Saturday, August 06, 2011

First impressions are best

Simon Blackburn reviewed Derek Parfit's new book on ethics for the FT. But they rejected it, so he posted his review online. Now a revised version has been published in the FT, and you can compare the two if you like. Some losses from the published version:
Thus after four hundred pages, Parfit roundly forbids Humeans even from saying that when we are forming desires or plans, our standpoint would be improved if we knew more of the relevant facts about the environment, such as it’s not being a bull but a cow. Silly old Hume.

In fact, Humeans must say that there are no reasons for anything--nothing matters. They are rank nihilists! Nicely illustrating how to combine poverty of imagination with vulgarity of tone, one of the commentators included here, Allen Wood, describes them as ‘either radically defective specimens of humanity who are incapable of feeling respect for anyone or anything, or else every time they do feel it they commit themselves to contradicting their own metaethical theories’. Golly. * * *

When he turns from this shipwreck to first-order ethics, Parfit’s aim is to find a reconciliation between two philosophies that are often opposed: utilitarianism and Kantianism. This has also been the aim of many other philosophers, notably J. S. Mill, and R. M. Hare. From the Kantian tradition Parfit draws the idea of principles that could be universally willed. From distinguished modern followers of Kant, such as Rawls, and especially Thomas Scanlon, he draws the idea of principles that nobody could reasonably reject. Such abstract formulae need a great deal of filling out, so from the utilitarian tradition he draws the idea of principle whose universal acceptance would make things go best. Putting all these together we get that ‘an act is wrong just when such acts are disallowed by some principle that is optimific, uniquely universally willable, and not reasonably rejectable’. There are scholarly questions, some of which are pursued by the four commentators, of the extent to which this formula is a true offspring of either Kant or utilitarians, such as Mill. But the fidelity to both traditions, or to previous reconciling attempts, is not Parfit’s prime interest. Instead, with relentless, indeed obsessive, concentration he steers his principle through such urgent questions as whether we ought to send a lifeboat that can only make one trip to a rock where it can pick up five people rather than to a rock where there is only one, or whether a fat man might reasonably object to being pushed off a bridge to stop a trolley hurtling towards five others. * * *

Parfit is of a different temperament. ‘It would be a tragedy’ he tells us on page 2, ‘if there is no single true morality’. Well, outside the charmed walls of All Souls College, there actually are tragedies. Often the messy pluralities of conflicting moral demands—one might have said, the conflicting demands on human life itself—are part of the cause. Inside the charmed walls I fear that the tragedy is more like that of Ajax slaying sheep, or perhaps it is the comedy of Don Quixote tilting at windmills.
Probably best not invite the two of them to the same party for a year or two. And even better, don't invite Allen Wood, period -- sounds like a downer.

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