Thursday, August 11, 2011

On What Matters

by Francis Levy

Peter Singer is a great utilitarian philosopher and the author of a classic tome called Animal Liberation. He supports euthanasia for certain people, while decrying the confinement of pregnant pigs. In the May 20 issue of the TLS, Singer reviews Derek Parfit’s On What Matters, a book that takes aim at the ethical relativism that derives from Hume. Singer writes, “Reason applies to means not ends. Hence, Hume famously held, it is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of a finger, and equally not contrary to reason to choose my total ruin to prevent a trivial harm to a stranger.” What is so delightful about philosophical treatises like Parfit’s two volumes (which run to 1,400 pages) and Singer’s review-length response, are the examples used to illustrate the points themselves. You also find this in treatises that deal with the Trolley Problem or the Prisoner’s Dilemma, which try to parse the subtleties of ethics and morality. As Singer points out, finding objective truths about human action inevitably leads back to “…Kant’s famous but imprecise idea that it is wrong to act on any maxim that could not be a universal law….” But this is too broad for Parfit, who adopts what Singer describes as an “intuitionist” approach. What if the earth is destroyed by some natural phenomenon? Was the advent of human life and culture worth it? “Our answer may depend,” Singer says in summarizing Parfit’s thinking, “not only on how we balance the suffering that has resulted from human existence against the happiness it has brought, but also on what weight we give to the badness of the fact that some people suffered greatly without having anything to compensate them for their suffering.”

 [This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture.]

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