11 March 1997
Thank you for your letter of 2 March, with your notes on Unit 2 of Reason, Values and Conduct. As you will have gathered by now, reasoning about the questions of ethics is every bit as difficult as reasoning about metaphysics! I find it the hardest of all the philosophical topics to get to grips with, not simply because so much is at stake but on account of the sheer complexity of the arguments. When politicians talk of teaching 'ethics' in schools, they do not have in mind the problems of moral philosophy!
24-29. prudential reasoning There is a hint of confusion in your summary here. Questioning the importance of personal identity is for Parfit a way of putting my future selves on the same level as all other selves, from the point of view of satisfying needs and desires. That is how he derives an objective (and strongly utilitarian) morality from the denial of the 'rationality' of prudential reasoning as Nagel interprets it. In other words, Parfit accepts Nagel's point that prudence implies personal identity. But whereas Nagel uses belief in the reality of my future selves as the model for 'belief in other minds', and hence the objectivity of moral reasons, Parfit takes the altogether different route of deriving the objectivity of moral reasons from the denial of the reality of 'my' future selves.
Philosophers who resist Parfit's attack on personal identity would not regard the patchiness of memory as itself posing a problem. It is not as if a little bit of me is lost every time some event in my past passes beyond the boundaries of what I am able to recall. What is important is the continuity and connectedness of memory in the context of my bodily continuity. (Anti-realism about the past is an altogether different question, which affects all past 'facts' equally, not just identities. It may therefore be disregarded for present purposes.) The crunch, however, comes when we consider thought experiments involving the idea of duplicating persons together with their 'memories'. On the principle that anything physical could conceivably be copied, then so could you. As you lie in your cell awaiting your turn on the evil scientist's duplicating machine, the question irresistably arises, 'Which one will I be?' — a question to which there is no answer. (The answer is not simply that you cannot ever 'know', but that there is 'fact' to be known.)
30-33. the will In your example of the extra pint of beer, you are right to point out that one does not necessarily regard risking the hangover as 'giving into temptation'. This is really a version of the point I made earlier that there are limits to prudential reasoning. (We applaud living for the moment, spontaneity etc.) However, there are other examples one can think of where one cannot so easily brush aside worries about the repercussions of one's actions on oneself. It is these cases which give the philosophical problem of weakness of will its bite. I have sought to stress that this problem can be posed in a purely prudential context, without raising moral issues. (Of course, such weakness is an attribute of a person's whole character, and a person's character, it might be argued, is a moral issue. Once again, though, Parfit-type issues arise: consider the army medic in the thick of battle overdosing on 'uppers' so that he can save more lives, to the neglect of the physical well being of his 'future self'.)
34-37. behaviour I like your idea of making it one's 'objective to do the right thing'. In practical terms, this would be an effective strategy: a reminder not to allow one's eyes to be distracted from seeing what is to be done. In other words, the belief that weakness of will is only a failure of knowledge would have the practical effect of seeming to 'strengthen' the will.
My point in these paragraphs is to contrast the view that reasons 'compete' with other considerations with the view I favour, which is that whatever we do we do 'for a reason', so that the only question is of 'good' reasons versus 'bad' ones.
You are right to raise the issue of unthinking reactions as posing a particular difficulty for the knowledge theory. It is very different from the picture of a person 'succumbing' to the temptation to do what they 'know' to be wrong (or wrong for them). In the latter case, we can accuse them of thinking irrationally. In the former case, one did not 'think' at all. Losing one's temper or losing one's rag are cases where one's responsibility for an action is, arguably, diminished. (Yet, significantly, one does not lose all self-control. You would not have killed the clumsy commuter, supposing that you had the means to do so.) However, insofar as one can improve one's ability to control one's temper, there is scope for improving one's behaviour on the basis of self-knowledge. We are all liable to be 'caught off guard': instant reactions where our knowledge does not have a chance to 'kick in' can be a valuable aid to survival. But the ability to display morally 'right' reactions has to be cultivated. It is not part of our biological inheritance.
38-43 'fear and temptation...are not forms of irrationality'. What is irrational is our acting for 'reasons' of fear or temptation where other reasons are objectively stronger. On the knowledge account, weakness of will is a form of irrationality, accounted for in terms of a temporary forgetting or blindness.
It is the objectivist who insists on 'moral facts'. On the subjectivist view, 'reason is a slave of the passions': whatever we feel we 'ought' to do, we ought to do only on the assumption that there is something that we want. Kant called these 'hypothetical imperatives': if you want B (e.g. if you want other people to like you) then you ought to do A. Objective moral reasons would be 'categorical imperatives': you must do A irrespective of what you personally want.