Parfit Group Week 1: The Scope of Our Inquiry

This is my commentary on the first chapter of Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, part of the online reading group I proposed here. If you haven’t gotten the book yet, you can follow along here for at least the first chapter: I think Google will only let you read fifty pages at a time in their ‘preview’ mode, but thankfully the first chapter is only forty-eight pages long. Leigh Johnson has graciously agreed to host the commentary on chapters two and three next week at her blog here. I’ll post a link when her commentary goes live: we’re also looking for commenters to fill out the rest of the schedule, as none of our participants have volunteered yet. Send me an e-mail if you’re interested in doing this initial commentary or hosting the discussion one week.

To begin our discussion about Derek Parfit, I’d like to acknowledge the most important thing about reading him: he is not a very good writer. In his defense, his bad writing is perhaps forgiveable if we accept that ethical inquiry demands more precision than it is usually granted. (For proof that this is so, see the Hallmark Rejoinder: “Aristotle is wrong because friends are always there when you need them, through good times and bad.” Yeah.) His insistence on abbreviated ‘self-interest,’ ‘theory,’ and ‘consquentialism’ as S, T, and C, is just the most obvious example of a penchant for reductive symbolization, a disposition attributable to a desire for clarity and precision, though of course the dangers of reductive and systematic approachs to ethics usually get the most attention. In his defense, that awkward writing and ungainly symbolization is often interrupted by memorable examples: Kate the Hedonist, Clare the Callous Consequentialist, the rationally-irrational hostage, the overly honest egoist, etc. Anyway, when we think that bad writing has obscured his point, we should try to be charitable.

I’ve divided my comments into five broad sections: “reasons and dispositions,” “selves and their interests,” “transparency as publicity,” “rationality and the conditions of self-defeat,” and “discussion questions/issues.” Assuming you’ve done the reading yourself, feel free to skip anything that looks boring or doesn’t concern you, or even to head straight to the discussion section so we can get this party started!

Reasons and Dispositions:

Parfit concludes the first chapter by saying that though self-interest and consequentialist theories run into problems, neither theory has been shown to be “false, or indefensible.” (51) In that sense, nothing will be proven throughout the chapter. Fifty pages with nary a conclusion in sight. He will raise many questions and successfully eliminate some relatively simple possibilities. When we are later tempted to offer these simple solutions, Parfit can rightly chastise us. But this may well be the first time I’ve wanted to scrawl “THESIS STATEMENT PLEASE” in the margins of a work of professional analytic philosophy. That said, in another way this chapter is quite good: it raises a set of really terrific questions.

He begins with the question “What do we have the most reason to do?” which I would like to suggest is just a translation of the place where Kant begins his inquiry into pure practical reason: “What ought I to do?” The first line stakes a claim: this isn’t a book about capital-R Reason or Rationality, it’s a book about reasons, and to be small-r rational is simply to be reason-responsive. When we ask ourselves the first line’s question, we assume that actions can have reasons, and that reasons for action can be rendered publicly accessible and consistent.

In this one line, he’s announced a serious prejudice against divine revelations, romantic expressivism, and various kinds of pragmatism, relativism, and incommensurability doctrines, following the general philosopher’s assumption that it is rational to be moral and moral to be rational. To engage in normative philosophical contemplation is to engage in reason-giving, and there’s not much value in such behavior if you don’t think people’s actions are reason-responsive or that reasons make general (i.e. non-particular) claims on us.  As we continue to read we will see some justifications for these assumptions, but I think it’s important to note them at the outset, because these are the assumptions that are most in danger of being reified without proper critical inquiry. Perhaps the greatest thing about Parfit is that he is unwilling to assume the truth of even these meta-ethical prejudices. Instead, he tries to subject the prejudice in favor of reasons itself to reason-responsive evaluation. If it turns out that the best possible reasons underwrite some brand of quietism or pluralism about ethical inquiry, Parfit has committed himself to resist this conclusion with all his might, such that those reasons will have an uphill battle. But he will also admit defeat if these anti-reason reasons win the day!

This immediately becomes an issue on page 3 when Parfit notes that theories (of self-interest or consequence) can serve as both a reason for action and a disposition by which we evaluate particular reasons. Parfit speaks of these as formal and substantial aims: I may want my life to go as well as possible, but this can require me to model my actions on something other than a coldly rational evaluation of present interests. As an example of Parfit’s bad writing, I think the classic means/ends or instrumental/teleological distinction serves us better than the form/substance distinction here. If my ultimate goal is self-interest, I may have to adopt non-self-interested means to that end. In order to achieve their ultimate goals, some people may have to instrumentally deny that their ultimate goals are indeed their goals.

Even thinking in terms of self-interested consequentialist calculation might lead these unfortunates’ lives to go less well or their efforts to fail to achieve the optimal results. Parfit’s account of the hostage who takes the irrationality potion seems to supply an extreme and largely uninstructive example, but we can see echoes of it in the old mutually-assured destruction theory of international conflict or in the solopsist’s loneliness: some ends can only be achieved by forcing an opponent to treat me as irrational or a lover to view me as selfless. Yet I must truly act irrationally or selflessly in order to pull off this stratagem. Thus, it is at least possible to jettison rationality for the best possible reasons, but this is not a contradiction: it is possible to reject the best possible (formal/instrumental) reasons for the best possible (substantial/teleological) reasons.

At least in this first chapter, when Parfit attacks an ethical ‘disposition,’ he attacks it in its psychologically deterministic form: for Parfit, to be self-interested in his sense is first and foremost to seek instrumental reasons for action that are the same as our own teleological self interest, and as we shall see, a robust defense of such a disposition requires that it be transparent or publishable. I believe this is an idiosyncratic use of ‘disposition,’ insofar as Parfit uses it to indicate a unavoidable and overriding ethical attitude rather than a resistible tendency or heuristic strategy. Again, we will see a defense and complication of this usage as we proceed, but it’s worth remarking that Parfit may be getting human moral psychology drastically wrong here, and if so we’re going to need to address that.

Selves and their interests:

Parfit spends the first half of the first chapter asking why anyone should choose any action for reasons other than rational egoism. This question has many forms: why should a utilitarian maximize anyone else’s happiness than her own? Is charity or self-sacrifice really possible? Is loving a delusion or reducible to genetic self-interest? What are people for? Are responsibility and guilt pathologies or healthy moral functioning?  Are rational choices always selfish? The list is long, but it’s surprising how generic the problem is: an awful lot of ethical reason-giving is reducible to this one issue.

The art of ethical inquiry seems usually to begin by the process of convincing oneself or a student that self-centeredness is actually the best grounds for some set of actions that seem less than selfish, like being just or forgoing pleasure. While we often dispute exactly what is in a person’s self-interest, to my mind Parfit is correct to focus our attentions on “S” (which I will always spell out as self-interest.) Self-interest requires that “each person’s life goes, for him, as well as possible.”  Self-interested action seems to us elementary, and from this perspective altruism and self-sacrifice are either mythical, irrational, or self- and other-deceptive acts of hidden self-interest. Yet most people are not primarily motivated by self-regard, so it’s not clear why we need to devote so much of our ethical inquiry to the few sociopaths who do need to subject every moment of potential other-regard to rigorous testing. The Bad Man is not the ideal ethical subject, that’s why he’s Bad.

Of course, if we take seriously an ‘obligation’ to obey the dictates of self-interest, than we may worry that we are being insufficiently self-interested in a particular case, and then blame ourselves or feel guilt for this deficit. Still, even this population of folks worried that they are not sufficiently selfish does not seem to be significantly expand the addressed group. Parfit instead implies that all ethical theories are rooted in self-interest, even those that are explicitly altruistic like the ‘do-gooder’ version of consequentialism. Certainly attempts to overcome pure ethical intuitionism or ethical subservience to authority (that seems bad so it must be bad, or that’s bad because God/my priest/my mother said so) often require some reference to a supreme principle of morality which is generally self-regarding (utility, autonomy, virtue), so Parfit may be on to something here. That’s why I suspect that Parfit’s real reason for starting with self-interest are actually altruistic. Let’s say an altruist sets out to help the least advantaged: the global poor, for instance. Doesn’t the altruist have to have a theory of self-interest for those disadvantaged others? That is, doesn’t the altruist have to know what would count as having their lives go as well as possible in order to improve them? The counterpoint offered by Singer and many others is that such questions allow the ‘perfect’ to antagonize ‘the good’.It doesn’t take a general theory of human flourishing to know that ‘not dying of easily preventable diseases’ is an improvemnt over the alternative. Yet this is exactly the question that Parfit will eventually broach with the Repugnant Conclusion: that the ‘better’ might eventually become the enemy of the ‘adequately good.’

Self-interest raises two points of contention: first, what exactly is in my interest? Second, who am I? That is, what is this self in whose interests I am hellbent on acting? Parfit illustrates the conflicts around the interest axis of self-interested ethical theories adroitly through the traditional typology of personal utility or pleasure, autonomy or preference, and virtue or ‘natural’ goods, which he refers to as Hedonism, Desire-Fulfillment, and Objective List Theories. There are few hedonists left, since most utilitarians (notably Peter Singer) have adopted a version of preference utllitarianism precisely because of some of the criticisms of hedonism that Parfit articulates later. However, because I will be trying to defend a Sen/Nussbaum ‘capabilities approach’ against Parfit throughout our readings, I am keen to follow the arguments against Objective List theories. I have yet to see any principled objection to the ‘objective list’ that isn’t rooted in fallibilism or pluralism: these arguments suggest that there can be no such list because we either don’t or can’t be certain what such a list will include or exclude, or else we shouldn’t denigrate the preferences or pleasures of others just because they seem vicious or unsustainable to us.

The ‘self’ axis of self-interest theories is more difficult to illustrate, and Parfit leaves it untouched for now. However, I think that Parfit’s theory fits neatly within a problem about the ‘scope’ of selfhood. For instance, even the Kantian moral law can be understood as a kind of self-interest theory, insofar as it begins with an attempt to distinguish my phenomenal and pathological self-interest from my ‘true’ self interest, the interest of a rational subject that is not self-identical with hunger, greed, or lust, but could only wish to act autonomously rather than have her choices determined by embodied and thus unfree needs and drives. For Kant, ‘I’ am in essence free, and any act that is only the result of a chain of material causation is, because it is unfree, not in ‘my’ interest. This is roughly the same account of autonomy that runs from Augustine to Sartre.

Parfit attacks this problem of selfhood’s scope somewhat differently, by taking up the possibility that loving relationships, for instance, might occasionally require one to be self-denying so that my preference, pleasure, or objective flourishing in having family and friends can be satiated, or because we need to be able to make convincing promises. I find this passage unnecessarily long for what is ultimately a simple point: achieving the “supremely rational ultimate aim” will require some degree of momentary and instrumental of self-denial. However, in offering us the paradox of the greedy simpleton who cannot lie, Parfit is raising another kind of scope question: what is the temporal scope of ‘myself’ such that I would willing undergo discomfort today in the service of ‘me’ who has yet to arrive? This requires the kind of time-indexed naming that I find so irritating in Parfit, so instead of Josh-sub-1, I’ll put it like this: how does it serve the interests of “morning-Joshua” to go to the gym and exert himself so that “evening-Joshua” can eat ice cream? “Morning-Joshua” can always eat the ice cream himself, and then tell his future-self that his choices are either work out or get fat, because there’s no ice cream left. (There’d likely be a note: “Forgive me… it was delicious so sweet and so cold.”)

The time-indexed theory of self is difficult to even describe because we all mostly subscribe to some Lockean theory of identity as continuity in memory, except when intuition pumps or thought experiments force us out of that folk-psychological account. However, Parfit is leaving the question open, for now, and I think that’s the responsible move for any philosopher who wants to cover all his reason-giving bases. We have to remain open to the possibility that there’s some reason to prefer a less forensic theory of personal identity than Locke’s, one we just haven’t thought of yet. Parfit will make much of the fact that we have partial control over what our future-self wants and needs, because her preferences, pleasures, and capacity to flourish are all subject to experiences that are under present-self’s control.  For instance, I can partly control whether future-Joshua will enjoy playing the guitar by choosing to learn the guitar in the present, and by the same token, I can undermine future-Joshua’s bid for the US Presidency by publicly announcing a history of drug use.

Transparency as Publicity:

Frequently Parfit attacks formulations of the theories he discusses by considering situations involving people who are transparent liars, unable to successfully dissemble, and thus unable to mislead their interlocutors. This is a kind of reverse Ring of Gyges: rather than hiding one’s actions even from the gods, Parfit asks us to put even our motives on display. In this, too, he is like Kant, adopting a version of the principle of publicity in which our reasons for action must be of the sort that no reasonable opposition exists.

Yet in his many examples, Parfit seems to raise the stakes so that even unreasonable opposition, insofar as they had access to our motivations, might take advantage of our publicly available reasons. Publicity is then stretched beyond it’s traditional Kantian conditions to be understood as a general demand for all such ethical reasons: could you tell everyone what your ethical reasons are and succeed in achieving a life lived as-well-as-possible? Might certain reasons, when publicized, leave one open to manipulation, or create a self-undermining state of affairs?

How transparent liars serve Parfit’s overall goals is as yet unclear to me: while it points out one way that a theory might be collectively self-defeating, since the population includes bad liars, it doesn’t exactly point out how a theory is self-defeating for good liars who are looking for reasons to reject rational egoism/self-interest. Consider a world in which many actors adopt utlitarianism but are insufficiently fallibilist about their capacity to calculate the effects of their actions. In considering that world, Henry Sidgwick argued we’d be better off as covert utilitarians, enunciating some alternative theory in public while propogating our true reasons among a select subset of the population.

Perhaps Parfit himself is just a bad liar, and thus fears that he would be excluded from the esoteric circle of enlightened utilitarians for reasons distinct from his enlightenment? This would be a case where the requirement of self-effacement effectively defeats the theory, at least for the excluded individual. Or perhaps he fears that an ethical theory that demands many layers of secrecy, will suffer from inadequate testing and will result in the advancement of less-than-the-best-possible-reasons, and thus, lives that are not lived as-well-as-possible.

Rationality and the Conditions of Self-Defeat:

One goal of these early chapters seems to be to fully delineate the conditions of self-defeat. In addition to publicity, Parfit mobilizes at least five distinct reasons for self-defeat: incoherence (does the theory make sense? Does it fail on its own terms?), overdemandingness (is it possible to achieve the demands of the theory?), collectivisability (could everyone have the same reasons for action without leading to many less-good lives?), universality (are there instances where strategic rejection of an ethical disposition would lead to at least one better life?), and self-effacement (does the theory suggest strategic adoption of a different theory?)

These reasons are roughly divisible into direct and indirect self-defeat. A directly self-defeating theory is incoherent. It is inconsistent with itself, it fails on its own terms, every time. But through his many examples, Parfit identifies theories that defeat themselves indirectly through exceptions, or  which don’t properly respond to our moral psychology, and are thus overly demanding, in the sense that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’. To illicit the exceptions, he states a universal theory and then identifies at least one situation, however improbable, when the theory would lead to a ‘less-good-than-possible’ life. The transparent liar supplies one such self-defeat, for pure and public self-interest, and the rationally irrational hostage supplies another, for pure and public rationality. In his attacks on self-interest and consequentialism, Parfit seems to be targeting an underlying overcommitment to rationality as such. After all, both consequentialist and self-interested theories are theories that propose a relatively smooth entailment between simple, universal principles and particular reasons for action. That is, I suspect that Parfit is actually attacking ‘Psychological Determinism,’ the notion that we act on the basis of our “desires, beliefs, and other dispositions.” (14) Since ethical inquiry allows us to subject our desires, beliefs and dispositions to manipulation and change, it assumes that we only will act a certain way when we find that we have reason to act that way. Yet it is equally possible that we will act rationally without having appropriately rationalized dispositions and desires. In fact, the opposite may be true: we may act rationally by cultivating in ourselves irrational desires and dispositions, as the hostage and the enslaved threat-ignorer both demonstrate. In short, the act of cultivating irrational desires and dispositons may itself be rational.

Why the shift from interest to rationality? I would suggest that rationality, for Parfit, is the flipside of publicity. As the brief turn to contractarian accounts of mutually binding promises  of self-denial indicate (the various island slavery examples), the argument from publicity is meant at least in part to remind egoists that they will likely be happier if they pragmatically adopt a non-egoist morality. Thus instrumentalism about one’s own dispositions and desires is the pivot around which Parfit turns from Psychological Determinism to Consequentialism: if the egoist is seeking to achieve the best possible life for herself through an evaluation of how various sham dispositions might lead to that life, then she is adopting a kind of simplistic end-state which she must simultaneously hide from herself. In order to achieve the life prescribed by a self-interested theory of morality, I need to change my motives to be at odds with my ends, and I need to do it in a self-deceptive way, implying that I need to be very careful about the possible consequences of some new set of motivations.

Yet perhaps there is no set of selfishly-adopted altruistic motivations that will guarantee the ‘as-well-as-possible’ life, in which case, both theories are doomed to failure unless they can be altered. Perhaps there are no reasons for action that can be adopted by all human beings collectively. The heightened demands of premeditated self-deception and variegated rationality raise the specter of overdemandingness. We need some of Parfit’s trademark bad syntax to properly address self-defeat through overdemandingness: “Could it be impossible to avoid acting wrongly?” He offers us the example of Clare the consequentialist, who either supplies some benefit to her child or actively saves her child’s life, but in each scenario at the expense of a broader benefit or life-savings for strangers. Clare offers that she either did not know the effects of her actions, or could not help but prefer her own child to strangers, and asks that we hold her blameless for choosing one life or or a lesser benefit over the many lives and larger benefits her efforts might have resulted in if they had been committed farther from home. (Peter Singer’s new book The Life You Can Save reproduces many of these arguments in a very demanding form, and his interview with Tyler Cowen addresses some of the meta-ethical concerns that Parfit raises here.) The question is: can we be blamed for loving our children or our families too much, when that love allows the death or harm of strangers? If we find that our motives (love or preference) are unchangeable, if we find that we “can’t not” love our family, are we blameless for the harms or deaths that result? Should we feel guilty for spending money on our own children’s education or entertainment that could save the lives of both children and adults dying abroad? Here we see the first gesture towards the Repugnant Conclusion that will be spelling out in detail later.

My concern here, which Parfit tries to address, is that our reasons for acting irrationally or at odds with our motivations are entailed by reasons that are themselves entailed by self-interest or consequentialism broadly understood. Does this entail self-defeat? The irrationality potion quaffed by the hostage is an example of a rational risk. Since Parfit himself notes that it is rational to calculate probabilities, is this calculated irrationality a defeat, indirect or otherwise, for the broad S theory of self-interest as the “as-well-as-possible” life? Parfit acknowledges that these arguments from improbable exceptions aren’t intended to directly defeat self-interest, but the scope of rationality here seems like it will be overbroad. It’s like he’s ignoring his own reason/disposition distinction: his defense of ‘rational irrationality’ seems like a defense of rationality full-stop. The same thing goes for consequentialism: both the partial compliance problem (what to do about the fact that not everyone will act fully altruistically regarding the needs of the global poor) and the world-without-charity problem strike me as resolvable within the theories Parfit claims they defeat or efface.

Perhaps Parfit is making a very subtle argument about ‘our beliefs about rationality’, and perhaps he is being too subtle for me. If the result of his argument is just that many people will find that the ‘as-well-as-possible’ life is not sufficiently specific to guide us in many of the complex situations that thought experiments throw at us, I’m not impressed so far. The difficulty in spelling out the particular permutations of levels and meta-levels of each ethical theory do not strike me as defeats: within the literature there are plenty of examples of apologists for these theories attempting to respond to objections with varying success, and Parfit seems not to have met the minimum demands of charitable scholarly responsiveness in evaluating the success or failure of these attempts.

Perhaps this is why he will frequently follow an indeterminate evaluation of self-defeat with the lesser claim that a theory is simply self-effacing: it requires us to dissemble even to ourselves about our reasons. If we are self-interested, we might have to strategically adopt other-interest in order to achieve the best possible life for ourself, without admitting to ourselves that this is what we have done. If we are consequentialist we may have to forgo do-gooding in a strategic manner without constantly holding ourselves blameworthy for this strategic egoism. As I see it, this is possible objection on basically collectivist/universal grounds: because we can’t tell ourselves what we are doing, we may fail to be adequately reason-responsive when the situation changes, and in those situations the self-effacing nature of our theories will lead to the less-than-optimal outcome. Yet for all that, Parfit acknowledges that the best ethical theory may be self-effacing, in which case “the truth about rationality would be depressingly convoluted.” (24) Disturbing if true, but perhaps still true. So that’s a blind alley.

Discussion Questions/Issues:

Reasons, Publicity, and Defeat
  1. Reason-responsiveness: What counts as a reason to act? Why do acts need reasons?
  2. Is this theory-building yet? Has Parfit already eliminated some kinds of ethical life by submitting activity to justification? Will it be possible to get from reason-giving to, say, faith or love or authenticity?
  3. What’s wrong with secrets? Is the transparent liar as an attempt to smuggle in the Kantian principle of publicity?
  4. The conditions of self defeat: What really counts as defeat? Is universality an appropriate meta-ethical norm? How demanding can our ethical theory be? Must our theory of the best life avoid the ‘fragility of goodness’ i.e. risk?
  5. What do we want from ethics? Is this it?
S, C, & T: Self-interest, Consequentialism, and Theory
  1. Just say no to symbolization.
  2. Why is self-interest the problem to be solved? See Henry Sidgwick.
  3. Can there be a consistent self-interest theory? Apparently yes, but maybe not a publishable one.
  4. Can pleasure, preference, and natural goods all be captured with the same letter? Do Parfit’s attacks on self-interest always successfully criticize all three forms of self-interest?
  5. Does Parfit prove that self-interest requires rational calculation? Does he succeed in making the case for rational irrationality, i.e. self-interested non-calculation?
  6. Why do we devote so much ethical inquiry to the sociopath and the Bad Man?
  7. Must a consequentialist be a collectivist?
  8. What demands do partial compliance place on the consequentialist?
The Scope of Persons
  1. What kind of self are we interested in? Aristotle’s nous, Christian soul, Cartesian mind, Lockean identity, Heideggerian Da-Sein, Levinasian radically passive responder, Nietzschean/Foucaultian disciplinary self-surveilling subject, Deleuzean body-without-organs, embodied subjectivity, narrative self, the Selfish Gene, communitarian situated self, etc.
  2. Parfit’s attempt to open the question of scope of personhood to analysis: time-indexing and the right-sized self.
  3. Is the right-sized self Kant’s autonomous subject? Kant’s subject is reason-responsive and psychologically determined, after all.

Proposal: Parfit Reading Group

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.

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