In 2011 Derek Parfit of All Souls College, Oxford published a two volume work entitled ‘On What Matters’. It seems to me to be a very significant and exciting contribution to a non-theistic understanding of moral reasoning. It also seems to me that it is the sort of work that could, in the modern era, enrich our thinking about the relation between Catholic and and non-theistic moral reasoning in a way that encourages dialogue.
I have presented the main lines of Parfit’s argument as best I can. There will certainly be things I have misunderstood. Some of the presentation will come across as pretty technical for those not used to modern philosophy. Parfit’s text itself is highly readable, often entertaining, wide-ranging and seriously analytical. If you have the time and are comfortable with philosophical writing do read it. I hope what I have produced is sufficient to whet your appetite. Each section (I’m afraid) comes out at about 3000 words or more. Sections 1 and 3 are likely to be the most immediately accessible. Click to read.
On What Matters Part 1 This section introduces the centrality of reason to traditional Catholic ethical thought. It highlights problems that current official writings refer to in non-theistic ethical thought. It sketches some of the philosophical ideas that create these problems and introduces Parfit’s alternative, ‘wide-based objective theory’.
On What Matters Part 2 This section presents some of the detail of Parfit’s discussion of reasons and ethical language and shows how he develops ideas of Kant and Sidgwick to produce a unified principle for moral reasoning.
On What Matters Part 3 Here we look at some of the areas of ethical disagreement highlighted by Parfit, and how he accounts for the disagreement while preserving his optimism about ‘convergence’ in ethical reasoning. Several of these areas are of specific interest to Catholics.
On What Matters Part 4 Finally we look at how Parfit ingeniously proposes a realist account of ethics and value despite a non-theistic, evolutionary narrative of human beings in the world. I conclude with a short appreciation of the text.