The Loss of a Genius

Last week, we were stunned by the deaths of Carrie Fisher and less than 48 hours later her mother, Debbie Reynolds. This week, the world lost an insightful and influential British philosopher, Derek Parfit at age 74.

I know what you are saying: Derek Parfit, who on earth is he? He was the author of very few works, but the books he did write (“Reasons and Persons” and “On What Matters”) rocked the philosophical world. He enjoyed wrestling with age-old problems that I’ve always found fascinating; for example, how do we decide right and wrong?

Most of us were raised to follow a set of religious-based precepts of right and wrong that we all can recite easily. But what if we were born without that background and were forced to decide for ourselves what behavior is morally acceptable? For atheist Derek Parfit, there were three basic alternatives:

Sign Up for E-News

Consequentialism is to judge the efficacy of your actions by its consequences. You may remember several months ago when I posited for your consideration “the Trolley problem?”  The alarming hypothetical placed you on a train track with the option of pulling a lever, which would divert a runaway trolley away from causing the certain death of five track workers. However, the trolley would then kill one other unsuspecting soul. Do you pull the lever?

Most people answering this question have exhibited the influence of the utilitarian movement (the greatest good for the greatest number), which was made popular by Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill. Hence, a majority of people would pull the lever, saving five but killing one. Agreeing with this analysis is Professor Michael Scriven. He wrote a book (“Primary Philosophy”) so compelling that I traveled across the country at age 20 to meet him at his Berkeley campus (only to learn the adult lesson that calling ahead might be an intelligent option). He subscribes to the principle that ethics are subjective in nature. Like the Utilitarians, morality for Scriven shifts with the sands of changing societal mores and customs.

Immanuel Kant argued that from practical reasons we can arrive at moral principles. Moral principles are not subjective for him but rather universal, the same for everyone. To understand whether an action is moral or not, imagine the consequences if it’s duplicated by everyone. His Kantian categorical imperative means that lying, for example, could never be morally condoned since if everyone lied all the time the very fabric of society would collapse. But imagine that a killer asked someone for your location as he intended you to be his next victim. You better hope that the person he asks is a consequentialist since they would have no trouble lying while a Kantian would consider it his “duty” to tell the truth.

Contractualism, made famous by Thomas Hobbes, is rooted in the concept of a social contract. It provides the foundation for most modern day conservative movements. Its fundamental assertion is that we must begin our inquiry by recognizing the existence of a social contract. This is comprised of an agreement of all those involved in society and its proponents assert that it can be said to literally carve out the precise content of morality by mutual assent. For contractualists, the crucial thing is consent, not consequences or duty.

For centuries, brilliant philosophers were drawn to each of these three traditions, which offered what appeared to be unbridgeable disagreements. If Parfit is to be remembered for anything, it is his lifelong goal of demonstrating how these traditions are really different paths up the same philosophical mountain or, as he put it, his famous “Triple Theory.”

To connect three seemingly distinct theories, he began by suggesting that Kantian ethics and consequentialism were not in conflict. To accomplish this, he needed to modify the categorical imperative ever so slightly. His nuanced version read as follows: “Everyone ought to follow the principles whose universal acceptance everyone could rationally will.” By doing this, he was able to marry all three traditions in what he heralded as his “top of the mountain formula” or the “Triple Theory,” which essentially stated: an act is wrong just when such an act is disallowed by some principle that is optimific (producing the maximum amount of good), uniquely universally willable, and not reasonably rejectable.

Let’s try to apply the Parfitian analysis to a contemporary issue. A politician has recently suggested without any evidence that millions of votes had been cast illegally in last November’s national election. The truth (not the fake news) is that outside of literally a handful of complaints, this declaration is without merit and is either an outright lie or a reckless assertion.

Firstly, making such a claim would not pass the first condition of our morality test in that it would not be optimific. Its logical consequence, if believed, would be state governments’ unwarranted suppression of the right to vote, mainly among the disenfranchised. Secondly, it would not be universally willable since the vast major of Americans recognize it to be a self-serving and totally unsupported allegation. Finally it would be reasonably rejectable and hence flunk all three prongs of our ethics test. We can, therefore, utilizing the Parfit test, state unequivocally that making such a baseless public announcement is morally wrong.

Derek Parfit’s contributions to man’s quest to answer ultimate questions will not soon be forgotten. His remarkable collection of essays first released early in this century, “On What Matters,” will forever be a testament to the depth of his intellect and the remarkable diversity of his interests. Fortunately, next month Oxford Press will publish a third volume of “On What Matters” with a companion volume aptly entitled, “Does Anything Really Matter?” Given his passing, it is appropriate that I end this column with Professor Parfit’s own words:

“Life can be wonderful as well as terrible, and we shall increasingly have the power to make life good. Since human history may be only just beginning, we can expect that future humans, or supra-humans, may achieve some great goods that we cannot now even imagine.”

Amen.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of TAPinto.net or anyone who works for TAPinto.net. TAPinto.net is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

TAP Into Another Town's News:

You May Also Be Interested In

Sign Up for E-News

Yorktown

Finding Meaning in Life

A recently published article by behavioral scientist, Clay Routledge, points out an alarming increase (25 percent) in suicides over the last 19 years, which applies across ethnic and racial lines. The question that plagues him is why? This is not the first time this exact issue has been raised.

The year 1880 was witness to a similar upturn in suicides in Europe, so much so that scientist, ...

Rage Cycles

The background news of politics each week seems to grow louder and louder, with every activity of the Trump administration creating hysteria, and denunciations, or comparisons to Nazis or other fascists. 

In the last few weeks we have seen the immigration crisis at the border, which made seasoned news media compare Trump to Hitler directly, only to be replaced last week with hysteria over ...

A (Burnt) Toast to Love and Marriage, on the Rocks

In its first few moments, sitcom-style comedy “Clever Little Lies” grabs audience attention right away, with one of the most revealing wardrobe changes you’ll ever see on stage. It is done modestly but just provocatively enough to elicit vocal appreciation from amused patrons.

The fast-paced play, starring Richard Kline of TV comedy classic “Three’s ...

Introducing Yorktown Heights

July 11, 2018

So, it appears our small community was thrust into the spotlight earlier this month in a most unexpected way.

A little-known Congressional candidate pulled off a major upset in her Democratic primary and became an overnight celebrity. Before this, our biggest claim to fame was that we had a funny police department that liked to make jokes on Facebook.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whether she ...

The Adventures of Superdog

I was always very impressed that my dog could bark on command and come when I called his name, until I read in the newspaper about a dog that saved his owner’s life by calling 9-1-1. Apparently, when his owner had a seizure, the dog pushed a speed-dial button for 9-1-1, barked into the receiver for help, and then opened the door when the responders arrived.

Honestly, though, it’s ...

If You See Something, Say Something

July 11, 2018

I am writing this letter because I see something different with the new Yorktown Town Board. I see an open government instead of a dictatorship with rubber stamps. I see the new Town Board working together for the best interests of the residents in Yorktown.

The auditor suggests in his report to not start a capital project without having the money first. A bad example is the Granite Knolls ...

Upcoming Events

Carousel_image_4e4c638eba7b9d057333_782289e382fb71551284_bocce_open_play_6-19-18

Thu, July 19, 7:00 PM

Yorktown Heights

Bocce Open Play

Sports

Sat, July 21, 12:00 PM

Club Fit, Jefferson Valley

Yoga for Women with Cancer

Health & Wellness

Yorktown Residents Named Ambassadors of Support-a-Walk

July 12, 2018

Two Yorktown residents have been named Walk Ambassadors for the Annual Support-a-Walk organized by Support Connection, a non-profit organization that provides support and services to people battling breast or ovarian cancer. This year's walk will take place on Oct. 7 (rain or shine) at FDR State Park.

Mary Heagle, Mohegan Lake

Heagle’s experience with breast cancer began when her ...