The Supreme Principle

By  Philip Kitcher
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 reject.
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.

His 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.

Naturalism 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.

The 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.