The Book of Ways: Volumes I & II

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There are many ways in which his convergence argument could be important, if it is correct. For example, it could be important simply because it makes the Triple Theory more defensible than competing substantive normative theories. Intriguingly, it could also be what Parfit was hinting at in the penultimate section of Reasons and Persons , when he said that. We should not assume that the objectivity of Ethics must be all-or-nothing. There may be a part of morality that is objective.

In describing this part, our claims may be true. When we consider this part of morality, or these moral questions, we may find the Unified Theory that would remove our disagreements. There may be other questions about which we shall never agree. There may be no true answers to these questions. Since objectivity need not be all-or-nothing, moral skeptics may be partly right.

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These questions may be subjective. But this need not cast doubt on the Unified Theory. Reasons and Persons , , italics added. The convergence result could even be important because it helps defend some important aspect of the idea of moral progress. But the result does not appear to have the right structure to show that there are not really, as Parfit says, "others with conflicting views".

Consequently, I do think that we clearly need to be much more careful about interpreting the force of the 'climbing the mountain' metaphor and about understanding exactly what about the climbing the mountain result is important. Understanding the main goal of On What Matters as arguing for the possibility of moral progress also substantially affects how we read and evaluate part 6.

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On this interpretation, part 6 is a complementary, full-fledged strand of Parfit's master argument that genuine moral progress is possible, in keeping with the enormous space it takes up. It explains why Parfit's most central objection to reductive or 'naturalistic' theories is called the Triviality Objection , because according to Parfit, they trivialize fundamental moral discovery. This interpretation also explains why Parfit's central objection to noncognitivism is that it cannot consistently allow that moral thoughts could be correct or mistaken.

And most importantly, it helps us understand why Parfit not only thinks his own metaethical view is the best metaethical theory , but thinks it matters so much that it is correct that much of his life will have been wasted if it is not.

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However, again I think that if we are evaluating the core arguments of part 6 by the light of this understanding of its overall significance, though it helps us to understand a great deal about Parfit's motivations, it casts suspicion on his methods. On the face of it, if the point of part 6 is to defend the possibility of moral progress from metaethical theories which cast it into doubt, then one would expect him to engage philosophically with such metaethical theories.

But if Parfit's arguments in part 6 are successful, then he hasn't actually succeeded in locating any metaethical theories which cast the possibility of moral progress into doubt. On the contrary, according to him, few people who have ever contributed to the literature on metaethics even have the conceptual resources required to disagree with him. Bernard Williams, for example, turns out to lack the concept of a reason.

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John Mackie turns out to fail to have thoughts about morality, rather than to believe that nothing is wrong. Christine Korsgaard lacks normative concepts. Simon Blackburn and Allan Gibbard's disagreement with Parfit? That's superficial, too -- they don't have normative concepts either. I'm flattered to report that I am among the few metaethicists whom Parfit credits as sharing the required conceptual repertoire to disagree with him.

But unfortunately for me, it turns out that we don't disagree either, because, according to Parfit, I don't believe my own view. His sole evidence for this? That I acknowledge the intuitive force of apparent counterexamples. It's clear that Parfit is uncomfortable with disagreement, and that this discomfort plays a major role in motivating both the reconciliatory project of part 3 and the dismissive arguments of part 6. But the strategy of part 6 takes him to strange places.

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In particular, it leads him to reject even the views of many of the metaethicists, like me, who seem to agree with him that many things matter, agree about which things matter, and agree that it is possible to make progress in thinking about what matters. Instead of seeking common ground with philosophers who seem to agree with him about these things, however, he sweeps them under the same rug as philosophers who seem to disagree with him about these things.

And I don't see why this puts us in a better position than we were before. Surely if the existence of disagreement about the possibility of moral progress should undermine our confidence in it, this is countered to at least some degree by the existence of widespread agreement. Getting rid of so much agreement along with the disagreement makes it harder to understand how Parfit managed to have strange concepts that so many others lack than it was to understand to begin with how he could be right that there is moral progress, when some thinkers disagree.

This simply replaces a familiar problem about peer disagreement with a new and peculiar one about conceptual repertoire.

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In fact, I think the extent of Parfit's claims to the effect that other philosophers either do not share his concepts or do not understand their own views substantially undermines the grounds for his confidence that he, Ross, and Sidgwick share the same normative concepts and understand their own views. It's not clear, for example, that Sidgwick even has room to understand how there could be such a thing as Ross's prima facie duties. One ordinarily wouldn't think of this as an obstacle to their talking about the same thing, but given the enormous role the failure to allow for the possibility of prima facie duties plays in Sidgwick's arguments, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that this difference is much more important than the plausibility of some of Parfit's own crucial premises.

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Just to take one example, Parfit's master argument against reductive 'naturalist', in his terms metaethical theories, the Triviality Objection, aims to refute the naturalist thesis that to be wrong is to be N, for some natural property N, by assuming that the sentence 'when something is N, it is wrong' states or implies that when something is N, it has a different normative property vol. Parfit calls the question of what this other property is the Lost Property problem, and offers two more objections at this point: first, that it is mysterious what property it might be, and second, that we can re-pose the Triviality Objection to the naturalist's account of this other normative property.

In order for this argument to be probative, Parfit needs several pieces to fall into place. But most importantly, he needs a non-question-begging justification for the argument's key premise: that 'when something is N, it is wrong' states or implies that when something is N, it has a different normative property. Now Parfit's argument clearly isn't question-begging in the trivial sense that its conclusion is numbered among its premises.

But by Parfit's own lights, if the different normative property is not the property of being wrong, then we face the Lost Property problem, and it is mysterious what this different property is. But if it is really so mysterious what this different property could be, if it is not the property of being wrong, then the only way Parfit's premise could really be obvious is if it were obvious that being wrong is a different property from being N. But, of course, that is precisely what the argument is supposed to establish.

So the dialectical force of Parfit's argument requires it to somehow be more obvious that sentences like this state or imply the presence of some normative property that is distinct from being N than it is obvious that being wrong is distinct from being N. Now I happen to think that it is extremely unobvious how this could be so.

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But more important for my purposes here is that whatever makes it so is going to need to be a very subtle point. And given how subtle this point is going to have to be, in order for Parfit's central Triviality Objection to not be question-begging, it is certainly going to be more subtle than Sidgwick's failure to conceive of the possibility of prima facie duties.

This is why I think it's at least as plausible to conclude that Sidgwick and Ross must not really be talking about the same thing as it is to conclude that Parfit is not talking about the same thing as a naturalist who fails to find the subtle intuition driving the Triviality Objection compelling. For further problems with the Triviality Objection, see Schroeder [forthcoming]. But if Sidgwick and Ross -- Parfit's two favorite examples of philosophers who share his concepts -- are not talking about the same thing as each other, then the class of theorists who are talking about the same thing as Parfit is getting very small indeed.

There is far more to be said about both the virtues and vices of all parts of Parfit's book -- about the defensibility of the views he advances in part 1, for example, and about whether he has appreciated the full resources of the Kantian perspective in parts 2 and 3, or only those that fit into his pre-existing framework. There is much to be said about the insightful commentary in part 4 -- I was particularly impressed by Susan Wolf's piece, for example -- and about the ways in which Parfit both succeeds and fails at engaging with the force of those comments in part 5, including his fascinating and insightful discussion of Scanlonian Contractualism, the view with which his own has the most in common.

And there is much more to be said about how frustrating many readers will find the fact that in part 6 Parfit is so consistently uninterested in the explanatory virtues or otherwise of his theory and only interested in whether there are knockdown arguments against it. But since others will have much to say about these things, I'll close by returning to a comparison with which we began. In terms of ultimate impact, I suspect that this prediction is overstated. Yet the comparison is indeed apt, and not only because Parfit acknowledges Sidgwick, along with Kant, as one of his 'masters'. A commentator writes,. Each of these objections, rebuttals, rejoinders, and surrejoinders is in itself admirable, and does infinite credit to the acuteness and candor of the author. But the reader is apt to become impatient; to lose the thread of the argument; and to rise from his desk finding that he has read a great deal with constant admiration and now remembers little or nothing.

Parfit himself quotes this passage from Broad, but responds that Methods , though initially difficult to read and hard to see the forest for the trees, amply repays re-reading, because of its richness in detail. Again, much the same could be said for much of On What Matters , for anyone with the fortitude to make it through more than once. There are hundreds of philosophical gems scattered throughout the book -- far more than will ever receive the commentary they deserve.

The Book of Ways: Volumes I & II The Book of Ways: Volumes I & II
The Book of Ways: Volumes I & II The Book of Ways: Volumes I & II
The Book of Ways: Volumes I & II The Book of Ways: Volumes I & II
The Book of Ways: Volumes I & II The Book of Ways: Volumes I & II
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