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Morality and Hot Mud

Arnold Zuboff replies to his critics.

My article ‘Why Should I Be Moral?’ (in Issue 31 of Philosophy Now) has been criticised on the basis of questions raised concerning the value of a life in the letters of both Richard Taylor (in Issue 32) and Michael Graubart (in Issue 34). I would like to try to address these criticisms by adding a certain something to what I said in the article. But first I must describe what is already in it.

In the article I explain that I have often interviewed applicants to our department by asking them to give advice to a fictional character named Gyges. Gyges knows that he will receive £10 if, and only if, he pushes a button and therein brings about the killing of a distant stranger. The point of the story is to test whether Gyges can be given a reason not to push the button that is somehow based merely on the moral wrongness of doing so. Accordingly, to try to isolate such purely moral motivation, I seek to eliminate from the story any reason not to push the button that depends on the sort of self-interest that is often contrasted with moral motivation. Thus we stipulate at the start that Gyges knows he is completely cushioned from the possibility of being punished by any other human hand. And when those I am interviewing try to offer reasons for not pushing the button that are really just further appeals to self-interest, like a fear of God’s punishment or of a future with a guilty conscience, I blow the whistle and eliminate such influences from the story as well. So we stipulate that Gyges has a deal with God, who will turn a blind eye as to whether he pushes the button. And Gyges can also know that he will never suffer any pangs of conscience, since there is a fail-proof hypnotist standing by who will instantly hypnotise him into thinking that in pushing the button he had saved a life and then been given the £10 as a reward (though at that stage unknown to Gyges the stranger will be dead).

Besides going wrong by sneaking in appeals like this to self-interest, an interviewee will often make a reply that indeed does seem to invoke the appropriate moral motivation but without explaining how this actually does supply Gyges with any reason not to push the button. “Pushing the button would be morally bad.” I reply on Gyges’ behalf to such an assertion that Gyges agrees fully with it but that he still needs to be told how being morally bad is somehow being bad for Gyges. Gyges says, through me, that he understands well enough how his pushing the button would be bad for the stranger – he will lose his life. But how does that being bad for the stranger somehow waft over in Gyges’ direction and become something bad for Gyges as well? After all, Gyges will only gain if he pushes the button and will only lose if he does not.

It is after I make this particular point, on p.25, that I would wish now to insert something like the following passage: “An interviewee will sometimes say that the enormous value to the stranger that the rest of his life is likely to have, and perhaps also the value of his continuing to live for the stranger’s family and friends, can be presented to Gyges as giving him a reason not to push the button – especially when in pushing it Gyges would be gaining only the relatively microscopic value of £10. Gyges replies to this that he completely agrees that the value of the stranger’s life for the stranger would be likely by far to outweigh the value to Gyges of getting £10. Yet, Gyges asks, how is such value for the stranger to be counted as any value at all for him, for Gyges? The value of the £10 isn’t much, but its value would be value for Gyges. And, if the enormous value of the stranger’s life cannot be counted as any value at all for Gyges, then how can that value in itself give Gyges any reason to be acting with regard to it?” (Later I discuss how sympathy could provide Gyges with such a reason. But that isn’t the right sort of motive because it depends on whether Gyges happens to feel sympathetic; it has none of the authority of morality.)

The quoted passage would represent more explicitly than anything now in the article the sort of problem for moral motivation raised by both Richard Taylor and Michael Graubart as I understand them. And now I would like to explain how the justification of morality with which the article ends can be seen to include the solution to this problem.

Finally I tell the interviewee that I believe I have a way of giving Gyges the sort of reason not to push the button that we have been looking for. Consider, I say, a situation in which I want to drink a thick brown steaming liquid in a nearby mug. I want to drink that stuff because I believe that it is hot chocolate and I like hot chocolate. But really it is hot mud. In a sense, of course, it is true to say that I do desire to drink that stuff even though I am crucially wrong about what doing so will be like. Yet at the same time that desire could be labelled as mistaken or as merely apparent. We could say that I don’t really desire to be drinking that stuff. I have no real reason to be drinking it, and it is not in my real self-interest to be doing so. Meditation on this case can send us down a rather surprising path of reasoning, as follows:

Every desire necessarily depends on belief about the object of desire. (I want to drink the stuff because I believe it is hot chocolate – and because I believe that hot chocolate has that nice taste I remember it having.) Every desire is therefore correctable along with the belief on which it depends. (My desire to drink that particular stuff is mistaken, is merely apparent. I have no real desire to drink mud – though I’d still like to drink some chocolate.)

Now comes a very sweeping principle that I think is unavoidable based on the preceding. The only things I really desire are those that I would be desiring if I had a perfect grasp of everything involved. If there is something I desire only because my grasp of what it involves is less than perfect, then it is not something that I really desire. Then it is not something I have a real reason to pursue and it would not be in my real self-interest if I got it.

All that remains in my argument is to show that what would be wanted in anyone’s hypothetical perfect grasp, that is, what anyone really desires, agrees pretty well with what we think of morality as actually requiring of us. And what would be wanted in a perfect grasp, surely, would indeed be the kind of reconciliation of all interests (as these themselves would be corrected in the perfect grasp) that is the concern of morality. Showing this, I maintain, closes for us an illusory gap that has dominated reasoning about moral motivation, the false gap between what an individual wants and what is morally right.

What Gyges really wants to do in relation to that button is what he would want if he grasped perfectly not just whatever consequences there would be in his own experience if he either received or failed to receive another £10 – just what all this would be like from the inside – but also, from the inside, the (likely immense) full reality of the stranger’s life that would be snuffed out to get that £10 into Gyges’ pocket. A perfect grasp that discovered what Gyges really wanted to do would have to contain a perfect experience of all the value in that life. In a couple of sentences toward the end of my article, which would have resonated better had I introduced earlier that passage about the value of the stranger’s life seeming to be value merely for the stranger and not for Gyges, I say, “And even from the actual, limited perspective of Gyges, he may easily calculate the overwhelming likelihood that a perfect grasp would reveal an immeasurably greater value in the life. That life isn’t Gyges’ life, but in the perfect grasp of things that must define what Gyges really wants, all lives are equally included.” So Michael Graubart is wrong when in his letter he suggests that there are only two ways that the stranger’s life could be thought to have motivating value for Gyges even in a perfect grasp of things – either 1) because of its value for Gyges himself, by which, however, it turns out that he still just means what I have described as the apparent value of the stranger’s life for Gyges, and not at all its real value for Gyges as defined by his hypothetical perfect grasp of things or 2) because of its value for ‘all humanity.’ Now, I have carefully removed from the story through my stipulations any value of the first sort, that is, any narrowly-conceived self-interested value for Gyges of the stranger’s life. And I can’t see why Michael Graubart, having missed, as it seems, the point of the perfect grasp as representing the real desires of Gyges, would think that Gyges would be impressed by some extravagant appeal to a value for all humanity (once we had ruled out an interest in his own personal share in such a value, as supplying the wrong sort of self-interested motivation). Anyway, we don’t have to look that far for a source of the value of a life.

No, the primary value of a life is usually its value for the one possessing it. And that is a value that would be registering fully in Gyges’ hypothetical perfect grasp of all that was involved in his decision about pressing the button, the grasp that defines what he really wants to be doing.

For a sustained defense of the claim that values for others could not be in any way discounted in a consideration of what one would want in a perfect grasp, see the much fuller exposition of this view of morality in my paper ‘Morality As What One Really Desires’ (Midwest Studies, Volume 20, 1995).

© Arnold Zuboff 2002

Arnold Zuboff is a lecturer in philosophy at University College London.

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