Peter Singer’s almost reverential review… of On What Matters by Derek Parfit claims that the work is the “most significant work in ethics since Sidgwick’s masterpiece [The Methods of Ethics] was published in 1873”. On the contrary, two much more important books were published by Friedrich Nietzsche – Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and On the Genealogy of Morality (1887). (John Greenbank, letter to the TLS 27/05/2011)
The argument is nonsense, of course. For you cannot disprove a person’s preference by replacing it with one of your own. This is the academic equivalent of saying vanilla ice cream is better than choc-chip because I prefer it.
He gives some reasons for this assertion (don’t we all?): Nietzsche’s insight that we are controlled by irrational drives. These facts might be true but the conclusion doesn’t follow from them – there is still much more work to be done before his preference for Nietzsche over Sidgwick can be justified. To give just two examples.
- Not all ethics is going to deal with our irrational drives, so how do you separate these different elements and give them their proper weight…
- The historical and academic impact may not be so easy to disentangle from the value of the work itself: how do you balance the quality of the work with the influence on the culture…
We all entitled to say a book is important, indeed the most important in its field. To say it suggests we believe it; and is indicative of our character. Many will accept this statement because they like and trust us. If we want more than this, to win the assent of the atheists and agnostics, we will have to give reasons, which may or may not be valid. These others will then agree or disagree based on the quality of our justifications.
If a person wants to argue that our assertion is wrong they cannot simply cite their favourite book, listing its good points. No! We are back to the different ice creams. Instead they have to attack and undermine the reasoning behind the original assertion. Demolish that house and you can build your own. Otherwise you are simply neighbours in the same street.