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On What Matters by Derek Parfit

James Alexander ponders Derek Parfit’s new work.

Most philosophers begin like mathematicians and end like historians: they begin intensively and end extensively. Sometimes their prose style improves: sometimes it worsens. Either way, there is usually some sacrifice of depth for breadth, of severity for generosity: old ideas, stones thrown into the water when young, are now seen to create ripples out across entire oceans. Philosophy, one hopes, is such that a philosopher may begin anywhere; but they should end by discussing the whole of sophia: everything in ontology and epistemology and ethics – what there is, what we know of what there is, and what we should do about it. As is clear from this book, Parfit’s achievement is to have avoided the strange places into which philosophers sometimes wander with age: the attic of incomprehensibility; the pasture of the history of philosophy; or the hilltop on which A.C. Grayling has constructed that most remarkable of follies, his eminently satirisable Good Book. Parfit here has abjured Grayling’s model of Biblical verse. He instead gives us argument, and plenty of it. In On What Matters he has done something I hope I am not alone in considering a great achievement: he has created a vast structure of philosophical argument which is remarkable for its clarity, persistence and charm.

Major Arguments

There are two major lines of argument in On What Matters. The first concerns the attempt to establish a universal theory of morality. This part of the book is likely to attract the most detailed criticism, since Parfit is convinced that he has reconciled almost every theory of morality – Bentham’s, Kant’s, Scanlon’s – into what he calls a ‘Triple Theory’. Parfit’s claim is that the difference between Kantians (duty ethicists) and Benthamites (utilitarians) is not fundamental. This is revolutionary, if true. Even if not true, it is to be welcomed as an attempt to get beyond endless discussions about whether rules (Kant) or consequences (Bentham) are more important when estimating the value of an act.

Parfit proposes this revised Kantian categorical imperative: ‘Everyone ought to follow the principles whose universal acceptance everyone could rationally will’. He sees no reason why this is not consistent with utilitarianism, arguing that “everyone ought to follow optimific principles, because these are the only principles that everyone could rationally will to be universal laws.” (‘Optimific’ means that “if everyone acted on these maxims, things would go in the ways that would be impartially best” (p.375).) Coming as the consummation of a vast array of arguments, Parfit’s eventual Triple Theory of morality is that “an act is wrong just when such acts are disallowed by some principle that is optimific, uniquely universally willable, and not reasonably rejectable.” (Vol. I, p.413)

This is as titanic a theory as one could hope for in the twenty-first century. The work itself is vast: an argument in two triads – one of reasons, principles and theories; and one of commentaries, responses and reflections on normativity (moral standards). Parfit says that the argument is found in Parts One, Three (Vol. I) and Six (Vol. II). Part Two is mostly a study of Kant – Parfit makes no bones about being far more interested in what can be taken from Kant than in what Kant can be supposed to have said. Parts Four and Five are the commentaries and responses which make up any ordinary set of Tanner lectures, from which the book is derived.

In his older book Reasons and Persons (1986), Parfit claimed that humanity has only begun to take ethical problems seriously in the last century or so, since the abandonment of theology. This brings us to the second major line of argument in his new book. This is less original, but perhaps of wider appeal to any public still interested in philosophy. This is Parfit’s defence of normative truths. One does not have to agree with what Parfit says about this to find that one’s sense of the territory of moral philosophy is clearer than before one read what Parfit has to say.

Ethical Positions

Parfit thinks that there are three major positions we can take about ethics. (I simplify somewhat, and quite possibly put the arguments in terms Parfit would reject.)

The first is that God exists, so what ‘ought to be [done]’ is what is commanded. The second is that God does not exist, and yet ‘what ought to be [done]’, because it is not the same as what is commanded, is still meaningful in the absence of what is commanded. The third is that God does not exist, and therefore ‘what ought to be [done]’, which is what is commanded, does not exist. There is only what is.

Parfit’s own position is a variant of the second: that an objective albeit Godless morality exists. Like many philosophers, Parfit supposes that ‘God exists’ is false; but although this disposes of the first position, it does not affect the third, Nietzschean, position. However, in his thirty-fifth chapter, Parfit argues that ‘what ought to be [done]’ is different from ‘what is commanded’. He ingeniously observes that Nietzsche and Schopenhauer used the German verb sollen both in sentences like ‘You should not kill’ (a moral truth) and for ‘Thou shalt not kill’ (a command). They also inherited from Christianity the sense that any statements about what we ‘ought’ to do are commands; and so, since they both thought that God does not exist, they derived from this the view that there is no one to issue commands, and therefore nothing is commanded. (Vol. II, pp.584-5.) Nietzsche’s famous assault on morality was therefore only an assault on what we are commanded to do, and not on what we ought to do. Since Parfit is interested in what we ought to do, this observation enables him to dismiss both the first and third positions, which equate ‘ought’ with ‘what is commanded’, without having to trouble about whether God exists or not.

This is only the beginning. For Parfit not only thinks that claims about ‘what ought to be done’ are meaningful; he thinks they are potentially true. Indeed, Parfit’s most serious philosophical antagonists are not those who believe in God and derive morality from Him, or those, like Nietzsche, who believe that the death of God deprives morality of all content. They are those who agree that what ought to be done is not the same as ‘what is commanded’, and yet differ about the status of what ought to be done. Many (or most) modern moral philosophers dare not claim that there is objective truth, and yet they want to avoid Nietzschean subjectivity (i.e., absolute relativism), so they avoid both by focusing on the structures that emerge out of intersubjectivity. That is, they erect bridges between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ using devices such as Rawls’ original position. Parfit is wholly opposed to this methodology. He admires Rawls, perhaps more than he should, but he is clear about the error involved in attempting to generate any sort of moral theory using contract, construction or deliberation. No doubt these means have their place in practical politics, but they do not generate ethical truths, just ethical compromises. And surely Parfit is right in indicating at rigorous length why he thinks such constructions are just houses of cards.

Parfit states the case against Political Theologians, against Nietzscheans, and against Kantian Constructivists as strongly as possible. His own position is unlike all of these in being resolutely impersonal. There is no privileged God, no privileged subject, and no intersubjective order emerging from the interaction of privileged subjects: there is, instead, an objective moral order. For Parfit this is an absolute presupposition: “If there were no such normative truths, nothing would matter, and we would have no reasons to try to decide how to live.” (Vol. II, p.619.) This view is what Parfit calls ‘Non-Metaphysical Non-Naturalist Normative Cognitivism’, or ‘Rationalism’ for short. It says that “there are some claims that are irreducibly normative in the reason-involving sense, and are in a strong sense true. These truths have no ontological implications.” (Vol. II. p.21.) This means, some ethical ideas are true, without being independently-existing things. This is about as far as one can go without metaphysics.

One can see why Parfit is so committed to his endeavour: he thinks a non-metaphysical philosophy is the only possible one for the modern world, and that a non-naturalist (non-science-based) philosophy is the only one which can prevent philosophy breaking into a thousand fragments. My own view is that it is possible to disagree with Parfit from almost every point of view – Political Theologian, Nietzschean or Kantian Constructivist – and yet rejoice in his habit of argument, not least because of the high levels of honesty and humour throughout.

In his Preface Parfit writes engagingly on Kant and Sidgwick. At worst, he says, the former is maddening, the latter boring. But he calls them his masters, and writes well about them. He also tells us that Kant is the least exact of the great thinkers. (To avoid provoking Hegelians, we should perhaps say ‘one of the least exact’.)

One gets the sense that Parfit enjoys reading other philosophers. In this vein he reminds me more of C.D. Broad than anyone else: there is the same generosity of spirit and enthusiasm for exact argument. The obvious failing is his disinclination to take ontology (the debate about what exists) seriously; for there is doubtless some sort of metaphysics in Parfit, even if a negative one, although he has not in this book taken further the interesting analogies he sketched in the past between his own ideas and those of Buddhism. I can only hope that one day he will say more about this.

© Dr James Alexander 2011

James Alexander teaches political philosophy at Bilkent University in Turkey.

On What Matters by Derek Parfit, ed. Samuel Sheffler, 2 vols, Oxford University Press, 2011, 1365 pages. ISBN 978-0199572809, £19.99 each.

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