Skip to main content

A Quote from Parfit

Recently  I wrote a little about ethicist Derek Parfit.

I've been doing further research on him since, and will now describe his Big Picture as I've come to understand it.

Parfit believes that the western world only started taking ethical philosophy seriously (as a domain separate from theology) around the time Nietzsche declared that God was dead. There are only three possibilities, in terms of the God/morality issue:

1) You believe that God exists and that His commands define morality
2) You deny that God exists and, like Nietzsche, infer from this that in the absence of commands there is no right or wrong, or
3) You deny that God exists yet persist in believing and attempting to discern right and wrong.

From a certain point of view there could be a fourth category, for people who believe that God exists but that His existence is irrelevant to morality, He doesn't issue commands at all, etc.  Still, from DP's perspective that sort of God is equivalent to No-God, and someone who holds to the existence of such a God must still fall into either (2) or (3) above.

Parfit places himself in category (3). But he finds himself in the company there of a lot of thinkers who see morality as "inter-subjective." I have my subjectivity, you have yours, we have to work together so we build bridges, and an inter-subjective, still not-quite objective, morality ensues. Parfit sees the work of John Rawls as typical of that approach. It is still what he calls as "subjective theory about reasons" in the passage I'm about to quote.

If that is 3(a), Parfit is 3(b).  H sees 3(a) as uncomfortably close to 2.

With that much context offered, I believe I'll give him this platform to say something. The floor is yours, DP.

"If we want some event as an end, but this event's intrinsic features give us strongly decisive reasons to want this event not to occur, our wanting this event is contrary to reason, and irrational. It would be irrational, for example, to prefer to have one hour of agony tomorrow rather than one minute of slight pain later today. These claims may seem too obvious to be worth making. But such claims are denied by some great philosophers, and they cannot be made by those who accept subjective theories about reasons."



Popular posts from this blog

England as a Raft?

In a lecture delivered in 1880, William James asked rhetorically, "Would England ... be the drifting raft she is now in European affairs if a Frederic the Great had inherited her throne instead of a Victoria, and if Messrs Bentham, Mill, Cobden, and Bright had all been born in Prussia?"

Beneath that, in a collection of such lectures later published under James' direction, was placed the footnote, "The reader will remember when this was written."

The suggestion of the bit about Bentham, Mill, etc. is that the utilitarians as a school helped render England ineffective as a European power, a drifting raft.

The footnote was added in 1897. So either James is suggesting that the baleful influence of Bentham, Mill etc wore off in the meantime or that he had over-estimated it.

Let's unpack this a bit.  What was happening in the period before 1880 that made England seem a drifting raft in European affairs, to a friendly though foreign observer (to the older brother…

Cancer Breakthrough

Hopeful news in recent days about an old and dear desideratum: a cure for cancer. Or at least for a cancer, and a nasty one at that.

The news comes about because investors in GlaxoSmithKline are greedy for profits, and has already inspired a bit of deregulation to boot. 

The FDA has paved the road for a speedy review of a new BCMA drug for multiple myeloma, essentially cancer of the bone marrow. This means that the US govt has removed some of the hurdles that would otherwise (by decision of the same govt) face a company trying to proceed with these trials expeditiously. 

This has been done because the Phase I clinical trial results have been very promising. The report I've seen indicates that details of these results will be shared with the world on Dec. 11 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology. 

The European Medicines Agency has also given priority treatment to the drug in question. 

GSK's website identifies the drug at issue as "GSK2857916," althou…

Francesco Orsi

I thought briefly that I had found a contemporary philosopher whose views on ethics and meta-ethics checked all four key boxes. An ally all down the line.

The four, as regular readers of this blog may remember, are: cognitivism, intuitionism, consequentialism, pluralism. These represent the views that, respectively: some ethical judgments constitute knowledge; one important source for this knowledge consists of quasi-sensory non-inferential primary recognitions ("intuitions"); the right is logically dependent upon the good; and there exists an irreducible plurality of good.

Francesco Orsi seemed to believe all of these propositions. Here's his website and a link to one relevant paper:

What was better: Orsi is a young man. Born in 1980. A damned child! Has no memories of the age of disco!

So I emailed him asking if I was right that he believed all of those things. His answer: three out of …