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May 21, 2018 | by  | in Philosoraptor |
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Philosoraptor

The philosopher Derek Parfit, who we discussed last column, believes that a dominant theory of rationality — what he calls the “Self-Interest Theory” — is internally inconsistent. The Self-Interest Theory is a theory of rationality which tells us to do whatever would maximise the total wellbeing of our whole life. So according to the Self-Interest Theory, we are not rationally required to care about the wellbeing of other people, but we are rationally required to care about the wellbeing of our future self. As we shall now see, Parfit exploits this feature of the Self-Interest Theory to argue against it.

Some terminology is necessary before we begin. Parfit calls a theory person-neutral or agent-neutral if the instructions of that theory make no reference to the specific person to whom the instructions apply. This definition is a bit confusing, so it’s best illustrated through examples. A theory which instructs you to “maximise total wellbeing” or “protect human rights as best as possible” is person-neutral, since it makes no reference to you. By contrast, a theory which instructs you to “maximise your own wellbeing” or “protect your family” is person-relative, since it distinguishes your wellbeing and your family from everyone else’s wellbeing and everyone else’s families. Roughly speaking, theories which are person-neutral are “impartial” theories.

Similarly, Parfit calls a theory temporally neutral if it does not care about the times at which things occur. A theory which tells you to “maximise your life’s total wellbeing” is temporally neutral, since it doesn’t matter when in your life you experience the wellbeing, but a theory which tells you to “maximise your current wellbeing” is temporally relative.

Parfit compares the Self-Interest Theory to two other theories. The first is what he calls Morality, which is basically an impartial form of morality that instructs us to do whatever would be best for everyone. The second is the Present-Aim Theory, which tells us to do whatever would best serve our current desires, aims, and interests.

The thrust of Parfit’s argument should now be obvious. While the Present-Aim Theory and Morality are consistently relative or neutral, the Self-Interest Theory is inconsistent: it is temporally neutral but person relative. Now, being temporally neutral but person relative is not in itself a flaw. But Parfit thinks this structure of the Self-Interest Theory makes it vulnerable to attacks “from both sides” – from Morality on one side, and the Present-Aim Theory on the other.

For example, a proponent of Morality might attack the Self-Interest Theory by saying that we are rationally required to care about the wellbeing of other people. In arguing against this claim, the Self-Interest Theorist might appeal to various arguments – they might say that the wellbeing of other people cannot rationally move us, since it is detached from the current sources of our motivation. But then the Present-Aim Theorist might pop up and ask: if we cannot, for this reason, be rationally required to care about the wellbeing of other people, then why can we be rationally required to care about the wellbeing of our future self? After all, the wellbeing of our future self can also be detached from our current sources of motivation.
Parfit thinks that this vulnerability to two-pronged attacks is fatal to the Self-Interest Theory. Thus, he thinks, proponents of an egoistic or selfish rationality are forced to defend the Present-Aim Theory, which is far less palatable, since most of us believe that we are rationally required to care about our future wellbeing.

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