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pathways (letters)

24 October 1997

Dear Barry,

Thank you for your letter of 14 October, with your notes on unit 10 of Reason, Values and Conduct. A number of students have been puzzled about home pages. All I was looking for was some text, which I would then translate into HTML (or 'hyper-text mark up language'). It's just a matter of my inserting a few markers, to 'tell' the Web browser how to format the text. Yes, submission on disc would help! You need to save the text as 'ASCII' or 'text only'. I have used an optical scanner for copying students' work, but correcting and reformatting still uses up a lot of time...

Now to unit 10:

187-189. moral objectivity There are really two points I wanted to make here. The first was to reject the idea of a 'moral calculus' as being essential to the idea of the objectivity of moral claims. The second was that objectivity is compatible with an irresolvable clash of perspectives, again a possibility not recognised on the utilitarian view (and indeed on other views such as Kant's 'deontological' conception of morality).

Now your point about moral claims arising from variations in attitudes is precisely what the moral subjectivist would say! That is an account which I reject. The strategy here, however, is to show how certain positions normally associated with subjectivism (such as the recognition of a plurality of moral views) can in fact be incorporated into a vigorously objectivist theory.

190-195. moral dialogue It is important to bear in mind here that I have already argued the case for objectivity. Only on a subjectivist view could it be held that all moral judgements or claims are merely 'hypothetical imperatives'. The categorical imperative is, 'others always count'. Well, so what? That's the question we are seeking to answer.

It's easy with utilitarianism: you just say that all individuals count the same, and what is counted is pleasure/ happiness. On the dialogical conception, the picture may seem at first much more fuzzy and clouded, but in fact it is truer.

How can there be moral truth? (I mean of course the truth of a moral judgement, rather than of a general moral theory as in the above paragraph.) There will be more said about this in unit 11, as you've probably gathered by now! The key point is that talk of truth essentially involves the possibility of convergence of judgements. Scientific truth represents the strongest kind of convergence, though in the outer reaches of set theory or cosmology the convergence gets weaker. But even if moral judgements cannot match up to the standards of science, they will still do as truths. There are recognised procedures of investigation, and we do succeed in reaching agreement. Remember all the while that at the back of this is our categorical imperative: the essential backbone of moral judgement that makes talk of 'truth' more than mere talk.

195-199. recognition of the other Good! You have most of it. The point about empathy, when interpreted in an objectivist rather than subjectivist way (as in Nagel's The Possibility of Altruism (OUP) is that there is a fatal non-sequitur in the argument. (The 'virtuoso of sadism' objection.)

200-203. compromise I hadn't expected an essay on the abortion debate! I would question your assumption that the anti-abortionist is committed to the view that killing in self-defence is wrong. I can see why you think this. There are clear cases where the choice is between the death of the mother or the death of the baby. If killing in self-defence was right, at least in certain circumstances, then that would justify the decision to have an abortion.

However, the anti-abortionist ought not to accept that this is a case of simply killing in self-defence. I defend myself from someone who is deliberately trying to kill me. A closer analogy would be something like this. The small amphibious helicopter has just picked up its full load of survivors from the capsized ship when another survivor clutches at one of the floats. The helicopter starts spinning crazily. The pilot takes the only course of action that he believes will save the helicopter from crashing into the sea and shoots the man dead.

The anti-abortionist, however, makes a crucial distinction between taking an action intended to cause death, and permitting a situation to come about where someone will die. (The notorious doctrine of 'second intention'.) By not carrying out the abortion, the doctor knows that the woman will almost certainly die, but this is not the result of his action. Whereas, if he removes the foetus, it will die as the result of his deliberate act. So in the case of the helicopter pilot. He cannot be blamed for the death of the passengers through his inaction, when the alternative was to deliberately take a life.

Leaving aside the debate itself, the point here regarding the necessity of moral dialogue is what happens if the dialogue does prove irresolvable. Here there is no question of compromise. Rather, what we have to do is find a way to contain our disagreement. There must be limits to what one is prepared to do to promote one's cause in the face of committed opposition, no matter how strongly one feels. When anti-abortionists start to murder doctors working in abortion clinics, that line has been crossed.

204-205. committed beliefs There will be more on the issue of liberty and tolerance in unit 14.

Yours sincerely,

Geoffrey Klempner