- Hardcover: 1440 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (June 20, 2011)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0199265925
- ISBN-13: 978-0199265923
- Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 4.2 x 6.6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 5.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 9 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #169,272 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
On What Matters (2 Volume Set) 1st Edition
Use the Amazon App to scan ISBNs and compare prices.
All Books, All the Time
Read author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more at the Amazon Book Review. Read it now
Frequently bought together
Customers who bought this item also bought
"[On What Matters] stands as a grand and dedicated attempt to elaborate a fundamentally misguided perspective. Its diligence and its honesty command respect. Perhaps these real virtues will set standards for a very different ventures in academic ethics. Naturalist or otherwise--for a return to the tradition of attempts to understand and improve everyday judgment, and to provide resources for people and policymakers everywhere. In the end, that is what matters."--Philip Kitcher, The New Republic
"The most significant work in ethics since Sidgwick's masterpiece was published in 1873 ... a work of epic proportions and ambitions"--Peter Singer, Times Literary Supplement
"The most eagerly awaited book in philosophy since Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations... Should the book become as influential as the stars guiding its arrival suggest, it could seriously alter the way that ethics is thought about and taught."--Constantine Sandis, Times Higher Education
"Represents many years of work by one of the most influential philosophers of our time"--Simon Blackburn, Financial Times
"It is finally here. . . there is no doubt that On What Matters is an epochal work . . . a remarkable achievement, giving us a truly comprehensive picture of the moral outlook . . . of one of the greatest moral thinkers of our time. . . . Parfit's intellectual personality radiates throughout On What Matters, which as a whole presents a gripping and illuminating picture of a single, comprehensive view of the projects of both normative and metaethical inquiry."--Mark Schroeder, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews
"Parfits arguments are of extraordinary brilliance and clarity, and by any standards On What Matters is an immensely powerful achievement. . . Parfits intricate and beautifully lucid book is undoubtedly the work of a philosophical genius."--John Cottingham, The Tablet
"This book presents a comprehensive theory of the metaphysics, epistemology, and substance of ethical thought. It originality is often striking and its arguments profound. On What Matters is a monument that will shape the field for many years."--Kieran Setiya, Mind
About the Author
Derek Parfit is one of the leading philosophers of our time. He is a Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, Global Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at New York University, and a Fellow of the British Academy and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of Reasons and Persons (OUP, 1984), one of the most influential books in philosophy of the last several decades.
Top customer reviews
The long review: This is a work of staggering ambition and obsessive focus by a leading philosopher -- a tome that had the attention of ethicists long before it hit the shelves.
But should you buy it?
If you do moral philosophy for a living, yes. Duh. You don't need me to tell you that OWM touches on (and sometimes improves on) debates all across ethics, even where you might not expect it to. It's also reasonably priced and surprisingly fun to read. As Mark Schroeder writes in his review, there are gems scattered throughout the whole thing.
(But there are also plenty of lumps of coal—his view on the relation between reasons and rationality, his interpretation of Sidgwick's dualism, and his insistence that some things exist "in a non-ontological sense" are unfortunate, in my view. There's no room here to defend these potshots, but if you're interested you might check out Kiesewetter's "A Dilemma for Parfit's Conception of Rationality," Tom Hurka's book British Ethical Theorists From Sidgwick to Ewing, and [if you're feeling brave] Kit Fine's "The Question of Ontology.")
Still, Parfit has a knack for helpfully reframing debates; here's an example. Contractualists think that right actions are right because they fall under the principles that we would all agree to follow. But in what circumstances are we supposed to imagine this agreement taking place? Well, probably not any actual ones! If people in the real world all had to decide what principles to follow (supposing that no one gets to break them once they're chosen!), the decision process would be unfair: the game would be rigged in favor of the wealthy and powerful, who hold all of the bargaining chips and often aren't afraid to use them. (Imagine a kid and parent selfishly debating what principle to use to determine bedtime.)
So, contractualists have to imagine some hypothetical bargaining situation where the chips are more evenly distributed among everyone at the table. Parfit makes a nice point here: we want our method of distribution to be elegant. Yet some existing contractualist theories, like John Rawls's theory, aren't as elegant as they could be. Rawls (who was really only writing about principles of justice, not all moral principles) effectively says that we should imagine what principles we'd agree on if we didn't know who we are in certain respects, but were selfish and rational. To decide on the principles of charity, imagine what we'd all agree to if we didn't know how needy we are. To dedice principles of racial justice, imagine what we'd agree to if we didn't know our own races. This would make principles like "Let the rich do what they want" and "Judge MLK's children according to the color of their skin" unlikely to make the cut. After all, what kind of rational egoist would agree to a racist system without first making sure he or she's not a member of the mistreated race!
Here's Parfit's en passant insight: while Rawls gets the right results, his method looks artificial rather than elegant. We're asking a question--What principles would we all agree on?--that only works if we pretend that we're more ignorant than we really are, and that we're egoists rather than occasional altruists. We're gerrymandering the context where we answer the question instead of picking a question that gets us to the right results all by itself.
Parfit's "Kantian" Contractualism is supposed to give us such a question: what principles could we be okay with everyone following, if we were thinking reasonably? (Or in Parfit-speak: what are the principles whose universal acceptance we could all rationally will?) I don't agree with Parfit that this Kantian contractualism is the supreme principle of morality; I also disagree with much of his defense of it. But I thought the comparison between Kantian and Rawlsian contractualisms was fascinating, and it's just one incidental move in a grandmaster game.
That's a lot of smoke I'm blowing up this book's rear spine. Does that mean you should buy it even if you're not professionally obligated to? The answer is: probably, if you're okay with slogging through or skipping around a few parts.
In my opinion, Parfit's arguments are fairly charitable, his ideas always deep, and his prose clear and engaging--sometimes even moving. But there are large swatches of OWM that hardly anyone outside of academic ethics is going to want to slog through. Are you itching to know whether Bernard Williams had the concept of a normative reason? Does the debate about state-given vs. object-given reasons tickle your fancy? Do you find yourself ruminating late at night on whether the evidence-relative, belief-relative, and moral-belief-relative senses of "ought" can be defined in terms of the fact-relative sense?
You get the point.
Still, if you're interested in what moral philosophers are buzzing about these days, and you have some basic familiarity with the subject, you'll find plenty in here to reward the time you spend on it. The whole thing's meticulously organized, lovingly designed, and laboriously polished--it's no wonder he had an amnesia-inducing panic attack right before submitting the last draft. Fortunately, you don't have to read it as obsessively as Parfit wrote it. There are many self-contained discussions throughout, allowing you to dip into mini-essays on the golden rule, Kant's Groundwork, Sidgwick's practical dualism, and the origin of the universe, all at your leisure. It helps that you can take on any section of the book once you've read the first part, which covers reasons, rationality, and objectivity.
The bottom line: On What Matters is an deep, broad treatise on the questions that Parfit truly cares about. There are problems with the project, no doubt: the parts on rationality and senses of ought, as well as much of the metaethics, are facing trenchant resistance in philosophy departments worldwide (including mine!), and some feel like the project rests too heavily on its assumptions about normativity and rationality. Yet there's something amazing about this book. It's the product of so much heart and gray matter, I can never put it down without taking something away. If you want to know more about what matters and why, and don't mind a little slogging, my guess is that you'll get plenty out of On What Matters, too.
As in "Reasons and Persons", Parfit uses some imaginative thought-experiments to support his theory. However, I think that some of these scenarios are too far-fetched and under-described, rendering our intuitions about them unreliable. For example, in a case called Bridge: "your only way to save five [strangers] would be to open, by remote control, the trap-door on which I am standing, so that I would fall in front of the [runaway] train, thereby triggering its automatic brake." (Vol.1, p. 218) Allen Wood goes on a rant against philosophers' use of "Trolley Problems" like this in his memorable commentary in Volume 2.
In both volumes, Parfit raises several objections to Subjectivism about reasons. Its most prominent form says you only have a reason to do X if you would desire to do X after informed deliberation (knowing all the relevant facts). On the contrary, Parfit argues you have reasons to do some things, such as avoid agony, even if you wouldn't want to after such deliberation. Furthermore, unless our desires are grounded in some reason(s), they cannot in turn give us reasons to do things. So "Subjective theories are built on sand", he says. (Vol 1, p. 91) However, his Objective theory rests on an indefinable notion of a reason, as he admits on the first page.
On Parfit's view, reasons are provided to us by natural facts but are not identical to them. That is, they can't be reduced to natural properties the way that water is reduced to H2O, for example. Now you might be wondering: how can reasons and moral properties exist or be discovered if they are intangible and have no observable physical effects? Parfit answers these questions successfully, I believe, in the last third of Volume 2. Here's a gist of one argument by analogy: Just as there are intangible logical rules (e.g. Modus Ponens), there are intangible moral rules, such as it's wrong to torture innocent children for fun. The latter should seem no more mysterious than the former.
All in all, I think Parfit presents his views with great clarity, ingenuity and determination. His arguments for the Triple Theory and Ethical Non-Naturalism have certainly grown on me. I found both volumes long but never tedious to read.