Why What Matters Matters.

I have come reluctantly to the conclusion that Derek Parfit is mistaken about the objectivity of non-natural normative facts, and therefore about their compelling authority, and therefore about what matters, in On What Matters. This is not because of the arguments levelled against him in the volume edited by Peter Singer Does Anything Really Matter?; nor does it arise from weaknesses in his own arguments, which are comprehensive and cogent. Neither is it because I have embraced some kind of relativism like Sarah Street. I am persuaded instead by what I suppose is a kind of sideways or out-of-left-field series of thoughts at least one of which arises directly from an almost throw-away remark by Parfit himself, “Belief in God, or in many gods, prevented the free development of moral reasoning” (Reasons and Persons, p.454).

And what killed the moral objectivity argument for me, precisely the one Parfit is arguing for, is that it would, if successful, amount to a reinstatement of a quasi-theistic objectivity that would again absolve and exempt us in just such a way. And I think we need the opposite of such absolution and exemption; so the opposite has to be true.

We often ask ourselves what makes us who we are; and if we don’t, we should. And reading Parfit has provided me with an answer: we are defined by two inseparable things: by the things that we take to matter and by actions arising from those things that constitute – to the limits of our knowledge, reasoning and ability – the best we can do right now.

We are defined by two inseparable things: by the things that we take really to matter, and by actions arising from those things that constitute – to the limits of our knowledge, reason and power – the best we can do right now.

I share Parfit’s regret (expressed towards the end of Volume 3) that he has written so little on what really matters, because when he does his voice carries an authority and a clarity that is important and refreshing. I also believe that most of us spend our lives taking the wrong things to matter and failing to apply our best efforts even to those things that we do think matter.

We are defined by what we take to matter and what we do about it. Nothing else. Not, notice, by what we claim to matter, or say matters, or persuade ourselves we think matters even though we do nothing about it; not even by what we believe to matter: by what we take to matter and what we do about it; these two things are inseparable. We could put it differently, perhaps better: we are defined by the things which matter to us sufficiently to make our lives embody them.

This changes things. We need not add moral disapproval of someone’s life to that life; we should instead embody something better and different in our own, perhaps even our opposition to the way that person lives theirs. Saying something is wrong achieves nothing unless we act as if it is wrong and oppose it. Otherwise our disapproval consists only of empty words that show it does not matter enough, at least not to us.

“Does Anything Really Matter?” then becomes an empty question that is replaced by another, better question: does it matter who you are? Does what matters to you and what you do about it matter? And that in turn gives way to an even more important and better question: do you choose to make anything matter enough to act as best you can to further it?

Objectivity would suffer from the same failing that Parfit identifies in theism: it would absolve and exempt us from the obligation to make things matter enough, and to act accordingly.

This would alter the thrust of moral theory from the attempt to discover what matters in objective non-natural normative facts, and turn its attention instead to the question what we best choose to make matter and do about it. And that, I think, would be a change for the better.


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