.

We thus set out in or dialogue without an agreed starting point or agenda, or even ground rules; but merely the desire to understand one another better, and to reach, if not ultimate agreement, then some level of mutual acknowledgement of one another's position. It is undoubtedly true that each of us remains alone in facing the choices that we face, choices for which we ourselves are 'responsible' in the strict, causal sense implicated in accepting moral praise or blame. Yet moral responsibility is not simply a causal notion. To be responsible implies the ability to respond; to be one who participates in moral dialogue. In acknowledging my dilemma, I face the task of responding to the questions and criticisms of others who do not necessarily perceive the balance of claims as I do. Paradoxically — and here comes the twist — the effect of interpreting moral dilemmas in terms of the notion of dialogue is to make me aware that my dilemma is indeed my unique response to the moral claims that press on me. The reality of my dilemma does not necessarily imply that it is there for all to see.

It might appear at first that the claim that in making moral decisions I am both alone and not alone, that my moral obligations go beyond merely seeking to do the right thing by my best lights, but include maintaining a moral dialogue with concerned parties, is merely truistic, and in no way a radical shift from moral discourse traditionally conceived. Surely, on any view of morals, we are obliged to explain our actions to others. What is it, then, that makes an ethics of dialogue so distinctive? The answer will be found in the fundamental alteration that appears in our conception of moral reality when one moves away from the ethics of the disinterested view. The task of accounting for this change of perspective in terms of metaphysical theory, and the exploration of the essential structure of moral dialogue thus go hand in hand. We want to know how it could ever be possible on a practical level to reach a justified conclusion concerning what I ought to do in a particular case, or how far I might reasonably be expected to go out of my way for the sake of another. But we also want to know in theoretical terms just what is the status of such a conclusion; in what sense it could be seen as reflecting the reality of my situation as a moral being, and for that reason unconditionally binding on my actions.

To recognise the reality of the world of the other — the only thing that stands between me and the abyss of solipsism — is not a judging or saying but essentially a doing. If our ethics of dialogue has a distinctive view to offer concerning the nature of moral reasoning, it must be based on this fundamental principle. So what does it mean in practical terms?

Let us start by examining the very process of dialogue itself. I take the trouble to listen because the other person deserves to be heard out. I take the trouble to respond because the other person deserves a response. I don't have to listen to insults, nor do I have to respond if the other person is clearly not listening to me. Yet even so there are considerable lengths to which I would go in order to continue the dialogue, even if I felt that the other person was not arguing fairly, or giving me the chance to state my case. This is not a game, and there are no forfeits for those who break the rules. Keeping up the lines of communication despite every hindrance matters because the other person matters, because they count; and while the lines of communication are open there is still hope that we will overcome the barriers to mutual understanding and reconcile our differences. But why bother, all the same? What's the pay off? So long as there remains this gulf between us, the only options for me are to walk away or else to fight single-mindedly for my own cause. If I can walk away from one antagonist, I can walk way from others. There is nothing in principle to prevent me choosing to walk away from all. If I decide to stand and fight, on the other hand, there is nothing to stop the fight ultimately becoming a fight to the death, for only by the destruction of the other is the obstacle he represents finally overcome.

If I must give way to the interests of the other, it is because I want to, because I care, and not because I am forced to. Yet my caring does not depend on my subjective feelings; it arises from something that I learn objectively to see: the needs, interests and values of the other, their valuational perspective. What is this seeing? When I engage another person in moral dialogue, there are not two parallel processes of practical deliberation going on, his and mine, but only one. (Contrast this with the case of a 'dialogue' between politicians or traders, where each is privately deliberating how to gain the upper hand.) In opening myself up and addressing the other as a 'thou' I am already committed to the practical consequences of agreement, of doing the action which, by the combined light of his valuational perspective and mine is seen as the thing to be done. The only remaining question — which will flesh out our account of the essential structure of moral dialogue — concerns the mechanics of how this combination of valuational perspectives may be achieved.

My personal, non-moral deliberations may be seen as having a broadly aesthetic goal. In seeking to reconcile my conflicting aims and interests — in building the self I wish to be — I am painting a picture of how my world would be for me if I chose one course of action rather than another, trying to imagine how the various activities I value could be fitted in to make something — my life — that as a result of the necessary accommodations would have value added rather than subtracted from the sum of the various individual components. As in a figurative composition, the choice of colours, the brushwork, the composition all have to contribute to make harmonious whole. Ideally, there is no competition or clash between different images or aspects striving for attention, but each resonates with and magnifies the other. Any sign of mere compromise, of denying one part of myself to make sufficient room for another is a detraction from the value of the overall composition, although in practice such compromises can never be entirely avoided. By contrast, compromise is the essence of moral dialogue. Because our valuational perspectives are different we cannot hope to agree on the perfect 'composition'. We therefore have to set our sights lower. The guiding principle becomes one of fairness and mutual forbearance. We cannot build a perfect life together, but still that life can be our life, rather than the lives of isolated individuals or antagonists. Its 'added value' for each of us resides purely in the fact that it is ours, that through my actions I recognise the reality, the authority of you, the other, as you do for me.

One has to be on guard against the negative connotations of 'compromise'. In everyday speech, we talk of those who 'compromise their principles', or who find themselves in a situation in which they are 'fatally compromised'. The point to realise is that compromise as such has no value for its own sake. Nor are we talking about shallow expediency, or taking the easy way out. It is rather that the importance of moral dialogue is so great, the risks of refusing to enter into dialogue so severe, that maintaining the dialogue warrants very considerable sacrifice. But how do I decide what to give up? Is there anything I cannot give up? Let us start with the most difficult range of cases. Let us say that there is a certain activity or practice which I regard as wrong, and another person does not regard as wrong: say, fox hunting, or abortion. I am not now talking merely about the things that matter to me, from my personal perspective. To be sure, I care about the fate of foxes or foetuses. But from a moral point of view my caring is not confined to worrying about whether I might personally be involved in hurting them. Such a possibility may be pretty remote. Rather, I will not let anyone hurt them. I am not giving expression to the things I happen personally to value; I am laying down the law. I do not see myself as having the right to compromise the rights of foetuses or foxes for any consideration. What chance, then, of dialogue with a master of hounds, or a pro-abortionist?

Our answer is that there is every necessity for dialogue. The arguments have to be marshalled on both sides; the factual evidence, as well as the philosophical considerations must be sifted through. Admittedly, this is not dialogue in search of compromise. But the claim was not that all moral dialogue is aimed at seeking compromise; only that entering into moral dialogue inevitably involves compromise over certain issues, or preparedness to compromise. Another thing moral dialogue entails — no less important — is willingness to admit that one has been wrong, a willingness to follow the argument through to its conclusion, and to accept that conclusion if it goes against what one previously believed. (One special aspect that one might not have noticed in the two examples cited is the fact that foxes and foetuses cannot argue their own case; we have to argue for them. Not all cases of refusal to compromise exhibit this aspect — arguments over euthanasia and capital punishment, for example; or to take another range of cases, moral disputes arising from clashes between basic tenets of religious belief, such as those concerned with sexual morality — but it is significant that many do.)

If there is no possibility of compromise, and no-one succeeds in coming up with the telling argument (a rare enough event, admittedly) then all we can do is continue talking. The fox hunter and the abortionist are still moral beings, persons that count. You can wave placards at them but you can't shoot them like dogs. No less significantly, you do not have the choice whether or not to share your world, your living space with them. It could be your next door neighbour or your bank manager or the driver whose car you accidentally collided with. — The compelling motive force behind the formation of exclusive religious sects is the desire to draw defensive boundaries around one's life, to avoid being 'compromised' by having to communicate or deal with persons who do not share the faith. Yet within the compound, there is no guarantee that further divisions will not appear. Ultimately, the only religious sect safe from division is one that has just one member: yourself.

The case of religious belief perhaps deserves special attention. It is significant that when John Stuart Mill, in his essay On Liberty argued for unrestricted freedom of thought and discussion (apart from such things as deliberate incitement to riot or the use of insult for the sake of insult) he used examples of differences of religious belief as cases of belief systems that had erroneously sought to protect themselves from free discussion and criticism of basic principles. However firm our faith, we should be prepared to argue over the question, say, whether Christ was the Incarnation of the Deity, both on the grounds that if we are indeed 'right', our understanding of our belief and our ability to defend it will be improved, and also on the grounds that we may, after all, discover that we were 'wrong' to hold the belief, and would therefore benefit from having our error pointed out to us.

Now, while many readers will feel that Mill has successfully made out his case where the subject of disagreement is scientific knowledge, or indeed social 'experiments in living' as he termed them, it is seriously open to question whether religious faith ought to be subjected to this ordeal by fire. To take just one sensitive contemporary issue, should Muslim school children be forced to attend Christian prayers, or lessons in religious knowledge that call into question the claim of the Muslim religion to be the one true faith, when their parents remain adamantly opposed? The aim of inter-faith dialogue ought to be a search for mutual understanding, not an attempt to make the religious faith of others a subject for 'rational inquiry', least of all to gain converts to one's own faith. Yet a genuine atmosphere of religious tolerance is not so easily achieved; sometimes it may be impossible to achieve and we have to live with that uncomfortable fact.

Commitment to moral dialogue binds us together as social, moral beings. Nothing, finally, exhibits that fact more starkly than the custom of two individuals solemnly agreeing to share the rest of their lives together, 'for better or for worse'. Between the partners of a marriage there is no accepted buffer zone of 'tolerant' indifference; arguably, an essential ingredient in the cement of human society at large. I have to be prepared to justify each and any of my actions to you — at least, those which impinge on you or the children, which is near about all — as you have to be prepared to justify each and any of your actions to me. More than that, each of us must answer to what has become of our life — the life we planned, or dreamed, dreams brought to fruition or which we sorrowfully failed to bring to fruition, a life racked and riven by painful adjustments and renunciations on both sides, coloured by the resentment over lost hopes and opportunities, periodically and continually thrown into question as if we were free to start with a blank sheet when in truth there seems precious little room for anything but the occasional marginal scribble. Yet for all that, you are my truest 'thou' (in the popular phrase, my 'significant other') and to break off our dialogue now, after all that has gone before, would be to choose a spiritual death. — Is a form of human society conceivable that did not have choice of relationship at its core? Would it be possible for all moral dialogue to be conducted 'safely', at arms length? — Such a society would surely be a society without a centre at all.

© Geoffrey Klempner 1997

Paper given at the Shap Conference, Philosophical Society of England, Cumbria 26 February 1998