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April 2, 2012 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Philosoraptor Declares Your Love To Be Impure

It’s great to have someone special in your life. It feels nice. And almost all of us don’t have to feel the pain and heartache of being forever alone eating 2-minute noodles over a personal candlelight. This is because the phenomenon of love figures large in human lives, and much more broadly than the kind of eroticised and/or romantic love that is valorised on awesome shows like Shortland Street.

I mean the kind of love that we have towards our parents, friends, flatmates, pets and smartphones–that which gives us an attachment to them and disposes us to treat them with a degree of devotion that we don’t extend to everyone else. But we don’t just love randomly. Most of us would say that we in fact have good reason to direct love towards the people we
do. Maybe its because they make us happy, or because we are grateful for what they’ve done for us in the past, or because we think the world would be a better place if people were just more loving and stuff.

So now let’s stop and do a thought experiment. It’s somewhat grizzly. Imagine that you are at the end of a pier and two people are drowning out in the sea. You realise that you can save only one of them in time. But one is person you love dearly, and the other is just some random. Who do you save? Bernard Williams, the rascal who devised this scenario, takes it for granted that most people would save their loved one and in fact we’d consider it pretty dodgy if they chose not to. But he wants to explore what would run through our minds as we made this decision. Presumably, he argues, we would be motivated to save them by thinking about the reasons why we love them and using those to justify our decision to let the other person die. But Williams famously claims that this may involve us engaging in “one thought too many” in our moral decision making. By this he means that we ought to be justified in saving our special friends just because we love them, and nothing more need enter our deliberations.

This example has been the starting point for many debates within moral philosophy about the extent to which our lives are really governed by the impartial norms that we like to think they are. We all tend to claim that we live our lives by general maxims like ‘do no harm’ or ‘be nice to those who are nice to you’. But it seems like when we really explore love, there is something going on within human psychology that is in deep conflict with impersonal platitudes like these. The challenge seems to be that some of our most important human relationships can’t be explained by our most popular ethical theories. You just know that things gon’ get wild in the ivory towers when this happens. Of course the alternative is just to make sure you always swim between the flags at the beach. They are there for a reason, folks.


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