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On What Matters, Volume One

4.27  ·  Rating details ·  173 ratings  ·  17 reviews
On What Matters is a major work in moral philosophy. It is the long-awaited follow-up to Derek Parfit's 1984 book Reasons and Persons, one of the landmarks of twentieth-century philosophy. In this first volume Parfit presents a powerful new treatment of reasons and rationality, and a critical examination of three systematic moral theories -- Kant's ethics, contractualism, ...more
Hardcover, 592 pages
Published June 20th 2011 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published May 26th 2011)
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Sep 21, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Parfit argues for an objective theory of ethics; one in which objects, acts, and so forth, generate sufficient reasons for action, not merely our desires. He starts by arguing against the insufficiency of subjectivist accounts saying that they lead to manifest absurdities such as a person desiring to waste his life in trivialities is not wrong, nor is someone who desires pain for no particular reason (and not because they get pleasure from it). He then goes on to argue for his triple theory comb ...more
Kramer Thompson
Jun 20, 2017 rated it liked it
Another very clearly written, rigorously argued book from Parfit, as you would expect. I was initially ambivalent about the contention between objective and subjective reasons, but have been strongly convinced by Parfit that there are objective reasons. Although his Kantian argument was well-argued, I am not so convinced that it is necessary (or perhaps relevant) for two reasons: (1) I am unconvinced that there are any reasons in addition to agent-neutral or impartial reasons, and (2) I am uncon ...more
Heather Pagano
Sep 18, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: philosophy
As an amateur philosopher I loved the first half of this book. It convinced me that ethics could be approached with the same rigor as analytic philosophy. Parfit's style of building a case slowly and methodically, then suddenly ending the chapter with simple statement of thesis, took me awhile to get used to, but I learned to expect these abrupt chapter conclusions. This tendency toward abrupt conclusions was amplified in the overall structure of the volume, which for me rushed to thesis stateme ...more
Mar 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is a highly acclaimed book by a distinguished philosopher but what is Parfit up to here?

Essentially, the bookinvolves two primary claims. First, Parfit defends a realist view of reasons or value. This view contrasts with expressivist and subjectivist theories of reasons. Parfit's arguments are often convincing but they basically rest on the intuitive idea that things are good or bad - he often uses unnecessary suffering as an example - independently of the agent's desires or aims. Parfit ar
Aug 01, 2014 rated it really liked it
Two great passages:

-"... the Golden Rule is theoretically inferior [to 2 other principles]. But this rule may be, for practical purposes, the best of these three principles. By requiring us to imagine ourselves in other people's position, the Golden Rule may provide what is psychologically the most effective way of making us more impartial, and morally motivating us. That may be why this rule has been the world's most widely accepted fundamental moral idea" (330).

- quoting Williams: "deep attach
Hannah Grace
Apr 29, 2012 rated it really liked it
I don't agree with all the arguments Parfit presents (he's a cognitive realist about both reasons and morals, a believer in normative, objective truths, which I find difficult to swallow) but his prose is clear and concise and he's really freaking smart. Also, this tumblr exists, which just makes me happy: ...more
Nicholas Lariviere
Sep 14, 2018 rated it liked it
More focused on the step-by-step explanation about why Kantian and Contrarianism philosopies are essentially just different lenses on Altruism than on the underlying titular topic.
Mar 29, 2020 rated it it was ok
I'm very interested in the study of ethics and have been looking forward to reading this for a long time...I've read that it's a huge step forward in ethical philosophy. Honestly, I don't know why I'm even giving this two stars, but all I can say is that I'm glad I didn't go to graduate school for philosophy, which was something I was seriously considering.

Let me tell you how that's relevant here: I feel that Parfit (1) is overly enamored with Kant and existing ethical philosophy, and (2) think
Anthony DiGiovanni
Jun 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing
As one could tell from my notes on this book, I have some disagreements with Parfit, often substantially so. I think he dismisses purely impartial consequentialism too readily, relying on our intuitions that it really seems like we should care relatively more about ourselves and our loved ones - these are intuitions that I think simply irrationally prejudice one's values in favor of oneself/such loved ones. When there are genuine tradeoffs to be made for other people, who are as real and as sent ...more
Zhijing Jin
Jan 21, 2021 rated it really liked it
This book can serve as a good textbook for moral philosophy, following the 1874 book The Methods of Ethics by Henry Sidgwick.

Three views of moral philosophy: Kantian deontology (acting because some action is good), Consequentialism (acting towards a good result), and Contractualism (acting because the action constitutes a good "social contract" in the context of enlightenment movement philosophies).

The author posits that these three views can be combined and get to similar conclusions in action.
Mar 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I'm looking forward to reading part two as he mentions that he'll further tackle the argument that nothing matters since our reasons are given by reasonless desires which leads to meaninglessness.

Just like Reasons and Persons this has a lot to chew on. That said, even though I'm giving this five stars it didn't quite live up to R&P for me, which I thought was truly excellent. I guess perhaps more accurately, my memory of R&P was that there were some exceptional sections and some mediocre section
Dec 01, 2017 rated it it was ok
If you're into Kant, this is definitely worth the read. He writes clearly enough to be followed. I'm not sure if what I didn't like about it was Parfit's fault or rather the direction that philosophy has headed in recently. It seems bizarre to me to try to generalize moral principles on very strange thought experiments. ...more
Aug 23, 2019 rated it it was ok
On What Doesn't Matter would be a more appropriate title.

This is an argument without a plan, and with no real conclusion. Broadly, it reduces to a rose-tinted defense of Kant.
Taylor Douglas
Mar 14, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Dense but thought changing and hard to disagree with.
Oct 13, 2018 rated it really liked it
Challenging to read but once you get into his line of arguments it is very interesting.
Mar 07, 2017 rated it liked it
the loneliest point in my life was when i asked for this for christmas and had to work over the holiday break and spent new years eve in a cubicle alone reading this book
Richard Anderson
Feb 27, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Tough going for me, but worth it.
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Derek Parfit was a British Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University specializing in personal identity, rationality, ethics, and the relations between them.

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