The School of Athens
Raphael’s ‘The School of Athens’ (1510)

Together weighing 2kg, or just under 5lb, these two colossal volumes represent many years of work by one of the most influential moral philosophers of our time. They have been long in the making: it is more than 25 years since Derek Parfit impressed the world with Reasons and Persons, a work that made his reputation and firmly ensconced him behind the walls of All Souls, Oxford.

The intervening years have seen very little more. But Parfit has not entirely secluded himself: in the acknowledgements he lists some 260, by my count, other philosophers who, he says, have helped him.

So is this, as it has been described, the most significant contribution to moral philosophy for well over a century? Or is it a monument to a misdirected programme? Like most work on moral philosophy, On What Matters is divided between two distinct areas. There are theories within ethics, telling us what our values should be or what the contours of our rights and duties are. These are theories in what is known as first-order moral philosophy. Its aim has often been to reduce the teeming plurality of rights and duties, obligations and benefits to some kind of order. At the limit there might be either a small number of principles or even one unique principle, from which everything else could be derived. Hence we find suggestions such as the Golden Rule, John Stuart Mill’s principle of maximising utility, or Kant’s categorical imperative. But we also find writers such as Isaiah Berlin or Bernard Williams, who mistrust all this tidiness and insist, instead, on the irreducible plurality of virtues or the inevitability of insoluble dilemmas as different obligations conflict and jar against each other. Classical tragedy is especially concerned with such conflicts and their insoluble nature.

The other branch of the subject consists of second-order theories, telling us something about the status of first-order pronouncements. In this area, often called meta-ethics, notions such as objectivity, knowledge, truth, proof, and reason are used to debate the nature of first-order claims. If I pronounce, for example, that vanity is a sin, could my remark count as objective and perhaps true, or even known to be true, by the light of reason? This is Parfit’s view, rationalism. Or am I more in the business of expressing an attitude or encouraging a sentiment of disapprobation of vanity, voicing a stance rather than describing a fact?

This is the view held by philosophers from Augustine to Hobbes, Hume, and Adam Smith. It is also the view implicit in a huge amount of fascinating work on actual decision-making that draws on cognitive science, neurophysiology, evolutionary psychology and other disciplines.

This has exploded in recent years, with writers such as Antonio Damasio, Jonathan Haidt, Jesse Prinz, Joshua Greene, Pat Churchland, and others showing, in illuminating detail, how we actually work.

The battle between rationalism and its more emotional competitor may sound to be only of academic interest but it spills into the real world. Rationalism more readily consorts with absolutism, with untroubled conviction that our own moral views are uniquely correct, so that other cultures that do not share them are defective, sunk in unreason, irrational and, perhaps after all, best governed by us. It is the view of a mandarin class and, in international politics, a colonial or imperial view. Its particular horror is the “relativism” that it associates with the alternative: the idea that our morality is just the haphazard creature of our particular culture, upbringing, emotional make-up, or prejudice.

Out in the world of politics, perhaps the most dangerous people of all are those self-righteously confident that reason alone determines their courses but whose actual motivations are made up from the turbulent stew of their own emotional natures. Tyrants and democratic politicians alike claim the mantle of reason when, in actuality, ambition, narcissism, vanity and lack of imagination propel their courses. One can think of cases in recent British history.

Parfit is an unashamed rationalist. “We are the animals that can both understand and respond to reasons,” he says in the first sentence of the book, launching his attempt to demonstrate that those who side with Hobbes or Hume cannot do justice to this fact. The stick he uses to beat what he condescendingly calls “these people” is that reasons are “object-given”, that is, they exist in virtue of the properties of the things said to give reasons. So far so good: that there is a bull in a field might be a nice solid fact, and one that gives some of us a reason to detour around it. But now, the argument continues, the reason, being object-given, would exist whether we are aware of it or not, or whether we respond to it or not. Parfit contrasts this with “subject-given” views in which reasons exist only in the light of our desires, as Augustine said. As the work unfolds the objectivity and independence of reasons from mere human desires and preferences are ever more firmly asserted, with Hume and others banished from any kind of commerce with these “object-given” reasons, Parfit’s own private hunting preserve.

It’s a very idiosyncratic way of drawing the battle lines, so much so that vice-chancellors bent on finding excuses to close philosophy departments must be rubbing their hands if not one of Parfit’s 260 helpers smelled a rat in it. Philosophers do say funny things but none that I can call to mind has ever denied that we respond to facts about objects, such as the bull in the field, when we decide what to do.

Nor have they doubted that if we get those facts wrong, our decisions and desires are likely to be worse. If it wasn’t a bull but a cow, the arduous detour was unnecessary. What Hume and others have said is that to take the bull’s presence as a reason for going around the field is, indeed, to go beyond merely perceiving it, that doing so will depend upon some profile of fear and desire, and that this profile is not simply given by anything like our capacity for such things as mathematics and logic. This is the point of Hume’s famously provocative remark that reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions.

Parfit does notice that Hume happily uses the word “reasonable” as a term of praise and peppers all his works with it, talking happily of reasonable precautions, demands, policies, traits and feelings. He uncharitably supposes that Hume constantly forgot his own theory. But there is no forgetfulness and no inconsistency. The section of his Treatise in which the remark comes is called “Of the Influencing Motives of the Will”. It is about the explanation of choice and action, not about praise or blame. When he turns to those Hume can, indeed, happily go on to commend all kinds of things as reasonable or to criticise them as unreasonable. A person who fills with rage when overtaken on the motorway is unreasonable, but it is his passions and temperament that are at fault, not his awareness of the road nor his capacity for logic.

When he turns from this disastrous engagement with the Humean tradition to first-order ethics, Parfit is on less shaky ground. His aim is to find a reconciliation between two philosophies that are often opposed: one that talks of costs and benefits, utilitarianism, and one that talks of rigid duties and principles, Kantianism. Such reconciliation has also been the aim of many other philosophers, notably Mill and RM Hare. From the Kantian tradition Parfit draws the idea of principles that could be universally willed. From distinguished modern followers of Kant, such as Thomas Scanlon, he draws the idea of principles that nobody could reasonably reject. As Hegel noticed shortly after Kant wrote, such abstract formulae need a great deal of filling out, so from the utilitarian tradition Parfit 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”.

The image, then, is of a unique principle from which we can deduce which actions are wrong, thereby revealing the one true morality. Parfit is assiduous, obsessive even, in pitting his principle against an exhausting variety of thought experiments designed to test which answer it is right to give in various circumstances. A strange aspect of this approach is that it is entirely modelled on the judicial problem of coming to a verdict: was this something that it was permissible to do? Legal verdicts matter: they have consequences attached to them. Yet these volumes offer no explanation why the moral verdict, and the scholastic apparatus necessary to deduce it, similarly matter to anyone. Suppose someone says: “OK, you can deduce from your principle that I did wrong. So what?” Moral emotions, such as a sense of honour, self-respect, pride, guilt, or shame must be recruited to add some motivational pushes, but then we are back in the world of Hume and Smith, and the rationalism supposed to go beyond them has been nothing but a mirage, a fifth wheel.

The classical traditions in moral philosophy, and the great philosophers who followed it, see the subject very differently. In the Aristotelian and Ciceronian view, what matters is the character of the agent, and the virtues that make it up. Yet “character” is a word that does not appear in the index to either of these volumes, presumably because it has no more to do with the rationalist aim of proving theorems about eternal reasons than do emotion or desire.

It is actually contestable to what extent a virtuous character will be structured by hard-and-fast principles. A well-tuned sense of shame or necessity, and with it a well-tuned sensitivity to the needs of others, go a long way before any such principles loom into view. A sense of what will do and what will not, exercised on individual real, messy, human cases, and refined through education, experience, imagination, and sympathy, might never result in any urge to codify everything.

Any principles that might in some way summarise or assist the work of practical reasoning are likely to be provisional, liable to exceptions and qualifications without end, and to require interpretation, judgment and tact in their application.

Parfit is of a different temperament. “It would be a tragedy,” he tells us on the second page, “if there is no single true morality.” Well, as tragedies go, this one seems quite supportable. Often the messy pluralities of conflicting moral demands – one might have said, the conflicting demands on human life itself – are part of the cause. But none of that implies that “anything goes”. Human life imposes demands on all of us. When people fall short, it may be our contingent, culturally formed natures that make us feel aversion to them but the aversion is real enough. And we endlessly discuss and modify and rearrange the pieces on the moral board: in our own time, attitudes to homosexuality, equality, race, gender, and childhood have all changed for the better. Others, such as our attitudes to greed and wealth may have gone into a trough but, perhaps, there are welcome signs of recovery.

Simon Blackburn is the Bertrand Russell professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge and a distinguished research professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His most recent book is ‘Practical Tortoise Raising and Other Philosophical Essays’ (OUP)

On What Matters: Volumes I & II, by Derek Parfit, OUP, RRP£30, 1,440 pages

Get alerts on Books when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article