Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Parfit on Philosophical Waste

It seems strangely common for commentators to misrepresent Parfit as claiming that a mistaken philosophical project (e.g. exploring and defending a false theory) lacks all value. Eric Schliesser previously attributed to Parfit the view "that there is no philosophic value (pure waste) in failure." (Sadly, Eric refused to correct this misattribution even when prompted.) More recently, Philip Kitcher writes:
If Naturalism is true, then many of Parfit’s claims are indeed wrong and his perspective is indeed askew. Does it follow that his efforts (and consequently much of his life) have been wasted? I do not think so. Almost all those who have engaged in any form of inquiry have been wrong and misguided...

But Parfit's concern is not that, if he's mistaken, then in virtue of being mistaken his philosophical work would have been a waste. Not at all. Rather, his worry is that if metaethical naturalism is true, then this would mean there are no substantive questions in normative ethics, and hence all his work in normative ethics would have been wasted -- not because it's mistaken, but because it was addressing empty questions. It would be a waste in much the same way that it would be a waste to dedicate your life to a merely verbal dispute: whether the pope is a "bachelor", say, or whether a tree falling in an empty forest makes a "sound".

Here's the relevant passage from On What Matters (vol 2, p.367):
Naturalists believe both that all facts are natural facts, and that normative claims are intended to state facts. We should expect that, on this view, we don't need to make irreducibly normative claims. If Naturalism were true, there would be no facts that only such claims could state.

If there were no such facts, and we didn't need to make such claims, Sidgwick, Ross, I, and many others [i.e. normative theorists] would have wasted much of our lives. We have asked what matters, which acts are right or wrong, and what we have reasons to want, and to do. If Naturalism were true, there would be no point in trying to answer such questions.

As is clear from this passage, it isn't mere falsity that renders one's philosophical work a "waste". There are two clear indicators of this. (1) Otherwise, he would already think that at least one of Sidgwick and Ross, in virtue of advocating conflicting theories, must have wasted their lives. And he certainly doesn't think that! (2) Naturalism is a metaethical view that Parfit argues against. But he isn't concerned that if he's wrong about this, it renders his metaethical work a waste. Rather, it's the value of his normative work that is under threat -- and at no point does he worry that his normative views are false. The worry is instead that the questions are empty -- that there is "no point" in answering them.

It shouldn't be controversial that some philosophical projects are a waste of time -- and getting bogged down in a merely verbal dispute, or addressing otherwise "empty" questions, is surely the paradigm of such "wasted time".

What's more controversial, of course, is Parfit's claim that normative ethics can only be substantive if metaethical non-naturalism is true. Reasonable people can disagree about this. But it's hardly a surprising view for a non-naturalist to take, since the main motivation for non-naturalism is precisely the sense that it's the only way to take normativity seriously, i.e. to secure a domain or subject matter for normative ethics to be about.

I've similarly argued that questions about what entities are conscious (what we might call "first-order" philosophy of mind, by analogy to first-order ethics) can only be substantive if dualism is true. If physicalism is the true theory of "meta-mind", then once we know all about the physical functioning of my silicon-chip duplicate, there's nothing left to know about whether he's "conscious" or not. There's no further question there. So someone who dedicated their life to answering that (non-)question would be, naturally enough, wasting their time.


  1. "But it's hardly a surprising view for a non-naturalist to take, since the main motivation for non-naturalism is precisely the sense that it's the only way to take normativity seriously, i.e. to secure a domain or subject matter for normative ethics to be about."

    It seems to me that you (and Parfit) want to take as a fixed point that ethics is only worth taking seriously if non-naturalism is true, and to then conclude that if naturalism is true, then ethics isn't worth taking seriously. But this seems to me to not really take seriously the possibility that naturalism is true.

    Many naturalists (including Schroeder, I think) are more likely to hold as a fixed point the claim that ethics is worth taking seriously, and to conclude that if naturalism is true, then ethical questions are a special class of questions about natural facts that are worth taking seriously, while if non-naturalism is true, then ethical questions are a special class of questions about non-natural facts that are worth taking seriously.

    One would only treat as fixed the assumption that ethics is only worthwhile if non-naturalism is true if one were already a non-naturalist. And if one gave up one's non-naturalism, one would probably also give up that assumption. So it seems to me that in talking about what would be the case if non-naturalism were wrong, but still treating that assumption as true under the counterfactual (counterpossible?) antecedent, you and Parfit are engaging in a dialectically fishy maneuver.

  2. Yes, I think that's basically right. We might do better to understand Parfit as arguing that, really, "full-blooded Naturalism" (understood as including the claim that normative questions, despite involving no further facts, somehow still manage to be substantive) is incoherent. The nearest coherent view is a diluted Naturalism according to which normative language refers to natural properties, trivializing normative discourse.

  3. Still, Parfit writes that should non-naturalism turn out to be false, "Sidgwick, Ross, [he], and many others would have wasted much of [their] lives". He's not merely arguing that it's a "waste of time to engage in verbal disputes where nothing of substance is at issue" [I'm quoting one of your comments on Eric's post]. But Schliesser is not blatantly wrong to suggest that it's to the least a bit of an overstatement to claim that being - if meta-ethically - wrong amounts to wasting one's life. The worst that could happen is that his normative theory would not be supported by a proper meta-ethics. This sure could damage his confidence to have found out what truly matters. But even so, he would not have wasted his life, unless you presuppose that for anything to matter at all you need presuppose naturalism's falsity. But that's just what's at issue, isn't it?

  4. Nicolas, the thought is that if non-naturalism is false, then normative theorizing (e.g. the dispute between Sidgwick and Ross over whether consequentialism is right) amounts to a verbal dispute.

    So Parfit's fundamental claims about "philosophical waste" indeed requires nothing stronger than the widely-accepted principle that it's a waste of time to engage in verbal disputes.

    As I said in the post, the controversial bit is Parfit's further claim that without non-naturalism, normative ethics would amount to mere verbal disputes. One can reasonably debate this. But it isn't obviously mistaken (his book is full of powerful arguments for this conclusion).

  5. Sure, I, like many, grant this point. But there are two points at issue, and I was merely emphasizing that Eric's one was that Parfit does write about wasting one's *life*, not merely one's time over a verbal dispute. Given the amount of time and energy he must have spent writing these two volumes and trying to climb the mountain, it's plausible he may have genuinely meant that.

    As for the plausibility of the argument that substantive normative ethical claim require non-naturalism to be true, I certainly do not wish to dismiss it. I'm in the middle of the second volume and, as far I can tell, at least some of the arguments are powerful.

    1. Ok, I don't think we disagree about anything important then. (I'm just more dubious than you about whether there's any redeeming interpretation of Eric's comments. I don't think your interpretation of him -- hard to match with the quote in my post, btw -- helps much. After all, if one spends much of one's life engaging in verbal disputes, and verbal disputes are acknowledged to be a waste of time, then it does seem to follow pretty straightforwardly that one has thereby "wasted much of one's life". For him to charge Parfit with "fanaticism" for drawing this inference seems... confused.)

    2. Richard, you never engaged with my argument that the way philosophy is structured today even those that engaged in failed projects can and do contribute to philosophic progress. (Even if philosophy were not structured that way failed projects -- including verbal disputes -- may still have aesthetic qualities to be admired by those with a taste for these, or indirectly contribute to other projects.) I was taken issue with Parfit's extreme monism on what matters in a philosophic life. (I also have substantive concerns about the way he portrays the philosophic landscape/option-space, but leave that aside.)

    3. Eric, that's because I never doubted that "failed projects can and do contribute to philosophic progress"! My whole point was that you've no textual basis for attributing that "extreme monism" to Parfit.

      (Parfit does hold that one particular kind of failed project -- namely inquiry into empty questions -- is a waste of time. But that is hardly an "extreme" position.)


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