Five Girls on a Rock
- On What Matters by Derek Parfit
Oxford, 540 pp. and 825 pp, £30.00, May 2011, ISBN 978 0 19 926592 3
Morality can’t just be a system of arbitrary taboos. We want its protections, and others want those same protections against us. A morality worth heeding must have a rationale. A chief task of moral philosophers is to discern such a rationale and to shape it by criticism and argument. Derek Parfit’s On What Matters looks to two great moral philosophers, Immanuel Kant in the late 18th century and Henry Sidgwick, whose treatise The Methods of Ethics first appeared in 1874. Kant, Parfit writes, ‘is the greatest moral philosopher since the ancient Greeks’, but Sidgwick’s Methods ‘is, I believe, the best book on ethics ever written’. Kant and Sidgwick are normally taken to stand for the two great opposing moral visions: Sidgwick for utilitarianism, which concerns itself with how to maximise happiness, and Kant for a moral law grounded in reason. Parfit finds, however, that Kant and Sidgwick are ‘climbing the same mountain’ by different routes. We are still far from the summit by either route, but as Parfit said a quarter-century ago, ‘compared with the other sciences, non-religious ethics is the youngest and the least advanced.’ As with any science, a mature ethics might take generations to formulate.
‘Actions are right,’ the utilitarian John Stuart Mill wrote, ‘in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.’ At times, however, duty and the general happiness seem to be in conflict. If a recently dead husband had been leading a secret life, then telling the widow a sweet lie may forestall even greater misery, but if she really wants to know the truth, no matter how bitter, the lie wrongs her. Utilitarianism can be at odds with our moral intuitions. Sidgwick’s ‘great, drab book’, as Parfit calls it, argued nevertheless that ‘the morality of common sense is unconsciously utilitarian.’ Sidgwick agreed with his philosophical opponents that moral knowledge must rest ultimately on intuition, but insisted that when intuition is rendered coherent, it supports utilitarianism.
When Parfit and I were young in the 1960s, utilitarianism or something close to it was widely accepted among leading moral philosophers. Parfit developed his astoundingly original early ideas in Reasons and Persons (1984), where he examined the logic of alternative forms of utilitarianism and advocated concern for others by a set of Buddhist-like arguments that there need be no clear boundary between others and oneself. Reasons and Persons may be the most important work in moral philosophy of its decade.
Over the years, however, moral philosophers have largely come to reject utilitarianism. The conflicts with our moral intuitions seem just too damning. Suppose, in a hospital, five patients will die unless organs can be found for transplants, and a healthy young man comes in for a check-up. Cutting him up for his organs would maximise the total happiness, but to do this would clearly be wrong: it would violate his right to life. So much the worse, then, for utilitarianism. What sort of alternative rationale would spare him? A century before Sidgwick, Kant offered an answer. Act only, Kant’s Categorical Imperative commands, by that maxim you can will at the same time to be a universal law. The spur to morality is reverence for this law. We must always respect the rational nature that makes us human. Kant’s formulas, many philosophers think, explain why our intuition abhors the thought of killing the young man for his organs, however greatly they may be needed. To do so without his consent fails to respect his rational nature. Just how Kant’s alternative to utilitarianism operates has been a matter of contention, but the conviction has grown that he did indeed find an alternative basis for morality, one to which moral intuition responds.
On first inspection, though, it isn’t clear that Kant’s formulas really do exclude utilitarianism. He himself, it’s true, despised utilitarianism as he knew it, but do his arguments really tell against it? Parfit’s teacher, later colleague, R.M. Hare, who dominated Oxford moral philosophy in the later part of the mid-20th century, proclaimed himself a Kantian, but argued that what is coherent and systematic in Kant turns out to be utilitarian. Most philosophers who follow Kant have regarded Hare as an oddball and his Kantianism as bogus. But maybe Hare has a point. If we cut up the young man for his organs, how have we violated any of Kant’s dicta? Perhaps the fault consists in failing to respect his humanity. How, though, would letting five others die when we could have saved them count as respecting their humanity? By killing the young man for his organs, some Kantians say, we treat him merely as a means, as a thing and not as a rational being. But Kant never said not to treat people as means: we do so whenever we call on their help. Kant’s demand is that we always treat rational nature as an end. In this case, we do just that: we weigh the good of the young man into our decision along with everyone else’s. Some Kantians take a different approach. The problem, they say, is that he couldn’t consent to be sacrificed. Yet if we spare him and let the others die, do they consent to this neglect? Whatever we do, someone isn’t going to survive, and we must treat all six individuals as ends. We respect people, another Kantian might say, by living with them on the basis of a social contract we would each of us have ratified. Why, though, wouldn’t we ratify a system that, in such tragic cases as this, maximises everyone’s chances? It might have been the young man who needed a transplant that could be had only by cutting up someone else.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.