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09 August 2011


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D.P. O'Connell

Another problem, perhaps:
Can one climb the wrong mountain for Parfit? Your account above seems to indicate that one can. What strikes me as rather extraordinary in Parfit's account, then (and I haven't read a lot of his work, just some excerpts that circulated over the past several years), is that Kantians, Contractualists, and Consequentialists all *happen* to be climbing the same mountain at all, albeit on different sides. What accounts for that? And is that account plausible? I mean, if, as you say, Eric, there is more than one mountain, and it is possible to be climbing the wrong one, then it is really quite extraordinary, isn't it, that, in the absence of some sort of teleological account, these three widely different intellectual traditions have all managed to find their way to the same mountain, and that it is the right mountain, or as you call it, Parfit's mountain (the mountain discerned by Parfit? I do wonder in what sense it is 'his'). If this account were akin to one of those rather eclectic but epistemologically maddening accounts of world religions, wherein we are all on a different mountain path to the same goal, then it wouldn't be all that surprising that we should find ourselves on the same mountain. In fact, you would expect it. But I presume here that there are many possible mountains, and that some are the 'wrong' mountains; how is it, then, that these three traditions find themselves on the same mountain in the first place? Chance? Necessity? Divine will? How?—Daniel

Michael Morris

Very interesting, Eric. There's a similar hint of panic about Parfit's earlier work too, I think: it's as if it's only by adopting his unusual approach to personal identity that he finds the possibility of death (his own?) faceable.

But surely the risk of its all having been a waste is greater on an analytic approach than on a 'great man' approach? Taking your project to be like a scientific one means acknowledging that you might turn out just to have been wrong (like Fred Hoyle and co with their steady-state theory of the universe). Since there's so much more about a 'great man' than just the truth of his opinions, something of value can survive the falsity of those opinions. In a way the excitement of the analytic approach is that it raises the stakes in this kind of way. (And the problem is that that tends to encourage too much caution.)

Eric Schliesser

Daniel, Christianity is the common cause that explains that Parfit's Kantians, Contractualists, and Consequentialists are all on the same mountain

Eric Schliesser

Michael, I tried to avoid psychoanalyse Parfit above. (But, yes, panic seems not far below the surface.)
Well, on the scientific approach even false models can be a stepping stone toward progress. They are just part of the process or journey of science. But Hoyle is a nice example of anti-monism (in activity): he was also an accomplished science fiction story teller--Bill Wimsatt would teach one of his novels in his courses.
Don't get me wrong; I am no outright advocate of the scientific model toward philosophy; excessive caution is one of it's vices--about that some other time.

Helen De Cruz

Nice piece Eric. One could make an analogy with scientific practice to say that even if a philosopher turns out to be wrong, this may still count as a good case of cognitive labor. Kitcher somewhere argues (I think in his Cognitive division of labor, J of Philosophy) that even someone like Priestley, who turned out to be mistaken in his continued bet on flogiston, did valuable work for chemistry as a discipline.
Imagine philosophy of religion if there were no atheists (or no theists) - it would be a rather dull and one sided affair, and yet one of the two positions must be wrong.

Eric Schliesser

Helen, they are both wrong!

Helen De Cruz

You mean they should both suspend judgment?

Ramon Grajo

It would be interesting to find out how much of analytic philosophy is really Christian theology, secularized or otherwise.

Eric Schliesser

Among other options.;)

Patrick Fleming

Part of what is going on here is that Parfit thinks that either non-reductive normative realism is true or nihilism is true. So if his view (non-reductive realism) is wrong, then nothing has value. His life does not have value because nothing has value.

So I think the issue is whether naturalism is true, not whether his project as a whole succeeds. If naturalism is true, then there are no normative truths. So people who have spent their life pursuing normative truths have made a terrible blunder. They have devoted their life to some impossible (perhaps, non-sensical) task.

However, I think Parfit would say that the failure of his particular normative theory would not entail that his life is a waste. That sort of philosophical failure might be valuable because it leads to the discovery of some true normative beliefs. However, if his meta-ethics is wrong, then there is no truth to discover.

Eric Schliesser

Thank you, Patrick. I am starting to think that certain moral philosophers are in the grip of the fallacy of missed alternatives. A few weeks ago I critically discussed Paul Boghossian's reductive attempt to frame these issues in terms of realism vs nihilism. So, I won't repeat my arguments here. I take Parfit's autobiographical claims (which are evidently consistent with his substantive views) as a reductio of a strand of realism that runs through contemporary meta-ethics.
By the way, devoting one's life to an impossible task does not seem like a blunder to me; from some vantage points it can even seem ennobling.

Mohan Matthen

I think that Patrick (#10) is right. Parfit has devoted his philosophical life to explicating an autonomous realm of norms. To his mind, to show that norms are not autonomous, would be the same as showing that there are no norms. This would make his world crumble. This makes sense, I think, of what Eric calls his "fanaticism".

But Eric,do you really think that this kind of realism is "really Christian theology"?


yeah, couldn't it be stoic theology e.g.?

Michael Mirer

This sort of talk always makes me think of Mr. Ramsay from Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, particularly this passage (hope this link works):

(By the way, Sandra M. Donaldson has an interesting and short article relating Ramsay to Bertrand Russell and Analytic philosophy called "Where Does Q Leave Mr. Ramsay?" that might be of interest to some here).

The point is that this is hardly a new feeling among the frustrated ambitions of academic philosophers.

Eric Schliesser

No, Mohan, I don't this kind of realism is "really Christian theology." (X is a common cause of Y, doesn't mean (these days) that Y is a species of X, or that X is identical to Y.)
For the record, I didn't mean to suggest that Parfit is speaking nonsense.


First, it seems that there is a perfectly intelligible sense in which one can waste one's life (or, at least, parts of one's life) by pursuing a failed project. Of course some projects are of the nature that even in failing they propel the rest of the endeavor forward, and hence make a contribution. But must all projects be that way? I'm thinking, for instance, of a person who spent great effort proving some beautiful results in naive set theory which failed to travel after the edifice fell apart, or, alternately, someone who spent the bulk of their life working out how many angels could dance on the head of a pin before losing the faith. There may be a sense in which these people have done right by their work just by virtue of doing anything in the field at all, maybe in terms of collegial influence on others, or perhaps in terms of the positive *expected* value of their work (even though it turned out to be void). But surely there is also an intelligible sense in which their work has been wasted, and a sense which is not indicative of any intellectual disease in the part of the evaluator.

Second, I think it is misleading to say that Parfit is in the grip of a fallacy of missed alternatives. That makes it sound like he simply has not thought of the possibility of a midway point between realism and nihilism. But he is aware that such views exist, and dedicates extensive time arguing that the possibilities they represent are not geniune: it's realism or bust. These arguments may be bad, and so he may have come under the grip of a bad argument. But I don't know if that represents any particular fallacy other than the fallacy of being wrong.

Lisa Herzog

I thought quite a bit about this. In a way, Parfit's commitment to his position is the very opposite of a certain tendency to treat philosophy as nothing but an intellectual game, which you also find quite a bit at Oxford. Compared to that, I'm deeply sympathetic to Parfit's view. The real question is whether one is prepared to be open to any kind of counter argument, and not to become fanatic, ALTHOUGH very deep personal commitments are at stake. That makes a philosopher's life look very fragile. I'm not sure whether this is how it works for Parfit, but it is a way in which it could work.

On a different note: I'm not sure whether the fact that it is a big book makes it less cooperative - hasn't Parfit endlessly discussed drafts of it with colleagues before? What's irritating about not publishing the drafts as papers, but to wait until it becomes one book is that this seems to imply that this is now the final word on certain questions. And it's not a sign of humility to think one has the final word on anything.

Eric Schliesser

Lisa, agreed. Parfit it to be praised for not treating philosophy as an intellectual game. I also agree that the philosophic life can be or seem to be very fragile. Nevertheless, I don't think the real question is whether one is prepared to be open to counter argument or not. SO, to be clear I am NOT using "fanatic" in the sense of "not open to counter-argument." Rather, I used "fanatic" in the sense of the extreme monism about what makes a life worthy/wasted.
Second, one can be cooperative and still not believe in the intellectual division of labor as a means to trying out projects that turn out to be dead ends.

Eric Schliesser

Yes, sure intellectual lives can be wasted, I don't deny the intelligibility of that. The point, however, is that the way analytic philosophy is set up to avoid letting good faith efforts go to waste--that's the beauty of it.
YOU are also in the grip of the fallacy of missed alternatives. Maybe a) to preserve moral truth and avoid extreme monism the meta-ethical question should not be asked; b) maybe the answer is agnosticism--it is striking that On What Matters does not appear to use the word once. ("Skeptic" seems to be treated as synonym for "naturalist" or "nihilist." [Wittgenstein is treated as a naturalist, II.523, rather than a therapist), etc.

Lisa H

Fair enough. Maybe Parfit only meant that his life *qua philosopher* (not qua other things) might have been wasted. And there is an important issue there about whether academic philosophy has become too much McKinsey working style (or monastic style, for some...) to have much time for life qua something else. That's maybe one of the reasons why the thought that one might happen to work one a dead end in the divided labour of philosophy seems quite unbearable.

Eric Schliesser

Lisa, I am also objecting to a conception of philosophy in which being on the wrong mountain ends up being a wasted life.

Lisa H

Yes, I agree. But most people prefer to climb the right mountain, and it seems right that people should *try* to climb the right mountain. But that does not diminish the value of climbing the wrong mountain. Unless people stick to it even when it becomes quite obvious that it is the wrong mountain...

Eric Schliesser

Agreed, mostly. Sticking to the wrong mountain may also have a certain charm.

Dennis Des Chene

I looked at Sidgwick. He writes so well that I’m going to quote here the whole last paragraph of Methods:

“To all this it may be replied that the existence of a desire for perfect rationality in human life, or in the world, does not —any more than the existence of any other elevated desire— furnish a proof of the existence of their object; that, indeed, it can scarcely afford a strong presumption in favour of this conclusion, considering the large proportion of human desires that experience shews to be destined to disappointment. But it must be urged again that we do not fully conceive the argument in favour of the assumption that we are now considering, if we merely represent this as satisfying certain desires. We have rather to regard it as an hypothesis logically necessary to avoid a fundamental contradiction in one chief department of our thought. Whether this necessity constitutes a sufficient reason for accepting this hypothesis, is a question which I cannot here attempt adequately to discuss; as it could not be satisfactorily answered, without a general examination of the criteria of true and false beliefs. If we find that in other departments of our supposed knowledge propositions are commonly taken to be true, which yet seem to rest on no other grounds than that we have a strong disposition to accept them, and that they are indispensable to the systematic coherence of our beliefs; it will be difficult to reject a similarly supported assumption in ethics, without opening the door to universal scepticism. If on the other hand it appears that the edifice of physical science is really constructed of conclusions logically inferred from premises intuitively known; it will be reasonable to demand that our practical judgments should either be based on an equally firm foundation or should abandon all claim to philosophic certainty”.

Sidgwick too may be committing the “fallacy of neglected alternatives”. The last part of the argument is in effect a dilemma: either in other departments a strong disposition to accept is sufficient grounds (and ethics is no worse off than those other departments) or in those same other departments (now significantly restricted to “physical science”) the grounds are [required to be] demonstration from intuitively known foundations (in which case ethics must submit to the same demand or be lost). It seems to me that most philosophers now would accept that there is occupiable real estate between the two horns of the dilemma…

To continue with Mohan’s point (and Eric’s and Patrick’s): one might well experience a great disappointment if, having spent one’s career trying to prove the Continuum Hypothesis (fortunately for me, I spent just a month or so in ninth grade…) only to learn of Gödel’s and Cohen’s work. The ground of the disappointment is the belief that a proof was possible. I have a feeling that Parfit would take a knockdown argument for naturalism to be not merely a refutation of his own view but a demonstration that moral argument is futile (in the same way that purported proofs of the Continuum Hypothesis can now be seen to be futile). It’s not merely that the questions are hard to settle, but that the problem itself has been whisked into nonexistence.

Clearly a certain conception of philosophical inquiry and of what counts as success lies behind Parfit’s statement: philosophy is to its subject matter what science is to its, namely, an inquiry into the properties and relations that in fact the objects it takes itself to be studying possess. And if those objects turn out to be fictions, then philosophy, like theology (in some people’s view), is a vain endeavor. It might have “a certain charm”, it might even (like the industry that surrounds Twilight and other such pop phenomena) be lucrative and in that sense “matter”, but when you get right down to it, philosophy in that circumstance would not be worth the attention of serious adults.

Depressing if true. I think philosophy should not make itself hostage to this conception. The physicist or more pertinently the neuroscientist comes to us and says: so your business is to inquire into the properties and relations of items in your domain of interest; what have you found out about them? Timothy Williamson thinks he can give a decent answer to that question (in “Must do better”), but his answer mostly points to the elaboration of various discourses within philosophy, and not to the discoveries that the physicist wants to hear about. So the physicist or the neuroscientist go away empty-handed (on the “science” conception of philosophy), and soon will be whispering to the dean that philosophy has no results. That would be bad news for us, or at least for the non-historians…

Eric Schliesser

Dennis, this is really a separate post! Thanks for your great reflections.
If physics decisively discovered there was no dark matter, say, or no Higgs particle that would not be a waste--on the contrary, it would open up interesting new questions. (One does not need to agree with Popper, to acknowledge this.) This is the conception of philosophy that scientific, analytic philosophers embraced.


Analytic philosophy may be as such to minimize the waste that results from failed projects, but it is another thing entirely to say that it absolutely eliminates it. So I do not think that it is somehow anti-analytic or distressingly fundamentalist to regard certain projects as having been wastes of effort, and, indeed, to consider one's own project vulnerable to counting among them. Of course, this is different from thinking oneself wrong or foolish to pursue that project: sometimes wise and prudent choices still lead to ultimate waste.

Nonetheless, I do think there is something odd about Parfit lamenting that his philosophical life would have been a waste if it turned out that realism were false--but it is something else entirely. Namely, on his view, if realism is false then nothing matters. But if nothing matters, then his years could not have been spent any better or worse than they actually were, so it seems that they also could not have been wasted (waste implies a valuable, but unrealized, alternative; no possible differences in value means no waste).

In any case, I am surprised that you say I am in the grip of a fallacy of missed alternatives, given that I have not in fact specified anything like my own meta-ethical view. So I am not sure what your point is with regards to the a) and b) you give. I am guessing that your point is that Parfit fails to consider these (and hence misses them), and that in failing to recognize that Parfit misses them I too must have missed them; if so, then I am not sure exactly what to say, other than that I am not sure what you mean by a, and that b strikes me as extremely implausible. Perhaps our different ideas on whether Parfit has or has not missed certain alternative views is going to just be dependent on which views we take to be serious candidates, and it's hard to productively argue about that in the abstract.

D.P. O'Connell

Fair enough. I will buy that.

Eric Schliesser

It is (to me) an interesting question how the scientific model can be wasteful in philosophy (or science). The underlying intuition, I think, is that if the (a?) community works on some projects (and nobody denies Parfit is a central node in several of these) then their record of successes and failures will count as progress. I suspect that isolated, lonely projects that go nowhere can be thought wasteful on this model.
Yes, nice point about the potential practical contradiction in Parfit's position. (But maybe the contradiction disappears if we don't read Parfit as lamenting, but just as stating a fact?)
Your rhetoric "serious candidates," "extremely implausible," and the old saw, "I am not sure what you mean," is clever. (I am not above using rhetoric.) But it is (I think) a fact that Parfit does not explore agnosticism as a serious option. There is nothing confusing or incoherent about agnosticism as a position--and, importantly, it is not reducible to nihilism. Maybe Parfit discusses the position in other terms (I welcome learning about this from serious students of Parfit)? I am sad to hear you don't think agnosticism is a serious position; I would love to hear your arguments.
I am not surprised you find option a hard to comprehend. Nevertheless, the very idea that to preserve truth we should not inquire too hard into them maybe the answer awaiting you at the top of your mountain.

Eric Schliesser

PS nobody thinks that Michelson-Morley wasted their lives. Variants of their experiment still get performed, in fact.


Interestingly enough, Michelson had doubts about special relativity, and regrets for the demise of the ether, even as late as 1929. You might say that on his life history has returned a split verdict: he was a superb experimenter (an “artist of science”, Einstein said) but on the theoretical side he sided with an obsolescent doctrine. I doubt that anyone would call his life “wasted”, and yet there is a bit of sadness to it, just as, in a way, there is to Einstein’s—though his search for a unified theory has in a way been vindicated by subsequent events.

Eric Schliesser

It might be useful to distinguish between the subjective sense of waste (which Parfit might feel if his project fails) and the objective sense of waste (from the vantage point of community progress).

Michael Conboy

I didn't look at the NDPR review yet, but my sense while reading Eric's post was that Parfit might be invoking something like Williams-stlye 'moral luck': the idea that whether one's life as a whole turns out to be justified depends on the objective outcome or certain key 'projects' which are typically very few and highly contingent in outcome. So if developing this theory was Parfit's life-defining project in this (it must be admitted, rather grandiose) sense, and that theory turned out to be objectively wrong, it would follow that his life was in this sense a failure, a waste -- even if he did manage, on the side, to be a respected "husband, father, and captain of the popinjay shooting club" (to quote another philosopher prone to starkly totalizing conceptions of human meaning.)

If that is correct, Parfit's remarks may be better regarded as a consequence in the first place of his conception of *life*, not his conception of *philosophy*. Of course the latter is relevant -- I take it only certain sorts of projects have the structure required to support existential grandiosity, and the outcome of moral philosophy in particular is intimately linked to the issue of what (if anything) has value -- but it would certainly not follow that Parfit endorses 'human monism' in the sense of thinking that this is the only project that is really worthwhile. Rather, it is just the project which (of the potentially really worthwhile ones) happens to be his. Does that sound compatible with your reading, Eric?

Eric Schliesser

Michael, thank you for these terrific reflections! And for quoting a philosopher unjustly neglected in Leiter's most recent poll!
In My original post I slide from a connection of philosophy to the examined life--and I did so without much reflection. I agree with you that on some (ruling-plan?) conceptions of meaningful lives, Parfit's position makes a lot of sense. No argument from me. But my point of invoking the roots of analytic philosophy is to say that 'we' have an alternative conception at hand, one in which a life in enquiry can be justified in terms of contribution to the general philosophic endeavor (which has a kind of collective output--that requires failed individual projects).

Eric Schliesser

Oops..'connection' should be 'conception.'


Eric, when you say it might be the case that "to preserve truth we should not inquire too hard into them," and that this may be the answer awaiting atop the mountain, I read you as making something like the point Korsgaard attributes to Hume in Sources: that the theoretical 'anatomical' knowledge of morality might undermine the practical 'painterly' love of it, and as such that the anatomical knowledge might need be buried in order to preserve a salutary social order. Or, in Parfit's terms, that meta-ethical knowledge that there are no moral facts might be dangerous, and such that we must bury it in order to secure a good social outcome. But if it were really true that there were no moral facts, in Parfit's sense, then there is no sense to be made of the claim that we must bury that knowledge for the sake of the social order--to say that we must do so is to express confidence in the goodness of the social order, which is a moral fact if anything is, and hence confidence in the falseness of the claim that there are no moral facts. So it seems self-contradictory to hold both that 1) metaethics shows us that there are no moral facts, and 2) we must hide that result for the sake of some good.

The reason I find agnosticism about Parfitian moral facts implausible is due to their particular character. They are necessary, holding in either all worlds or none, and the people disagreeing over them don't seem to claim that there is some interesting further evidence that could come in (perhaps moral consensus would count as important evidence, but also perhaps it would not). Rather, one of the central objections to Parfitian moral facts are that they are metaphysically impossible (queer) and so they simply can't exist (here or anywhere). So it seems that to be agnostic one would already have to agree substantially with Parfit in that one would have to think that said facts were not so metaphysically queer as to be impossible, but then one would also have to think that there was something missing from our epistemic picture which we would need to rule them in or out, but I am having trouble imagining what that additional thing could be.

Eric Schliesser

Yes, the gist of my thought is analogous to Korsgaard's attribution to Hume in Sources. (I have written about that, in fact: Articulating Practices as Reasons: But, you import some non-trivial (hyper-realist) assumptions into your analysis of the thought. In particular, it is not impossible that the very process of a certain kind of meta-ethical inquiry dissolves the very truth it searches out. (This is not my position; I see meta-ethical inquiry [a second order, if not third-order enterprise] as epiphenomenal to moral truth.) You seem to think that moral truth must be entirely independent of the meta-ethical inquiries about it. But that is begging the question. So, what you do not take seriously, is the possibility that meta-ethical inquiry is itself the potential cause of the destruction of moral truth. Here's a quick analogy: try explaining an objectively funny joke to somebody.

To be agnostic about Parfitian moral facts is not so strange. After reflection, I may come to believe that human inquiry is incapable of deciding whether such facts are impossible or necessary in our world. (An agnostic may grant that they are possible metaphysically, but that epistemically we are badly situated to settle any fact of the matter about such entities. Unlike with, say, mathematical entities we cannot point to a successful scientific practice that presupposes such Parfitian moral facts.


There are a couple ways of construing the claim that meta-ethical inquiry is capable of destroying the moral truths it searches out. One might think, for instance, that different moral truths apply to people in different epistemic situations, and hence that by changing one's epistemic situation one might change the moral truths that so apply. But I imagine you intend the stronger thesis that meta-ethical inquiry actually destroys the moral truth itself. Such a position seems like it would have to posit some dependence relation between the moral truth and culture or opinion--how else could meta-ethical reflection destroy moral truth, except by changing or destroying some such base that determines it? As such, I imagine that such a theory would fall under Parfit's general critiques of subjectivist theories. Of course, Parfit's arguments against subjectivist theories might be bad. But he would at least be cleared of the charges of question-begging and ignoring important alternatives.

I imagine that many realists would claim that Parfitian moral facts actually are presupposed by many of our practices (thought perhaps not the scientific ones). For instance, they would might claim that our practice of going about doing things presupposes for its intelligibility that some things are of value in a way that can only be understood in terms of moral facts. Surely many people would dispute that. If that dispute is solvable, one way or the other, it seems to take us closer to an answer. So it seems that agnosticism on this question would have to rest on the thought that we are systematically unable to resolve that sort of dispute. As such, I think what struck me as strange about agnosticism here is that I don't understand what separates it from all sorts of other philosophical issues: for instance, why agnosticism about moral facts but not agnosticism about physicalism, or animal rights, or interpretations of probability, or whatever other debate philosophers are having? I assume you're not proposing blanket agnosticism about vexed philosophical questions, so I am wondering what is special about the case of moral facts.

Eric Schliesser

I was not doing special pleading on behalf of agnosticism more generally (although I am sympathetic to the idea that if a dispute genuinely "counts" as "philosophical," it probably is unsolvable). All I am pointing out is that meta-ethical agnosticism (as distinct from skepticism) seems to fall in the category of overlooked alternatives. (I am certainly willing to be corrected on this by anybody that reads the book!)

Let's stipulate -- for the sake of argument -- that moral truth (of the sort investigated in meta-ethics) is an objective fact (itself independent from culture or opinion). Moreover, let's also stipulate that moral truth is independent from moral practice.
Now let's allow that the very process of inquiry can impact the world objectively. This is trivially true in the sciences; think of the radiation that is released in nuclear experimenting. (I don't need to talk about quantum measurements.) So, all that's required for the claim that meta-ethical inquiry can undermine/destroy moral truth to be possible is that meta-ethical inquiry can have an impact on the objective moral world. I don't see why this possibility has to rely on a subjective base. All it requires is that Parfitian moral facts are not completely immunized from the consequences of inquiry. This is not a strange requirement because inquiry must interact with Parfitian moral facts somehow (by perception, language, intuition, whatever).


Since Parfit is a non-naturalist, on his view physical science and the attendant physical facts are the wrong model for ethics and moral facts. Instead, the right model is mathematics and mathematical facts. Mathematical facts, unlike physical facts, are immunized from the consequences of inquiry: it is not clear how mathematical (or meta-mathematical) investigation could actually change mathematical facts, as opposed to illuminating the facts that were always already there. And thus, so too does the same hold between meta-ethical investigation and ethical fact. Again, this is a theory that one might not buy for any number of reasons: because one does not think ethics is like math, because one has a different view of math itself, and so on. But it is also a theory that Parfit certainly argues for--at least, he definitely dedicates energy to attempting to show that naturalism must be wrong, although I do not know whether he's actually argued for this particular picture of math--so I don't think he can really be classified as having ignored this alternative.

I think Parfit actually does have a Pascal's wager-style argument in On What Matters designed to convince the agnostic to go along with him practically--it's along the lines of: "if there are moral facts, things matter; if there are no moral facts, nothing matters; therefore you should act as if there are moral facts because that's your only chance at having what you do matter." I wish I could cite it, but I've only read parts of the book and haven't taken good notes, so you can also go ahead and take my reconstruction with a grain of salt. But even if we think that an argument like that is convincing, it doesn't close off agnosticism as the correct theoretical belief. What to make of it in that role is difficult; I personally tend to think that if one accepts epistemic normativity then one should also accept practical normativity, so holding agnosticism as the epistemically correct position on moral facts seems like a bad plan from that perspective. But I don't know what Parfit himself would necessarily say.

Eric Schliesser

First, the more one pushes mathematics as an analogy, the more one opens the door to either conventionalism and constructivism (neither naturalism in the sense you describe) or (since popularity of Zermelo style [Quine-Putnam] indispensability arguments) even empirical realism about moral facts. (Surely some moral facts/virtues are indispensable to the very possibility of empirical science, etc.)
Moreover, it is not entirely true that mathematical facts are entirely immune from the practice. Recent work on proof can allow later steps in the inquiry to revise the earlier status of steps in the proof.
The version of Pascal's wager that you present allows the meta-ethical agnostic to engage in moral practice. No argument from me (but I am suspicious about the "only" in only chance there.)

Richard Yetter Chappell

Eric - As others have noted, Parfit emphatically does not endorse the general radical claim that "there is no philosophic value (pure waste) in failure." (It might be worth updating your post to reflect this, so as not to mislead the casual reader.)

Parfit's claim is quite specific: If metaethical naturalism is true, then (he argues) there would be nothing substantive for first-order normative inquiry to be about. It would be like arguing about whether the Pope is a bachelor -- a mere matter of linguistic ignorance, at best. There's no deep further fact there (according to naturalism) for us to disagree about, once we've settled the natural facts (which are typically not in dispute amongst normative theorists).

You may disagree with his arguments, but it's hardly "fanatical" to think that it's a waste of time to engage in verbal disputes where nothing of substance is at issue.

Parfit is quite explicit (on p.367-8 of vol 2) that -- as a contrary example -- if metaethical naturalists were mistaken, their (philosophical) efforts would not have been in vain: "When Naturalists develop theories
about what it is for acts to be right or wrong, we can often revise these people’s theories, so that these theories instead make claims about what makes acts right or wrong, in one or more irreducibly normative senses. When so revised, some of these theories would make plausible and important claims."

So Parfit is not really an example of the sort of "fanatic" you're concerned with here.

Eric Schliesser

Thank you for your response, Richard. (I thought this exchange had died out.) I am afraid I am going to disappoint you.
First, what's the actual evidence that Parfit does not endorse the more general, radical claim (that is, if he is wrong, there is no value)?
Second, you, too, play the game (on his behalf) of a) suggesting that option space is either Parfitian moral facts or naturalism; b) suggesting that if naturalism is true, then there is no reasoned disagreement possible (as if, naturalism can't allow that inquiry can help settle/create/discover moral facts.) To characterize all of the other options other than one's own as being akin to verbal disputes is tantamount to misrepresenting 2500 years of moral inquiry (allowing that moral naturalism has roots in Epicurean, Aristotelian, and even late Platonic thought).
Third, the passage you cite (367-8 vol ii) is nothing more than a backhanded compliment.
Fourth, the mere fact that one argues is not evidence one is not a fanatic, that is, "a person filled with excessive and single-minded zeal" (OED). (Cf. Inquisition ca 1500.)

Richard Yetter Chappell

Eric, the general view you discuss in the original post is that "there is no philosophic value (pure waste) in failure". But I just quoted a passage wherein Parfit gives an explicit example of a view that would not be a pure waste, even if (as Parfit believes) it turns out to be false. So we see that Parfit does not hold the general view that (all) mistaken philosophical views are ipso facto worthless.

Did you not mean to attribute this view to him? Perhaps you merely mean to attribute the weaker claim that some (not all) philosophical mistakes are "pure waste"? That's not the impression given by the OP, however.

Indrek Reiland

Mark Schroeder's forthcoming paper "What Matters About Metaethics" should also be of interest in this regard:

David Auerbach

That passage from Reasons and Persons struck me the first time I read it and has stayed with me ever since. It's worth quoting.

"When I believed that my existence was such a further fact, I seemed imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air."

If Parfit is the sort of person who genuinely derived comfort from such an outlook and particularly the *rightness* of such an outlook (and it seems that he is), that links with the urgency present in his statements above.

Eric Schliesser

Yes, very interesting!

Eric Schliesser

Richard, the only reason that Parfit doesn't hold "that (all) mistaken philosophical views are ipso facto worthless" is conditioned on HIS position being true.(This is what makes him a fanatic!) Or is there another way of reading Parfitian "revision"? Once his view is false then all philosophical views are worthless (for him--again, I am open to the idea that we should read his claim purely psychological). Or do you have evidence to the contrary?


So, maybe someone already pointed this out already. But one of the things I remember most about Sidgwick was something my prof (Rob Shaver, a Sidgwick and Ross scholar) told me: that Sidgwick had once said he wanted to write a book that ended in failure. As I recall, he ends Methods by basically saying he can't choose between egoism and utilitarianism (it has been a LONG time since I read him, so please correct me if I am wrong.)

I can't speak for Ross, but Sidgwick as I read him, and was taught him, embodied the ideals of analytic philosophy Eric speaks of. However radical Parfit's "fanaticism" is, I think it is bizarre that he groups Sidgwick in with himself, given that Sidgwick saw the grim specter of normative agnosticism, and was unafraid ( I remember anyway). Indeed, for him to avoid such a conclusion, if reason led him there, WOULD have been a waste of his efforts.

Eric Schliesser

Brendan, thank you! In my original post I expressed astonishment by Parfit's use of Sidgwick. I am, however, no Sidgwick scholar, and don't really have time to look at the matter now. I have, however, long thought that in echoing Rawls, Tom Hurka's comment on the Leiter report <> to the effect that Sidgwick is really the founder of analytic philosophy has considerable truth to it. So your comments chime with my prejudices!

Since I wrote my original blog, I found this fine and useful piece by Gary Banham that touches on related issues:

Isaac Stewart

Just a minor bone to pick with your metaphilosophical point in the first paragraph. Why is the magisterial “great man” approach to philosophy opposed to the scientific teamwork approach? It seems that one player can go the extra yard, make extraordinary leaps, while still relying on every one of her team members. Everyone’s efforts can still matter.

This holds in the natural sciences, which you present as a contrast case: even there, from time to time, great leaps are made by single people with singularly earth-shattering insights -- but everyone else’s efforts and findings matter, too. And it occurs in anglophone philosophy, too, even among new generations of decidedly “analytic” philosophers. To take a recent example, the paradigm-shifting insights of, say, David Chalmers have transformed the field of consciousness, even though everyone’s work in this subfield continues to enrich our understanding. A similar point could be made about Saul Kripke or David Lewis or Nancy Cartwright or Ruth Barcan-Marcus. Or Harry Frankfurt. In fact, given the central role of conceptual analysis (yeah, yeah, I know, but still…) to the discipline, it should be no surprise that great, dramatic steps continue to be taken in the minds of individuals.

We can’t all think as big or as interestingly as these giants. And some of us are more collaborative by nature. But it’s pure projectionism (monism? fundamentalism?) to try, therefore, to recast analytic philosophy in our baby-stepping image alone, and ignore the invaluable role the “great man/woman” continues to play.

Eric Schliesser

Isaac, I was making the historical point about the founding of analytic philosophy (to be found in the writings of, say, a lot of folk associated with scientific philosophy). It is, of course, worth asking to what degree their picture is accurate of scientific practice (then and now) and the image of science presented to us by scientific education and PR machines (then and now). It is also worth asking to what degree philosophy (in the 'Analytic' mode) has dispensed with the great man approach. Certainly the figure Wittgenstein was an immediate and problematic counterexample to the vision promoted by the founders.
Nevertheless, as your list of names of "giants" continues to expand, it becomes self-refuting. (It is also worth asking how "dramatic" the steps are that you simply assert. In context most of the great steps are prefigured by and building on lots of baby steps.)
By the way, nobody denies that on the scientific model some can make more contributions to others. (On the contrary, scientific funding agencies rely on empirical evidence that suggest that a small number of scientists make most of the contributions as measured by citations. These funding agencies then try to pick the winners and shower funds on them--I know, I am a beneficiary of the largess.)

Remy Debes

Nice post, Eric. I just read it after my weekly Leiter-checkin. I too was dismayed by Parfit's remarks about a worthwhile life (as Mark reports them). Quite apart from the majority of questions discussed so far about the philosophical or intellectual value of failed philosophical or intellectual pursuits, I kept thinking:

If, after a devastating day of reading a total and convincing rejection of my interpretation of Adam Smith or work on human dignity (which will never happen, of course) - if I should return home, give my three year old daughter a shoulder ride around the block, give a bath to my three month old daughter, tuck them both into bed, spend a few moments commenting on a colleague's work in progress, sip a late scotch with my wife discussing her day, and, after all this, lay in bed in the quiet of my home thinking to myself, "Yes, Remy, your family and friends love you, your conscience is clear, and you are out of debt; but nevertheless, you must now admit your life so far has been wasted" - then I think I would, or ought to, throw myself off a cliff.

Eric Schliesser

Thanks, Remy. But rather than throwing yourself of that cliff, why not climb Parfit's mountain?;)

Tina Shoebb

You quote the OED as saying a fanatic is ‘a person filled with excessive and single-minded zeal".

How do you prove what is the right amount of zeal to have, and that Parfit is filled with excessive zeal?

Here is someone who is one of the people best placed in the world to come up with an improved account of ethics, which if you take ethics seriously, you will think really matters – making a substantial contribution to making the world a better place, reducing suffering, promoting right action…

Surely it is right for him to have a very great amount of zeal given his talent, his situation and the importance of his task. How do you justify claiming his zeal is excessive?

Tina Shoebb

And thus, how do you justify calling him a fanatic...

Eric Schliesser

Tina, I judge Parfit by his public utterances and the consequences of these. It's because I think ethics matters (certainly more than meta-ethics) that I take these seriously. Above I offered several arguments and suggestions why his comments are fanatical. Your counter suggestion suggests that the end (improved accounts of ethics) should make us overlook the perniciousness of the monism he promotes? (Again, I allow that his comments are merely autobiographical.)

Remy Debes

Answer: While I enjoy a good climb, I find the valleys, ravines, and, above all, caves, more interesting. Likewise all that creepth there. Besides, mountain tops that rise to high are suffocating, and, as Hume might have said, were he inclined to the analogy, can't be inhabited for long.

Eric Schliesser

For a moment I thought you were going to quote Nietzsche!

Tina Shoebb

There is a difference between disagreeing with Parfit’s ethical views and viewing him as displaying excessive zeal in trying to come up with the correct ethical account. It seems reasonable to think he is right to have very great zeal in trying to come up with the correct ethical account. You could accept this – and thus accept that he is not a fanatic – whilst still thinking the ethical views which he has arrived at are wrong and pernicious.

(For the record, I think he is still on the lower slopes of the mountain, nowhere near the top, but he is still more interesting than most other ethicists, and I do not think his ethical views are pernicious; however that is a separate matter).

Eric Schliesser

Tina, thanks for sticking with this. The zeal is not that he is trying to come up with the correct ethical account. And, of course, one can disagree with his views and not think they are wrong and pernicious. I think that being a meta-ethical objectivist need not be fanatical at all--there are lots of respectable arguments for the position.
But it turns out that the situation is not symmetric. For his immoderate zeal is displayed by two side-effects of his ethical search: a) if his (meta-ethical position) is not the truth there is no value at all, which displays remarkable immodesty (if not contempt for the seriousness of alternative approaches); the same side of that coin is b) he frames his (main) opponents' views as a species of nihilism (and in the process avoids evaluating available alternatives). This is really tantamount to saying that alternative approaches are delusional.
But maybe we are having a semantic disagreement. In what way do you think his views are pernicious (if they are not fanatical/zealous)?

Tina Shoebb

Hi Eric

Thanks for your message. Actually I think you may have misread my post – or misposted – I did not write that I think Parfit’s views are pernicious… I don’t think they are; well, no more so than any other consequentialist, and less so than subjectivists, relativists etc… ;-)

I have spent some time re-reading your posts and thinking about them. I would appreciate some clarification as there are a number of different things combined in your OP and I do not know how they are supposed to relate, or what the individual arguments for each are supposed to be.

1) Normative ethics – you think he is wrong?
2) Metaethics – you think he is wrong?
3) You think something about him or his work is pernicious – what exactly?
4) You attack his monism – what form of monism did you have in mind?
5) You claim he is a fanatic
6) You think that there is something wrong with his claim that much of his life will have been wasted if his theory is wrong.

If you have limited time then leave the first two to one side – those are the meat and drink of philosophical discussion. What was unusual about your OP was that it was a personal attack on Parfit as an individual – indicating psychological flaws. It is this that it is important to clarify and substantiate.

I have given some grounds for thinking that it is not correct to call Parfit a fanatic. (I could add that he also has interests other than philosophy – for example he has a couple of books of architectural photographs coming out – so not only is his great zeal appropriate, he is not single minded. Thus by the definition you gave, he is not a fanatic).

I also cannot understand your objection to his cliam that *much* of his life will have been wasted if his theory is wrong. In your OP you talk of ‘pure’ waste – but that is not what he says. Take an analogy. If someone spends his life building a bridge which will greatly benefit many people, and then at the end of his life when the bridge is nearly completed, the bridge collapses, then we would say much of his life has been wasted. Parfit has spent his life building a theory, a system of thought, and if it collapses then much of his life has been wasted. Not all. He may have taught a lot of people along the way, encourage others in their endeavours who may succeed where he fails, had good friendships, taken great photos and so. But given he has spent much of his life on constructing these ideas, if they collapse or fail or are counterproductive (‘pernicious’) then he has wasted much of his life. That just seems a very natural, common sense way of talking. Am I missing something?

Best wishes


Eric Schliesser

Good to hear about Parfit's wide intellectual interests.
You ignore my argument about the nature of analytic philosophy in which even failed projects are worthy; you may want to read Lance's account of Hempel. The common way of speaking is philosophically misleading.

The inference, 'if I am wrong --> there is no value' is what I object to. That is the mark of a fanatic.
By the way, I think in the two other wastes quotes, Parfit doesn't qualify the claim, but I won't have time to check for ten days or so.

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