Monday, 6 June 2011

Derek Parfit and What Matters

Derek Parfit's book On What Matters has been published and threatens to become an instant philosophical classic. The work is enormous in scope and range covering, as it promises, the theory of reasons, a description of principles, a general account of moral theories and an account of normativity. In addition the work also contains a series of responses to Parfit's work from a set of commentators as well as Parfit's responses to these commentators.

Parfit's book is the product of many years work and is more than simply the follow-up to his earlier Reasons and Persons. On What Matters originated as a series of lectures and the lecture version is available on-line in an extended PDF. Subsequent to the giving of the lectures, an initial version of the manuscript circulated under the title "Climbing the Mountain" which is available courtesy of Pea Soup. There is also a substantially longer draft from 2008 freely available on-line. So in some respects the build-up to the publication of On What Matters has been intense and engaged moral philosophers for sometime. Indeed Pea Soup ran a reading group on one of the earlier versions of the manuscript. The response of commentators now published as Part 4 in Volume 2 also was part of initial responses to the Tanner Lectures of 2002. All told, then, the textual network surrounding On What Matters is very dense and complicates further the reading of a work which is, given both its length and breadth, difficult enough to engage with.

Nonetheless, such an engagement will be attempted on this blog. It will involve a certain amount of looking back at the earlier versions of the manuscript by contrast with the final published version and some reaction to other commentaries on Parfit's book. Like many others I was included in those to whom earlier versions of the manuscript were sent and, I have to confess, I failed to respond at that point, due to the usual reasons of lack of time and distraction by other tasks. However, the publication of On What Matters is surely a seminal event in contemporary moral philosophy since in the work Parfit attempts a task few others have deemed either desirable or possible. In the rest of this posting I hope to outline some of what that task appears, at least initially, to consist in, by reference to the "Introduction" to the work provided by Samuel Scheffler who also edited the final production.

Scheffler opens his "Introduction" by pointing out that it is standard in courses on moral theory to open by arguing for a deep divide between consequentialists and Kantians, on the grounds that the former believe the rightness of an act to derive entirely from its consequences whilst Kantians, by contrast, are taken to be deontologists who argue that there are certain acts that are right regardless of consequences. This divide is one that I have subjected myself to critical scrutiny on previous occasions and which has been subjected to at least one serious challenge in the work of David Cummiskey. Noticeably, however, although Cummiskey's book is listed in the bibliography of On What Matters, his name does not feature in the index suggesting that this attempt to challenge the distinction between "Kantian" ethics and consequentialism is not influential on Parfit's view, or, at least, not so in any manner Parfit thought merited discussion.

This aside Scheffler's point is to suggest that Parfit does wish to challenge this "received view" of moral theory that rests on an assumption of a divide between consequentialism and "Kantian" views. This clearly also requires Parfit to extensively engage with Kant and "Kantian" views which is one of the major reasons why it is important to address the positions Parfit advances in On What Matters and attendant texts. Parfit himself does not claim, however, to be a "Kantian" (unlike Cummiskey). Rather, he advances a view of Kant that is meant to determine a way of assessing which of Kant's ideas can be meaningfully made use of in moral philosophy.

Scheffler makes clear, however, at least one immediately surprising and potentially welcome feature of Parfit's response to Kant which concerns the way Parfit views the Formula of Universal Law (FUL) of the categorical imperative. Unlike many contemporary "Kantians" Parfit wishes to articulate a favourable view of FUL, albeit after revising it in certain key ways. The revision of FUL reads: "Everyone ought to follow the principles whose universal acceptance everyone could rationally will" which formulation ensures a lot turns on the conception of rational willing involved. Parfit's change in the formula is also intended to relate Kant to Tom Scanlon, a relation that is far from obvious either to Kantians or to Scanlon (as is evident from Scanlon's response in Volume 2, entitled "How I Am Not A Kantian"). 

The formulation of FUL is also related to a revised conception of rule consequentialism that Parfit suggests on which it would articulate the view that we should follow the principles which, if universally accepted, would make things go best. The relationship between this rule consequentialism and Kantian views is articulated in an interesting way by Scheffler: "Although this position is consequentialist in the content of its claims about the principles that people ought to follow, it is more Kantian than consequentialist in its account of why we should follow these principles" (my emphases).

Scheffler's articulation of the relationship between rule consequentialism and Kantianism in Parfit's formulations brings out that Parfit appears to want from Kant a theory of moral motivation or perhaps a moral psychology. By contrast, the "content" of his principle is meant to be consequentialist. This combination is certainly unexpected and, coupled with the earlier connection suggested between Kant and Scanlon, leads to a Parfitian "triple theory" of wrong that relates criteria of optimificality, universality and reasonable rejection together. At this point it becomes clear that a key substantive innovation of On What Matters is its syncretic approach to substantive claims in moral theory. As earlier suggested, it also indicates a lot rides on the view of rationality that Parfit presents.

Just as the attempt to recover the FUL is a surprisingly welcome element of Parfit's endeavour so also is a key implication of his view of reasons, namely, a profound hostility to subjectivist views of ethics (a hostility that appears to have also influenced Peter Singer). However, the other side of this welcome hostility to subjectivist accounts of ethics is the articulation of an objectivist view of ethics that must thus have serious problems with the Kantian stress on autonomy. This side of Parfit's view seems thus to have more in common with the conceptions of G.E. Moore than with Kant (though, again, I state this simply as a response to Scheffler's articulation of Parfit's view, not yet as a response to the detail of what Parfit writes).

Interestingly, accompanying Parfit's syncretic approach to moral theory is a strong form of meta-ethics that is far from syncretic. This is pointed up by Scheffler as a potential source of problem for the reception of Parfit's views. It also raises the general problem of how far removed Parfit's sympathetic readings of different traditions are from the claims made by those who situate themselves within these traditions. Parfit seems to wish to be understood as having, in a general sense, a "Kantian" moral theory despite rejecting claims of Kant's that might be thought to be of decisive importance for those who have previously taken themselves to be "Kantians". 

Scheffler articulates the general point of Parfit's account as being "the drive to eliminate disagreement", a drive based on his general attachment to the view that there is a single true morality. The attempt to bring different traditions together is not one that should in itself be resisted if we can thereby get at "what matters" but if what is produced thereby leaves out something that strikes one as indeed "mattering" then there could well be some grounds for reservations about the general position Parfit articulates. In any case, this point is held here in reserve as the reading of On What Matters begins on this blog.

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