Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"On What Matters"


Here is a review in The New Republic of Oxford Philosopher Derek Parfitt's huge new book on ethics, On What Matters: Volume I. I doubt I am going to get round to reading the book in the foreseeable future, but I enjoyed the review by a Columbia professor, Phillip Kitcher. 


Parfitt, he says, wants to find mechanical principles, a "triple theory" that will effectively unite consequentialism, Kantianism and contractualism.


Owing to his fondness for thinking of ethical theory as analogous to theories in areas of the sciences, Parfit often writes as if the goal of the enterprise is to produce a collection of principles that could be more or less mechanically applied to ethical decision-making


The reviewer questions one can derive a supreme ethical principle by looking at artificially constructed "puzzle cases." Real life seldom involves judgements on whether to throw a fat person from a bridge in order to save the lives of five people bound to railroad tracks below (one of Parfitt's puzzle cases). Instead, says Kitcher,

 The great ethical theorists ... are those who supply resources for human decisions—collective human decisions—directed at problem-solving.


 So, he says, the aim of Parfitt's work is misguided.


 Its diligence and its honesty command respect. Perhaps these real virtues will set standards for very different ventures in academic ethics, Naturalist or otherwise—for a return to the tradition of attempts to understand and improve everyday judgment, and to provide resources for people and policymakers everywhere. In the end, that is what matters.

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