Derek Parfit is widely regarded as the most interesting ethicist working today. Many have performed their work more provocatively, some may be more original, and I suspect that a few (Sen and Nussbaum, especially) have made more progress in the field, but Parfit definitely has captured our attention with his quest for “Theory X,” that ethical theory that allows us to quantify across populations and resolve the value-theoretical paralysis at the heart of the Repugnant Conclusion: can we distinguish between a world of many people living minimally happy lives and another possible world in which fewer people live maximally happy lives? Is existence better than non-existence? What would count as a good reason for resolving this? This is the meta-ethical question that, in my opinion, ought to drive every ethical project. It’s the one at the heart of the current bioethical debates over abortion and euthanasia, and in a different form (is a self-chosen existence that appears miserable better than one that appear to outsiders as excellent or happy) it’s the one that troubles us all when we think about the various kinds of discipline genealogized by Foucault: prisons, doctors, “mental hygiene,” choice architecture, and sexuality.
One of the best things about Parfit is that he makes his unpublished work available online in the spirit of open inquiry, so that his magnum opus (as well as many of his other articles) can be read for free on Google Scholar while he continues to work out the kinks. This hearkens back to the publication schedules from the Enlightenment era, when books might be circulated and then re-released in response to comments and criticisms. Perhaps because of this openness, Parfit’s work has enjoyed some of the most intense reading and discussion of any living ethical philosopher over the last decade. Even if he was beaten out by Williams or MacIntyre, he certainly takes the prize for most-discussed-while-unpublished.
In the interest of pursuing a collective project of ethical reason-giving and moral story-telling, I have decided to launch yet another reading group on his work. It won’t be the first: there’s even been another one online. However, I hope to draw my readers into this collective project with me: since you are predominantly continentally-trained philosophers, it strikes me that we might collectively have some interesting insights or encounters with Parfit’s Anglo-American analyticism. The idea would be to begin this summer, probably in late May, working quickly through his book Reasons and Persons (which is sadly not available in full online), taking a look at some of the main commentaries on that early work, and then striking out to pursue the new and uncharted territory that he has variously titled On What Matters or Climbing the Mountain.
Since my readers are spread out over the world, I would hope to conduct a kind of inter-blog group akin to what we regularly see over at publicreason.net, where different readers would take up chapters, write lengthy and provacative commentaries, and all the readers would respond in the comment section. The group need not publish here at anotherpanacea.com, in fact one way to do this would be to have each new discussant post at his or her own blog, and then cross-link to it here.
If you’re interested in participating, drop a comment here or email me: the address is “anotherpanacea” at google’s mail service. We’ll work out a schedule and then proceed from there. If for some reason you can’t afford Reasons and Persons, I can possibly supply a copy, and if you’re interested in skipping the early part of the reading group because you’ve already done Reasons and Persons to death, we can consider dividing the group into two or even three sections: Part 1 Reasons and Persons, Part 2 (?) commentaries and critics, Part 3 On What Matters. If we really wanted to go hog wild, we could start by reading Henry Sidgwick‘s The Method of Ethics, perhaps as a prequel to the Parfit group. In the interests of spreading around the glory here, I’ll leave that for someone else to plan. 🙂