Does Anything Matter?

OXFORD – Can moral judgments be true or false? Or is ethics, at bottom, a purely subjective matter, for individuals to choose, or perhaps relative to the culture of the society in which one lives? We might have just found out the answer.

Among philosophers, the view that moral judgments state objective truths has been out of fashion since the 1930’s, when logical positivists asserted that, because there seems to be no way of verifying the truth of moral judgments, they cannot be anything other than expressions of our feelings or attitudes. So, for example, when we say, “You ought not to hit that child,” all we are really doing is expressing our disapproval of your hitting the child, or encouraging you to stop hitting the child. There is no truth to the matter of whether or not it is wrong for you to hit the child.

Although this view of ethics has often been challenged, many of the objections have come from religious thinkers who appealed to God’s commands. Such arguments have limited appeal in the largely secular world of Western philosophy. Other defenses of objective truth in ethics made no appeal to religion, but could make little headway against the prevailing philosophical mood.

Last month, however, saw a major philosophical event: the publication of Derek Parfit’s long-awaited book On What Matters. Until now, Parfit, who is Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, had written only one book, Reasons and Persons, which appeared in 1984, to great acclaim. Parfit’s entirely secular arguments, and the comprehensive way in which he tackles alternative positions, have, for the first time in decades, put those who reject objectivism in ethics on the defensive.