The Supreme Principle
The New Republic, January 11, 2012
Edited by Andy Ross
On What Matters
By Derek Parfit
Volumes I and II, OUP
Derek Parfit attempts to characterize the wrongness of acts. An act is wrong
if and only if such acts are disallowed by some principle that is:
1 one of the principles whose being universal
laws would make things go best,
2 one of the
only principles whose being universal laws everyone could rationally will,
3 a principle that no one could reasonably
Parfit calls this the Triple Theory.
His first volume
seeks to clarify the central notions of consequentialism, Kantianism, and
contractualism. Consequentialists construe right actions as those tending to
produce outcomes that are as good as possible. Kantians suppose that the
principles of morality are those that would be agreed upon for their
self-governance by a community of rational beings. And contractualists
suppose that the principles of morality are those that would be agreed on in
a discussion under ideal conditions. Parfit argues that the principles are
equivalent and credits this convergence to the Triple Theory.
second volume attempts to explain the status of ethics. He hopes to demolish
Naturalism, according to which the only facts are natural facts, as
described by the sciences. For Naturalists, ethics either turns out to be
concerned with a certain type of natural fact, or it fails as a correct
description of anything. Parfit argues that all the different forms of
Naturalism are incorrect. He says ethical truths are analogous to
mathematical truths. But proving mathematical truths is hard work. We have
no good reason to think that the Triple Theory is true.
starts by thinking of ethics as a human endeavor, a project begun by our
remote ancestors tens of thousands of years ago and continuing indefinitely
into the future. There is no final compendium of ethical truths, but only a
central human predicament, from which we escaped by learning to regulate our
own conduct. Our ethical framework evolved gradually. Naturalist ethical
progress consists in the solution of problems. Ethics begins as a social
technology aimed at making up for the limits of human altruism.
changes come about not through recognition of special ethical facts but
through the discovery of natural facts. Overcoming our failures of altruism
is one mode of ethical progress. The ethical project generates new problems
as it evolves. The ethical truths we arrive at are those principles
introduced in problem solving and retained in subsequent progressive
changes. The great ethical theorists are those who supply resources for
human decisions directed at solving problems. They offer no supreme
principle of morality.
On What Matters is fundamentally misguided.
AR Sorry, Derek. I recall your smooth All Souls
style from decades ago, but your theory sounds like theology.