Philosophy: Posts

Editor Interview: Simon Kirchin

We caught up with Simon Kirchin to discuss his exciting new book, Reading Parfit: On What Matters. Read on for our exclusive interview with Simon to find out why Derek Parfit was such an influential philosopher, as well as discussion of Parfit's ideas and his 'Triple Theory'.

Moral Philosophy Seminar at Oxford University with Derek Parfit. Image Credit: © Gerard Vong, [email protected]

"Reading Parfit will be central reading for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of one of the most important works of philosophy published in the last fifty years."

Simon Kirchin is Reader in Philosophy at the University of Kent, and is also Kent’s Dean of the Faculty of Humanities. He’s been at Kent since 2003. He studied philosophy at Oxford and Sheffield.

Simon’s research interests are mainly in metaethics and normative ethics, although he also has longstanding interests in aesthetics, medical ethics, metaphysics, political philosophy, and epistemology.

He has just published an edited volume called Reading Parfit: On What Matters. Derek Parfit was one of the most pre-eminent and important philosophers world-wide over the past fifty years. He died in January 2017. His On What Matters, appeared in 2011 as a massive two volume study of many areas of moral philosophy. A third volume has just been published. This new Routledge edition gathers an international team of authoritative philosophers to discuss many aspects of Parfit’s first two volumes and features extensive replies by Parfit himself.

As well as working on the edited collection, Simon is currently finishing a project on thick evaluative concepts: the type of concepts and words that indicate specific evaluative ideas, such as ‘grotesque’, ‘ignorant’ and ‘compassionate’. (The key fascination with thick concepts is how one might understand the relationship between the nonevaluative description that such concepts seem to involve, and the positive or negative character that they also have or imply.) An edited collection on the topic, called Thick Concepts, was published in 2013 and he is finalizing an accompanying monograph, called Thick Evaluation, to come out later in 2017. He published a higher-level textbook, Metaethics, in 2012 and also a large co-edited volume collecting many classic papers in metaethics, called Arguing about Metaethics, in 2006 with Routledge.

He is currently starting two main topics. First, the nature of both agreement and disagreement, and the relationship between them. This involves some historical work on the concept-conception distinction much used in political philosophy and jurisprudence. He is also interested in the contrast between normativity and evaluation.

Simon is a founding member of SoNG (the Southern Normativity Group) and a current member of the Executive Committee of the British Philosophical Association. From 2008 to 2014 he was President of the British Society for Ethical Theory, which is the leading society in the UK for moral philosophy. He also served as Associate Editor of Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 2007-13. Lastly, he probably organizes too many conferences for his own good, on the topics mentioned above and many others.

For a podcast interview with Simon on metaethics go here.

Simon’s website:

In the first sentence of On What Matters, Parfit writes: “We are the animals that can both understand and respond to reasons.” Can you explain what this means and why it is important to understanding Parfit’s book as a whole?

First of all, thanks for the opportunity to tell you more about the edited collection. Derek Parfit was one of the world’s most influential philosophers, working right up until his untimely death earlier this year. He published the first two volumes of On What Matters (OWM) in 2011, accounting for nearly 1400 pages and split into six Parts, with a third volume appearing just a little while ago. I’m really pleased to have been asked by Routledge to edit this collection of papers written in response to the first two volumes of OWM. It contains some great papers from a cast of international writers. Parfit supplies substantial responses to all the papers in one of the final pieces he wrote.

Parfit ranges across many questions and topics in OWM. We could debate endlessly whether there is a single idea that connects it all and what that might be. One candidate, however, would be the idea of a reason.

Reasons are interesting philosophical things. Take some simple, everyday phenomena. Why did she drink a glass of water? Because she was thirsty. Why might you go on holiday? To get some rest. And so on. Despite being everyday phenomena, we can ask a number of fundamental philosophical questions about them. For a start, we can contrast two significant and influential views as to how we then characterise what we have reason, or most reason, to do. We might say that we have most reason to do whatever would fulfil our desires or aims. So, we have reason to drink the water because desire to do so. A different view, which Parfit supports, is that we have reason to do whatever would be good or be some achievement, irrespective of whether it fulfils our desires (although sometimes acting in this way can do just this). To take a simple example, you might be better off not drinking what is in the glass because it isn’t water but some poisonous substance. There are ways round this for the view Parfit opposes, by thinking about informed desires and stating that desires count only if they are based on true beliefs. But in the end Parfit argues that what provides you with reasons to guide thought and action is the world itself and facts about it, not what you think and desire.

The philosophical interest in reasons can deepen. The stuff that exists in the world can and often does direct our thought and action. Further, it may not just guide us and suggest one way of acting rather than another, but it may motivate us to act. So, it’s not just that going on holiday will be restful. The fact that the holiday would be restful is something - perhaps the very thing - that motivates us to go on holiday. We act on reasons all the time. They aren’t just there or, as philosophers sometimes say, they aren’t just brutally there. They are ‘lively’. That brings in one of the main preoccupations in modern analytic philosophy, and one of the key themes in OWM, namely the idea of ‘normativity’. This word and the phenomena it picks out are hard to encapsulate, but in essence this term is trying to capture one aspect of the contrast I have just pointed to. Stuff – such as water, holidays, and the restful nature of holidays - exists. But that stuff may also guide what we do (according to certain norms, perhaps, hence the label), and may further not just stand as something to be considered when we are acting in the world, but it also has motivating power of some kind. That aspect of existing stuff that guides thought and action and provides reason is called ‘normativity’. Some philosophers load into the label of normativity the fact that some of this stuff has value, such as being good or bad, say. Sometimes philosophers keep talk of evaluation separate from normativity.

I’ve skated over a lot of ideas there. Parfit's OWM is such an important book because it covers a lot of these topics and more. (Some more mentioned below.) He is thinking about the character of reasons, thinking about how ethical theories might best guide our conduct and be used to judge which actions are best, and thinking about how reasons and values fit into the natural world. These are all central topics in moral philosophy. Parfit not only draws together many central, contemporary debates in moral philosophy, but makes interesting progress in many of them.

A key feature of On What Matters is Parfit’s attempt to break down the long-standing opposition between Kantian deontologists on the one hand and consequentialists on the other. Can you briefly explain the nature of this opposition and why Parfit thinks it is misguided?

I'll start by explaining moral philosophy generally. Here's a (very) broad brush take. Moral philosophers are interested in three main areas. I suspect that most people think philosophy is a very abstract subject. It can be, but it can also be very practical. Philosophers are often just thinking about what the best or right thing to do is, and why. They think about all sorts of issues, such as the rights and wrongs of going to war, how much to give to charity, and many questions raised in and by medical science. We can call this first, broad area, applied ethics, although some writers hate that label. As we work our way through many applied questions, and ask why we should act in certain ways, we might wonder if there is some overarching principle or style of theorising that helps justify what we should do in many or all circumstances. Should we be concerned with the effects that our actions have? Or are particular action types better than others? This area of moral philosophy is called normative ethics. Lastly comes metaethics. Thus far we have assumed that actions can be good and bad, right and wrong. Similarly, we might assume that people can be generous and wicked and fair and rude. But are there such moral values or moral properties? What does it mean to say that such values or properties exist, and can be known by us to exist? Are values ‘objectively’ there or just a ‘subjective’ matter? (And what do those terms mean, anyway?) These questions are questions of metaethics.

Parfit was interested in all branches of moral philosophy, although OWM concentrates on normative ethics and metaethics in the main. to answer your question! Consequentialism and Kantian deontology are both best cast as types of normative ethical theory, and I introduced the bare bones of them above. Consequentialists believe that in any given situation, the (morally) right action is the action that will produce the best consequences. They will then owe us an account of what they mean by ‘best’. Deontologists, in contrast, believe broadly that an action is right if it is of a certain action type. Immanuel Kant, the great German philosopher, is normally held up as supplying us with one of the most important deontological frameworks. He had a particular way of deciding which actions were morally obligatory, which permissible, and which impermissible.

Now, that’s a pretty big clash: is an action right or wrong because of the type of action it is (only) or because of its consequences (only)? Can we steal a loaf of bread if doing so makes the starving children we feed happy? This theoretical clash between consequentialists and deontologists has been the basis for a great deal of moral philosophy in the West for many years, at least the last century or so.

Consequentialists and deontologists can clash over what they think should be done: some strict deontologists think that stealing is always wrong because of how it treats those from whom you steal, no matter what the consequences in a particular example. However, very often consequentialists and deontologists will agree on what should be done, but they will disagree about why it should or shouldn’t be done. The fundamental clash occurs on the reasons they may supply for acting in certain ways.

There is a lot more to say about all of this. Some people worry that the three areas I demarcated at the start are not so different. There are other interesting normative ethical theories. (We’ll come to another, contractualism, in a moment.) What matters, however, is that these two families of normative ethic are dominant in Western moral philosophy (and other areas, such as the law), and that many theorists believe they are fundamentally opposed. This brings us to Parfit and why he thinks the supposed opposition between consequentialists and deontologists may be misguided. It all takes place within the Triple Theory (question 4).....

As well as Kantianism you note in your introduction to Reading Parfit that the theory of ‘Contractualism’ occupies a very important place in On What Matters. Could you outline what contractualism is and, in particular, how and why it can guide moral action?

…but before we get to the Triple Theory, let’s think about contractualism. So, yes, it also occupies a very important place in OWM.

Contractualism can also be cast as a normative ethical theory. In can be characterized broadly, as saying that what is right (or good, or wrong…..) is what is agreed – or contracted - to be right (or good, or wrong….). There may well be some further specification of what sorts of agreement count and what the nature of those agreements is. The most influential contractualist theory of modern times is that due to T. M. Scanlon, a philosopher based at Harvard and someone Parfit knew well. Scanlon’s contractualism says that an act is wrong if doing it would be disallowed by any set of principles for the regulation of behaviour that no one could reasonably reject as a basis for informed, unforced, general agreement. Or in other words, you’re not allowed to do something if it violates some rules that, in practice or theory, no one could reasonably reject. All of this helps to guide your actions and give you an idea of what you can and can’t do.

There is a lot more to say about this. What does that phrase ‘reasonably reject’ mean? How might we characterize the people who are imagined to be reasonable and are imagined to be making the crucial agreements? The key idea, however, like so many normative ethics of this general type, is the emphasis on agreement between people.

In OWM, Parfit focuses a lot of his attention on contractualism, connecting it to consequentialism and deontology. This brings us to the Triple Theory.

Can you tell us (in brief) what Parfit’s ‘Triple Theory’ is about?

The Triple Theory is at the heart of OWM.

Parts Two and Three which contain the Triple Theory had been in circulation for a few years prior to publication and were known as ‘Climbing the Mountain’. (Parfit retains the phrase for one of the key concluding sections of his argument.) The reason for the title is that Parfit thought that there were three normative ethical theories, or the best versions of these three theories, that were all getting to the same point in the end. Or, in other words, they were climbing the same mountain but via different routes.

Those three theories are Scanlonian contractualism, Kantian deontology and consequentialism. But, immediately, I should emphasize that Parfit is interested in the best versions of these theories. So he isn’t interested in consequentialism generally. He focuses on a type of consequentialism called rule-consequentialism. Rule-consequentialism says that you should act in accordance with a set of rules, where we choose those rules because acting in accordance with them brings about the best results. (In contrast, deontologist will choose action types or rules that govern which actions to perform, because of something about the rules and actions themselves, not about what results if you follow the rules.) Parfit then further refines rule-consequentialism to get the best version. Similarly, he refines the other two theories, jettisoning parts and reshaping them; his shaping of Kantian deontology is particularly controversial. From this point he argues that these best versions of the three theories converge on the same point, viz. “an act is wrong just when such acts are disallowed by some principle that is optimific [that’s the consequentialist part], uniquely universally willable [that’s the Kantian part], and not reasonably rejectable [the contractualist part]”.

I suppose one important health warning is that Parfit took himself to be providing an argument for why the best version of these three theories could be seen as converging on the same point, but whether they are in fact doing so he left open. For some philosophers that may be just too subtle: some people may think that if you spend that many pages arguing for the possibility of a view, you may as well just say you are arguing for it!

In your Introduction to 'Reading Parfit' you say that Parfit is a "staunch non-naturalist". What is it to be a non-naturalist about ethics?

Let’s start broadly. The past few centuries have seen the rise of modern science in the West and then across the globe. Alongside the various ways in which humans can know create and manipulate the world, we are able to explain and categorise in new ways. In doing so we seem to know a lot more about the world than we did before. There are all sorts of phenomena that previously may have been mysterious or inexplicable – such as metereological phenomena and illnesses - which now we understand in new ways. We know what causes thunderstorms and we can see and manipulate minute parts of our world like never before. There are some phenomena we have been able to explain differently and explain away.

To be a naturalist, in the sense that is philosophically relevant here, is to say that we should treat some phenomenon, X, as a natural phenomenon. Most theorists then think that this implies or entails that X can then be studied by and explained within natural science. (Either science as it currently is, or as it might plausibly evolve in the future.) Not everyone thinks that everything is natural. For example, one might think that lightning is the work of God or gods. That would be to treat lightning as a supernatural phenomenon. The question arises of what moral properties are and how they fit into this natural world. How should we treat fairness, or goodness, or generosity? When we say that someone has a reason to act, can we explain that reason in a naturalistic way, as a way that conforms to and can be explained within current natural science (or conforms to how current science might evolve in the future)?

At this point – yet again! – we get lots of different views. (Philosophers do like their distinctions and splinterings.) Some naturalists might think that there is a particular set of (obviously) natural phenomena that can be identified as generosity: perhaps generosity can simply be reduced to certain electrochemical reactions in brains. Some other naturalists might think we can’t reduce in this way, but that generosity deserves to be called a naturalistic phenomenon because it exhibits various characteristics that other natural phenomena have, such as causing and being effected by other phenomena that are canonically natural. There are other options too.

Parfit and other philosophers - I’m one of them - are nonnaturalist. In short they think that the best way to characterize moral properties and phenomena is not by reference to the natural sciences or characteristics that are accepted as natural in the sense meant here. Rather moral properties and phenomena are best understood on their own terms. At this point some writers employ the Latin phrase sui generis, which means ‘of its own kind’.

Parfit has plenty of arguments for his nonnaturalism, most of which come from a simple point: if you try to capture moral properties in a natural way, then you are probably mischaracterizing them because to capture them in this way fails to do justice to their normative aspect.

It’s important to realize, then, that by opposing naturalism in this sense one is not saying that there is something dodgy or unnatural about moral properties. It’s to say that they can’t be properly characterized if we try to capture them by using (or by using only) the conceptual tools of modern science.

Parfit argues that it would be a tragedy “if there is no single thing as a true morality.” Can you outline his argument that there are such things are moral truths?

Sure. I suppose the first thing I’d say is that in my view there isn’t a clear-cut argument for his view that there are moral truths, an argument with clear premises and a conclusion. Rather it is a guiding stance of his whole outlook.

But we can indicate two main parts to it. First, as we’ve seen in writing about normative ethics in OWM Parfit is seeking to draw thinkers together, to show that what seem to be fundamental differences and arguments are in fact not so. For Parfit the fundamental concern is that if there is disagreement about morality, and if that disagreement cannot be resolved, that may give us reason to doubt whether there is any truth in morality at all. Morality might, instead, be an illusion. And this to him would not just be a shame and a tragedy, it would be dangerous. For him things really do matter, and they really do matter morally. It really does matter whether we go to war or conduct some medical experiment.

Secondly, at least in volume 2, he argues that various metaethical views opposed to nonnaturalism incorrectly characterize moral properties and phenomena, for they fail to account for there being moral truths in the first place or they don’t capture the normative aspect at all. He thinks that all such views, therefore, offer a bleak view of the world. Interestingly, in the recently published volume 3 of OWM he changes his view somewhat and tries to show that there is not as much disagreement as one might think in metaethics.

Some philosophers have drawn parallels between Parfit’s view of the self and the Buddhist view. What do you think of the comparison and does it play an important role in Parfit’s work?

From what I know of the comparison – being only an interested non-expert about Buddhism – the parallel is a good one.

Parfit made his reputation with an earlier book called Reasons and Persons, published in 1984. This was hugely influential, not just in the variety of ideas, arguments and new questions Parfit posed, but also in writing style. Parfit ranged over a number of topics, including personal identity. Across a range of quasi-scientific thought experiments, Parfit reaches a view of the self that is very much like that found in Buddhist writings. In short, there are no selves or persons as separate entities existing over time. We should not think of people as many of us, particularly in the West, ordinarily think of them. What there are, instead, are certain streams of physical and mental events. What makes us persons or selves is some causally connected, continuous stream of psychological events. Related to his views about selfhood, Parfit expresses similar views about the passage of time.

An interesting aside. Apparently novice monks at a monastery in Tibet were found a few years ago chanting parts of Reasons and Persons.

Parfit’s work in ethics could be seen as standing in opposition to another very important moral philosopher, Bernard Williams. Could you explain the differences between their respective views of moral philosophy? Which do you think is the most persuasive?

Williams and Parfit knew each other well, and Parfit greatly admired Williams. One could probably write a whole book about the differences between their views and overall outlooks. Here’s my view of how they differ.

Parfit was very systematic, both in writing style and thought. He was keen to hone principles and rules and use thought experiments to do so. (That’s particularly apparent in OWM.) He was also, I think, convinced that moral thinking had to guide action and that there were moral truths that we should find in order to do just that. Williams also used thought experiments (although less often than Parfit) and he also thought that good moral thinking could and does guide action. However, he was at pains throughout his philosophical writing to emphasize the messy, difficult, confused and, perhaps, arbitrary nature of our moral lives. Philosophers may try to give clean, clear answers to moral questions, but sometimes our lives won’t conform to that. In which case, we should often say, “so much the worse, then, for moral theorizing,” thought Williams. Williams is sometimes characterised, unfairly and wrongly in my view, as a negative philosopher for just this reason. Whilst some people try to create and construct moral theories and philosophies, Williams is seen by some as interested only in demolishing these ideas. I prefer to emphasise that he wanted to ensure that any philosophical ideas were true to the ethical life, and life generally, as it is lived by human beings, complicated creatures that we are. In an effort to emphasise one or just a few core moral ideas, some philosophers forget that life is so much more.

In my philosophical life and writing thus far I have learnt from both Parfit and Williams, and I was delighted when Routledge asked me to put together this volume on OWM. However, I am probably far more inclined towards Williams’ way of approaching philosophy and viewing life than Parfit’s, it has to be said. My paper in the collection is on the limitations and difficulties inherent in Parfit’s thinking and method.

Whilst Derek Parfit occupied a very important place within academic philosophy, when he died he was still virtually unknown beyond that community. Why do think this is?

Yes, that’s true. As I've said, Parfit was very influential in academic philosophy, and in other disciplines such as parts of economics. There may a whole host of reasons as to why he wasn’t well known outside of academic philosophy. Part of this may simply be due to the fact that academic philosophy is possibly not as widely influential and popular with the intelligent public at large as it was a few decades ago. It may also be the fact that some of Parfit’s writing is dealing with issues that are both fundamental and abstract, despite other parts having practical importance, and that is sometimes hard to convey to people. I’m sure that another part of the explanation is that Parfit wasn’t really an academic who wished to be a media don.

In time, of course, who knows what might happen and how his influence and name may grow. There are a number of philosophers and other academics who were not well known during their lifetime outside the confines of their discipline, but whose names can be found nowadays in ordinary, everyday talk.

And finally, if there was just one thing you would hope readers would take away from On What Matters, what would that be?

Goodness, that’s a hard one, since it is such a large book.

Stepping back from all the detail, however, I would probably say that what one can learn from reading – or even dipping into – OWM is that whilst philosophy, and moral philosophy, can tackle some very deep and fundamental questions, it can also be done simply and straightforwardly. It can sometimes get very abstract, but philosophy at is best has some practical importance down the line. This is simply because it’s concerned with thinking about what there is and how we should act in relation to it. And that’s worth getting right. It really does matter.

About the book

Reading Parfit

On What Matters

Reading Parfit: On What Matters is an essential overview and assessment of volumes 1 and 2 of Parfit’s monumental work by a team of international contributors, and includes responses by Parfit himself. It discusses central features of Parfit’s book, including the structure and nature of reasons; the ideas underlying moral principles; Parfit’s discussions of consequentialism, contractualism and Kantian deontology; and his metaethical ideas and arguments.

Find out more