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On What MattersVolume Three$

Derek Parfit

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780198778608

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: December 2017

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198778608.001.0001

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How Things Might Matter

How Things Might Matter

Chapter:
(p.41) 37 How Things Might Matter
Source:
On What Matters
Author(s):

Derek Parfit

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/oso/9780198778608.003.0002

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter contends with two arguments about how things matter. It first takes up an expressivist sense of how things matter, using suffering as a starting point for conceptions of caring. Here, the expressivist argument is a claim that, when we say that suffering matters, then we are telling people to care about suffering. The chapter then turns to a refutation of the nihilistic view that nothing matters, despite the fact that nihilists mean that nothing matters in any significant normative sense. From here, the chapter grapples with philosophical disagreements regarding how things matter, and discusses the resolutions to meta-ethical disagreements brought up in a previous publication by the author.

Keywords:   suffering, expressivism, nihilism, caring, reasons to care, philosophical disagreements, meta-ethical disagreements

128 Caring and Having Reasons to Care

I am very grateful to the people who discuss my work in Peter Singer’s collection Does Anything Really Matter?. As Allan Gibbard earlier wrote: ‘it is the greatest privilege a philosopher can experience to have his thought subject to such attention so that he can come to understand matters better’.

At the end of his illuminating paper, Gibbard writes:

Parfit and I both insist that in the ordinary sense some things matter greatly—though we don’t agree on how to explain the ordinary sense.

We have no such disagreement. There are at least three senses in which we might claim that some things matter. We might mean that some things matter to people. These things matter in the psychological sense that we and others care about these things. We might instead mean that some things matter in the sense that we have reasons to care about these things. I call this the purely normative, reason-implying sense. Gibbard writes:

in saying that suffering matters, I am saying to care whether there is suffering, and if you believe what I say, you tell yourself to care whether there is suffering.

We can call this Gibbard’s expressivist sense. Though I claimed that some things matter in the normative, reason-implying sense, I didn’t claim this normative sense to be the ordinary sense.

(p.42) When people make some claim, we can ask:

Q1: What does this claim mean?

Q2: What would it be for this claim to be true?

These questions often have the same answers. When astronomers claim that stars are luminous, for example, they mean that stars radiate light, and their claim is true because stars do radiate light.

When Expressivists discuss normative claims, some of them answer only Q1. Normative claims are best explained, these people believe, by describing the attitudes or states of mind that these claims express, and these descriptions may not tell us whether and how these claims might be true. Such purely Expressivist accounts are obviously correct when applied to some claims, such as ‘You’re an angel’. This remark is seldom intended to be true. To understand the ordinary meaning of ‘You’re an angel’, it is enough to know that this remark is used to express gratitude.

Some other Expressivists believe that, though our normative claims are best described as expressing certain attitudes, most of these claims are intended to be, and might be, true. Gibbard, for example, writes:

some moral truths seem so utterly clear as to be pointless to state. It’s wrong to torture people for fun.

Gibbard also claims that

(A) suffering matters.

To understand how (A) might be true, we must know what it would be for suffering to matter. Gibbard writes:

on my view, things matter in my sense, which I explain.

But Gibbard says only that, when he claims that suffering matters, he is telling us to care whether there is suffering. This remark does not explain what it would be for suffering to matter in Gibbard’s expressivist sense. There is a contrast here between the expressivist and reason-implying senses of the claim that something matters. When we say that something matters in the reason-implying sense, we mean that we have reasons to care about this thing. This claim’s meaning is the same as what it would be for this claim to be true. We might say: (p.43)

(B) Something matters in the reason-implying sense if we have reasons to care about this thing.

Gibbard might similarly say:

(C) Something matters in the expressivist sense if…

But there is no obvious way to complete this sentence. Gibbard claims that, in saying that something matters, we are telling people to care about this thing. This might suggest that (C) could become:

(D) Something matters in the expressivist sense if we tell people to care about this thing.

But Gibbard would make no such claim. Gibbard does not believe that he could make something matter merely by telling us to care about this thing.

We might next object that, when Gibbard says ‘Care about suffering!’, he isn’t saying something that could be true. But this objection Gibbard calls ‘a shallow matter of syntax’. Though such imperatives can’t be true, they can be justified when they get things right. Doctors, for example, get things right when they tell us to stop smoking and to take exercise. Gibbard also writes:

since suffering matters, if you say that it does, you get it right, and if you say that it doesn’t, you get it wrong.

Most of us believe that, when we claim that something matters, we are, or might be, getting it right. Such beliefs, Gibbard could add, are part of what we mean. He could claim:

(E) When we say that something matters, we are both telling ourselves and others to care about this thing, and claiming that, in telling people to care, we are getting it right.

If we are getting it right, these claims about what matters would be true. Gibbard might similarly claim:

(F) When we say that some act is wrong, we are both expressing the imperative ‘No one ever act like that!’, and claiming that, in expressing this imperative, we are getting it right.

(p.44) As before, if we are getting it right, these moral claims would be true. If Gibbard widens his view in these ways, he would be an Expressivist Cognitivist.

If we accept some such view, we would need to explain how we might be getting things right. There is an obvious suggestion here. Gibbard believes that some facts are, or give us, normative reasons. As he writes:

What’s wrong with a plan to touch a hot stove? That I’d be burnt and it would intensely hurt. That’s a reason.

Gibbard could claim:

(G) When we tell ourselves and others to care about something, we would be getting it right if we all have reasons to care about this thing.

Things would matter in this expressivist cognitivist sense when and because these things matter in the reason-implying sense. Gibbard might make and defend similar claims about how, in expressing the imperative ‘No one ever act like that!’, we might be getting it right.

Larry Temkin and I both believe that some things matter in the reason-implying sense, and we believe that there are several other reason-involving normative truths. We also have similar beliefs that are meta-ethical in the sense that they are about the meaning and truth of normative claims. Reason-involving normative truths are not, we believe, natural, empirically discoverable facts, and are in this sense irreducibly normative. But some of my claims about these truths, Temkin suggests, are too extreme. I wrote that

(H) if there were no such reason-involving normative truths, I and some other people would have wasted much of our lives, since we have spent many years trying to answer questions about what we mistakenly believed to be such truths.

Temkin calls (H) deeply implausible. I also claimed that

(J) if there were no such truths, nothing would matter.

(p.45) Temkin objects:

if nothing matters, then it can’t be true that much of Parfit’s life was wasted…because ‘wasted’ is a normative notion.

Temkin here assumes that, if nothing mattered in this reason-implying sense, there would be no normative truths. This assumption seems to me too simple. Though I believe that normativity is best conceived in reason-involving ways, there are other plausible conceptions, such as those that appeal to widely accepted norms or rules. Such norms may apply to us whether or not we have reasons to do what these norms require. There are also some evaluative truths which do not imply claims about reasons. Some music, for example, is very great, but people who do not enjoy or admire this music are not failing to respond to reasons.

Nor do we need to use the concept of a reason when we distinguish between using our time well and wasting our time. It is clear that we waste our time when we look for something that we know doesn’t exist. Many theologians could plausibly believe that, if God doesn’t exist, they would have wasted some of the years that they have spent thinking about this non-existent being. I can plausibly believe that, if there were no irreducibly normative truths, I would have wasted some of the years that I have spent thinking about these non-existent truths. But Temkin’s objection is partly right. After claiming (J), I added:

Our consolation would be only that it wouldn’t matter that we had wasted much of our lives, since we would have learnt that nothing matters.

Temkin then argues:

It cannot be true that nothing matters.

It is an open question whether there are any irreducibly normative reason-involving truths.

Therefore

Whether anything matters cannot depend on whether there are any such truths.

This argument is not, I believe, valid. If we know that some things matter, but we don’t know whether there are any such reason-involving truths, (p.46) these facts would not imply that whether anything matters cannot depend on whether there are any such truths. Our conclusion should at most be that we don’t yet know whether, as I believe, there are some things that matter only because there are some reason-involving truths.

Temkin also objects that I present ‘a stark and false dichotomy’, since I should not have claimed that either my view is true, or nothing matters. Temkin writes:

Parfit may be correct that if his externalist non-natural view of normativity is mistaken, then nothing matters in his sense. And I, for one, would be very disappointed, if Parfit’s view was false…But Parfit’s sense is not the only possible sense of ‘mattering’ that is meaningful and significant; so, even if nothing mattered in Parfit’s sense, it wouldn’t follow that nihilism was true, and that nothing mattered simpliciter.

I don’t know whether I would be, like Temkin, very disappointed if I came to believe that nothing matters in this reason-implying sense. I am not glad, for example, that suffering matters. But since I believe that we have reasons to care about suffering, and that we have other, weaker reasons to care about some other things, I am trying to understand these reasons better.

Temkin asks what difference it would make if we had no such reasons. Even if nothing mattered in this reason-implying sense, Temkin claims, Nihilism would be false, since some things would matter in other ‘fairly strong’ and ‘robust’ senses. That is not, I believe, true. Temkin writes:

we are the animals for whom things matter. It matters to us whether we realize our life plans…It matters to us whether our loved ones flourish…The fact that such issues matter to us is not up for debate. They do. This is enough, seemingly, to ground the claim that some things do, indeed, matter, even if…they only matter in the sense that, and because of the fact that, they matter to creatures like us.

But when I claimed that, on some views, nothing matters, I wasn’t using the word ‘matter’ in this psychological sense. I wrote that, on some views,

there aren’t really any normative reasons. There are merely causes of behaviour. Things matter only in the sense that (p.47) some people care about these things, and these concerns can move these people to act.

Temkin’s remarks suggest that, to reject the Nihilistic view that nothing matters, it is enough to point out that some things matter to us. Peter Railton similarly wrote that things matter by mattering to people, so that

value enters the picture when mattering does. (Nihilists have thus hit on an apt phrase when they say ‘Nothing matters’.)

But when Nihilists claim that nothing matters, they don’t mean that no one cares about anything. That claim would be obviously false. Nihilists mean that nothing matters in any significant normative sense.

Temkin suggests that, even if nothing mattered in the normative, reason-implying sense, there are other, weaker normative senses in which some things would matter. Temkin does not describe any such other sense. But he writes:

there might be rival metaethical views that might explain and predict intersubjective agreement about certain value judgments…these different kinds of agreement might reasonably count as reflecting values.

Many Naturalists make such claims. Railton, for example, wrote that there would be no values in a lifeless world, but that if we add to this imagined world

some beings to whom something matters, then questions of value might have a foothold.

Railton conceded that ‘this mattering might just be desires—likes and dislikes, and their associated psychology’. Our desires, he continued, may seem

an inadequate ground for value in general or objective value in particular. As Bertrand Russell wrote:

I cannot see how to refute the argument for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself quite incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I dislike it.

(p.48) It was natural for Russell to phrase the question whether good and evil also matter in some larger, more objective sense. He put it like this: ‘Are good and evil of importance to the universe, or only to man?’ This formulation of the problem of mattering in some objective sense…makes a possible solution seem out of the question. For what could it possibly mean to say that good and evil matter to the universe—or anything remotely like that?

Railton then suggested some solutions. On the view that Railton accepted when he made these claims, our values depend on our desires, and we have no reasons to have these desires. But Railton described some ways in which, though values are ‘essentially subjective, arising from mattering’, these values might take a partly objective form. There is enough similarity in the psychology of most human beings to justify some intersubjective, response-dependent theories about aesthetic, moral, and prudential value.

Such theories, I claimed, might describe some important truths. But mattering to people is not the same as mattering even when something matters to most people, or to everyone. Railton wrote that, on his view,

what in particular will matter, or could matter, to these people will depend on what they are like…What matters to them, even when they are fully rational, need not matter to all rational beings.

Some things matter in this response-dependent sense when it is true that, after informed consideration, many people would care about these things. When Railton wrote that these things ‘need not matter to all rational beings’, he was assuming that nothing mattered in the reason-implying sense. If some things did in this sense matter, because we had decisive reasons to care about these things, fully rational beings would respond to these reasons by caring about these things.

When Temkin claims that I present ‘a stark and false dichotomy’, he also writes:

even if nothing mattered in the non-natural reason-implying sense, we would not be forced to accept some view that is (p.49) ‘akin to nihilism’, since there are many plausible meta-ethical views between these two extremes.

There are not, I believe, many such views. Nihilists believe that

(K) no one has any reasons to care about anything.

Universalists believe that

(L) we all have reasons to care about everyone’s well-being.

Of the possible views that are between these two extremes, one is the person-relative view that

(M) we each have reasons to care about our own well-being, and the well-being of those other people to whom we are related in certain ways, such as our close relatives and those we love.

Another such view is the Rational Egoist’s

(N) we each have reasons to care about only our own well-being.

Many Naturalists believe that their theories allow them to make claims like (L), (M), or (N). That, I argued, is not true. There are some normative truths which can be plausibly claimed to be natural facts. Some examples are rule-involving truths, such as truths about which acts are illegal, or contravene some widely accepted moral code, or are bad etiquette, or incorrect spellings or misuses of some word. We can explain these truths in naturalistic terms, and these truths are naturalistic facts in the sense that they might be empirically discovered. We can find out which are the acts that, in some community, are illegal, or contravene such rules. But no such claims apply, I believe, to reason-involving normative truths, such as truths about which acts are wrong, and about what we have non-moral reasons to believe, or to want, or to do. These truths cannot be explained in naturalistic terms, nor could we have empirical evidence for or against our beliefs in these truths. That is why it matters greatly whether, without being able to appeal to any such evidence, we can justifiably believe that there are some reason-involving normative truths.

(p.50) 129 Philosophical Disagreements

Temkin makes some plausible claims about how we can best respond to philosophical disagreements. He applauds my attempts to show, in my Parts Three and Five, that some of the main systematic moral theories do not, as is widely believed, deeply conflict, and that the best versions of these theories can be combined. But this cooperative and constructive spirit, Temkin writes,

seems to largely disappear in Part Six. Although Parfit continues to express the view that it is important, wherever possible, to reduce apparent areas of disagreement about metaethical issues…one has the overwhelming sense that the differences between Parfit’s position and everyone else’s are utterly unbridgeable, and that no insights of the opposing positions might usefully support or illuminate each other…Parfit offers his reader a stark either/or, all-or-nothing, proposition: either accept the kind of externalist, objectivist position that he favors, according to which there are non-natural normative facts and corresponding irreducible normative truths, or be reduced to a bleak position akin to nihilism or skepticism about values, according to which nothing—absolutely nothing!—matters.

To illustrate these claims, Temkin discusses the Internalist view about reasons for acting that was proposed and defended by such people as David Falk and Bernard Williams, and has been widely accepted. Temkin suggests that, rather than merely rejecting this Internalist view, I should have searched for ‘points of agreement or mutually supporting insights and arguments’. I do not, however, reject Williams’s view. Williams claimed that, when we say that

(O) someone has a reason to act in some way,

we mean, roughly, something like either

(P) this act would fulfil one of this person’s present fully informed desires, and aims,

or

(Q) if this person knew the relevant facts, and went through some process of rational deliberation, this person would be motivated to act in this way.

(p.51) These claims describe what Williams called the internal sense of the phrase ‘a reason for acting’. I accept all of Williams’s claims about these internal reasons. I believe that we also have some purely normative reasons of the kind that Williams calls external. Williams often claimed, I believe truly, that he didn’t understand any such concept of a reason. Since I accept all of Williams’s claims about internal reasons, and Williams made no claims about such external reasons, our views don’t conflict.

Temkin also discusses the views that I call Objectivism and Subjectivismabout Reasons. Those whom I call Subjectivists Temkin calls Internalists, but given Williams’s definition of the phrase ‘an internal reason’, this name may be misleading. My Subjectivists believe that we have reasons of the purely normative, external kind that Williams claimed that he didn’t understand. These Subjectivists are Internalists only in the different sense that, on their view, we have such external, purelynormative reasons just when, and because, we also have internal, psychological reasons. These external reasons are, they claim, given by facts that are in part about our present motivational states.

Objectivists make different claims about such purely normative practical reasons. These reasons are given, Objectivists believe, not by facts about how we might achieve our present aims, but by the facts that give us reasons both to have certain aims and to do what might achieve these aims. These are the facts that make the objects of our aims—or what we want to achieve—in some ways good, and worth achieving. I call such reasons object-given and value-based. On this view, we have no reason to do what might achieve our aims if we have no reasons to have these aims. We would have no reasons, for example, to try to achieve the worthless, irrational aims of hurting those who have hurt us, or never admitting our mistakes, or earning more than other rich people earn.

Though Temkin is an Objectivist like me, he suggests that we ought to accept some of the important insights of Subjectivism. Objectivists ought to believe that there are various close relations between our normative reasons and our present motivational states. We couldn’t have any reasons, for example, if we weren’t able to respond to reasons. In these and some other ways, Temkin suggests, these two views may not deeply disagree.

(p.52) These irenic remarks are not, I believe, true. Objectivists already accept what Temkin calls these important insights. And though these views about reasons can be stated in ways that make them seem similar, they do, I believe, deeply disagree. Since this fact is not obvious, I shall repeat some of what I wrote. Subjectivists and Objectivists might both say:

(R) What we have most reason to do, or have decisive reasons to do, is the same as what, if we were fully informed and rational, we would choose to do.

But these people would use these words to make very different claims. If Subjectivists asserted (R), their claims would be about what we would choose to do if we were fully informed, and we decided what to do in some procedurally rational way. Whether we are procedurally rational depends only on how we think about the relevant facts, and does not depend on which choices we end up making. If Objectivists asserted (R), they would instead be making claims about what we would choose to do if we were also substantively rational, because we have only aims that we have sufficient or decisive reasons to have. Subjectivists deny that we have such reasons to have any aims. They believe that, when it is true that

(S) if we were fully informed and procedurally rational, we would choose to act in some way,

this fact would make it true that

(T) we have most reason to act in this way.

Objectivists instead believe that, when it is true that

(T) we have most reason to act in some way,

this fact would make it true that

(U) if we were fully informed and both procedurally and substantively rational, we would choose to act in this way.

(p.53) To illustrate the difference between these views, we can suppose that, unless you stop smoking, you will die much younger, losing many years of happy life. According to all plausible Objectivist theories, this fact gives you a decisive normative reason to want and to try to stop smoking. If you were fully informed and substantively rational, that is what you would choose to do. What we ought rationally to choose, Objectivists believe, depends on what we have such reasons or apparent reasons to want and to do.

Suppose next that, after fully informed and merely procedurally rational deliberation, you would choose to stop smoking. These Subjectivists would then believe that you have a decisive normative reason to stop smoking. On this view, however, the inference runs the other way. Instead of believing that what we ought to choose to do depends on what we have reasons to do, these Subjectivists believe that what we have reasons to do depends on what, after such deliberation, we would choose to do. If you have a decisive reason to stop smoking, that is true only because you would choose to act in this way.

As this example shows, these theories are very different. These Objectivists appeal to normative claims about what, when we deliberate rationally, we have reasons to choose, and ought to choose. These Subjectivists appeal instead to psychological claims about what, after such deliberation, we would in fact choose. If we would in fact choose to do what we know that we shall later bitterly regret, or we would choose to get revenge on someone at a great cost to ourselves and others, or we would choose to throw away, out of pride, our only chance of a good life, these acts would be what we had most reason to do. Most Objectivists would deny that we had any reasons to act in these ways.

Given this difference between these views, Temkin’s remarks do not, I believe, show that, when we ask whether anything matters, there is a wide range of possible and plausible answers. There are, I believe, only two main possibilities. Either some things matter, in the sense that we have object-given reasons to care about these things, or nothing matters, in the sense that we have no such reasons to care about anything. There are, I have said, some different versions of Objectivism, such as the wide Universalist view that we have reasons to care about everyone’s well-being, and the narrow Egoistic view that we each have reasons to care (p.54) about only our own well-being. But either we do have reasons to care about some things, or we don’t.

When we turn to some other disagreements, however, Temkin’s objection to some of my dismissive claims seems to me justified. I should not have assumed that, since Non-Naturalism is the true meta-ethical view, Non-Naturalists have nothing to learn from other meta-ethical views. As Temkin claims, I ought instead to have looked harder for points of agreement between these different views, and asked how ‘the insights of the opposing positions might usefully support or illuminate each other’.

In this book I try to follow Temkin’s advice. When I wrote Part Six of On What Matters, I misunderstood some of the people whose meta-ethical views I rejected. Two such people are Railton and Gibbard. I now believe that, as Railton and Gibbard have separately suggested and I shall later try to show, the three of us have resolved our main meta-ethical disagreements. We hope that others will reach similar conclusions.