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Metaethics from a First Person Standpoint

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Catherine Wilson

Enquiry IV

Résumé

The Enquirer discovers that, as far as her self-interest is concerned, there are certain things that are good and bad for her and therefore things she ought and ought not to do. The Enquirer discovers that she can also know something about what is in the self-interest of other people.

Texte intégral

1Very well. I seem to have discovered or realised that I know something about myself and what is good for me, what is in my own interest: namely, my present existence.

2But this epistemic accomplishment is a long way from the discovery of any moral facts, facts about what is vicious or virtuous, morally permissible or impermissible, required or forbidden. It is unclear whether I know or can come to know any facts about what is good or bad, better or worse, besides this one. But it is a start, so I shall press onwards.

3Reflecting further, I find in myself certain strong beliefs relating to my condition as an existing thing. These have to do with my biological needs as the living creature I know myself to be. My discomforts in particular are signs of danger—of threats to the existence that I currently prize. I know that I cannot survive for more than a few hours without special equipment in temperatures above 45oC or below 0oC, or without water for more than a few days, or without food for more than a month. Moreover, I doubt that I would survive for long if I were the last person left alive on earth.

4But do I really know that it is better for me to be warm and dry, to be satiated rather than hungry, to be surrounded by other humans rather than alone? It seems that it is not always better for me to be in comfortable conditions. I may prefer to be cold and wet on an exciting rafting adventure that I would not have missed for anything, rather than warm and dry in my own sitting room; and my current state of hunger is not unpleasant since I know that I can look forward to the gratification of lunch soon. While it would be a catastrophe if the rest of the human race were to vanish, leaving me in a world stocked with food and books, I like to be alone for some hours of the day. So my beliefs about what is good and bad for me do not generalise to all conditions. I think I can nevertheless claim to know that temperate conditions and sufficient food and water are generally better for me than extremes of temperature, starvation, and dehydration.

5Recognising that these things are good and bad for me leads me to think that there are things I ought to do in order to secure companionship, food, water, and warmth and to avoid starvation, abandonment, and death. I ought to eat and drink from time to time, cultivate the attention of other human beings, and seek shelter when temperatures soar or plummet. Could I be under the illusion or misapprehension that I ought to do such things? I can imagine special circumstances obtaining under which it would be inadvisable to eat or drink or seek shelter or cultivate the attentions of people around me because of the dangers such activities posed. But I am not claiming that I ought always to do these things, given the opportunity. I am claiming only that for the sake of my own survival and welfare, I will mostly need to. (I know that birds fly, for example, even if there are a few exceptions, such as penguins.) I am confident accordingly that there are facts about what I ought to do.

6Another fact I know about myself is that I probably have something of a future, and that my decisions and actions right now have a bearing on my future. I cannot be absolutely certain that I do have a future, for a sudden stroke could knock me out before I finish writing this sentence, or an asteroid colliding with earth could destroy me along with my environment next week. But I know is that the probability of my surviving for many years hence is very high.

7The knowledge that I will likely survive for quite a long time into the future indicates to me that I ought to take it into account that some possible futures will be better or worse for me than others. Certain plans I formulate and act upon now will make my future security, opportunity, and happiness more or less than it would be had I formulated and acted upon other plans. While I am rarely certain of what is absolutely the best plan, or even whether, in some cases, I ought to be making a plan and carrying it out, rather than just waiting to see what happens, I am certain that some plans would be bad for me if I carried them out and that others are more promising.

8Normally, I ought not to do anything that could threaten my immediate existence. I ought not to climb up a very rickety ladder to try to wire and hang a heavy chandelier, or to swim in shark-infested waters without special equipment if the opportunity immediately presents itself. Special circumstances might again make it necessary to do just what I ought not, in general, do, but it would be misleading to say that it is neither true nor false that swimming without equipment in shark-infested waters is a bad idea, and that there is no fact of the matter as to whether I ought to attempt DIY feats of the type just described.

9The causes of my beliefs about what I ought to do and what to avoid doing lie in nurture as well as in nature. I have an innate fear of heights, thanks to my Neurological Constitution, and people informed me as a child of the dangers of electrical wiring. Movies and newspaper articles—Cultural Transmission—inspired my fear of sharks. Yet, their origins in nature and culture do not make these emotions irrational. And when the sentences below are uttered by me, in conditions in which the opportunities present themselves in a certain way, I am confident that they express my knowledge and understanding of the world and how things work or happen in it.

I ought not to try to hang this chandelier unassisted.

I ought not to go for a swim in these shark-infested waters.

10There are many other ‘ought’ statements I could formulate that represent my knowledge of what it is good or bad for me to do right now, in these circumstances, whatever the circumstances may be at the moment. My knowledge of matters affecting my self-interest indeed appears to be extensive. Nevertheless, I anticipate two objections to my claim to know quite a bit about what’s good and bad for me and what I ought to do.

11First, someone might argue that it is not true that I ought not to perform various actions that are extremely risky and dangerous. For it might be the case that the universe would be better off without me, and, as long as this possibility cannot be ruled out, I cannot make the above claims with any confidence. Surely my going out of existence through electrocution or being eaten by a shark would be good for at least some others. Someone would get my job, and some others would enjoy my clothing and effects if my heirs donated them to be sold in a charity shop.

  • 9 Hume claims ‘Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratch (...)

12Perhaps there is a Supreme Being who oversees the Universe and who knows all that has happened in the past, is happening in the present, and will happen in the future, as well as all that might happen. Perhaps this Being knows that, were I to be annihilated, things would start to go better in the Universe. Very well, but I am not claiming to know that my existence is good for the Universe in the long run, only that it is good for me right now, and that since it is probable that I shall in fact continue to exist for some time, it is good for me to pursue and avoid certain things. From the mere possibility that, unbeknownst to me, the Universe would be better off without me, and that there is a God who knows this, it doesn’t follow that I need not avoid doing foolish, self-destructive, or dangerous things. Perhaps my interest in existing and in preserving my existence and the good of the Universe are in conflict, but even if that is so, it does not defeat my claim to know what is in my own interest. I might, in a moment of psychological desperation and confused judgement, come to think that I would be better off not existing, but this thought could only occur to me in a state that I know at the moment that it would not be good for me to be in. I can also appreciate that there are perspectives from which my existence does not matter, indeed, from which it does not matter how many or how few humans exist at all. I can imagine callous Martians, or callous foreigners, or even just people who dislike me intensely, holding the view that what happens to me—including my annihilation—does not matter one whit.9 Nevertheless, this gives me no reason to take this position with regard to myself.

13But now a second objection to my claim to know certain things about what I ought and ought not to do occurs to me. It is that I cannot see into the future with sufficient clarity to be certain that my continued existence will be better for me than my ceasing to exist at some moment hence. Perhaps I shall shortly be struck down with a dreadful illness involving prolonged suffering, or an invading army will capture me and subject me to lifelong solitary confinement punctuated by torture. If that happens, it might turn out to have been better for me had I electrocuted myself or been quickly consumed by sharks. Perhaps, unbeknownst to me, the disease has already taken hold, perhaps the invading army is quietly massing just up the road? In such cases, it will soon be the case that things would have gone better for me had I been destroyed. But, again, I do not see that the possibility that these things are, as I write, invisibly happening could imply that I cannot now know that I ought not to attempt this wiring task or go swimming in shark-infested waters. It is logically possible that by attempting to hang the chandelier I would release a pile of gold coins from the ceiling, whilst remaining unharmed. I can nevertheless deny that I ought to do this.

14I do, however, have to admit that my ability to judge what will turn out to be best for me and so what I ought to do in various situations is hampered by my inability to foresee the future. When I move beyond the ubiquitous laws of physics that make severe electric shocks, falls from a great height, and attacks by certain predators invariably fatal and realise the multiplicity of causes and the role of chance, it seems that the full consequences of any decision I take are impossible to predict. Many occurrences make certain kinds of occurrence more likely in the future, but they do not necessitate them. A person who has already had one heart attack is more likely to have a second heart attack than a person who has had no heart attacks so far is to have a first one. Receiving a good education increases the likelihood of finding an enjoyable job. Having a sense of humour helps to attract a mate. But none of these further outcomes is guaranteed. All causes require the co-operation of other causes, and much happens by chance in the sense that from fortunate or unfortunate coincidences important effects can follow. I trip on a step and miss my usual bus; waiting for the next one, I meet a former colleague who offers me a new job. I win the lottery but have a miserable and vexed life trying to keep hold of my new-found wealth.

15Yet I must make decisions about what will turn out to be good for me under conditions of uncertainty, and avoiding or postponing deciding is a way of deciding. So it is useful for me to establish something about the scope and limits of my knowledge about what is good for me in the longer term and what I ought to do.

16Thinking on my past decisions and how they turned out, I know that I regret some actions and I have no hesitation in saying that I now know that they were bad for me. The extra drink that gave me such a headache and the carelessness about checking the schedule that caused me to miss my train were mistakes. Correspondingly, I know that some prudential actions that I undertook were good for me. Deciding to hide my passport in the refrigerator when I went on holiday turned out to be a good decision when thieves ransacked the house and took all my other legal and financial documents. Visiting the dentist regularly has reduced painful episodes of toothache.

17I can assert with confidence statements such as:

  1. ‘Because I was careless in looking up the timetable, I missed my train, which was bad for me.’

  2. ‘Because I was prudent in hiding my passport in the refrigerator, I escaped its being robbed, which was good for me.’

18But what about ‘acts and omissions’ undertaken on a grander scale, for example, the decision to attend University X or to move to city Y? Can I assert with confidence statements such as:

  1. ‘Because I attended University X rather than University Z, my life has gone worse than it would have otherwise.’

  2. ‘Because I moved to city Y rather than to city W, everything has gone better for me than it would have had I moved to W.’

19Here I am rather doubtful. I may have certain beliefs or even ‘convictions’ about these propositions, but I don’t think I can really know how my life would have gone had I attended University Z or moved to city W instead. One reason for being sceptical about my power to evaluate claims like 3) and 4) is that I find in myself a tendency to rationalise by finding something ‘good’ even in events and decisions that had regrettable aspects. Had I never broken my back in a riding accident, I would never have read all of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Had I not taken up with P who broke my heart, I would not have learned so much about chamber music. Some good things come out of some misfortunes, and some misfortunes come out of good things, and the chain of causes can extend over a lifetime. Imagine that my broken heart (bad for me) causes me to learn a great deal about chamber music (good for me), which causes me to be hit by a bus on my way to a concert (bad for me). Or that by becoming immobilised (bad for me), I become enchanted with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (good for me), and as a result spend my life writing incompetent commentaries on it and dying in ignominy (bad for me). So was it good for me or bad for me that I took up with P or broke my back? The question seems undecidable.

20The thought about the past, ‘Event E was good for me’ implies that ‘If E had not happened, things would have been in some respects worse for me, and they would not have been overall better for me.’ But how can I know this to be the case? What would otherwise have happened to me in the long run would have depended on a lot else besides the non-occurrence of E. I cannot factor in these other events associated with the non-occurrence of E. For it was E that happened, and I have a sense of what did follow from E. But I can only guess at what would have followed from E’s not occurring.

21Should I suppose, nevertheless, that all events that have happened to me—including so-and-so becoming Prime Minister in my lifetime and such and such cosmic rays striking me—are either good for me, or bad for me, or indifferent, though for most of these events, I can never know which? This seems a fantastic supposition. I can imagine a very capable biographer who writes the story of my life in such a way that the various good, bad, and indifferent effects of various events are brought out. But such a biography, if it were not to be both incredibly long and incoherent to the average reader, would have to be highly selective in treating only ‘major’ events and their ’significant’ impacts. It would be open to the objection of critics that for any event E whose value for me is discussed in the book, if E had not happened, the effects portrayed as flowing from E might have happened anyway, so that certain effects alleged to be good or bad for me were not really due to E. These considerations lead me to doubt that I or anyone else can have a thorough and complete understanding of what is good or has been good for me, regardless of the satisfying and plausible autobiographical and biographical ‘stories’ that can be constructed, portraying certain decisions as wise or foolish. The ‘acts’ involved in 3) and 4) and their effects are so complex compared to the ‘acts’ involved in 1) and 2) and their effects, that it seems there is no objective fact of the matter, knowable by me or not.

22I have not lost my conviction that with respect to 1) and 2) I can judge wisdom and foolishness correctly. Nevertheless, this complexity and the fact that simple cases like 1) and 2) shade gradually into complex cases like 3) and 4) may have implications for the problem of moral knowledge.

23In any case, life presents me with constant opportunities for decisions, decisions that I must take consciously or that will turn out to have been taken by default. These decisions, when acted upon, change the probabilities of certain events occurring in the future. So I must constantly decide what it is best to do for my own well-being. In making decisions about my self- interest, I need to ignore unlikely possibilities such as a pile of gold falling from the ceiling or amazing good luck in escaping disaster, and I cannot look too far into the future. It is accordingly sensible to pay attention to likelihoods. Deciding to go to medical school increases the chances that I will become a practicing physician from close to, though not quite, 0% (I might decide to practice medicine without a license) in case I don’t go, to perhaps 50% if I do go. (Not all who go to medical school finish the course, and not all who finish the course become practicing physicians.) Deciding to marry X rather than Y reduces the chances that I will ever visit China from around 95%, in case Y is a patriotic Chinese with many affectionate relatives, to some lower figure in case X is not. Few of my ordinary decisions, however, have outcomes that can be predicted with certainty, and even to estimate the likelihood of one outcome rather than another, I need access to statistics that may be hard to come by.

24It occurs to me that good practical decisions are not the same as decisions that will maximise my pleasures and minimise my pains. If, for example, I could attach myself to a machine that stimulated the pleasure centres of my brain on an ongoing basis, I would not consider it in my self-interest to do so. Nor would I think it in my self-interest to become addicted to a euphoria-inducing drug, even if it could be reliably supplied to me at no cost. Other people may disagree; they may be in no doubt that being hooked up to an ecstasy machine would be good for them, but so what? For me, living an interesting human life, being spared certain tragedies such as losing my children, or being sent to prison, or finding myself in the middle of a war, or suffering a painful and debilitating medical condition, or being professionally disgraced, or being friendless and ignorant about the world, would be good, and I ought to do what is conducive to this end. Nevertheless, pain and boredom are not experiences I think it would be best wholly to avoid, even if I could knock out my pain receptors or take an excitement-producing pill whenever my interest in the environment flagged. For one thing, I think I learn through painful experiences about what is and isn’t in my self-interest. I do, however, want my pains to be treatable and not indefinitely prolonged.

25I do not always know what I ought to do and what will be good for me, but I know that I sometimes feel regret over what I earlier decided to do and subsequently did, and that regret is an unpleasant emotion that I ought to try to avoid. I ought to be at least somewhat prudent, for the prudent person is less apt to suffer regret over their former stupidity, haste, and carelessness. However I do not think I ought to be as cautious as possible. For it is possible to be too dedicated to minimising regret—so dedicated that one misses out on a good deal of pleasure and excitement. Exactly how cautious I ought to be and how thoughtless, hasty, and careless I may be without negatively affecting my welfare is a problem I cannot solve. I can only seek out information about likelihoods and try to put it to use, taking into account my individual, indeed unique nature.

26So let me consider a typical decision: the frugality vs. pleasure dilemma. Here is what I know about my situation:

The most attractive flat available costs 30% more than a minimally acceptable ‘baseline’ flat.

If I choose the most attractive flat, there is a very good chance that I will run out of funds by the end of the year, whereas the baseline flat is easily affordable.

I am very likely to survive, to need a flat, and to be able to enjoy a flat until the end of the year.

27All these assumptions involve likelihoods. My existence might be cut short in the next instant, or I might not require a flat if I wind up in the hospital for a very long stay. I might inherit money from a long-lost relative and have no more financial worries. My tastes in flats might change. All of these eventualities are possible, and my choice of the more or less expensive flat would turn out to be fortunate or unfortunate depending on which were realized. But they are unlikely. On the basis of what usually happens, I might reasonably decide that it is prudent to take the less expensive flat. If it matters to me a great deal to live in a very nice flat, however, I might reasonably decide to take the risk of running out of funds. Taking the baseline flat could be a bad decision if I were miserable there and if I would gain quite a bit more enjoyment from a nicer flat, even if the financial risk is greater.

28Now suppose that a range of 100 flats is available at various rents, their attractiveness varying with their prices, and their prices corresponding to their riskiness for me. Is there a fact of the matter about which flat it is best to take? Can I come to know which one is best? Could it be the case that, whatever I decide to do, there was an ‘optimal flat’ that balanced attractiveness against risk, assigning to each value the weight it ought to have? Some people doubtless believe that there is just such a unique flat. God, they might think, is omniscient, so God must know which is the optimal flat for me (as well as which University, X or Y, would have been better for me in the long run to attend). For every possible decision I could take in a situation, they think, there is ranking of the alternatives, so that one is best, one is worst, and the other alternatives are all better or worse than one another, but worse than the best and better than the worst. Even if I lack the information and concern required to work out what would be good for me, there is an objective fact of the matter—dependent on my likings and dislikings, but objective nevertheless.

29This seems a peculiar assumption. Either there is an omniscient God or there isn’t. If there isn’t an omniscient God, there is no being who, by definition, must know which is the unique optimal flat and how all the others stack up. Even if there is an omniscient God, this God can only know everything there is to be known. I am not persuaded that the identity of the optimal flat and the ranking of the other 99 flats is one of the things to be known. Even if these are things an omniscient being can know, I think they might nevertheless be forever beyond human reason just as certain colour or tone discriminations lie outside human perception.

30Rather, it seems to me that amongst the 100, there might be a range of flats such that it is definitely reasonable for me to take one of them; another two ranges of flats, all of which would be definitely unreasonable for me to take because they are either too expensive or too unattractive; and a lot of flats that do not definitely belong to any of those categories. Whichever flat I decide on, I may have regrets depending on how things turn out; I may regret spending so much, or not spending more. But if I made my decision—whatever it is—by pondering the risks and rewards for a reasonable length of time, I will at least not be able to accuse myself of having been foolish and impulsive, however things turn out. I will not reproach myself for having acted unwisely, even if I bemoan my living conditions.

31Practical reasoning of this sort is, then, strongly dependent on probabilities and on the information I have about myself and about the world. Where my practical decisions are concerned—Shall I marry P or Q or nobody? Change jobs and cities or stay where I am? Buy a car or forego the purchase?—I must take into account facts about what usually happens to the average person in my situation, facts about how I am different from the average person, and consider the likelihoods of various outcomes for me.

32But can I ever really know what I ought to do in my own self-interest— what is good for me or better than the alternatives? Can I ever be sure that I have figured that out? Consider the following two accounts of what I did:

  1. I did what seemed to me most reasonable in light of what I actually knew and cared about.

  2. I did what was most reasonable in light of what I ought to have known and ought to have cared about.

33I can be reasonably certain that I have fulfilled the conditions of 1). Suppose I decided to smoke. I had no data on the long-term harmful effects of smoking and I liked to smoke. The decision seemed to me altogether reasonable. But it is hard to see that I acted on the basis of my knowledge that it was in my self-interest to smoke.

34By contrast, if I was able at the time to fulfil the conditions of 2) it seems I would have succeeded in acting in my self-interest. But it seems impossible for me to know that I have fulfilled those conditions. There are many things I wish I had known before I took certain decisions, but the class of things I ought to have known is different, and poorly demarcated.

35On prudential grounds, I ought to know what’s on the label of the medicines I take and whether the local weather forecast is for tornadoes if they are common and devastating around here. Such well-known dangers as overdoses and harmful drug interactions are made known by Cultural Transmission and I am responsible for being alert to them.

36More problematic is the second clause. Can the culture really settle what I ought to care about? Why should I care about things I don’t? On reflection, I can see that this makes sense. I may not care that my drinking water is heavily contaminated with arsenic, but it is definitely in my self- interest to care about this. If I care about my health, I ought to care to some extent about my diet, my drinking water, the effects of privatisation on cleaning practices in hospital wards, and other such matters, and to seek out factual information about these things even if Cultural Transmission is not providing it.

37So, the claim that I ought to do what I would do if I knew what I ought to know and cared about what I ought to care about seems right. But what use is it in making decisions about what to do? It is always possible that I don’t know something or care about something that I ought to. And it seems that any decision procedure for deciding what I ought to do depends for its reliability on further ‘oughts’—moreover, on further oughts for which the decision procedure could only involve reference to even further oughts!

38This situation persuades me that no decision-procedure is guaranteed to issue in a decision that I never come to regard as having not been in my self-interest after all. In choosing a flat, I may come to realise that I did not know about some of its features or care sufficiently about others. Rather than despairing over the lack of a guaranteed method of making correct decisions, however, I can take the ineliminability of ‘oughts’ as an invitation always to press my reasonings and concerns as far as I can, asking myself whether I know enough to make a decision and whether I am attaching sufficient weight to the right things. I can see that there are pathways to extending both my knowledge and my regions of concern in ways they ought to be extended. I often become aware of my ignorance of certain important matters, realising that they are relevant to my condition and that knowledge is available. And I am often made aware that I ought to care about something to which I previously gave no attention—that my shoelaces were untied or that I hurt someone’s feelings with my brusqueness. There is, it seems, a horizon, towards which I can extend both my factual knowledge and my concerns. But the domain of what I ought to know is limited by the knowledge that is actually available in my culture—I cannot get very far beyond what others know and can communicate to me, and I cannot extend my concerns very far outside the range of concerns other people present to me.

39Armed then with the confidence that, with due diligence, I can make good decisions about what it is in my self-interest to do, I shall try to determine what else I can establish about my knowledge of ‘oughts.’ Can I know what you ought to do, what would be good for you? Or is my evaluative knowledge limited to my own case?

40Here it seems to me that I am not always in a worse position in judging what it would be best for you and for other people to do in your and their own self-interest than I am in my own case. The same facts about the world and about the average person are relevant to my case and to yours. When I see you stumbling around, I know that it would be good for you to find your lost glasses. If I see that you are starving, I know that it would be good for you to get something to eat. The basis of my confidence is the knowledge that the average, psychologically healthy person has preferences to be warm, dry, well-fed, just as I do, and able to see, hear, and move around, whilst recognising that even where these basic human needs are concerned, preferences and likings may be quite variable.

41For example, if you enjoy adventure travel and love camping on glaciers and catching your own food, your requirements for creature comforts are much less than those of a constitutionally or temperamentally more delicate person. You may know facts about yourself and how you are different from the average person that have a bearing on what it is reasonable for you to do in your self-interest. But I too can know these facts about how you differ from the average person, enabling me to know what you ought to do and what will be best for you. And sometimes it is the case that your emotions blind you to certain facts about how the world works and about likelihoods that are apparent to me as a detached observer. I may know that relevant information is available and even know what it is; you may not. In some cases, I am a better judge than you about what you ought to do, whereas in other cases you are a better judge than I am about what you ought to do. There is no hard and fast rule here that I can see.

42So far I have considered whether I can know what it is good for me to do and good for you to do—what is in my self-interest or in yours. The good outcomes envisioned concern comfort, security, flexibility, and enjoyment and often involve trade-offs. Prudential decisions about saving, for example, concern the balance between enjoyment in vigorous youth and security in frail old age. Prudential decisions about marriage concern the balance between the attractiveness and charm of the proposed partner and their dependability and willingness to pitch in. These are all matters for investigation. Suppose I enjoy smoking but am aware that it shortens life and degrades health. How do I weigh present my enjoyment against the possibility of future misery and gnawing regret? I should consult the statistics. What condition are people usually in after they have smoked for twenty, thirty, or forty years? Have I any reason to believe that things will go differently for me? What about the people who have quit smoking? Have I reason to believe that the pleasure they formerly derived from smoking was any less than mine? Do they miss the habit so strongly that their quality of life is diminished?

43In principle, I have concluded, knowledge of evaluative properties—the goodness or badness of decisions taken and actions performed by me and by others—is at least possible. Nevertheless, this knowledge is limited. It is false that for every decision I face there is a right answer about what I ought to do and a number of wrong answers. The knowledge of the world and of likelihoods and the knowledge of how I am like or unlike other people that would be required to make a reasonable decision may be unavailable to me, even if I strive to extend my knowledge and concerns to a reasonable degree. I think I should be content with the conclusion that I do sometimes know what you, or I, or we ought to do. I have gained, it seems to me, the right to claim that I have evaluative knowledge, but only by way of keeping my aspirations to knowledge modest.

44But what about moral oughts? Judging what I ought morally to do, what it would be morally good or right to do, is not the same as judging what it is in my self-interest to do. Prudential decisions concern me, or some entity with which I identify, such as my family, or my business, or my career. If I act imprudently, then, in the absence of good luck, things will likely turn out badly for me or for one of those entities, and if I act prudently, then, in the absence of bad luck, things will likely turn out well for me or for one of those entities with which I identify. Moral decisions, though, do not seem to concern my security, comfort, and enjoyment—my self-interest—or at least not in the same way. A prudential decision that serves my interests could very well be one that makes me morally uneasy.

45A moral ought, it now occurs to me, involves a decision about how I ought to behave towards you in certain types of situation or, more generally, how Person 1 ought to behave towards Person 2 in certain types of situation. I am aware that there are people who think that there are moral issues involved in how people treat or regard animals, landscapes, exotic languages, institutions like marriage or democracy, or perhaps even disused typefaces. And some people even think there are immoral ways to treat yourself. Perhaps they are right, but I suspect these views concern extensions of the central idea of morality. So I will confine myself for the present to thinking about situations involving two separate but interacting persons as morally basic. Accordingly, to discover whether there are actions, situations, events, and persons that are morally good or bad, and actions I ought to perform, or may perform, or should refrain from performing, I should investigate whether there is anything I can establish about how Person 1 ought to behave towards Person 2 when they come to stand in some sort of relationship.

Notes

9 Hume claims ‘Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.’ Treatise, Bk II, Pt. III, § 3, p. 416. ‘Reason’ is here opposed to sentiment.

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