Saturday, April 11, 2009

Parfit's Nose-Blowing Example

As previously noted, Parfit helpfully distinguishes right-making properties (e.g. maximizing happiness) from the property of being right. But he supports this with a dubious analogy:
Suppose that some rude person said, "Blowing your nose is what you ought to do." This person would not mean, "The property of blowing your nose is the same as the property of being what you ought to do." That claim would be absurd. That person would mean, "Blowing your nose is, or has the different property of being, what you ought to do." In the same way, "maximizing happiness is what we ought to do" means "maximizing happiness is, or has the different property of being, what we ought to do."

But there's an important disanalogy here. The utilitarian claims that maximizing happiness exhaustively specifies what we ought to do (i.e. in every situation). Parfit's imagined rude person is presumably making a very different sort of claim. He merely claims that blowing your nose is what you ought to do in this case. If he were making the same sort of claim as the utilitarian -- if he were claiming that an act is right just in case it is an act of nose-blowing -- that would indeed be "absurd". But it would be an absurd normative claim. It is less obvious that there is any additional absurdity in moving from this normative claim to the meta-ethical claim Parfit wishes to deride, i.e. that the coextensive properties are thereby identical.

So, while I agree with Parfit's conclusion, I don't think this particular example provides much support for it. The two cases aren't functioning "in the same way" at all. The rude person is very obviously using the 'is' of predication, in merely talking about a particular instance of 'what we ought to do'. The (e.g. utilitarian) normative theorist makes much more expansive claims about 'what we ought to do' (not just here and now, but in all cases), which at least opens the possibility that they are using the 'is' of identity.


  1. Parfit is equivocating between two different meanings of "X is what you ought to do." It depends on what the meaning of "is" is. It can mean, "On this particular occasion, you should do X." Or it can mean, "I subscribe to an ethical theory that equates doing the right thing with doing X." And I'm sure there are other shades of meaning in between.

  2. Could Parfit be implying (I haven't read the example in context) that one still has to justify their position? Going to your previous post about parfit, one could apply his example to utilitarians.

    (J) people can experience happiness, and that
    (K) the fact stated by (J) gives you reason to maximize happiness (or at least, not not maximize happiness)

    I think it's obvious that Parfit understands the different uses of "is", but is still trying to point out that it is still necessary to explain WHY I should care that people can experience happiness.

    We take it for granted that "blowing your nose" is equivalent to "what we ought to do". Likewise, utilitarians take it for granted that "maximizing happiness" is equivalent to "what we ought to do". It doesn't really matter whether we are talking about "in this case" or "in all cases", one must still explain why "maximizing happiness" has normative force.

    Am I totally off?

  3. I think it's obvious that Parfit understands the different uses of "is", but is still trying to point out that it is still necessary to explain WHY I should care that people can experience happiness.

    I agree that we can safely assume that Parfit recognizes the different uses of "is."

    But then, I think we can also safely assume that he realizes that utilitarianism requires justifications beyond simply asserting that you should maximize happiness.

  4. Haha, touche

    But which di you think we'd benefit more from pointing out?

  5. Sorry, basically, I just don't see why pointing this out is so important about pointing this out. Sure, it is much more absurd than saying "maximizing happiness" is equivalent to "what you ought to do", but anyone in their right mind knows that. I mean, I guess it is right to point out that the meta-ethical claim shouldn't be thought of as absurd, but I don't know, I didn't think about it as him saying "maximizing happiness" as an ethic is absurd, just that it would be absurd to claim it is without question.

    Am I saying this right?

  6. But which di you think we'd benefit more from pointing out?

    Frankly, I don't think we get a huge benefit from pointing either of them out. I don't think it's clear where Parfit was getting confused. But I'm not seeing the point of dwelling on his oddly chosen analogy. Is anyone actually claiming that utilitarians can justify their theory simply by defining "what you ought to do" as "maximizing happiness"? If so, then we could more easily critique them directly, rather than puzzle through Parfit's remarks.

  7. Roscoe - you're suggesting a claim in normative ethics. That's not what Parfit is talking about here. He's concerned with a meta-ethical question: assuming utilitarianism (or whatever) is true, should we then think that the property of maximizing happiness is the same as the property of being what we ought to do? Or should the utilitarian instead claim that these are two distinct properties (that are necessarily coextensive)?

    John - likewise, the point is not to justify utilitarianism, or any other claim in normative ethics. This is meta-ethics. The overarching question is: what would it mean for some normative ethical theory (e.g. utilitarianism) to be true?

  8. It can't be that maximizing happiness is the same thing as what-we-ought-to-do. While a utilitarian does believe that maximizing happiness "is" what we ought to do, that's not the definitional sense of "is." Otherwise, there'd be no way for a utilitarian to communicate with other people who don't happen to subscribe to utilitarianism. For example, let's say I'm a utilitarian, and I'm going to deliver a 10-minute talk on "Why I'm a utilitarian," and, of course, trying to convince my audience in the correctness of the theory. Surely in this talk I'd repeatedly use phrases like "what we ought to do," "maximizing happiness," and variations on those. If I proceeded on the assumption that the two phrases are exact synonyms, I don't think I'd be able to put together sentences that would even make sense to my audience, let alone convince them.

  9. John - you're missing the concept/property distinction here. (Water is the same thing as H2O, though the words are certainly not synonymous.)

    (Familiarity with the standard metaethical debates concerning moral naturalism is probably necessary to be able to contribute to this discussion. If you aren't familiar with any of this, check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for a primer.)

  10. OK then: if that's the definition of "is" you want to use, then sure, utilitarians think maximizing happiness is what you ought to do. And that's obviously different from saying that blowing your nose is what you ought to do, since that's specific to a certain time, place, and person, whereas utilitarianism applies globally.

    I do know the water/H2O distinction. What I'm trying to say is: if you want to define "is" one way, you can use it that way. If you want to define it another way, you can do that too. If there's something interesting or profound here, I'm not seeing it.

    Admittedly, I've never seen the point of "metaethics" -- I don't know why people don't do just plain ethics. We all know what utilitarianism means -- it's really a pretty simple theory. Why should philosophers spend their time talking about that when they could be talking about whether it's actually true?

    Is philosophy about the real world, or is it about philosophers talking amongst themselves about how they decide to use terms? If it's the latter, then I'm not sure what the point is.

    I assume you'll say that I'm not informed enough to even be having this discussion. But if the topic at hand is actually important, then you should be able to express that importance to someone who doesn't do it for a living. (BTW, I do have a philosophy degree -- I noticed your comments policy warning people away from commenting if they don't -- but I chose not to pursue academic philosophy because I thought it was irrelevant to the real world. This whole issue is reminding me of that.)

  11. Richard, I totally get it now, thanks.

    So is Parfit saying that utilitarians that think they are the same should still be utilitarians but realize this distinction? And you're saying that, while you would tend to agree, this is a bad analogy because comparing maximizing happiness to blowing your nose is absurd, so it's not a good way to show the conclusion. Huh, you're right, that IS an important point because it hasn't convinced me that a utilitarian SHOULDN'T think that the two are equal.


  12. And sorry for commenting, I usually don't, but I thought I could grasp it and wanted a little clearing up, rather than responding to what you said or anything like that. Thanks again for being so patient!

  13. John - Well, there's the question of whether it's possible to explain the importance of a technical debate to an outsider, and then there's the question how long it would take, and whether this is how I want to spend my (limited) spare time right now.

    But very briefly: the issue is not terminological, it's about the world. First note that it's a substantive question whether metaphysical naturalism is true, i.e. whether the natural facts (properties) exhaust the facts (properties). Prima facie, naturalism seems appealing. But then we have a puzzle: can naturalists accommodate moral truths? Is there really any room for normativity in the natural order? Some think not, and so become error theorists (like Mackie) or non-naturalists (like Parfit), depending on whether they're more committed to metaphysical naturalism or moral realism. Some naturalists become non-cognitivists, and claim that our moral practices don't answer to any kind of external "truth". (But then they face allegations of relativism, inability to make sense of moral fallibility and disagreement, and various other objections.) Finally, some try to reconcile naturalism with moral realism, by claiming that moral facts and properties are really just natural facts and properties in disguise. These are deep, fundamental issues about the very nature of morality, and it's not at all "simple" or obvious what the correct answer is.

    But that's all I'll say here. The purpose of this thread is to do philosophy, not to justify it.

    Roscoe - that's basically it. More precisely, I think it's a bad analogy because the utilitarian is offering a general normative theory, whereas Parfit's 'rude person' is merely making a particular normative claim. Since they're making different kinds of normative statements, it seems dubious of Parfit to claim that we should analyze the two statements "in the same way".


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