Friday, 14 February 2014

What is Derek Parfit to do with the Prize Money? Preliminary Explorations

As I reported yesterday, All Souls (Oxford) emeritus and moral philosophy giant Derek Parfit has been selected as the 2014 Rolf Schock Logic and Philosophy laureate and, in effect, will receive about € 68 000. After having cheered at this excellent choice for about 24 hours (this affirming him as a worthy winner), I'm now moving to the next, obviously more pressing question:

Whatever should he do with the money??

There are, to start with, three crude options – a sort of A, B, C of the philosophy of Derek Parfit, if you want – needed scrutiny to commence exploring this complex issue, which has received far too little attention since Sartre refused the Nobel Prize, before getting philosophically serious with some deeper complications. I will here preliminary probe this exciting topic, employing only some of the tools sharpened and left ready for use on the kitchen zinc by the master himself.



The three options:

The Grand Gesture
Derek refuses the money in a grand gesture of public display - e.g., as a protest against the lack of female Schock laureates, the ridiculousness of scientific prizes, or somesuch.

Well-earned Enjoyment During the Fall of Life
Derek receives the money and then spends it on having a good time for himself and his close ones after a long life of hard academic work and duty.

Making the World a Better Place
Derek receives the money and uses it for a morally good cause (better than giving them away to elderly philosophy professors, that is).

Some philosophers would doubt that any of these strategies can be justified. I claim, however:

The Parfit As the Assumed Subject – Holding Certain Positions which Will Not Change Just Because Someone or Else Doubts them – of this Blog Post Justificatory Principle Claim:
 A blog post discussing a subject related to Derek Parfit which is not literally about the issue of the possibility of justifying normative positions, can assume the Parfit stance on the possibility of justifying normative positions.

That is, that it exists. A little bit, I'm sure. In principle, at least. And being in the land of principles at the moment, this will do until I'm done (see the latter part of this post).

However, affirming (tentatively) this possibility does not imply that it is easy. On the contrary, I claim:

The Very Much Difficulty of Solving Intricate Moral Problems Related to Derek Parfit Claim

Which, I trust, explains itself (and, if you insist, can be confirmed by at least 15 years of Swedish practical philosophy students at the BA level).

Now, consider the option of The Grand Gesture. It is obvious from his writings that Parfit is enough of a consequentialist to hold this option as justified only if it leads to some sort of sufficiently good relevant effect, such as a future adjustment of the gender imbalance of the prize laureates or the refusal of the Rolf Schock Foundation to award any more prizes. However, it is equally obvious that any such effect depends on not only what Derek Parfit does, but how this is fitted in with what a large number of other agents do (and in this case, have done). Therefore:


The Possibly Endlessly Divided Possible Protest
Many people, some now, some in the past and some, yet unidentified, in the future may together act to form an effective and justified protest for the worthy cause C. However, some in the past have already failed to do their part and it is undecided how many in the future will, although we assume that it is possible for enough of the latter (whose total number is unknown) to act in a such a way as to make a choice of the presently deliberating agent Derek to participate in the possible protest into actually participating in an actual effective protest which will eventually be completed.

What should Derek do?

This is a conundrum demanding theory X, and thus we presently lack the theoretical context to properly assess The Grand Gesture and I for one will dub any attempt at doing it in the absence of X as the 6th mistake in moral mathematics.

Therefore, instead consider the option Well-earned Enjoyment During the Fall of Life. It is obvious that any worse wise-cracker than me would here begin invoking puns relating to problems of personal identity and thereby believe something of relevance to the philosophy of Derek Parfit having thus been linked to a ridiculous attempt at being funny at the expense of his obvious aging. I reject this claim. Instead, I affirm the claim that relation R is what creates trouble for the Well-earned Enjoyment During the Fall of Life. While it is patently obvious that the Derek receiving the prize is also the Derek who deserves it whatever his ages at different stages might have been, and thus the right to enjoy it – he has the same social security number as that young man winning an All Souls fellowship without having a doctorate and who eventually went on writing an influential little essay called "On doing the best for our children", doesn't he?! Duh! – so, that's obviously settled as a deepest of deep further facts. However, lacking enough of relation R – I mean, just look at that hair!....

....and no glasses as in some other and earlier pictures I have seen – this is of no help, as relation R is what matters.*

Thus pending theory Y, which would provide the missing reason for why a laureate should enjoy a prize in the absence of relation R, it is time to move on to the option Making the World a Better Place. 


(Q) Quirky as it may be to determine what is a morally good cause in the case of Derek, there actually exists one.

(P) The good cause referred to in (Q) is (as it were!) (N)**

Even if that is so, however, it may be undetermined what N is. Many would claim the opposite (and truth to be told, so would I if I had only eaten a better lunch), but I nevertheless claim that although N does exist, there is no definite N, such that Derek should choose promote that particular N with his (well-earned) prize-money. In effect, there is no reason for Derek to choose option Making the World a Better Place.

Oh, well, Nagel might object, so:


The Many Equally Important Beneficiaries of Derek's Doing Good
Depending on exactly how Derek goes about doing good with his prize money by choosing a particular version of N, different people will travel around differently, meeting different people and so on, after 5000 years resulting in a great number of different spermatozoa to exist than if Derek had made another choice of N. Perhaps all of the ova will be the same, how would I know? But the central fact we assume is this: the good of Derek's action for the world will not occur earlier than in 5000 years time. Thus completely different people will benefit and let us – when we're at it, what the heck – assume that they would all benefit the same. Some economists would question that claim. I, however, claim the opposite of that questioning, thus affirming my original claim as positively supported from a theory of rationality yet to be formulated.

In any case, the upshot is that we need theory – obviously!! – Z to be able to provide a reason for picking out any particular way of doing N in order be justified in any sort of rational support of Making the World a Better Place. We are back were we started in our Derek Parfit A, B, C:

X, Y, Z.

Ta! from Gothenburg!

*) Some readers may not remember the famous relation R from the now lost 34th edition postscript to Reasons and Persons, where the overly abstract notion of the original analysis of R had been ironed out to more concrete form; now signifying the As Ravingly Dashing Head of Hair as Ever relation.
**) If you ask yourself what (N) is, you obviously know nothing of philosophy and needs to attend university.