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Six Pathways  Topics A  -  Unit A1  -  Unit A2  -  Essay A1  -  Essay A2  -  Topics B  -  Unit B1  -  Unit B2  -  Essay B1  -  Essay B2  -  Topics C  -  Unit C1  -  Unit C2  -  Essay C1  -  Essay C2  -  Topics D  -  Unit D1  -  Unit D2  -  Essay D1  -  Essay D2  -  Topics E  -  Unit E1  -  Unit E2  -  Essay E1  -  Essay E2  -  Topics F  -  Unit F1  -  Unit F2  -  Essay F1  -  Essay F2  -  Apply now

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E. Moral Philosophy: 1st Extract

Reason, Values and Conduct

We seek understanding of ethical problems in the first place because we are faced with urgent moral choices. Yet the desire to understand purely for the sake of understanding cannot so easily be denied. Right from the beginning of philosophical inquiry into morals, it was recognised that ethics presents the greatest challenge to our understanding of the very nature of reality. As Socrates' pupil Plato argued in his dialogue the Republic, ethics is the gateway to metaphysics. Amongst the things that make up reality we seem to recognise entities of a most peculiar kind we call 'values' — in Plato's terms, the Forms or Ideas of justice, courage and the other virtues — objects which can be 'perceived' only by the mind, such knowledge somehow being sufficient to bring about right action, to lead us into doing what we ought to do. How is that possible? How can knowledge necessitate action? — 'No-one,' Socrates had said, 'does wrong knowingly', all-too conscious of the paradox that he was propounding, a paradox that would trouble philosophers for the next two and a half thousand years.

On the face of it, it is hard to see knowledge of a mere fact or object can leave us with no option regarding the way we are to act. Surely, one might think, what we do ultimately depends on what we desire, what we want. Having appreciated the facts, it is up to us to decide what attitude we are to take towards them. — Then again, if that really is so, then, as the philosopher Hume pointed out (Treatise On Human Nature Book III, Pt I, Sec I), we can never discover from the minutest examination of the fact, say, of a murder, that one ought not to murder people. Thinking of that example, one recoils in horror. Surely anyone with eyes, or a conscience to see can perceive that deliberately taking an innocent person's life is a heinous act for which only the sternest punishment is appropriate. — But what is it that we actually see? The question can be put another way: Why is it, as Hume asked, that we do not similarly 'see' felling a tree as murder, as the ultimate crime?

'Why should I not kill this man?' — As if I would! The truism that like it or not we are moral beings, that we are committed to a way of life that recognises that certain acts are forbidden easily blinds us the fact that each of us stands on the edge of a precipice. 'You do not see an alternative,' says the nihilist, 'only because you do not dare to look.' That realisation can bring upon a mind-numbing vertigo. 'Thou shalt not...'. But what if I do, all the same? If I take this life, I risk getting caught and punished, or, failing that, perhaps God will punish me. That still leaves me free to decide. Perhaps in this one case the risk, or even the punishment, is worth it. It follows that there nothing in reality, save what I myself desire and will, that stands between me and deeds of the most unspeakable depravity and evil. Is it a solution to say, 'But after all is said and done, I trust myself. I know I cannot ever do such things'? How do I know that? — It is perhaps fortunate for those of us who have the leisure to pursue philosophy, for whom the full horror of what human beings can do to one another makes little impact on our own day-to-day existence — where the images of evil and brutality flickering across a small screen in the corner of the living room could just as well indeed be from another planet — that it is possible to live out one's whole life never once being put to the test.

Yet one should not forget that the mystery of the ethical, the metaphysical dimension of the question of right and wrong, is present just as much in everyday acts done out of a sense of duty, or kindness, or plain decency. — The following examples would hardly be judged exceptional. An old man falls down in the station, and a young woman stops to help him, missing a train that was to take her to a job interview. There were other passengers on the platform who might have helped, but she does not have time to wait to see whether they will or not. Or, to take a second example, while out shopping for a birthday present for his little boy, a unemployed man finds a bank note worth two hundred German Marks down a side-street next to a Currency Exchange, enough to pay for a memorable birthday. No-one sees him pick it up. Most likely, he thinks, the note was carelessly dropped by a rich tourist, who won't even think to claim it. Yet he cannot bring himself to commit an act of dishonesty, and hands the money in. — Perhaps one is wrong in calling examples such as these 'everyday'. The dutiful, kind or decent acts that we do without thinking usually cost little. It is not every day that one finds oneself faced with a genuine dilemma whether or not to do what is held to be 'the right thing', or indeed which of two alternatives would be the right thing to do.

The two examples we have cited have been deliberately left open-ended. How important was that job interview? Just how many people were standing on the platform? Suppose the money found in the street was sufficient to pay for a much needed operation? — It is no easy matter to reach agreement even on such simple cases as these. Even so, faced with points of view that conflict with our own moral judgements, we are not content to say, 'Well, it's a matter of opinion after all.' We feel strongly that our view is the correct one to take. Questions of right or wrong conduct are matters of conviction, upon which we feel justified — at least, in those cases which do seem clear cut in our eyes — in passing judgement upon others. What is the source of that sense of conviction? Perhaps if we knew, or so one is tempted to think, then we could tap into it when faced with a case where we do not feel convinced, but urgently wish to be.

'Why should I do what is right?' — The question is wrongly formed. If I have come to the conclusion that a certain course of action is the right one to take — that is to say, not simply that certain other persons think it is right but that I judge it to be so — then no further reasons need to be, or indeed can be given. There is no alternative but to act. Why does this seem so hard to accept? In our everyday lives we often think or act as if morality were an institution that we more or less agreed to, while every so often allowing ourselves to take a rest from the burden of moral obligation. So one might find oneself saying, 'I accept that it would be right to hand in the bank note, but in this case my son is more important to me.' However, if consideration of one's son's need really is the decisive actor, then what one is in effect saying is that keeping the note is, after all, the right thing to do in this case. Suppose, on the other hand, that one were to say, 'I accept that it would be right to hand in the bank note, but I need the money to keep up the payments on my three-piece suite.' What is implied here is a choice between moral considerations and non-moral considerations. But there can be no such choice. Moral considerations override all other considerations. To intend to do 'the right thing' only because it suits me to do so is not to intend to do the right thing, but only to intend to do what suits me. 'How is it then that, knowing what is the right thing to do, I can still fail to do it?' — If you really know then you cannot fail to act accordingly, Socrates believed. Failure to act is proof of a lack of knowledge.

But what about cases where one really does seem to see clearly what is to be done, yet it is one's will that fails? The paradox of weakness of the will presents a serious obstacle to an account of moral knowledge. On the one hand, if we allow the necessary connection between knowledge and action to be severed, then we are no longer able to account for the motivating force of moral considerations. An agent can know all the 'moral facts', but still be faced with the choice of what to do in the face of them (cf. 4). The only alternative, therefore, is to argue that the experience, however vivid, of seeming to see what is to be done is not equivalent to really seeing, fully appreciating the significance of the facts that are there to be seen. At least, that is what one has to say. But that is hardly to begin to address the problem. How is it that we are capable of being so thoroughly deceived into thinking that the failure is not one of our knowledge as such, but rather of our capacity to act on that knowledge?

The realisation that moral considerations are overriding is the first, necessary step in our philosophical inquiry, indeed our first discovery. In seeking the source of our knowledge of right and wrong, we now have a clearer picture of what we are looking for, and what problems we are up against. Are there reasons for action of a special sort, capable of trumping all reasons based on our personal likes or dislikes, our own needs and desires — on 'what suits me'? We cannot assume that there are, simply on the basis of analysing what it means for something to be a 'moral' reason. — Perhaps our sense of morality is, after all, founded on an illusion. There might still be a point in recognising 'good' and 'evil' people, a person would still face the choice of behaving 'virtuously' or 'viciously'. Or, at least, so one would speak. If morality is an illusion then these terms ultimately have no other significance than simply to signal the things that we like or dislike.

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