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pathways (letters)

3 May 1997

Dear Barry,

Thank you for your letter of 20 April, with your course notes for Reason, Values and Conduct unit 4. Sorry that I have taken rather longer to reply than usual. I am still slightly punch drunk from missing a night's sleep to watch the election broadcasting: I hope I can do your notes justice!

Next weekend I have to give a talk to the Philosophical Society of England AGM, as well as presenting my sixth-monthly report to Council. The topic I have chosen for my talk is, 'Is it Rational to Fear Death?' Wish me luck!

Regarding the points you make in your letter: In Hare's terms, I am a 'fanatic'. That is to say, I do not agree that moral judgement is judgement made from a purely disinterested viewpoint. It was not, therefore, in this sense that I objected to your definition.

To believe in God is to believe, amongst other things, that our moral beliefs and principles have some kind of ultimate anchorage. That is a useful thing to believe, even if the belief necessarily falls short of knowledge. (One might say, religious faith serves as an adequate substitute for a philosophical proof of an objective basis for morals.) To exactly the same extent, no more no less, it would be useful to believe that our moral beliefs represent transcendent truths. Yet I would argue we still have the right to ask for more.

Are our moral standards going down? Is immorality on the increase? — I am not prepared to accept anecdotal evidence on this question, or trust my own 'gut feelings'. (How would I know?) I should like to see a serious study done that looked at all the aspects. Then we should know what action to take. (For example, an increase in the use of swear words shows, as much as anything, a decrease in powers of verbal expression. Where previously an individual could think of just the right thing to say, when someone did something to them that merited an angry verbal response or reprimand, now all they can think of is an expletive.)

— o O o —

65-68. Kantian ethics An excellent summary.

69-71. universalisability The obvious retort here is, 'But what is the "right" (or "wrong") thing to do?' The point about the idea of universalisability was that it was supposed to tell us! — Say, I am on my way home from a shopping expedition and it starts to rain. There is one item in my shopping bag which would be the ideal thing to use (apart from the bag itself, which I need to carry my other purchases). Unfortunately, I happen to hold that it is wrong to wear a tea cosy on one's head...

71-73. preference utilitarianism 'Rather than considering whether an action is right or wrong should we instead consider at what point behaviour becomes morally unacceptable?' — I don't accept this as a gloss on what I say in 73.

It is not enough, for the preference utilitarian, to 'add to the total desire satisfaction', if what one adds is less than what could be added. You have talents that could be used to produce a far greater amount of desire satisfaction than just your own. In a sense, by retiring to your log cabin, you are taking something from society. You are leaving others to shoulder the burden of helping those less well off, etc.

74-80. principle of sufficient reason Picky point: 'If my action is "right" this time, then it must also be "right" if the same action is repeated at another time.' — This is OK if we are talking of possible worlds. ('If the action is right in this world, then it is right in a possible world just like this one.') But some actions might be regarded as such that it was only right to do them once, and after that it was wrong to ever do them again. (Marrying, unless one's previous partner dies or one obtains a divorce.)

I'm afraid I can't seem to follow your example of the climbing accident. Could you run it by me again?

81-85. disinterested standpoint. I like your metaphor of the crowd. But I would not accept the apparent implication that we are in a position to choose between doing the right thing (obeying the signpost) or allowing our desires to push us into doing the wrong thing. The whole point of the essentially Socratic solution I put forward to the problem of weakness of will is that failure to do what is morally right is a failure of knowledge, and never anything but a failure of knowledge.

A better version of the metaphor would be this. I have been told by an expert that when I get to the top of the mountain I must follow the signpost, no matter what. The signpost is completely reliable. It is clearly marked, and embedded in concrete. Moreover, failure to follow the signpost will put me in great danger. Yet when I finally arrive at the mountain top there is a crowd of people, all insisting that the signpost is wrong. 'It must have been tampered with!' 'That can't possibly be the way, look how steeply the footpath descends!' 'I just came the other way!' etc. My confidence in my expert is shaken. Even though I 'ought' to know better, I ignore the sign and go the opposite way.

Yours sincerely,

Geoffrey Klempner