Wood Paths: Articles

Pathways to Philosophy



iN pUrSuit oF thE aMoRaliSt

geOFFreY kLeMpneR


The amoralist is my pet demon, which I keep in a box along with my other pet demon, the solipsist.

Today, I am going to allow the amoralist out of the box for a brief while, so you can examine it, chase it around a little. My demons like to play. They can be very cute and amusing. Of course we only find them so because we do not see them as posing any real threat.

(One of the biggest flaws in the character of the philosopher is that we like of think of ourselves as Gods.)


Now let's begin. First, we are going to learn a lesson from the solipsist. Later, the solipsist will make a second appearance.

According to the solipsist, nothing exists apart from my own experiences. (As we shall see later, that is not quite correct as a definition of solipsism, but it will do as a first approximation.) One way to pose the philosophical problem of our knowledge of an external world is to ask what it would take to refute the solipsist. In the past, when I have put this question to my students, I often get the following cheeky response:

"If you're a solipsist, why are you bothering to argue with me? According to your theory I am just a construct of your experiences!"

My reply is always the same:

"Don't worry about me, I am not the one you have to convince. The solipsist you have to argue with is the solipsist in you!"

This is something I want you to bear in mind in what follows. When you understand what amoralism entails, you will see that there is no point in reasoning with an amoralist. If you were ever to encounter an amoralist in real life the best thing you could do would be to lock them up until the police arrive, and certainly not make the foolish mistake of trying to engage them in conversation.

The amoralist I am arguing with is the amoralist in me.


Let me make it clear that my concern is not with ethics as such. I am not starting out on this inquiry with any high moral purpose. My concern is with metaphysics. I am interested in how reality is bolted together, in what follows logically from what. Supposing that I could find a rational argument sufficient to defeat the amoralist, all the work of constructing an ethical theory would still be there to do. It would be totally absurd to think that all you had to do, when faced with a moral challenge or dilemma, is say to yourself: "I am not an amoralist; therefore, I should do X!"

And supposing that I could not find a rational argument to defeat the amoralist? I would not go out in search of children to eat, or use human skin to make lampshades. I expect I would carry on pretty much as before. The defeat would be for metaphysics, not ethics. Indeed, it is a worthwhile challenge, to see what could be said for morality if the amoralist thesis proved logically impregnable. But that is not an inquiry that I shall be pursuing.

One principle we will stick to — on pain of total irrelevance — is that the defeat of the amoralist thesis has consequences for action. If no consequences followed from the defeat of amoralism, I would be wasting your time.


When an ethical law of the form, 'Thou shalt...', is laid down, one's first thought is, 'And what if I do not do it?'

Wittgenstein Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 6.422

Our pursuit of the amoralist will involve three stages. In between each stage, the amoralist casts off his old skin (if you are female, say 'her') and reveals a more efficient, well-adapted design. For our part, we discover that we have underestimated the amoralist's resources and weaponry, and so must regroup for the next battle. (I used to give this philosophical game the grand title, 'Dialectic'. Now, I see that it is just a useful heuristic device, nothing more.)

The first stage bears witness to a singular discovery: If I don't do what ethics commands, nothing follows. If something did follow, it would not be morality, but prudence that motivated my actions. Therefore, there is no reason why I should be moral.

This is not, however, the way our first amoralist actually reasons. In fact, in the process of discovering that he is amoral, no reasoning of any kind is involved. All the amoralist is aware of is that for the first time he sees the truth about so-called moral obligations.

Unit 7 of the Pathways Introduction to Philosophy program, The Possible World Machine tells the following comical tale:

At eight o' clock, on a cold Sunday in autumn, Bill Clegg awoke to discover that he had lost his sense of morality. At least, that is how he described the event later. He had no inkling at the time what was happening to him. All he was aware of as he emerged, flinching, from the safe haven of unconsciousness were the icicles of sunlight that pierced the curtains of his bed-sit, the cacophony of bird song that flayed his ears like a cat o' nine tails — and the urgent knowledge that something inside his mind was giving way.

Bill had been worrying about the rent — he was never less than three months behind — and had fallen asleep that night concocting ever more elaborate schemes for making money. But now as his senses jangled a thought came to him unbidden, a dangerous, wicked thought, yet cloaked in words as matter-of-fact as a shrug of the shoulders: 'I don't have to pay the rent'...(page 97).

Bill Clegg doesn't have to pay the rent, because he can do what he likes. If the landlord pesters him for the rent, Bill says to himself, 'I'll smash his silly face.' Later, safely under lock and key, Bill has the opportunity to argue with the hospital chaplain who says that morality is God's law, a houseman who defends morality as a necessary social contract, and an elderly patient who offers Hume's theory of natural sympathy. All three are easily disposed of. In the end, the only argument that proves conclusive is Electro-Convulsive Therapy. Bill Clegg awakes to find he has regained his sense of morality, and returns home to see his belongings lying in the street.


You might think that this is pretty effective as a characterization of the amoralist. No argument will get through the amoralist's thick skin, because every consideration offered in support of the institution of morality is reinterpreted as an appeal to prudence. However, this first incarnation of the amoralist position reveals a fatal flaw. Bill Clegg may have temporarily lost his sense of morality, but that was only something that happened to him, outside of his control. The very fact that Bill was impervious to reason revealed the fundamental weakness of his philosophical position. As proved to be the case. Bill regained his sense of morality, and everything was all right again.

As observers, we may draw the conclusion that the fact that someone like Bill Clegg, during his psychotic episode, cannot see that something is immoral leaves the question completely open whether we seem to 'see' something that isn't really there — in other words, whether morality is merely an illusion — or whether, on the contrary, the individual concerned fails to see something that is there to be seen. As long as nothing is said against the second alternative, the challenge posed by the amoralist can be met, by refusing to rise to the bait. (In the story, that's what the hospital chaplain, the houseman and the elderly patient failed to grasp.)

So this will not do as an adequate characterization of amoralism. The amoralist does not say, 'Look out, Geoffrey Klempner, one day you might see things the way I see them!' He says something far more worrying: 'You ought to see things the way I see them!' The 'ought' here is a demand of reason.

Now we see that the Bill Clegg episode was just a damp squib. You don't just wake up to discover that you are an amoralist. You experience an epiphany. You the see moral rules and concepts for the deceptive illusions that they are, and you know you are right because you have compelling reasons for the view that you hold.


And so the pursuit reaches the second stage.

Version two of our amoralist is metaphysician by trade, studiously examining all the kinds of objects that make up reality. We'll call him Mack. The name might remind you of a character from Brecht's Three Penny Opera. Actually, the name is suggested by a well known author of a popular introduction to ethics who died not so long ago. (Pretty scary, eh? One has to add, 'Any resemblance in what follows to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.' Read the book if you want to see how the real Mack pulls back from the brink. — The book is Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong by J.L. Mackie.)

One day, as he is sorting objects into various metaphysical categories, Mack is stuck by a strange anomaly. There are certain kinds of objects whose recognition requires action of a particular kind, regardless of our desires or interests. How can that be?

We are all familiar with the idea that the identification of a thing as a 'such-and-such' has consequences for action. If a bottle is marked 'Poison', you shouldn't drink it. — Except, of course, if you are looking for the best way to do away with yourself. And that's the point. The bottle of poison is not an example of an object 'whose recognition requires action of a particular kind, regardless of our desires or interests'. If you don't want to die, you should not drink it. If you do want to die, you should drink it.

But that's not how things are with these 'queer' entities, as Mack calls them. If an action is identified as unjust then you should not do it. It is not open to you to offer as an explanation, 'I like to be unjust, some times.' It is irrelevant what you like. It might cost you a great deal, but you must do the just thing. You must not do the unjust thing. How can a mere object command action in this way?

If you know your history of philosophy you will know that justice is something Plato puzzled about. He believed in metaphysical objects called 'forms', for example, the form of Justice. It is pretty hard to get a clear view of the form of Justice. It takes a lot of philosophy to convert your innate sense of what is just or unjust into a clear, commanding principle. But once you get there, it is impossible, knowingly to act in a way that is unjust. Perception of a particular object in the world, as falling under the form of Justice commands action.

In Mack's view, the Platonic form, 'Justice' is akin to a round square. It is an object that cannot exist in reality because it has contradictory properties. Knowing an object, knowing a fact is a totally different kind of thing from obeying a command, or responding to the words, 'Thou shalt...' or 'Thou shalt not...'. It is up to you, knowing the facts, to decide what you are going to do.

The same is true of objects in the world which we identify as 'just' or 'unjust' even if we don't actually cast our eyes heavenwards as we make this identification. Hence, two thousand years later Hume was able to remark that there is no intrinsic difference — if we abstract from our attitudes, our desires and interests — between cutting down a tree and cutting down an man.

What is Mack to do with his new insight? Being logically consistent — which thankfully few of us are in reality — Mack reasons that the only remaining question is, 'What are my desires and interests? what do I want? what do I like?'

'I want to do the right thing, if I can.' That's what most of us would say. But if it came to the crunch, if the man in the suit made us an offer we could not refuse, then we would opt for prudence. Morality says that this is OK. We can't all be saints or heroes in the face of death or torture. Duty requires only so much self-sacrifice. But suppose that it occurred to me that my life could be so much better if I didn't have the interests I have now — for example, the interest in morality? Then I could accept the offer from the man in the suit with a clear conscience.

So Mack is led to draw the conclusion: I need to re-program myself.

You may notice here the exact reverse of the story normally put out by moral subjectivists who appeal to so-called 'second-order intentions' to show how we can be motivated to become more moral than we are now. A certain possible life is presented to us — just as Plato in his dialogues presented the life of temperance and justice — and something inside us mysteriously responds. We form the second-order intention to overcome our immoral inclinations and become more virtuous.

But this doesn't work on Mack. He has glimpsed what it would be like to live the amoral life and likes what he sees. Reason and logic have nothing to say about this. Once again, the would be moral metaphysician faces the prospect of humiliating defeat.

Mack's amoralism is more advanced than Bill's because it has been arrived at through a process of reasoning. That provides us for the first time with a possible target for attack. Is there a loophole in Mack's argument that the defender of morality can exploit? Remember, we are only interested in logical objections. If you think Mack is just plain wrong in preferring the amoral life, that's just your opinion.

A logical objection to Mack's position must take the following form: Mack assumes that as an amoralist he has access to all the facts that we have access to. Otherwise, we could simply turn round and say — as we wanted to say to Bill the first amoralist, but weren't allowed to — 'There is something which is there to be seen which you can't see.' So the task now is to show why Mack's assumption is wrong.


This is the way I read John McDowell's thesis that moral values are secondary qualities. An example of a secondary quality is red. All it takes for there to be red in the world is the existence of perceivers who are able to agree on when an object appears red. A subjective state, a way of taking things, thus creates a class of objects which would not have existed in the absence of that subjective state.

The key step in the argument is that this isn't something that just happens just to one person. What it takes for a concept, like 'red', to have objective application that things are set up so as to make agreement in judgements possible (in Wittgenstein's sense, which I discuss below). The fact that we have a common nature of course plays a large part in explaining empirically how this can happen. If Martians fail to see 'red' however hard they try, that doesn't show that there really aren't any red things, but only that Martians are blind to the colour red. And we can speculate on the possible reasons why.

So, according to McDowell's theory, our moral sense is woven into our ways of understanding one another's actions in a way that cannot be factored out. If your actions are not motivated by a sense of justice, then you will lack the required sensitivity in sorting actions which are 'just', 'unjust' or neutral so far as the question of justice is concerned. Amoral Mack can only puzzle at our motivations for being just or unjust. He sees through us, and in seeing through us fails to see something that is there to be seen. Moral motivations are an enigma to him.

— If that were true, we'd be home and dry. Mack the amoralist fails to see something which we can see. It follows that Mack has no right to claim that we are suffering from an illusion in responding to moral claims that arise because of how things are in the world.


It is time to meet our third amoralist. Call him Doctor X. I will not say the other names that Doctor X has been called throughout human history.

My hypothesis is that Doctor X knows us better than we know ourselves. I am prepared to accept that Doctor X could not be a human being; that the mental powers Doctor X possesses far surpass anything which you or I could muster. The point is, so far as our moral distinctions are concerned, Doctor X is no blind Martian either.

You could call Doctor X a psychologist, but that term is too limited for what I have in mind. Doctor X is a student of people theory: which I define as the study of all and everything that makes people tick. No-one has yet succeeded in constructing a satisfactory people theory. My impression from the interminable arguments between rival schools of psychoanalysis — Freudians, Jungians, Kleinians and the like — is that the best that human beings have been able to offer in the way of people theory to date is a hodge podge of unscientific conjectures tied together by tenuous assumptions, and held by their proponents with the fervour of religious conviction.

(I am saying this as someone who believes in the importance of the unconscious, who does not need convincing that there is something there to be investigated, and that it has a great deal to do with the springs of morality.)

I could be wrong about the failings or psychoanalysis. But even if I am, an adequate general theory of the unconscious would only be part of the equation. You can know the theory but still fail to make the correct diagnosis. I am not saying Doctor X is infallible. Obviously it would weaken the case if we had to attribute godlike powers. But that's not what is needed. All that is required is that as a result of his accumulated knowledge, Doctor X is able to give the perfect simulation of an intelligent, sensitive human being with a refined moral sense. He does this, without feeling the slightest inclination to succumb to the moral impulse.

This is the deluxe model amoralist. Any argument designed to undermine the logic of amoralism which fails to consider the deluxe model is not going to give us what we want. This is the one, Doctor X, who we have to show is missing something real — failing to cotton on to some aspect of reality — if we are seeking to make a logically watertight case for morality.

I am not saying that McDowell's argument is a waste of ink. It serves well enough to refute a certain naive view of the relation between facts and values. But it won't do for the purpose in hand.


I suppose you are all waiting with baited breath to know what my case against Doctor X is going to be. I don't want to disappoint you. I hope that I have succeeded in making a case that an argument is necessary. Whether my argument is sufficient is another question.

My motivation is a sense of philosophical conviction not dissimilar to the one which led Immanuel Kant to put forward his 'categorical imperative'. Generations of philosophy students have learned how to knock the stuffing out of the categorical imperative. But if you have that sense of conviction, if that's where you start from, then you know that, given sufficient time and ingenuity, all the objections can be met.

That's the way I feel about the principle that an argument needs to be given. Even though I cannot say I feel that way about my argument.

First, let me spell out the challenge posed by the idea of 'people theory'. What we want to say is that the amoral Doctor X lacks one vital piece of knowledge that we possess:

... the sense that other people are real, not just organisms that move about, make noises, get in our way, or help us do things. The trouble is, it is difficult to see how this can be a piece of knowledge, rather than merely an attitude we have towards others when we allow their needs and desires to count in our deliberations. There is nothing to know. People theory covers everything. The rest is mere subjective fancy. You allow other people to count, or you don't. Either way, the world — the world of material things that obey the laws of physics — can never prove you wrong...

What I have to show is that there is a price to pay. If we can make the price sufficiently high, that would prove the impossibility of viewing reality — not the world of physics, admittedly, but the world conceived from the wider, more comprehensive viewpoint of metaphysics — as the [amoralist] views it. The price of [amoralism] is giving up something we cannot, or at least will not give up. Something we cannot deny, our sense of what is real. If it is the undeniable nature of reality that proves the [amoralist] wrong, then there exists a rational, objective basis for moral conduct.

Glass House Philosopher 12 December 2000, page 83

(As I go on to remark, 'that will take some showing'.)

Without more ado, here is my proof:

step 1  I inhabit a world. The world is not my dream, not a story I make up as I go along. I am in the world.

comment  This is where the second of the pet demons I mentioned at the beginning of my talk, the solipsist, makes a reappearance. Like the amoralist, the solipsist has gone through several stages to reach his final, perfect incarnation. This is a solipsist who has learned from Kant, who knows that you can't talk about experience without talking about a world of objects in space. But that's all it is: mere talk. For the world is just my theory, nothing more. In a metaphysical sense, I am outside the world, not in it.

step 2  My factual judgements can be true or false and not merely more or less useful from my point of view. Even if I refuse to recognize when 'the world proves me wrong', I can be wrong, all the same.

comment  To grasp the force of this claim, consider the case of paranoid delusions. Let's say I believe that I am the victim of a conspiracy. You all know that the truth is that I am suffering from a paranoid delusion. As a solipsist, I can ask myself this question, but all I can mean by it is, 'I might discover that I have fallen victim to a paranoid delusion'. I cannot form the concept of a truth that might be only accessible to others. That shows that the concept I am operating with is not truth but merely a pragmatic notion of usefulness.

step 3  It follows from the fact that I conceive myself as being in the world — from the fact that I am not a solipsist — that other people are more than my measuring instruments.

comment  I can always use another person as a measuring instrument, e.g. as a sounding board, or a source of expert knowledge that I lack, or as an unbiased judge. It like saying, 'Another person can scratch the parts of my back that I cannot scratch.' It is up to me to say when my back has been adequately scratched; it is up to me whether to go along with the judgement of my 'measuring instrument' on this particular occasion or override it with my own judgement. To say that other people are not my measuring instruments is equivalent to saying that what my judgement aims at is the truth as such, and not just 'what works for me'.

step 4  Truth, or the truth as such is what is common: a truth that is the same for me as it is for other persons who share that world with me: the truth as such.

comment  By 'common truth' I mean what is implied by Wittgenstein's remark in Philosophical Investigations 242, just before he launches into the discussion of 'S' (the sign from a language coined for my 'private use' which another person 'cannot understand'). 'If language is to be a means of communication there must be agreement not only in definitions but also (queer as this may sound) in judgments. This seems to abolish logic, but does not do so. — It is one thing to describe methods of measurement, and another to obtain and state the results of measurement. But what we call "measuring" is partly determined by a certain constancy in results of measurement.' The language of the solipsist, even though it is used to refer to things in the world rather than inner experiences, is effectively a private language.

step 5  It follows that what the statement, 'Other persons are not my measuring instruments' is meant to describe is a condition for the possibility of truth.

comment  In other words, I am giving you a transcendental argument. Something is given: namely, there is a common truth. It is a peculiar kind of fact which in some sense cannot be otherwise, yet we can imagine possible circumstances in which things would be otherwise: the world of the solipsist.

step 6  As that which makes truth possible, what is meant by the statement, 'Other persons are not my measuring instruments' cannot, literally, be said. Nor can it be judged or believed.

comment  This is the peculiar twist that distinguishes this transcendental argument from other examples of transcendental arguments. for example Kant's argument that the condition for the possibility of my experience is that I experience objects as arranged in space outside me. This is a feature of the peculiar reflexivity of the concept of truth, that we can sensibly ask, of any statement about the concept of truth, whether it is, in fact, true.

step 7  If 'Other persons are not my measuring instruments' cannot be said, then it must be shown in some other way than by saying.

comment  If it cannot be said, must it be shown? Why could this peculiar proposition not be such as to be incapable of being either said or shown? If you think it can't be shown, how do you think you have you been able to understand the argument up to this point?

step 8  The only way to show that other persons are not my measuring instruments is by my actions.

comment  I state that dogmatically, because I cannot think of any other alternative.

step 9  The only action which will show this is a moral action, an action motivated by my perception of the legitimate claims of the other person, irrespective of my own desires or interests regarding that person.

comment  Discuss.

© Geoffrey Klempner 2002

Paper given at the Shap Conference, Philosophical Society of England, Cumbria 23 February 2002