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What Matters in Caring: Some Reflections on Derek Parfit’s On What Matters

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This essay is prompted by the recent publication of a volume of critical essays on Derek Parfit’s On What Matters, along with a third volume of On What Matters responding to those essays. Parfit and his interlocutors often end up either barely engaging with one another, or engaging on terms that are often questionable. As others have done, I question Parfit’s radical bifurcation of a merely ‘psychological’ sense of caring, of what it is for a thing or creature to matter, and a ‘purely normative reason-implying sense’ of those things. But I question it in a distinctive way, by emphasising its moral as well as its philosophical implications. I argue that what Parfit gives us with his ‘normative, reason-implying sense’ of caring and mattering is not an account of genuine moral-normative responsiveness but a morally impoverishing rationalistic distortion of it. In the last part of the essay, I briefly undertake to put my specific criticisms on a wider canvas.

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  1. The volumes are as follows: On What Matters (Volume 1), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. On What Matters (Volume 2), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Peter Singer (ed), Does Anything Really Matter?: Essays on Parfit on Objectivity, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017; Derek Parfit, On What Matters (Volume 3), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. As well as Parfit’s replies to the essays in the Singer collection, Volume 3 of On What Matters has two further responses by Peter Railton and Alan Gibbard, and another hundred or so pages by Parfit on various topics in philosophical ethics.

  2. Notable exceptions are Parfit’s interactions with Railton and Gibbard, where Parfit plausibly claims considerable eventual convergence of his views with each of theirs.

  3. I do not claim here that any view rightly described as moral rationalist gives a distorted picture of moral thinking, even though I believe that to be true.

  4. My line of objection here has an affinity with Sharon Street’s response to Parfit in Singer’s volume. Street criticises Parfit for ‘failing to distinguish the view that there are normative truths and we have some idea of what they are, which I agree with, and the view that there are robustly attitude-independent normative truths and we have some idea of what they are’. She says that ‘it is the latter view that I am challenging’. (Singer ed., 146) The basis of her challenge is that without their having a link to our actual attitudes, our normative convictions would be shaped by nothing, and float free of our humanly lived lives. Where I speak of ‘natural dispositions’ lying in the background of our normative convictions, however, Street holds that ‘evolutionary forces shaped our normative beliefs in such a way as to make us reliable about them’ (146–7). I do not dispute that such forces have played a significant role here, but I also think there are good reasons, which I cannot go into here, for not ascribing an exclusive role to them. (I do not think it clear, by the way, that anything in Street’s view requires her to ascribe them an exclusive such role either.)

  5. I choose an example of response to a non-human creature to free the discussion from complications arising from the ‘fact’ of human rationality. I believe analogues of the criticisms I develop from reflecting on the present example apply to Parfit’s account of on our moral relations with other human beings. But given the highly refined intricacy of Parfit’s engagements with Kant and others à propos those relations, focusing my discussion there would unduly extend it and complicate it.

  6. In the passage I quoted, Parfit speaks of the worm as having ‘a kind of dignity’. The phrase suggests that the worm does ‘itself’ have a kind of worth, that it ‘normatively matters’. But the sentence that follows clearly implies that the only content of that dignity is that it would be wrong to inflict pointless pain on the creature. And that simply repeats what I am denying: that one necessarily recognises a creature as itself mattering merely in acknowledging the requirement not to impose such pain on it.

  7. This conclusion dovetails with my earlier comments on the emptiness of the ‘counting in favour of’ relation between facts and acts when the relation is wholly disconnected from various natural human responses.

  8. John McDowell, Mind and World (Harvard University Press, 1994), 82.

  9. Even Kant can be read as holding that a certain ‘spirit of doing’ is requisite for an action to have ‘moral worth’, namely that it be done ‘dutifully’.

  10. In several places in his The Retrieval of Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), Talbot Brewer argues powerfully in favour of such a claim. See especially pages 162–170.

  11. Further ‘indications of’ the view already argued for above, rather than ‘independent arguments for’ it. These remarks belong to my brief sketch of ‘the broader canvas’ I referred to earlier.

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Correspondence to Christopher Donald Cordner.

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The publication was supported within the project of Operational Programme Research, Development and Education (OP VVV/OP RDE), ‘Centre for Ethics as Study in Human Value’, registration No. CZ.02.1.01/0.0/0.0/15_003/0000425, co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund and the state budget of the Czech Republic.

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Cordner, C.D. What Matters in Caring: Some Reflections on Derek Parfit’s On What Matters. SOPHIA 58, 525–533 (2019).

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