Kitcher, Parfit and the relevance of ethics

In the current issue of The New Republic, Philip Kitcher has an article on Derek Parfit’s On What Matters that goes above and beyond the traditional book review format. It’s certainly the right occasion for it – On What Matters, a much awaited magnum opus, has been described by multiple top-notch philosophers as the most important book in ethics in over a century (Henry Sidgwick’s The Methods of Ethics from the 1870s being the last landmark, as the philosophers have it).

The review is worth reading, in part because it makes you feel acquainted with a book whose heft (two volumes totaling over 1,300 pages) could be a stumbling block for those who would otherwise be inclined to page through. Kitcher covers and critiques Parfit’s attempt to unify three branches of ethical theory – consequentialism, Kantian deontology, and contractarian theories – and provides some brief remarks on the state of current ethical theory along the way:

Asking how we might make sense of ethical truth and ethical knowledge, or answering the nihilist who denies that anything matters, can be a valuable initial step toward discovering what ought to be done or what is worth cherishing. Still, as in any field of inquiry, aspiring theorists should beware lest they lose all contact with the questions that provoked the line of investigation they are supposed to be continuing. Thoughtful people who turn to the “literature” in recent ethical theory may well be puzzled by the lack of connection to the practical decisions and difficulties of contemporary life, and they may harbor a suspicion (perhaps more than a suspicion) that ethical theory has become an academic game of dubious relevance.

Even though I disagree with some of the stances Kitcher takes throughout the article (in particular the Naturalist view of ethics that he closes with), his pragmatic emphasis is worth taking to heart.

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