Some people think philosophy is about thinking really deep thoughts, and expressing those thoughts in language that leaves plain common discourse behind. Philosophy in the English tradition, to the contrary, shuns abstraction and arcane language. Really good philosophy in the English tradition is as crisp and clean as a bleached sheet drying in the summer sun.
So I was happy to find this review of Derek Parfit’s latest book On What Matters. Parfit is a professor at All Souls College in Oxford; his field is moral philosophy. The question Parfit considers, is whether moral statements are subjective or objective. For example, if I say, “Helping old ladies cross busy streets is ‘good’,” am I merely expressing my personal taste (a subjective preference)? Or am I describing a feature of the world– a feature that is either true or false (an objective statement)? Parfit holds to the latter regarding moral statements. For him, morality is objective. To call something “good” is more than simply expressing approval– it is to assert something about the way things really are.
Traditionally, defenders of moral objectivity have appealed to God’s moral law to make their case. According to his reviewer, Parfit does not resort to this appeal. That’s fortunate: since European/Western culture is not, in this historical moment, grounded in any broadly-shared sense of the Transcendent, perhaps we can begin by simply reclaiming the authority of the good.