Personal Identity

Bernard Williams

  • Reasons and Persons by Derek Parfit
    Oxford, 543 pp, £17.50, April 1984, ISBN 0 19 824615 3

Ten or fifteen years ago, the complaint against moral philosophy was that it did not address practical problems, but concentrated on meta-ethics: that is to say, on questions about the status, meaning, objectivity and so forth of ethical thought. That complaint is now out of date. For a decade, analytical philosophy has been conspicuously concerned to display its credentials for being of use in helping us to think about concrete problems.

In doing that, it has escaped the charge of evasiveness, but has slipped back into the line of fire of other accusations. One is that it has disconnected itself from other speculative, critical or, indeed, philosophical thought. Philosophers have tended to turn to ethical theory, an enterprise that tries to resolve practical dilemmas by appealing to a structure of moral principles, a systematic framework which philosophical ingenuity can hope to apply to concrete issues. This raises the question why a set of ideas should be thought to have any special authority over our sentiments and our lives because it has the structure of a theory. Besides having this very basic problem of what might be called theoretical authority, ethical theory has sometimes been impoverished because it has cultivated too much the autonomy of ethics, and neglected other areas of philosophy, and (with the exception of some philosophers such as John Rawls) other disciplines.

Derek Parfit has written a brilliantly clever and imaginative book which treats in a very original way a wide range of ethical questions. It spends virtually no time on meta-ethics (perhaps too little), but it avoids many of the deformations that sometimes afflict first-order ethical philosophy. It makes contact with other subjects, such as welfare economics. It is deeply involved with some other parts of philosophy, in particular with questions of personal identity and of what a person is. It also starts the subject, rightly, not within the sphere of morality but in the wider area of practical reason, setting out from the question ‘what have we most reason to do?’ rather than from any distinctively ‘moral’ question.

Within ethical thought, Parfit does not start off with any ethical system. Nor does he hope to conjure one out of nothing at all. He concentrates on questions of consistency, asking us, over and over again, in different connections, what is implied by our ethical judgments, and whether what is implied hangs together with other implications to which, equally, we seem to be committed. That is not his only method. He uses many methods of ethical argument, more than moral philosophers often acknowledge. It is only when in his concluding chapter he quietly displays a few of them, that one realises how naturally they have been deployed. In these ways he goes some way to meet the problem of theoretical authority – though not, I believe, far enough.

In starting with practical reason, and in some of his methods of argument, Parfit agrees with the Victorian moral philosopher Sidgwick, whom he greatly admires. Keynes thought that Sidgwick lacked intensity and was suffocated by respectability. Parfit would deny these charges against Sidgwick, but whether he is right in that or not, the charges certainly do not apply to this strange and excitingly intense book. It is in four parts. In the first, Parfit considers what it is for a theory of rational action to be, in any of various ways, self-defeating. He deals, very subtly, with such problems as this: if one believes that one’s aim should be to produce the best outcomes all round, it is very unlikely that the best way to do this is to consider, on each occasion, how one can bring about the best outcome. The best outcomes are more likely to be produced if each person acts from motives which do not involve thinking directly about the outcome. This has been thought to be a problem for consequentialist theories of this kind. Parfit insists that it is not, and that this result does nothing to refute the theory that we should produce the best outcomes all round. It merely tells us how to produce them, by cultivating in ourselves other dispositions. In other cases, however, theories can be damagingly self-defeating, by enjoining on each of us courses of action which, when we all pursue them, collectively defeat the objectives at which the theory was aiming in the first place (which is not so, Parfit claims, with the innocuously self-defeating consequentialist theories).

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