Sunday, October 30, 2011

Derek Parfit -- a few comments

The fundamental problem Parfit is going to have is the idea that there is some "objective" content to facts that yield proper beliefs and, from that, actions.  Facts, assuming they can be formulated in an objective way, which is not exactly a postmodern position, must then additionally yield objective implications.  Even those who believe in objective facts may have problems with the notion that there are objective moral implications.  Look, either there are or there aren't objective implications.  If there are, then they are valid for all people, irrespective of a person's cultural background etc..., if there aren't, then the interpretations of facts are culturally relative.  And this is assuming that the facts themselves have objective content.

Of course, these days people these days say that facts are "value-laden" -- this is a way of describing the cultural relativity in the depiction of the "objective" world itself.  The advantage of this view is that there is a connection between facts and values that is absent in the fact/value distinction cabal(like Hume).  The disadvantage is that facts are subjective to begin with and there is no objective base upon which to have values at all.

I have a strong feeling that Parfit is going to fail here...

Monday, October 24, 2011

Derek Parfit Chapter 1

Parfit starts with the following:
"We are the animals that can both understand and respond to reasons. Facts give us reasons when they count in favour of our having some belief or desire, or acting in some way."(pg.50)
I love this opening!  It summarizes a take on that which is distinctly human, that corresponds to our ability to do science as well as to consider ethics.  We move from facts to beliefs and from beliefs to rationality:
"Though it is facts that give us reasons, what we can rationally want or do depends instead on our beliefs."
Facts are already not something separate from beliefs and morality; they provide us with "reasons". (pg. 50) How can a fact provide us with reasons? Only if facts are already constructed by some reasoning faculty, perhaps.  Facts don't just hang out there neutrally.  If they did, nothing could be done with them; they cannot be said to 'count' for or against anything.

The notion that there is this gulf between facts and values is obviously something that Parfit has struggled with/against for a long time.  The only solution is that facts be defined in such a way that values can be derived from them.  This is, today, a rather unpopular, and seemingly naive position; clearly Parfit is not a simpleton, so I'm going to read on!

He distinguishes wonderfully between subjective and objective theories. Subjective theories have to do with facts about us, our desires. Against that we have "objective theories, we have reasons to act in some way only when, and because, what we are doing or trying to achieve is in some way good, or worth achieving.  Since these are facts about the objects of desires or aims, we can call such reasons object-given."
He then says, "We ought, I shall argue, to accept some value-based objective theory."(pg. 51)

I wish Parfit all the luck and hope he succeeds in defending an objective  theory.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Derek Parfit's raison d'becoming a philosopher

I love the following from the beginning of On What Matters:

"My debts to Sidgwick are easy to describe.  Of my reasons for becoming a graduate student in philosophy, one was the fact that, in wondering how to spend my life, I found it hard to decide what really matters.  I knew that philosophers tried to answer this question, and to become wise.  It was disappointing to find that most of the philosophers who taught me, or whom I was told to read, believed that the question 'What matters?' couldn't have a true answer, or didn't even make sense.  But I bought a second-hand copy of Sidgwick's book, and I found that he at least believed that some things matter"(pg. 41)

This makes me like Parfit a lot, maybe he and Sidgwick can convince me that something matters, that would be cool.

Derek Parfit entry 1

  I don't know too much about Derek Parfit yet but he seems to want to combine Kantianism and consequentialism, at least according to the introduction.  He also seems to think that the "Formula of Universal Law" can be saved in a form like "Everyone ought to follow the principles whose universal acceptance everyone could rationally will."(pg. 22) 

  Without having read the guts of Parfit's arguments I can say at the outset that I'm going to have difficulty accepting this kind of moral foundation.  I'm not convinced that I have to behave in a way that any "rational being" would will.  I don't think that there is a rational being, or anything such as rationally willing something.  Parfit has chapters on Nietzsche, and perhaps he deals with this issue, but I don't see how Parfit is going to be successful.  If I don't believe in rationality, and I don't believe in rationally willing anything, I don't see how I'm going to agree with Parfit.

In the introduction we find: "As Parfit acknowledges, his reliance on a primitive and "indefinable" notion of "reasons", and his concomitant commitment to the existence of irreducibly normative truths, both about reasons and about morality, makes his view a version of what Korsgaard has called "dogmatic rationalism".  As such, it would be resisted not only by Kantian constructivists like Korsgaard but also by proponents of some very different meta-ethical outlooks, such as various forms of naturalism and non-cognitivism"(pg. 25)
The introduction explains: "Naturalists hold that normative facts can be reduced to natrual facts.  Non-cognitivists hold that normative claims, despite their importance in human life, do not function as statements of fact at all."(pg. 26)

I suppose if I had to classify myself at the moment I'm some sort of naturalist.  It will take a lot for me to agree that there are irreducibly normative truths.  I'm too much of a nihilist to think there's truth at all half the time -- not all the time, just half the time.  But, I think the book holds a lot of interest.