For the past month, I’ve been running an experiment.
I started going to two therapists so we can form a consensus.
Weirdly, this is kind of where Derek Parfit ends up at the end of Reasons and Persons, so now that I’m revising my dissertation, I’m revisiting these arguments.
Let’s agree to call this whole experiment dissertation research.
As I read him, Derek Parfit spends the first 350 pages of Reasons and Persons hard at work fighting the Self-interest Theorist, who only cares about how his life goes for him.
Parfit tries to squeeze this guy between two competitors:
the Present-aim Theorist, who only cares about getting what he wants right now
and the moralist, who, you know, cares about everyone
(I’m simplifying but go with me for a minute.)
Parfit thinks it’ll be tricky for the Self-interest Theorist to tell the Present-aim Theorist “Wait, you need to care about your whole life!” while also telling the moralist, “No no, I only care about me.”
Everyone agrees that Parfit’s series of arguments is groundbreaking, strikingly original, a technical work of art.
And no one’s convinced they actually work.
Sensing this, Parfit throws in Appendix B at the end where he goes, okay, even if you’re not convinced, maybe we could take a vote between all three views?
So imagine I promised to help you move today, but I’m not really feeling it. How would each theory vote?
Morality: keep your promise
Self-interest Theory: sleep in
Present-aim Theory: ???
Well, the Present-aim Theory is fickle. If I’d really rather stay in bed right now, that’s what it would counsel me to do.
Present-aim Theory: sleep in
But if I’d rather keep my promise I should do that instead.
Present-aim Theory: keep your promise
Wow, hopefully I usually wanna be moral or morality’s screwed!
Don’t worry, says Parfit. In practice, morality and even the Self-interest Theory are pretty psychologically demanding. In practice, we’re likely to follow the Present-aim Theory and just do whatever we wanna do right now.
Wait, that was supposed to make me feel better?
If we’re reduced to simply voting between three vastly different perspectives about what to do, something’s gone wrong, especially when two of the perspectives are just fake abstractions no one really holds.
And if a master of philosophical argument like Derek Parfit is spinning his wheels, maybe argument isn’t the place to start when someone shows up and claims to only care about how his life goes for him. After all, argument is pretty limited. Maybe we need a new approach.
But it turns out that before writing a dissertation about well-being and assholes, I need to spend some time showing why Parfit’s highly theoretical approach is doomed to fail. It’s up to me to motivate turning to a new, totally different approach for dealing with the Self-interest Theorist.
Even if I enjoy it, this is easily my most abstract, technically involved chapter where I prove I know what I’m doing so we can start having fun. So no worries if you find it a little much, or wanna shoot me some questions about what the heck is going on. I’ll answer comments, and you can always email me.
I’d love to hear your thoughts!
This is what I’ve been up to the past week anyway, so here’s a working draft of my Forward on Methodology: “Parfit vs. the Self-interest Theorist.”