Practice Makes Parfit

  • May 12, 2023
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Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality
by David Edmonds
Princeton, 2023; xx + 380 pp.

The British philosopher Derek Parfit ranks as one of the most influential moral philosophers of the past century. But as David Edmonds says in his outstanding biography of him, Parfit was a “philosopher’s philosopher” who did not write for the general public. Edmonds, who has a gift for explaining difficult ideas simply, has made Parfit’s ideas accessible to a wide audience. You might ask, why has he done so as a biography, rather than as a guidebook confined to Parfit’s thought? The answer is that Parfit was one of the great British eccentrics—in the opinion of his student and friend Ruth Chang, “probably the strangest person” she knew, and the book is filled with anecdotes about him. I don’t propose in what follows to talk about his life, but here is one example. As he grew older, Parfit devoted more and more of his time to philosophy, to the point that he could talk of little else. It was of vital importance to him to convince people that morality is objective—that moral judgments are true or false, not mere expressions of preference.

At Harvard in 2010, when he gave a class . . . he became visibly anguished when not all the students were convinced by his arguments about the objectivity of ethics. At one point, he fell to his knees, virtually pleading with the class; “Don’t you see? If morality isn’t objective, our lives are meaningless.”

Parfit was far from being a libertarian, but there are some aspects of his thought that libertarians will find congenial. Like most libertarians, he was highly critical of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, which Parfit thought overrated, and he raised interesting criticisms of the famous “difference principle,” which requires that departures from the baseline of equality in wealth and income be to the advantage of the least well-off class in society. Parfit wasn’t convinced. Rawls was a contractualist who

believe[d] that the principles of morality are those that would be agreed upon if they were discussed under certain ideal conditions . . . [A]ccording to Rawls, the ideal conditions require “a veil of ignorance.” We are to imagine that we don’t know who we are—how well off we are, whether we are male or female, what our values and interest are.

Parfit had trenchant criticisms both of the way Rawls framed the veil of ignorance and of the judgements that he claimed would be made under its conditions. . . . Even if we accepted Rawls’s somewhat arbitrary set-up, it did not follow that we should adopt a principle of always benefiting the least well-off. Suppose we had to choose how to use some scarce medical resources. In one possibility, Mrs. Green lives to the age of twenty-five and a thousand people live to eighty. In another, Mrs. Green lives to be twenty-six and a thousand people live to be thirty. According to Rawls, we should opt for the second policy. Parfit thought it obvious that we should select the first.

But Parfit went beyond challenging the difference principle. Putting himself at odds with a great deal of mainstream thinking in political philosophy, he challenged the baseline of equality from which Rawls started.

Parfit pointed out a simple but devastating objection to the claim that equality is intrinsically valuable. He labelled it the “Levelling Down Objection.” Some people are blind. Would the world be a better place, at least in one way, if we slipped some chemical in the water that made everyone blind? Of course, there would be multiple reasons why this would be a monstrous act; surely every decent person must agree that it would be a horrific thing to do. Parfit is not asking whether we should make everyone blind. . . . Parfit’s question is whether, nonetheless, its use would be in any way welcome, in that it would at least produce greater equality. . . . This seems an absurd claim. . . . If Parfit is right about the force of the Levelling Down Objection, then nobody should endorse equality as a value with intrinsic significance—though it may have an instrumental rationale.

I’ll close with one more point Parfit raised that is of great use in contemporary controversies, though it must be said that he deplored the use to which I’ll be putting it. Nowadays, there are constant claims from members of various groups that they are entitled to compensation because of the bad treatment of their ancestors. Parfit pointed out that in many cases, the persons who want compensation wouldn’t be alive at all had their ancestors fared better. For example, suppose that slavery had never existed in America. In that case, the enslaved ancestors of those alive today would probably have never met, and in that “possible world,” the person now claiming compensation wouldn’t exist. Doesn’t this make the claim for compensation odd?

Here is an example that may make Parfit’s point clearer. A woman with German measles is told by her doctor that if she doesn’t delay her pregnancy, her baby will be injured. She refuses to delay it, and as a result, the baby is born with certain birth defects. Had she waited, the baby who would then have been born would have been healthy—but it would have been another person.

Parfit called this the nonidentity problem.

One of Parfit’s most important achievements was to identify a new problem: the Non-Identity Problem. After he spotted it and applied his usual rigour to drawing out its implications, it became impossible to view crucial aspects of morality in the same way again. . . . A fundamental assumption in moral philosophy had always been that in the area of morality concerned with benefits and harms, an act can be wrong only if there is someone for whom it would be worse, or on balance bad. What Parfit showed is that there are a great many acts that seem wrong even though there is no one for whom they are worse—indeed, even though they are on balance good for everyone they affect. These are acts that cause bad effects in the lives of people who would never have existed had the acts not been done.

(The slavery example isn’t an example of this if the lives of the enslaved persons were made worse by slavery. But without slavery, the descendants wouldn’t exist.)

If you are interested in moral and political philosophy, it’s essential to read Parfit. A warning, though—if you do, you will be entering a very strange world.

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