Thursday, January 17, 2013

Reasons and Persons: Undefining terms

To follow Derek Parfit's arguments in Reasons and Persons, you needn't change you mind about what constitutes right, wrong, good, and bad. Parfit thinks most of us already have a good, working understanding of these concepts and that, owing to our built-in conscience, we're already good enough at judging one circumstance to be better or worse than another.

Here are Parfit's words from the book's Introduction.

My central concepts are few. We have reasons for acting. We ought to act in certain ways, and some ways of acting are morally wrong. Some outcomes are good or bad, in a sense that has moral relevance: it is bad for example if people become paralyzed, and we ought, if we can, to prevent this. Most of us understand my last three sentences well enough to understand my arguments.

So if we already know so much about right and wrong and good and bad, what use is ethics? It turns out there's still room for improvement. Parfit believes that though we know enough to evaluate morality, we make bad choices effecting it. Part of the cause for our bad choices is an inevitable failure of character, such as when we give in to temptation and do something that is bad despite knowing we ought to do otherwise. But failure of character is only part of the problem. According to Parfit, most of us have false beliefs about ourselves, and these false beliefs lead us to making bad moral choices as a seemingly rational act. That is, even when we act as we believe we ought to act, we still often make bad choices. Here's more from the Introduction.

I believe that most of us have false beliefs about our own nature, and our identity over time, and that, when we see the truth, we ought to change some of our beliefs about what we have reason to do. We ought to revise our moral theories, and our beliefs about rationality.

So Reasons and Persons isn't a book whose thesis is that we ought to change our values; it's about changing our ideas and strategies for best bringing about those values. This makes Parfit's arguments harder to dismiss than many other ethical arguments, ones that require the reader to change their fundamental moral view of things. Reasons and Persons begins with common ground by yielding to most readers' assertions, and only then attacks their conclusions.

An analogy might help show the value in this. Imagine you're interested in making bread, and you're reading a book about it. Further imagine the book tries to convince you that your preferences about bread—how, say, you prefer wheat bread to rye and yeast bread to unleavened—are wrong and need to be revised. The book isn't likely to change your mind. You know what you like, and you're not likely to change your mind about it. Instead, imagine reading a different book, one that accepts your opinions about bread as they are and instead tries to convince you that you're not making the best bread you can, as measured by your own preferences. The book may say, If you're making leavened wheat bread then there's a good chance you're making some common mistakes and not making the best bread you can. Here's how to make it better. But if instead you're into rye flatbread, here's what to do. Such a book is more likely to be useful to you because the book begins with common ground. So it goes with Reasons and Persons. The book's premise is that our core morals values are OK, but most of us aren't following the best recipe for leading the best lives we can.

In the posts that'll follow, I'll write a lot about right and wrong and good and bad, yet I'll never define the terms. This may be a strange way of dealing with an ethics book, but it's how Reasons and Persons goes. As you read my summaries of some of Parfit's arguments, substitute your own values into the arguments, and see what you get.

No comments: