throwing a parfit

“This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”
-Dorothy Parker

Jed could run or walk, sing or talk and
Compile thoughts and
Solve lots of problems
We learned so much from him

-Grandaddy, “Jed the Humanoid”

It may seem as though I’m in the kind of grudge match with the New Yorker that can never be resolved, and that could become the absurd, Quixotic focus of many years of a person’s life — and this is absolutely true. At the same time, the New Yorker often does exactly what good journalism should do: it holds up a mirror to various persons and phenomena, leaving the reader to decide what to make of the portrait or the events.

Such is the case with Larissa McFarquhar’s wonderful article on Derek Parfit, an analytical (maybe?) English philosopher who has just published a new book entitled On What Matters. McFarquhar is a pleasure to read, and Parfit is utterly exasperating, in exactly the ways that analytical philosophers are always exasperating. Right away, you know you are in for some hypothetical situations involving robots. You are definitely going to get a vision of a world untethered from moral precepts, about to be swallowed up by abysses of nihilism (unless it is saved, precipitously, by analytical philosophy). But above all, you are going to get very strange, reductive accounts of other philosophers. In fact, the whole persistence of analytical philosophy in the past few decades, when there have been so many upheavals throughout the humanities, may be attributable to its willingness to roughly grab hold of a philosopher like Nietzsche, and to put in elevated terms what somebody who doesn’t like philosophy might say about him: “Yeah, but isn’t this Nietzsche guy basically just arguing that…” and “But if everybody believed that, then wouldn’t the world…” and so forth.

For example, consider this quotation:

[Bernard Williams] says that, rather than asking Socrates’ question “How ought we to live?” we should ask, “What do I basically want?” That, I believe, would be a disaster. There are better and worse ways to live.

What a strange summary! It’s like reading the transcript of a couple’s quarrel that leads both people to passionately defend positions that they will later find not only extreme, but actually incoherent. If Williams (about whom I know nothing) really was interested in “What do I basically want?”, that doesn’t put him at odds with Socrates. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates argues that what people “basically” (i.e. fundamentally) want is always the good. Unfortunately, they don’t have a perfect understanding of the good, so they come into conflict with it and each other. For Socrates, the question of what people fundamentally desire involves questioning the purpose of a desire, and it would be absurdly shallow to say that I fundamentally want a mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich (if the mutton is nice and lean). Behind the sandwich lies preserving one’s health, the pleasure of eating, the sensory exploration of the world, and a pickle (included in price). Those things, in turn, lead to even larger abstractions, e.g. the value of “life,” “pleasure,” and “knowledge.” There is certainly a rhetorical and personal difference between the Socratic question and the question “what do I want?”, and we can feel sure that two very different individuals are asking, but there isn’t a logical incompatibility.

There’s no disputing that it’s fun to play around with these various ideas, though, so let’s keep at it. McFarquhar moves on to a paraphrase of “The Repugnant Conclusion,” which according to Parfit is the belief that

…if the earth were teeming with billions of people, making everyone’s life worse, that would be bad. But what if the total sum of human happiness would be higher with many billions of poeple whose lives were barely worth living–higher, that is, than with a smaller population of well-off people?

What’s really repugnant here is the barely-disguised elitism; the problem of the possible overpopulation of the earth is described as if it was a matter of too many undesirables invading the public pool. But more to the point, if one places any sort of special value on human life, as Parfit clearly does, then the problem is that each new human life has immense value, including those “whose lives were barely worth living,” whatever that may mean.

Ultimately, Parfit comes across as the philosophical equivalent of those homeless people who hold up signs reading WHY LIE? I WANT A BEER. For an instant, perhaps, he seems refreshingly honest in his dismissals, but he is ultimately performing a service for cynics, at a cost to all who share his faith in the discipline.