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An Open Letter to a Vox Writer

To: David Roberts


I appreciate your recent two pieces on Vox concerning "rich jerks," which led you to a discussion of philosophical ethics, especially deontology versus teleology.

Allow me to add my own thoughts. At the bottom, I'll say a few words about sources but, for now, I'll ignore my sources to allow for a conversational flow akin to your own.

In meta-ethical terms, if I understand you, you seem to identify jerkiness with deontology, so non-jerkiness requires teleology. The classic example of means-regardless-of-ends deontology is of our alleged obligation to tell the truth even to a murderer about a potential victim in hiding. That particular example of supposed goodness would certainly seem jerky to the sorry fellow in hiding.

You also seem to identify teleology (non-jerkiness) with utilitarianism. Of course there is nothing inevitable about that. I'd like to bend your ear on that point for a few minutes.
The gist of my personal view is as follows:
1. What is right or wrong depends upon what is good (this of course is teleology);
2. There is a plurality (though perhaps only a short list) of inherent goods, directly known to us as such. The contemplation of a grand natural vista, for example. Yes, this is a pleasure, but it is not a good thing because it is a pleasure. We need not do any conceptual work to exclude a sadist's delight in punishing his neighbors from the same category as your delight in looking at distant mountains. They never have to belong in the same category in the first place if we rid ourselves of the utilitarian assumptions. Your delight in sublime vistas simply possesses the non-natural property of goodness;
3. Thus, our goal should be to maximize the morally good things, plural, in the world. Given this situation, it is perhaps no surprise that there is no easy answer as to how this might be done, as to which rules and institutions are best for doing it;
4. Indeed, much of human history may be considered as a vast experiment testing how to maximize good, and testing it precisely through the contention of contrary hypotheses as imperfectly embodied in institutions.   
5. Now we can get all crooked-timber about this. There is no right answer in this stage of human civilization. It may well never be the case that there will be a right answer, or if one has an apocalyptic imagination one can imagine that there will be an Ultimate when every moral demand has been satisfied, and the immoral demands will have been forgotten, when the only hypotheses around are those which are consistent with one another and which thrive in peace. But that is a distant dream.  Personally, when I try to conceive of that world, I think in anarchic terms. Still ...
6. Meanwhile in this world, we live each day to work within the inadequate institutions built by the centuries for reconciling demands, and we try to make them somewhat less inadequate as we go along.
How does this affect the points you made in your discussion? Simply in this way, I think that if one abandons the notion of a quantifiable single goal, happiness, replacing it with a lot of different goods, goodnesses, one loses in the process the idea that there is any one right answer to how things ought to be done  What is the best strategy to ensure the consistency of maximum incommensurate goodnesses? Assuming teleology doesn't help one here.
Also: and this is a related point -- is it a moral weakness that I care about some people more than others?  Consistent with utilitarianism, you appear to believe that this is a moral weakness, though an understandable and not especially blame-worthy one.  You share that opinion with many deontologists, as it happens.
Consider an individual I've never met who happens to be walking down Wylie Rd. in Hong Kong right now.  Call him Hu. I can't honestly say that I love Hu. By hypothesis we are strangers. Nor can I honestly say that I regret the fact that Hu's happiness means less to me as I live and work here in Massachusetts than my wife's happiness does. It seems to me a fallacy to propose that I should try to produce such an odd sort of delectation. 
The joy we derive from interpersonal intimacy is another one of those inherent goods, akin to the joy we get from sublime vistas. That joy is key to what teleologists should maximize, and that joy is inconsistent with the notion that I care as much for Hu as for her. One well-known "jerk" (on your typology) would say that she and Hu are both members of the "kingdom of ends," and that is what matters. Utilitarians say that what is important is simply that they both can feel pleasure or pain. From the point of view of certain non-utilitarian teleologies, though, both views rush too hastily to universalization.
It may well be for the best that institutions develop on a global scale that treat my wife and Hu just the same. It may well be for the best that I acquiesce in the development of those institutions. But that, if true, is a complicated matter of inference, not something we should build into our first premises.
I've gone on longer than I had planned. Sorry to bore you. I didn't mean to be argumentative and, for all I know from your argument, you may agree with all of this. Or some large part.
Here is the promised word about sourcing. FWIW, my personal view of meta-ethics owes a lot to G.E. Moore, and to what he called "ideal utilitarianism." Except that it doesn't seem to deserve the noun, whatever the adjective. It isn't utilitarianism, but another sort of teleology. Personally, I've combined this with the historical/progressive view of ethics expressed by William James in "A Moral Philosopher and a Moral Life," (points 3 and 4 above) with a dash of Isaiah Berlin's preference for foxes over hedgehogs (points 5 and 6).
In any case, enjoy your day.


  1. Christopher, why is contemplating a grand natural vista an inherently good thing if not because it is a pleasure?

  2. I don't think anyone not in the act of committing philosophy would question its goodness. My point is that the goodness of that event is sui generis and irreducible. That is, there is no answer to the question "why is it good?" and the fact that there is no answer need not bother us. There has to be a bottom turtle in any tower of turtles and the bottom turtle of moral philosophy may just be such facts as that.

    That it is pleasant is a fact about it, but not the terminative one. Likewise, (but separately) the fact that the contemplation may satisfy my desire -- I may have hiked an arduous path to get to that spot and see that sight -- is another fact about it.

    Which one of those two facts is more important, that it satisfies a desired or that it is hedonistically pleasant? Moore' implicit answer is that there is no need to choose between the two or to regard either of them as definitive of the goodness involved.

  3. It is possible that a person may be repulsed by grand natural vistas and is a masochist, so contemplating them satisfies his desires without being pleasurable to him. One could label a masochist's suffering as pleasurable from his point of view. But putting that aside, the unlikely scenario described in my first sentence would seem to be the only one in which the desire that one seeks to satisfy is other than the desire for pleasure. So perhaps the reason that there is no need to choose between them is that they are essentially the same.

  4. I don't know that there IS a "desire for pleasure." There is a desire to see what the Grand Canyon looks like, a desire for ice cream, and a desire for sexual relations. It is an act of questionable abstraction to call them a "desire for pleasure." Pleasure as such, may NEVER be the goal.


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