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Metaethics from a First Person Standpoint

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Catherine Wilson

Enquiry VII

Résumé

The Enquirer discovers an analogy between the Present Self’s natural and moral concern for the Future Self and the Narrow Self’s natural and moral concern for the Extended Self of kith and kin. She goes on to ponder whether she has any natural concern for Strangers and why she ought to care about them.

Texte intégral

1It now occurs to me that my self-interest is not narrowly limited to my Present Self and the array of possible Future Selves whose interests I consider in my self-interested reasoning. Some of my happiness and sadness arises from the experiences and conditions of others who are close to me, for example, my parents, siblings, children, and mate. I find in myself a strong incentive to act in their best interests and to consider their interests as continuous with my own.

2As a parent, sibling, child, spouse, or as a close friend, I can consider myself in two ways, either as a Narrow Self, whose desires or interests may be at odds with those of my children, siblings, parents, spouse, or friends, or as an Extended Self, forming a unit with these others, such that their good is mine as well. In the latter case, I try to do what’s good for the Extended Self. In the former case, I may have to determine whose interests—those of the Narrow Self or those of family members and friends—are to be sacrificed and by how much. In particular cases I can ignore or entirely discount the interests of these others, just as I can ignore the requirements of my Future Self, but the wholesale shrinkage of concern to the Now and to the Narrow Self would be a pathological state. Imagine a person utterly indifferent to the severe pain, dismemberment, or death they are threatened with in a week’s time because they only care about Now, or a person who could watch, unmoved, torture being perpetrated on a family member. I have no doubt that such people exist, but I need not concern myself with them here. As they are beyond the reach of reason, lacking the sorts of feelings that make productive argument possible, they cannot be persuaded by philosophy.

3At the same time, I am aware that human nature is such that the interests of parents, children, siblings, and mates can come apart. Ancient history, myth, and drama illustrate the conflicts that tear families apart and the cruelties that closely related or paired persons can perpetrate on one another. The brothers Cain and Abel quarrelled with a fatal outcome. Medea killed the children she had with Jason in fury at his abandonment of her, and Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter for a fair wind. The closer people are in familial relationships, the greater the opportunities for both care and concern and for anger and aggression. This conflict can be dramatic, as in the cases just cited, or it can exist on a familiar but troubling level. Should I loan money to my struggling but slightly lazy brother knowing it will never be repaid? May I install my aged and demented parents in a nursing home despite their protests? As there is both agreement and conflict between my Present Self and my Future Self, so there can be conflicts between my ‘Narrow Self,’ the present and future mind-body complex that I am, and my ‘Extended Self,’ the set of people and causes that I care about and with whom I identify.

4A fully satisfactory resolution of the conflict between these various Selves requires attention to the welfare of all involved. It also requires that the Narrow Self and the Present Self, who are charged with deciding what to do, are sufficiently well informed to make a decision and care sufficiently about what they ought to. For example, in the case of conflict between the Now and the Future Selves, my method is to try to adopt the perspective of the not-yet-existent Future Self through imaginative projection, asking myself what it will be like to be my 45- or 50- or 87-year-old self and how I will then judge my youthful actions. I need to initiate a debate between my Now and Future Selves that draws on factual information and objective likelihoods. In the case of conflict between the Narrow and the Extended Selves, I might adopt an analogous method, projecting myself into the position of my relative or mate or close friend and initiating a debate over whose interests need to be recognised and how far. This debate too should draw as far as possible on the facts of the situation and on information about likely outcomes. However, if the Narrow Self is depraved, insane, temporarily blinded by passion, or deeply irrational, it cannot care about the things it ought to and cannot make reasonable decisions, and the Extended Self may well become a helpless victim.

5Even if a Narrow Self is sane, rational, calm, and not in the grip of depraved tastes, it can make the same kinds of errors vis-à-vis the Extended Self as the Present Self can vis-à-vis the Future Self. The Present Self can weigh the interests of the putative Future Selves too heavily, giving up too much pleasure and adventure now for an only probable future, or too lightly, by weighing the interests of the Present Self too heavily. I may make corresponding errors in weighing my own individual interests against those of others about whom I care. I may err in always putting their desires and well-being before mine and thereby doing myself an injury, or in always putting my desires and my welfare before theirs.

6A negligent parent risks the death or loss of a child, or their alienation and the loss of their affection. Failure to feed them or educate them will impair their chances of becoming independent. Neglected mates may vanish, and neglected elders cannot furnish advice and company. My Narrow Self may benefit from altruism directed to friends and family. But such altruism can also be harmful to it. I might devote myself to my children, becoming a bore to the adults in my life. I could become a slave to a very sick and petulant elderly parent who rightly belongs in an institution.

7These considerations lead me to wonder whether the Extended Self has an interest in the good of others beyond the family and beyond the circle of friends, mates, and lovers, and if so what the source and meaning of this interest is.

8There are several reasons for supposing that I have been equipped by nature with some form of general sympathy. Human beings routinely show concern for and interfere on behalf of human beings they do not know. It seems to be part of human culture to create institutions whose only purpose is to help strangers in need. These institutions range from doctors and hospitals, to police and fire services, to courts intended to secure justice and to protect the weak and victimised, by applying the same rules to rich and poor, powerful and powerless. Whether they succeed or not, whether they are corrupted or not, political bodies such as senates and councils are formed and carry out their proceedings under the assumption that their entire purpose is to do what is best for the whole community. To the extent that I approve of the existence of these institutions and am willing to support them, I must care about the good of others besides those with whom I am intimate. My wider concern is evidenced by my sense of approbation and relief when I read about the outcome of a trial that seems to me just, or the passage of a bill that I think will be good for the country or for a needy and deserving element of the population.

9Further, when I see a perfect stranger about to receive a blow or about to trip and fall, I cringe, and this response seems to me automatic: no one has ever taught me to do that. The alarm and shock of bystanders at a traffic accident indicate that humans are profoundly moved by disasters that do not affect their Narrow or their Extended Selves. Indeed, I spontaneously feel anxiety and discomfort when watching an adventure film or when reading a suspenseful novel. I do not know the hero and heroine and they are not even real; yet how things turn out for them is important for me.

10A third reason for believing that I have something of a natural disposition to care about Strangers is the discovery that a certain small subgroup of the population lacks this concern. Things go better for them when other people suffer at their hands. They appear to be lacking the neurological requisites that enable me and most other people to respond to suffering with aversion and a desire to help. This syndrome can also be an effect of brain damage and can be considered a serious impairment.

11However, my relationship to Strangers, as well as to friends and family, is characterised by some ambivalence. Much of the time I am simply indifferent to Strangers and ignore them and their plights. And humans often relate to other humans they do not know well with fear, by assuming they are dangerous and might kill them, rob them, rape them, or exploit them.

12These observations do not answer the question, ‘Why ought I to be concerned with the well-being and sufferings of Strangers?’ They rather make it salient to me that I already am to some degree and that I would have to make a special effort to become completely unconcerned with the well-being and suffering of Strangers under all circumstances. At the same time, it seems that I have to make far more of an effort to be concerned with the well-being and suffering of Strangers to anything like the same degree as the well-being and suffering of those in my immediate circle.

13The demands and requests for consideration of its interests implicitly presented by my Future Self—the sacrifices it is asking for from my Present Self—come in the form of worries about the future; the ghost, as it were, of self-to-come interrogates me about my current plans and practices. To be sure, worry about the future is more common and more intense in technologically advanced societies in which there are such phenomena as careers, wealth-accumulation, pensions, and inheritances. Hunter- gatherers do not need to and cannot therefore worry about these matters, but they may well worry about health matters or the approach of death. Some individuals of the happy-go-lucky type in technologically advanced societies are little prone to worry, or only begin to worry when it is too late to affect the future. However, this individual indifference exists in a broader context of human concern wherever social institutions have made such concern possible. Once the very possibilities of careers, accumulation, and so on are presented to them in early adulthood, people tend to become concerned with their own futures. This concern intensifies as these goals present themselves as within reach. Parental lectures, career advice bureaus and placement offices, newspaper and magazine articles, messages from the bank, and literary forms such as biography and autobiography all impress on me the message that the decisions I make and actions I take now are important and necessary for the future. Those who seem not to care about their own futures are reproached, either literally or by implication, by other persons and institutions. Without these external prompts, it is unlikely that I would worry about the future or think very much about it at all.

14The demands and requests to my Narrow Self presented by the relatives and intimates of the Extended Self are a different matter. These people exist now, and they are usually articulate about their desires for food, transportation, advice, financial assistance, companionship, presents, and so on. They usually present their needs and desires to me directly. The very young and the elderly, even if they do not or cannot ask for attention and assistance, usually make it obvious when they need help. All human societies provide a cultural framework in which we are urged to be aware of and attempt to some extent to meet the needs and satisfy the desires of family members, friends, and mates—advertisements for cleaning products and food items as well as advice columns about how to be a good husband or mother are examples of this urging. The natural partiality for kith and kin is thus reinforced by social mechanisms. Those who are negligent are reproached, directly and indirectly.

15When it comes to the demands and requests of Strangers, however, the situation is very different. Take, for example, starving persons in sub- Saharan countries, or the unemployed in our own, or persons who might be exposed to radioactive emission or toxins in their drinking water in some distant community. They do not talk to me or appear before me, manifesting their needs and desires; they don’t present their requests and demands to me with the same vivacity as my intimates do. Moreover, there are far too many needy Strangers to invite my focussed rumination on their various conditions and deprivations. Hence it is obvious from a psychological point of view why I am inclined to worry about my future and to make provisions for it, and to worry about the condition of my family and friends, but not to worry a great deal about Strangers. Whereas I have a considerable, often ‘visceral’ incentive to consider the demands of my future self and my relatives and intimates, which I experience as urgent, the general human concern with Strangers exemplified in those of our institutions devoted to welfare and justice does not supply me with a strong, visceral, urgently-felt incentive.

16Nevertheless, as the requests of the Future Self become manifest in complex technological societies, the needs and desires of Strangers also become manifest. I become aware of them through media reports that communicate the sufferings of people in war-torn regions, in factories and slums, and in areas ravaged by natural disasters such as earthquakes, famines and floods. I become aware of the effects of unemployment, poor health, and poor healthcare in distant communities. As a result of this awareness, the Stranger puts pressure on Me, and Strangers put pressure on Us, just as the Future Self puts pressure on the Present Self, and the Extended Self on the Narrow Self. In each case, meeting demands and requests requires sacrifices from the Present Self, the Narrow Self, or the I or We who confront the Stranger or Strangers.

17Still, these observations do not answer the question, ‘Why ought I to be concerned with the well-being and suffering of Strangers?’ nor the question, ‘How concerned ought I to be and how much should I be prepared to sacrifice my narrow interests or my extended interests on their behalf?’ In trying to answer these questions, I think it might be useful to distinguish between motives for being concerned and reasons for being concerned, where a reason is a consideration that ought to be a motive whether it is or not.

18Some people do respond to the knowledge that Strangers are in trouble with a strong, visceral desire to help. They feel the pressure acutely and respond to it by joining Doctors Without Borders or Habitat for Humanity, or they volunteer in schools, libraries, and prisons. But others do not. They consider charity appeals a big nuisance and immediately bin any request for donations even if it is accompanied with pictures of starving children.

  • 15 Kant offers an argument like this one in the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, IV: 423. He (...)
  • 16 Thomas Hobbes attempted to show that fear, and a desire for security and long life, rather than lov (...)

19There are some considerations that could be presented to a person who lacked the sympathetic dispositions just mentioned and that might persuade her to take an interest in the sufferings of Strangers. She might be reminded that she might someday want or need the assistance of Strangers in the case of an accident or a national disaster when no family member or friend is available to help.15 It could be suggested to her that by performing acts of assistance to Strangers in need, she increases the likelihood that such help will be available to her and to her friends and family, should it ever be required. But I do not think every indifferent person will be moved by this argument. Perhaps they are well-cushioned financially, well-insured, and surrounded by loyal and powerful retainers and bodyguards. They regard it as so unlikely that they would ever require the help of Strangers that the argument does not move them. Or perhaps they could be moved by fear— the fear that it could be dangerous to their personal, narrowly-construed welfare to ignore the needs and interests of Strangers, who might turn on them resentfully or breed dangerous diseases.16 Bringing to their attention the danger of violence or harm emanating from a set of deprived Strangers might motivate the indifferent person. But again, I do not think that this will necessarily result in their conversion to a broader form of altruism.

  • 17 This is a popular rhetorical strategy employed by Plato, Cicero, and Kant.

20At this point, I might appeal to their sense of honour. I might propose to them that the character of the broadly altruistic person is noble, upright, and estimable and that the character of the indifferent person is selfish and contemptible, or that their behaviour is more characteristic of ‘lower’ animals than of human beings with humanity.17 This might have some effect, especially if the argument was frequently repeated. But again, results are not guaranteed. The indifferent person might brush off these aspersions as merely verbal.

  • 18 An argument advanced by Thomas Nagel in The Possibility of Altruism, Princeton: Princeton Universit (...)

21Finally, I might try appealing to the rationality of the indifferent person, rather than to their insecurities or fears or sense of honour—which they may not possess. A reason for being concerned with the welfare of Strangers is that my interests are in fact no more important than the interests of the Stranger; they only feel more important and more urgent to me.18

22Sometimes reasons—even highly abstract reasons like this one—not only ought to motivate, but do motivate less selfish behaviour. But if they do not, there is nothing more to be said. There are persons temperamentally unsympathetic and uninterested in the lives of others, responsive only to considerations that move them emotionally, yet surrounded by a protective network of friends and family and unfazed by the threats of accidents, disasters, and rebellions. Philosophy will not be able to supply them with either reasons or motives for being concerned with the needs and comforts of Strangers that will move them to action.

23Very few human beings will, I expect, fall into this category of the completely unresponsive once they have heard all the arguments. This is not to say, however, that the needs and comforts of Strangers must always take precedence over those of the Self. As there can be conflict and harmony between the Present Self and the Future Selves, and between the Narrow Self and the Extended Self, so there can be conflict and harmony between the good of Me or Us and the good of a Stranger or a group of Strangers.

24I am not one of those people inclined by nature to make large donations to charity or to engage in volunteer work. Indeed, I suspect that things would go better for me if I did not have to see gravely ill people wandering in the street, and did not have to learn anything about famines, massacres, and social injustices. I frankly doubt that things would go worse for me if I did not have to witness the suffering of others or become aware of injustice. So, why shouldn’t I just make arrangements not to become aware of the demands in the first place, by immediately skipping most of the newspaper that deals with political issues and binning the charity appeals that come through the letterbox?

25The strategy of evasion can, I realise, be practiced with respect to my Future Self and my Extended Self. If I enjoy smoking, I may decline to seek out information about the usual fates of smokers that will tend to spoil my pleasure, so as to avoid having to make the decision whether to be prudent or imprudent. If I don’t like being asked to wash dishes at home and don’t want to get into an argument with someone who thinks I am being a parasite, I can arrange to arrive home only after someone else has done them and can refuse to discuss the issue.

26I do not think I am always wrong to avert my gaze from a Stranger’s request for help. I cannot respond to every request without spoiling my own life. However, the essential problem of morality is: How should Person 1 treat Person 2 when the advantages to Person 1 impose burdens on Person 2? How far must Person 1 sacrifice and how much is it reasonable to require Person 2 to endure? What is it reasonable for Person 2 to ask of Person 1? If I project myself into the situation of the Stranger, as I have to project myself into the position of the Future Self to decide what it is in my self-interest to do, I will surely be persuaded that some requests they might make of me are reasonable. I ought to compromise, neither shielding myself from the knowledge of the sufferings of others that would make me indifferent to their good, nor sacrificing too much of my own good—that of my Present, Future, Narrow, and Extended Selves—to improve their condition.

27Before their needs became so apparent to us, thanks to television and the other media, people who were entirely indifferent to the Stranger did not stand out, and they were not reproached by the judgemental voices of the culture. But today, someone who professes not to care at all about local poverty, conditions in overseas garment factories, global warming-induced flooding in Bangladesh, the recruitment of child soldiers in sub-Saharan Africa, elder abuse in nursing homes, and other such harms to persons, and who would be unwilling to make any sacrifice, however small, to improve these situations, will seem as unusual as a person who is perfectly unconcerned with the welfare of his sisters, his cousins, and his aunts, or his own future well-being.

28I can come to a reasonable decision about how much to sacrifice by constructing a discussion or debate, projecting myself into the role of any Stranger who might have a claim on my attention and my resources. In my inner debate, the Stranger must attempt to justify the reasonableness of her demands on me, given my interest in my needs and comforts and the many Strangers competing for my attention. I, in turn, must justify to the Stranger the level of attention and support I am willing to give her.

29But can I actually know what I ought to do morally when questions of harm, help, and sacrifice arise? Can I arrive at ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ decisions that can be represented as statements, capable of literal truth and falsity, about what I ought to do? Consider the following:

‘I ought to donate £5 per annum to Doctors Without Borders.’

30The decision of how much I ought to sacrifice, in the cases of Present Self vs. Future Self and Narrow Self vs. Extended Self, is typically made on a case-by-case basis (‘Shall I buy a new car or invest the money? Shall I allow my brother to live with me rent free this year?’). But the case-by-case basis is not practical when it comes to assessing the needs of Strangers, insofar as there are simply too many Strangers and too many cases, and I lack resources to make a measurable difference to more than a few causes. I would do better to decide how much of my time, effort, and money it would be reasonable to give to the entire class of Strangers, and then to pick and choose a limited number of causes from amongst those that are worthy and ignore the others. I could decide to give £5 to charity X but ignore the equally worthy charity Y, in the expectation that someone else will support charity Y but not charity X. This policy need not be inflexible in case I am suddenly moved by another appeal.

31But can my decision actually represent or fail to represent what I objectively speaking ought to do? Could my judgement that ‘I ought to give £5 per annum to Doctors Without Borders’ be false, whereas ‘I ought to give

32£20 per year to Save the Whales’ be true?

33I think it is plainly false that I ought to give £1,000,000 to Doctors Without Borders on behalf of Strangers, just as, in my earlier example of choosing a flat, it is plainly false that I should choose a superb flat that is guaranteed to bankrupt me and also plainly false that I should choose to live in a hovel just because it poses no financial risk to me whatsoever. However, just as I doubted that there was a single figure that produced a uniquely true statement when plugged for N into the sentence ‘I ought to spend £N pw on a flat,’ I doubt that there is a single figure that, when plugged into ‘I ought to give £N to Doctors Without Borders,’ makes the statement uniquely true. By contrast, the following statement seems susceptible of truth or falsity:

‘It would be reasonable for me under my own circumstances and those of the relevant Strangers to give about £5 per annum to Doctors Without Borders, and so I ought to do so.’

34as does:

‘I ought to give £5 per annum to Doctors Without Borders.’

35I am disposed, then, to regard the statements above as true.

36Further, I have established that I know quite a bit about what I ought to do and ought not to do in various circumstances. It is held by most philosophers that if I know that P, where P is some proposition, such as ‘Snow is white’ or ‘Tigers are carnivorous,’ it must be true that P, i.e. that snow is white and tigers are carnivorous. So it seems that there are some evaluative truths and that I know some of the ones there are. I have not determined, however, whether I can routinely evaluate actions, situations, events, and persons for their moral worth and whether I can come to know, in every morally significant situation, what I ought to do.

37Does it really make sense, I wonder, to think of some moral truths as known and others as waiting to be discovered, just as some scientific truths are already known, while others have yet to be discovered but some day will be? I think in this connection of aspects of reality that were once hidden from people. They did not know that oxygen was the principle of combustion, or that viruses were the cause of many diseases. Can aspects of moral reality be hidden from us now, as I am tempted to think they were hidden from our ancestors who chopped off people’s heads, held vast retinues of slaves, tortured animals for fun, and so on? To answer these questions, I think I ought to explore what might be involved in coming to change one’s moral practices and beliefs and what this might reveal about moral language and the relationship between moral statements and truths.

38It occurs to me in this connection that I still have not directly addressed the question of whether moral judgements merely reflect the likings and dislikings of the persons who make them. In that case, what I am calling ‘moral truths’ and instances of ‘moral knowledge’ are not truths about the world and other people, or knowledge of what is the case outside my own head. What should I now think of the Destroyers’ claim that ‘I ought to give £5 to Doctors Without Borders’ means ‘I like the idea of giving £5 to Doctors without borders?’ I think this question had better be settled before I proceed any further.

Notes

15 Kant offers an argument like this one in the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, IV: 423. He does not, however, frame it as a motivational argument directed to a selfish individual, but rather as a point of logic, insisting that it would be inconsistent for all members of a society to desire help when in need but to refuse to give it.

16 Thomas Hobbes attempted to show that fear, and a desire for security and long life, rather than love of humanity, could be the basis of social co-operation in Leviathan, Ch. XIV.

17 This is a popular rhetorical strategy employed by Plato, Cicero, and Kant.

18 An argument advanced by Thomas Nagel in The Possibility of Altruism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.

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