Wood Paths: Articles

Pathways to Philosophy


Moral Perspective and the Authority of the Other

by Geoffrey Klempner

1. I want to talk today about the objectivity of values, which I regard as the central problem of metaphysics. It is also an urgent practical question. Here, if anywhere, the abstract arguments of philosophy have a chance to demonstrate their relevance to human life.

In chapter 13 of my book, Naive Metaphysics, there is an attempt to derive a logical basis for moral conduct from the 'authority of the other', in the context of a theory of subjective and objective worlds. It is an interesting question, however, to what extent the account of ethics may be developed in its own right, without having to develop the whole metaphysical theory, in all its details.

That would be sufficient reason for writing a paper. However, a second, more pressing question is whether recognition of the authority of other persons to correct my judgements — or, equivalently, admission of aspects of reality beyond all that could be encompassed by my own point of view — is all that is needed for an account of the objective basis for moral judgement. About this I have begun to have doubts: these centre on the question of 'moral perspective'. Can we account for the perspectival nature of moral values without conceding vital ground to the subjectivist? That is what I am looking for in this paper.

2. First, we need to get clear about the problem of objectivity. In response to the question, 'Why be moral?', the philosopher may endeavour to show how, as a matter of fact, human beings, through innate 'sympathy', are naturally inclined to take the interests of others into consideration when making decisions that affect them. An argument that one must always do so might then go like this. Take someone who, on being accused of hurting another person says, 'he doesn't count'. The persons who do 'count' for this individual are, say, the people she cares for: her family, or class, or race, or nation. We point out that, in all relevant respects the persons who 'count' for her are no different from those who 'do not count. In short, she is guilty of a kind of inconsistency (though not, strictly speaking, logical consistency).

An alternative strategy is to appeal to self-interest. Suppose someone asks, 'Why should anyone "count" for me?'. We might respond that the judgement of what is in one's own interest is mistaken if it leads one to ignore or harm the interests of others; for it is, in the widest sense, in one's interest to lead 'the good life' — a life that is meaningful, fulfilled, happy — and the good life cannot be lived by anyone who seeks to live by the rule of self-interest in the narrow sense.

These arguments are not without some practical utility; but on closer examination they prove woefully inadequate. Let us grant that there are, in such terms, good, solid reasons for being moral, reasons which most persons on reflection would perceive to be quite compelling most of the time. The problem is, the argument is likely to fail in just those cases when we really need it. Thus, it is the mark of the question, 'Why be moral?', considered in its full generality, that we cannot assume the presence of even the tiniest amount of initial 'good will', either in the sense of an unselfish good will towards others, or in the sense of a selfish interest in living the 'good life'.

This point has been put in the form of a tale about the 'amoral egoist': an individual (we might call him a 'psychopath') who cares nothing for others and is capable of gaining his enjoyments outside human society. The difficulty in pursuing this line, however, is that one gets drawn into very murky territory, where one philosopher's imagination concerning the possibilities of living the amoral life is pitted against another's.

But there is also a far more realistic objection to be made, if one simply takes an ordinary person, and puts her into extreme circumstances. Whilst it may very well be rational to choose good over evil in cases where the ultimate cost one oneself is within manageable limits, circumstances may arise where the cost becomes so high that the rational thing to do is choose evil over good. It might happen only once in a lifetime: the rewards of doing this one evil act, the punishment incurred if one holds back are each so great that failure to do the deed could only be seen (by the standards of the arguments based on sympathy or self-interest) as simply irrational.

The conviction that motivates the search for an objective basis for values is that even in extremis the refusal to do an immoral act could only be a case of rationality and never irrationality. Any theory that implies otherwise is to be shunned at all costs. A reason for being moral provided certain contingent circumstances obtain is not a reason at all — or, at least, not a reason for being moral: and philosophy has no business peddling such defective goods.

3. 'Why be moral?' — I would suggest we compare that question, taken in its full generality, with the question, 'What is truth?' I don't mean the abortive attempt to come up with an informative replacement for the phrases, 'It is true that...' or 'is true' in all contexts in which they occur (1 agree in that sense that truth is 'indefinable'). Rather, we are seeking a response to Pontius Pilate's bafflement and scorn in the face of a claim to 'the truth': How could there be such a notion? As with the question, 'Why be moral?', we face the sceptical threat that there may simply be nothing to say other than to reject the question. There may be no logical reason for being moral that underlies the moral convictions and behaviour of ordinary people. There may be nothing that our disposition to classify statements as 'true' or 'false' corresponds to in ultimate reality.

We miss the full force of these questions, however, if we fail to take account of an essential ingredient. In taking the questions about truth and morality seriously we are, in a sense, seeking self-knowledge. What is it that we are really doing when we allow our actions to be guided by a sense of what is light or wrong? What is really going on when such questions come up for discussion? What are we doing when we make assertions, or argue over competing truth claims? — What real point or value do any of these activities have?

Then again — and this is really the crux — who is 'we'? Surely, before I can speak on behalf of anyone else, I must speak for myself. Why should I be moral? What is truth to me? Let others seek their own self-knowledge: whatever they may discover is nothing to me if it does not answer my question. Now scepticism assumes an urgent, even terrifying aspect. If the 'truth' of my beliefs consists simply in their being my beliefs, then the world — all that is the case — collapses to the dimensions of my own mind, my own private dream. If no action appears to me as objectively light or wrong, if the total recipe for my life is, 'Do whatever you like,' then I had better keep my eyes tight shut in case one-by-one my likes turn to dislikes, and I find myself stranded with absolutely nothing to do, not even die.

The sceptical threat, in short, resolves into one or other form of subjectivism. Establishing objectivity — of values, or of truth — would mean, at the very least, recognition that I cannot do what I like; and that my judgements can be genuinely false, that they can fail to match up to the way things objectively are.

4. I am now going to sketch a version of subjectivism about truth. I want to make the best case possible, so that by refuting it we shall be left in no doubt about the objectivity of truth, and indeed the precise conditions under which truth can be objective. It is here that the notion of the 'authority of the other' first arises, a notion which will then be used in the attempt to establish a logical basis for moral conduct. The question of moral perspective arises when we consider how far this first attempt falls short of our target.

For the subjectivist about truth, my notion of 'the world' may be thought of as a vastly complex theory, all based ultimately on my own experience. It is my theory — and an enormously useful one — that there exist objects in space, and that I have a body moves around those objects. It is my theory that some of these objects are persons like myself. All my beliefs, however, are more or less provisional, open for revision in the light of new experience.

So it is not strictly correct to say that for the subjectivist the truth is whatever I happen to believe. Rather, my judgement is the only thing that decides what is true and what is false (bearing in mind that the 'decision' is always provisional). In ultimate reality all there is consists of a stream of experience, and my judgement which carves that jumble of sights and sounds, smells and feels into an articulated 'world'.

What is surprising about this theory is just how much it will accommodate. The world of the subjectivist is every bit as rich and as detailed as the commonsense world we all believe in. In appearance, the two are indeed identical, it is only the ultimate basis which is so different. Now, given that all we shall ever learn about our world is based on our own individual experiences, what reason do we have for not being subjectivists? What special knowledge is granted to me that tells me that you are more than simply characters in the story of my world? Nothing that can be reached by any of my senses. By my mind then? Is there some god-given faculty (as Descartes thought) that sheds light on the true 'object' of my experience? Or is my belief in a common world nothing but a gigantic act of faith?

5. These are serious metaphysical questions, though they are not perhaps questions most persons ever think about; probably the majority would refuse even to consider them. There is, however, a quite simple and brutal philosophical argument that we can use against the subjectivist: 'You say that your judgement decides what is true or false. But what decides whether your judgement is "true" or "false"? Suppose a systematic error crept in — as in paranoid delusions? The fact is that as a subjectivist your own judgement has to be "true" — that is to say, rational, reliable — by definition; there is no independent standard which it can either succeed or fail to meet. It cannot, therefore, be conceived as aiming at truth.' — In other words, the subjectivist's so- called world is nothing more than a dream, a story one makes up as one goes along.

The subjectivist is not altogether beaten. There remains the option of saying, 'I'm happy with my dream, and all the rest of you can get lost!' But we should also note that, strictly speaking, for the subjectivist there is no room for saying anything. To say something, even if only to oneself, implies the intention to say something true, the possibility that one will say something false. Take away truth and falsity and there is nothing left but silence.

How then can one be objectivist about truth? Now, I am the one asking the question: the subjectivist I have to defeat is ultimately the subjectivist in me. What shows that I am not condemned to silence must therefore be a resource available to me, although not in any sense under my control. That resource is simply what others say. But now I must listen in a different way from the subjectivist. Other persons are not simply my 'measuring instruments', features of the world that my experience has taught me can sometimes be reliable guides to other things I might experience in the future. (Just as a windowsill thermometer can 'correct' my judgement that it is mild outside, so the postman can remark, 'It's nippy today!'). Other persons have the authority to correct my judgements. Truth or falsity does not depend upon my judgement alone.

6. There is such a thing as truth for me only if I recognize the authority of the other to correct my judgements. It is important to note that there may be no detectable difference between the behaviour of a subjectivist about truth who uses other persons purely as measuring instruments, and the objectivist who recognizes the authority of the other. The difference is purely in their metaphysical beliefs: that is something one can only discover by engaging each of them in philosophical dialogue. In the same way, both the moral subjectivist and the moral objectivist may behave impeccably: when the chips are down, the subjectivist may even be prepared to risk everything for what she perceives to be morally right — and simply have no explanation for her 'irrational' action other than that was what she had to do. (Then again, an objectivist may fail to do the right thing even in a trivial case — and blame his failure on 'weakness of the will'.) To recognize the authority of the other is simply to acknowledge the ultimate truth that I am in a world, the world of others, that is not of my making.

What I shall now argue is that the price of truth is respect for the interests of others. I cannot consistently acknowledge the authority of the other to correct my factual judgements while at the same time being prepared to ignore or indeed harm their interests. That is by no means obvious. Knowing what another person wants is useful information to me. On that basis I can predict his actions, or indeed take steps to alter them, according to my purposes. But why should I care whether he gets what he wants or not? I may readily grant him authority to correct my judgements concerning what it is that he wants: after all, he should know better than I. Why isn't that as far as it goes?

If I were never able to transcend in thought my own point of view, then the fact that I wanted something would always be a conclusive and overriding argument. For the subjectivist about truth, my desires create holes in the world demanding to be filled, while the desires of others (leaving aside my desires regarding their desires) leave the world untouched, merely describing their behaviour. But if on pain of forfeiting truth altogether I must acknowledge the reality of other points of view, then additional 'holes' must appear to me, corresponding to the needs and desires of the possessors of each and every one of those points of view. To acknowledge the authority of the other is thus to regard their needs and desires as having urgency for me. This is what I say in my book:

Perhaps I am in a hurry to catch a train, and an old man blocks my path. A firm shove would give my project of making my appointment on time considerably greater chance of success than waiting politely for him to move. Of course, it would be inconvenient if I hurt my victim and he cried out; he might succeed in calling someone else's attention to my misdemeanour, and then I might be stopped and possibly even held against my will. But then I think, that cry has a meaning: "You've hurt me, you shouldn't have done that!' A judgement has been made with which I must either agree or disagree. Let us say I agree. I know I shouldn't have hurt the old man, but my not being late for my appointment was more important. However, that makes no sense. If I really ought not to have hurt him then my not being late was not more important.

Then I must disagree with the judgement. Again, two possibilities face me. I might allow that my victim's feelings were to be taken into consideration, but deny that on balance they outweighed the importance of my not being late for my appointment. Alternatively, I might deny that his feelings counted at all. The first case could conceivably be a matter of debate, if my meeting was sufficiently urgent and if there was absolutely no way to avoid harming him. By admitting as much, I ought to be prepared, in principle, to debate the question with the old man or anyone who challenged me; and not regard my own judgement as having sole authority to decide the matter. If I were to lose the argument, I should have to admit that I was wrong after all.

The only way I could ensure that I did not lose the argument would be by refusing to allow that the old man's feelings counted in any way. Whatever he says he feels is henceforth not admissible as evidence, of no interest to me or to anyone with whom I am prepared to discuss such matters. Now if the old man is an authority about anything, he is an authority on whether, say, the bruise in his shoulder hurts, not to speak of his pride, and that both these things very definitely ought to count in any person's deliberations. In that case, if I am to act consistently with my resolution, I cannot allow that the old man has the authority to correct my judgements: henceforth all he believes and knows is only information for me to use. Only now I think: that individual whom I have reduced to the status of a mere object neither lacks nor possesses any attribute that explains why he alone should not be an authority for me. consistency demands that I refuse to recognize the authority of any other person to correct my judgements. And now I see that this is a project that I cannot, as a matter of logic, undertake. for if all self-conscious subjects other than myself are to be reduced to the status of mere objects, if no-one in principle has any longer the authority to correct my judgements, then the very light by means of which there exists an objective world for me would have been extinguished (pp. 185-6).

7. Now come the doubts. The argument from the authority of the other purports to give a general criterion of moral conduct. In that respect it is comparable to Kant's Categorical Imperative (Act only on those maxims that you would accept as a general law') and also to Mill's Principle of Utility ('An action is right or wrong to the extent that it tends to increase or decrease the sum total of human happiness'). Notoriously, these two principles are open to serious objections. The Categorical Imperative appears too formal to cope with the material details of moral decision making, providing no clear constraints on which maxims are generalizable. To take an extreme example, I might be willing to endorse the general principle that every person ought to be totally self-sufficient: prepared stoically to refuse help from others no matter how bad my personal circumstances may become. Then I have a licence to hang on to my millions and ignore any and every cry for help.

According to the Utility Principle, by contrast, I am required to remain impartial between one person's happiness and another. Faced with the choice of saving my wife from a shipwreck or a dozen strangers, I am duty bound to save the strangers. Or, if we suppose for the sake of argument that the death of a certain well-loved celebrity (say, TV show host Esther Rantzen) would bring unhappiness to many thousands of people, then, faced with the choice of saving her, or her chauffeur from a fire, I am duty bound to save her, even if her chauffeur happens to be my Dad.

The authority of the other differs markedly from each of these principles, but its differences are not sufficient to save it from equally serious objections. What I must be prepared to do (in principle, presumably) is engage other persons affected by my actions in some form of dialogue. In the ideal case, each of us will get a chance to air our views so that the action I am free to undertake arises from a process of negotiation. (When there is no possibility of consulting the other person first, I have to consider what he would say, if he had the chance.) What is presupposed here is a common language, where reasons for or against a given action can be recognized as such by both sides. Perhaps this would be enough to demonstrate the untenability of extreme self-sufficiency, and also to deal with the shipwreck and fire examples. But that is only the beginning.

You will note for a start that our principle automatically excludes from the picture small children and dumb animals: they will have to rely on someone to speak on their behalf. But already we can see a problem: on what basis can one speak for them? Suppose someone decided to 'speak up' for spiders? or amoebae?

Even if we restrict our attention to persons with whom we can engage in dialogue, however, it should be clear that many cases will be simply impossible in principle to resolve. It is no use telling people to 'see both sides': when each imaginatively projects herself into the point of view of the other, each may see something totally different from what the other sees. Many social, political and religious disputes fall into this category. But we can take an example closer to home if we consider the vastly different meanings that the concepts 'family life' and 'work' can have for the partners in a marriage.

8. The notion of 'moral perspective' is meant to capture the kinds of differences I have in mind. But rather than multiply examples, it might be helpful first to distinguish those disputes which can be accounted for by differences in perspective from other kinds of dispute that appear superficially similar.

One of the arguments subjectivists like to use against the possibility of an objective basis for moral values are cases of so-called 'relativity of values': things prized in one society or culture, but condemned in another. In many cases, however, the correct strategy for the objectivist to pursue is to deny the relativity and argue that one side is definitely in the wrong. (Consider, for example, slavery, or, more controversially, female circumcision.) The difference between relativity and perspective is that relativity is accepted by subjectivists as a given fact (discovered, say, by anthropologists) whereas perspective is an explanation that arises in the context of an on-going dialogue. Undoubtedly, differences of moral perspective can be explained by differences in culture: but these latter differences need not be the most accessible or spectacular ones.

Then again, a clash of viewpoints can arise when one of the parties in a dispute has their capacity for sympathetic projection stifled by a simple failure to have enjoyed the relevant experience. The plight of the unemployed, or single mothers, or hippies, and the caricatures that appear in the media or in the speeches of self- righteous politicians are particularly sad examples.

Thirdly, there are undoubtedly many hard moral choices, which are so complex and involve so many conflicting considerations that many persons will simply tire of the argument and 'fall down' on one side of the debate or the other. Even when differences become entrenched, however, the possibilities of working towards agreement, given sufficient good will, remain open.

9. What I want to say is that in cases where disputes resolve into irreconcilable differences in moral perspective both parties are objectively right. The idea that objectivity is incompatible with such a plurality of views is, I would argue, merely a hangover from the mythical picture of values as Platonic 'forms', perfect and immutable, the ultimate reference point of all moral disputes (which, unfortunately, finite beings such as ourselves can never directly refer to, but can at best 'recall' in a more or less confused sort of way, as if from a previous life).

But I need to say more. If we banish the mythology of 'forms', then we need some notion possessing the same logical structure to take its place. For it is crucially important that one's perspective does not appear as one's own arbitrary invention, nor indeed can a perspective be simply invented — as it were from scratch — even given any amount of ingenuity.

One thought, and this is only the beginnings of a suggestion, is that the authority of the other plays a dual role. We have seen how the other demands that I take him into account in my deliberations, how recognition of the authority of the other stands for preparedness to enter into dialogue. A second role for the other which we have not so far considered, however, is as an exemplar. (It would be instructive to compare the ideas of Nietzsche here.) Our cultural traditions incorporate tales of individuals who embody the moral qualities to which we aspire, traditions which become deeper and richer with the passing of time. But in a more homely way, each of us is a kind of exemplar to others; that surely accounts for much of the sheer mechanics of the propagation and preservation of moral perspectives. — It is a by no means trivial observation that ordinary people are constantly held up in the media as examples (for example, of civic virtue, or courage, or generosity) to copy from.

It would be easy to take a cynical view of this. Viewed in a reductive spirit, the process becomes merely one of constant imitation: Richard Dawkins' cultural 'memes'. On this picture, the values we strive for are as arbitrary and meaningless as games played by chimpanzees (the kind of example Dawkins would appeal to): one chimp at the tea party gets it into its head to bang its cup and saucer together, and soon they're all at it.

But that is to ignore the crucial dimension of dialogue. Our human exemplars are not just arbitrary templates to copy from but objects of discussion and criticism. The process is refined by an order of magnitude in the writing of fiction, with its generation of endless hypothetical exemplars, and the critical evaluation which that provokes. Inevitably, orders of rank appear (compare Nietzsche again), which are not merely matters of individual preference but which command a large degree of assent.

None of this, however, would count for anything in the eyes of the moral subjectivist, if moral perspective 'merely reduces to each individual's personal choice.' Surely it would then be mere 'subjective preference' that determines whether you go for this exemplar or that. — Now there is a picture that goes along with this objection; that of the existentialist outsider hovering uncertainly between one course of action and another, with no basis on which to choose other than one's own perfect freedom. I would say that if there is such an individual then she really is in a bad way, and I can't see how any amount of philosophical discussion is going to help her. Of course we experience periods of uncertainty, perhaps extreme anxiety and vertigo about the possibilities that seem to open before us, with apparently no basis on which to make a choice. But this is strictly speaking an illusion, albeit one which we may at times have difficulty shaking off.

The truth is that we have a permanent principle of choice that will always yield an answer, no matter what: our own selves. (Inaction is, after all, no less a choice than action: and may indeed be the right action.) In a sense, we suffer from a surfeit of objective values. For 'objectivity' here simply amounts to the value's being mine. I am my values — perhaps a messy, partially incoherent jumble of clashing beliefs and ideals — but whatever that is, that is what does the deciding and doing. I am the one asking the question: whatever the answer may be, it at least has the dignity of being my answer.

I may indeed decide at some future time that my decision was wrong, or someone else may persuade me to change my view. No doubt the Geoffrey Klempner existing in the past has certain values I no longer accept. Far from making my value judgement less objective, however, these facts make it more so. For what the possibility of self-criticism and of dialogue shows is precisely that there is a question of error here. Duly considered, that is surely the one intarnishable mark of objectivity.

© Geoffrey Klempner 1996

Paper read to the Annual General Meeting of the Philosophical Society of England May 1996