On What Matters: Volume Three, by Derek Parfit

Constantine Sandis on a fitting swansong from one of its greatest moral philosophers

April 6, 2017
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Derek Parfit’s sudden death on 1 January 2017, just weeks before the publication of this book, deprived the world of one of its greatest moral philosophers. This reputation was partly built on the first two volumes of On What Matters (reviewed in these pages in June 2011), in which he sought to argue that the best version of what he saw as the three major moral theories (rule consequentialism, contractualism and Kantian deontology) converge, in so far as they prescribe the same actions. If this is right, then what matters most is that we perform the actions in question. But Parfit said very little about what these are, other than gesturing towards reducing poverty and environmental damage in whichever ways are most effective.

It would be natural to expect the third volume of his book to focus on applied ethics, but this is not the case. Parfit ends by writing: “I regret that, in a book called On What Matters, I have said so little about what matters…I hope to say more about what matters in what would be my Volume Four.” Whether such a volume might be assembled posthumously remains to be seen. More conspicuous by its absence across these three volumes is the topic of virtue and its related focus on character and intention. One can only assume that Parfit does not think that these things matter much at all, given that he never considers (as his Oxford colleague Roger Crisp has) whether the best version of virtue theory might also converge with the others.

So what is Volume Three about? Strangely, it’s on whether anything really matters at all. One may think it rather late in the game to be asking this question, but Volume Two ended with the thought that Parfit’s own work would matter only if he was right to think that moral realism is true; in other words, that there are objective moral truths. Indeed, Parfit went further and argued that if he was wrong about this, then nothing matters and he would have wasted his life.

Did Parfit waste his life? There’s something touchingly juvenile in his thought that this could possibly hang on the merits of any position in moral metaphysics. Besides, as Larry Temkin puts it in his contribution to the accompanying volume, Does Anything Really Matter?, edited by fellow effective altruist Peter Singer, if nothing matters it is impossible for anyone to waste their life. Volume Three consists of Parfit’s responses to this accompanying volume, and his subsequent correspondence with some of its contributors. The largest of philosophical questions is thereby dealt with by way of minuscule exchanges attempting to iron out theoretical misunderstandings between (chiefly male) colleagues working within the analytic tradition.

This is no accident, but the corollary of Parfit’s more general belief that if experts fail to find convergence between the “best version” of any given position, this should cast doubt on the possibility of reaching any truths. Parfit found much hope in his conclusion that meta-ethical disagreements with many of his peers had been significantly reduced as a result of this process of extended discussion. As such, this is a fitting swansong for a philosopher so terrified of having wasted his life.

Constantine Sandis is professor of philosophy, University of Hertfordshire, and author, most recently, of The Things We Do and Why We Do Them (2012), now in paperback.

On What Matters: Volume Three
By Derek Parfit
Oxford University Press, 488pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780198778608
Published 26 January 2017

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