Is Derek Parfit a Speculative Realist?

The term Speculative Realism designates an apparently new trend or movement within philosophy. The term is said to have been coined in 2006 by Ray Brassier1 in preparation for a conference held at Goldsmiths College, London, in April, 2007. Participants in that meeting included Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman, and Quentin Meillassoux; Alberto Toscano served as the moderator.

According to Graham Harman, the designation, Speculative Realism, was selected as a way of accommodating some disparate positions held by the participants. So, as Harman notes:

“Speculative realism” is an extremely broad term. All it takes to be a speculative realist is to be opposed to … the sort of philosophy (still dominant today) that bases all philosophy on the mutual interplay of human and world.

As is probably to be expected of any group identified primarily in terms of what it is not, the Speculative Realists have “already begun to break into various fragments”.2

Steven Shaviro says3 that, despite differences in approaches and emphases, what the Speculative Realists continue to have in common is that they “all seek to break away from the epistemological, and human-centred, focus of most post-Kantian thought” which “gives a privileged position to human subjectivity or to human understanding” and “subordinates ontology to epistemology”. In seeking this break, these thinkers – with the “new questions” they have asked – are supposed to have provided a “shock” to the world of philosophy.

However, that shock would have to arise from something other than the observation that ontology and metaphysics have been subordinated to epistemology. After all, it has been rather apparent for quite some time that the most lauded forms of human thought in our age – both within and outside of philosophy – are those which seem to present the best impersonal justifications for claims to knowledge. But, this situation is likely more directly the result of the rise to cultural prominence on the part of science than it is to the musings of any philosophers.

And it is not at all apparent – in fact, it would verge on the preposterous to assert – that science in any way privileges human subjectivity. Even within philosophy itself there is nothing terribly new in attempting to subordinate, deny, or even eliminate subjects and the subjective in favor of the objective and its constituent objects.

For instance, in his book, Reasons and Persons, first published in 1984, some two decades before the first Speculative Realism conference, Derek Parfit says, “a person is what has experiences, or the subject of experiences.” But, according to Parfit, this is true only “because of the way in which we talk.”4 And, he says, we do not actually have to speak in that manner; we do not actually have to speak as if persons were entities.


Just as “[w]e can refer to and describe different thoughts, and describe the relations between them, without ascribing these thoughts to thinkers”,5 so, too, could we, if we had need to, locate thoughts – even different thoughts – within a particular brain and body. We could, if we had need to, associate a particular brain and body with “the occurrence of certain other physical and mental events.”

In this way, just as we can discuss thoughts without reference to thinkers, so too can we discuss experiences without referring to an experiencing subject or person as if the person or subject were an entity existing separately from a brain and body; we could discuss experiences without needing to regard or refer to persons or subjects as being in any way distinguishable from particular brains and bodies. We could, instead, discuss experiences as being had by a particular brain and body, or we could discuss any experience as occurring at a some location in a particular sequence of connected or otherwise related physical or mental processes.

This is to say that a particular person is just a particular brain and body and the occurrence of a particular series of interrelated physical and mental events.6 In other words:

We could … redescribe any person’s life in impersonal terms. In explaining the [observed or merely apparent] unity of this life, we need not claim that it is the life of a particular person. We could describe what, at different times, was thought and … observed and done, and how these various events were interrelated.7

With this sort of Reductionist approach, there would, of course, be some degree of arbitrariness whenever a particular life was demarcated from some other occurring processes. Still, by Parfit’s reasoning, it is perfectly valid to refer to persons as subjects who experience, but, by his reasoning, a person is more a convenience of speech than it is an extra-linguistic ontological fact.

On the face of it, this part of Parfit’s approach hardly seems susceptible to being criticized as privileging human subjectivity. And, given the fact that Parfit put forth his thoughts about twenty years before Speculative Realism started to gain some notoriety, there is at least some reason to question whether Speculative Realism is a distinctively new philosophical direction, at least insofar as that direction is identified with efforts to remove a privilege that has been supposed for human subjectivity and personhood.

This is not to say that the Speculative Realists have to be wholly original in order for their thoughts to be worthwhile.

After all, whatever there is that might be new or worthwhile in Parfit’s work, Parfit himself notes (or, rather, claims) that “Buddha” – who obviously greatly pre-dates Parfit – “would have agreed8 with Parfit’s Reductionist view (including, no doubt, the claim “that personal identity is not what matters”).9 In support of the asserted affinity between his own and the Buddha’s position, Parfit cites the Buddha’s statement that: “Actions do exist, and also their consequences, but the person that acts does not. … There exists no Individual, it is only a conventional name given to a set of elements.”10


The variety of Speculative Realism which is currently most well known is probably Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology (or Object-Oriented Philosophy). According to Shaviro, in the essay cited earlier:

Harman proposes a … non-human-centred metaphysics, one in which ‘humans have no privilege at all’, so that ‘we can speak in the same way of the relation between humans and what they see and that between hailstones and tar’.

Based on this description, it is difficult to see how what Harman proposes succeeds at a more thorough disprivileging of human subjectivity than that which is accomplished by the part of Parfit’s approach above characterized. Harman describes himself as an “anti-materialist”, and this might to some extent distinguish him from Parfit. Parfit seems inclined to engage the Reductionism he puts forth in more of (what Parfit would describe as) a Physicalist manner, despite the fact – according to Parfit – that Dualists and Idealists can also ascribe to that Reductionism.11

However, it is important to note that Parfit’s Reductionism – even with its Physicalist strain – avoids what Object-Oriented philosophers sometimes refer to as undermining.12 Although Parfit does not speak extensively or primarily in terms of objects, although Parfit seems less concerned than are Object-Oriented philosophers with devising an ever more fully fleshed out system of metaphysics, he avoids undermining by maintaining the relevance of those relations which even non-Reductionists regard as critically significant to the individuating characters and identities of persons.

By acknowledging and maintaining the relevant – although Reductionist – relations, Parfit can deny persons and subjects and still speak in terms of persons and subjects, where persons and subjects are ultimately more like conveniences of language than they are independent entities in themselves.

By Parfit’s reasoning, persons and subjects (which – or who – are not independent entities) can be reduced to actually independent entities, but the most proper reduction is one in which those independent entities continue to be considered in terms of what relations there are between the separately existing entities which end up presenting as (or constituting) what is otherwise referred to as persons or subjects.

Whereas Parfit argues against the notion of a person as an entity which exists independent of – or in addition to – some extended brain and body context, Object-Oriented philosophers do say that persons are objects, even “independent objects”.13


On the face of it, the notion of persons as independent objects might seem in conflict with Parfit’s contention that a person is not an entity separate or distinguishable (other than as a convention of language) from some brain and body in an extended relational context. However, this conflict may only be apparent, and it may be wholly dependent upon a way of thinking about objects as static things. This is not how Levi Bryant, himself an Object-Oriented philosopher whose views about objects diverge somewhat from those of Graham Harman, conceives of objects: “objects are not brute clods that just sit there doing nothing until acted upon. Rather, they are ongoing activities.” 14

Bryant has said that “to be a thing” – or an object – “is to be an act”15 so that it is an error to think that any existing object or thing can be either acting or not acting; all objects are always engaged in some act. Bryant says that because a thing is an act, there is no thing “underneath the deed”. He then further identifies thing and object with substance when he says that the “substantiality of substance is the substance’s activity”, and this leads him to a position which seems more properly described as compatible with – rather than in conflict with – Parfit’s:

I cease to be a substance when my body no longer acts. … the individuality of the substance or system is not a subject that lies beneath … that identity is not an abiding sameness that is invariant throughout change …

Despite this apparent compatibility, there still remains some tension between Parfit’s and Bryant’s approaches. Parfit, after all, is quite openly willing to think that persons – subjects who experience – are conveniences of language without any extra-linguistic independent ontological standing, whereas Bryant, with his greater emphasis on ontology, explicitly insists on regarding persons as objects having ontological standing outside the conventions of language. Bryant says:

My daughter cannot be reduced to the various foods, gases, and chemicals out of which her cells were built, she is not merely a pile of these things, but rather she is a distinct entity unleashed into the world … an entity in [her] own right …16

Parfit, for his part, and were he to utilize some of the Object-Oriented philosophers’ terminology, could note that a reduction which was so thorough that the only relation left was that of mere proximity would be an undermining which eliminated the “connectedness and/or continuity” (the extended relational context) which is what matters instead of personal identity.17

Since, for Bryant, a process is a thing and so is synonymous with object,18 Bryant could take Parfit’s connectness and continuity as another way of describing that object which Bryant would call process, the process of coming to be as well as the process of continuing to be – both of which constitute the process of becoming which Bryant holds to be necessary for objects being objects.

Such a re-presentation of Parfit’s terms reiterates compatibility between Bryant’s and Parfit’s approaches, but it also leaves intact Parfit’s point about person being more of a linguistic convention rather than an entity in its own right. However, inasmuch as it seems to be the case for Bryant that it is the process of becoming – the manner in which connectness and continuity occur – that individuates each person, then it could be said that for Bryant it is not actually the object-ness – or the identity as an extra-linguistic entity – which is what matters most about a person.


It is worth noting that Bryant is not without his own concerns about mis-taking linguistic convention for extra-linguistic ontological standing. This concern is at the crux of Bryant’s considerations about whether events are objects, for example:

… do things such as battles, soccer games, and supernovae exist as independent events in their own right, or are they merely the result of linguistic conventions surrounding how we arbitrarily delineate events? Clearly the realist will wish to treat events as entities in their own right. However, the realist will also wish to distinguish genuine events from events that are merely the result of some linguistic or social convention … not everything we call an event will necessarily be an event in its own right.19

Bryant says that “objects have an evental structure … in that they come-to-be or happen … they have duration … [and] every object consists of ongoing operations that consist of its activities as they exist from moment to moment.” This description of objects as “evental” has much in common with Bryant’s description of objects as “processual” wherein “there are all sorts of activities going on within objects, all sorts of operations, by which the object endures from moment to moment.”

Bryant also further explains processes in terms of qualities (or what an object does under a given determinate condition) as distinguished from powers (the capacities of an object, which is to say what it can do were the determinate condition in any way different). Bryant actually associates event with what an object does rather than what it can do, and, in so doing, he suggests that event is interchangeable with process so that if processes are objects then, so too, must events be objects.

This is to say that Bryant could just add event to thing, process, individual, entity, and substance in his list of synonyms for object, but all this does is bring back to the fore the question of whether there is any need to ever assert or insist that persons are “independent objects” and ultimately something more – or other – than a convenience of language.

When Bryant says that “qualities are not fixed features of an object, but rather are happenings on the part of an object”, and when he says that these qualities are just what an object – such as a person – does under particular determinate conditions, it seems somewhat unnecessary (other than as an occasional expressive convenience) to assert or insist upon a person as an independent object in addition to those objects which, in relations to each other, are being used to delimit the person under discussion.

Can holding to the position that persons or subjects are actually extra-lingusitic entities somehow reveal something about reality that would otherwise not be made apparent when reducing persons to the connectness and continuity of the more elemental objects and relations which get unified under the term person?


The idea, such as that put forth by Parfit, that there is no such separately existing entity as a person will seem to many to be strikingly nonsensical if not outright insane. Holding persons, as Bryant does, to be independent entities will, on the other hand, come across as clearly sensible even though (or maybe it is because) that position in itself reveals no greater insight into reality.

Parfit’s is the sort of idea and the sort of talk that makes philosophy often seem – at best – abhorrently irrelevant. Even worse, it is the sort of idea, the sort of talk that seems perfectly tailored for use whenever justification is needed for actions that, since “[p]ersons are not … fundamental”,20 disregard or discount the importance of individual persons.

But, this is very much not the effect Parfit intends with “the truth about ourselves”21 that he presents, although he is aware that this truth (as he refers to it) could cause some discomfort:

Is the truth depressing? Some may find it so. But I find it liberating, and consoling. When I believed that my existence was … a further fact [distinct from physical and psychological continuity], I seemed imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel … When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. …There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my life, and more concerned about the lives of others.22

Parfit’s metaphysical Reductionism eliminates the common sense notion of a person as a separately existing entity, but that foray into metaphysics ends up serving a decidedly non-metaphysical purpose. Rather than develop a more fully encompassing system of metaphysics, Parfit uses that one metaphysical parcel about persons to investigate “what matters”, which is to say that which makes us as we are, and that, according to Parfit, is what most properly falls within the matters of ethics and morality.

According to Parfit, Non-Reductionists hold that we are all persons, “separately existing entities, distinct from our brains and bodies, and our experiences … a deep, further fact, distinct from physical and psychological continuity” by which “the deep unity of each life is automatically ensured” – and he adds tellingly – “however … passively this life is lived.”

What Parfit refers to in terms of the unity is the person, but, for Parfit, the person is not a given which is revealed or expressed with life. Instead, the person is something that must come to be during a life. And, because Parfit understands Non-Reductionism as positing each and every person as an always separately existing unity, Parfit thinks that his “Reductionist View gives more importance to how we choose to live, and to what distinguishes different people”.23

But, what this indicates is that it is not Reductionism per se which is essential to Parfit’s position; rather, the gist of Parfit’s view is that what is important is in some way tied to or dependent upon our choosing how to live or how to be.

Even if it were assumed, granted, or demonstrated that no form of Non-Reductionism can give as much importance to how we choose to live as does the Reductionism which Parfit puts forth, Parfit does not actually delve into what it takes to distinguish between a choosing and any other sort of doing or occurring which is not a choosing.

Parfit says that it is not true that the existence of a person involves or refers to “a deep further fact, distinct from physical and psychological continuity”.24 What if choosing is no more distinct from doing (or occurring) than person is distinct from “the existence of a brain and body, and the occurrence of a series of interrelated physical events and mental events”25 where “every mental event is just a physical event in some particular brain and nervous system”?26

Since there is no distinction, for Parfit, between person and the particular brain and body in a particular relational context to which person refers, Parfit can validly use person in substitution for the more impersonal and physically reductive depiction put forth as a brain and body and the occurrence of a series of interrelated events. Can he interchange choosing and doing (or any form of occur) in some similar fashion? Instead of saying that his “Reductionist View gives more importance to how we choose to live”, can he say the “Reductionist View gives more importance to how we do live or to how our lives occur”?

It does not appear so. That substitution seems to result in a reduction of sensibility, and this is because choosing is supposed to indicate a sort of difference which is absent from the terms doing and occurring.

Parfit says that “[t]hinking hard about” the arguments for Reductionism makes a difference for him; it “removes the glass wall between me and others.”27 This thinking is an occurrence as much as it is a type of doing, and it is a doing that effects difference, but that could just be because to say of something that it is an occurrence is just a way of indicating that and where there is a change or difference.

There is nothing contentious about the claim that the occurrence of thought could be in some way necessary for subsequent occurrences (even non-mental physical occurrences), and, to the extent that a choice is a type of mental event otherwise considered a thought, a choice can be necessary to what occurrences are subsequent.

However, when Parfit talks about the Reductionist view giving more importance to how we choose to live, he seems to mean something other than: The Reductionist view gives more importance to having thoughts about life and how to live.

What is it that would distinguish choosing from thinking, doing, or occurring? And, can Parfit’s physicalist Reductionism accommodate the choosing on which he relies without there also having to be “a deep further fact” about persons “distinct from physical and psychological continuity”?


In order for something to be a choice or a matter of choice, it must occur within a context constituted by – or describable in terms of – some relevant indeterminateness. Someone thinks there is a choice when that person thinks there is no determinateness regarding (which is to say that it is not determined) what he or she will do.

A person can think that there is a relevant indeterminateness even if there is none. For instance, a mistaken notion of there being relevant indeterminateness could result from the person being insufficiently knowledgeable about (which is to say the person would be ignorant of) either enough of or all of the facts about a fully determinate context.

However, when a person mistakenly thinks there is relevant indeterminateness although there is, in fact, complete determinateness, the person only thinks there is a choice. There is not, in fact, an occurrence which settles any indeterminateness such as would occur if choice indicated something about reality other than the ignorance of the person to whom the thoughts about choice occur.

A notion about indeterminateness can be found in Parfit’s discussion about personal identity. He says, “If we accept a Reductionist View, we shall believe that the identity of … a thing maybe, in a quite unpuzzling way, indeterminate.” Parfit associates indeterminate with being “neither true nor false.”28

While this sense of indeterminate might initially seem to regard something other than the metaphysically real indeterminateness that is necessary for there to be actual alternative possibilities and an actual occurrence of choosing, it is worth noting something else that Parfit claims:

I can always ask, ‘Am I about to die? …’ On the Reductionist View, in some cases there would be no answer. My question would be empty. The claim that I was about to die would be neither true nor false. If I knew the facts about both physical continuity and psychological connectedness, I would know everything there was to know. I would know everything, even though I did not know whether I was about to die, or would go on living for many years.29

Although Parfit’s primary emphases and interests are not in metaphysics, this passage suggests that Parfit’s notions about what is important in life might be significantly dependent upon there being mind-independent (or objective) metaphysical indeterminateness.

When Parfit describes his Reductionism as physicalist and not dualist or idealist, he maintains that all mental events, including the psychological, are (reducible to) physical events. Other physicalist Reductionists might well insist that stopping the reductive analysis at the level of events is premature or unacceptably arbitrary. These Reductionists would insist on reducing events to whatever is the level of the presumably irreducible constituents which populate and provide the characteristics of a physical event.

When philosophizing, many take the very extensive regularity of the physical as indication that there is no indeterminateness with regards to how the physical occurs. These physicalists maintain that, at the very least, there is no physical (or, for that matter, metaphysical) indeterminateness – certainly at the level of composite entities such as atoms, persons, or events. This is to say that these reductive physicalists would deny there actually is ever any indeterminateness which a person could convert to determinateness by making a choice.

These physicalists would hold that if Parfit knew all of the physical facts, he actually would (be able to) know whether or not his death was about to occur. In addition, these physicalists would claim that if Parfit knew all of the physical facts, he would also (be able to) know what he would do at any time in the future.

Parfit may be a physicalist Reductionist, but his physicalism and his Reductionism apparently allow for and depend upon reality being such that reality consists of some actual, mind-independent indeterminateness.

What this indicates is that, just as it is not Reductionism per se which is essential to – or at the crux of – Parfit’s position, so, too, does it seem to be the case that it is not even physicalism per se which is essential to the importance he places on choosing how to live.

Instead, what is likely of greatest significance to Parfit’s view would be having – or being able to develop – the ability to in some way be aware of and have access to the indeterminateness which must be present in any given context in order for a choice to actually occur. It is by having – actually, by developing – this ability that we would be best able to choose how to live.


In Reasons and Persons, Parfit does not address his apparent dependence upon there being real – and not merely epistemic – indeterminateness; however, more than a quarter of a century later, in Volume 2 of his book, On What Matters,30 in the chapter entitled “Metaphysics”, Parfit does, in effect, take up the issue – not of indeterminateness, but – of whether (it is proper to say that) possibilities exist mind-independently.

In that chapter, Parfit rejects actualism, the view that “[t]o be, or to exist, is to be actual, so there cannot be anything that is merely possible.” Parfit says that actualists must deny that alternative possibilities are ever available from which we can choose inasmuch as it is the actualist position that possibilities do not exist.

Of course, if or where there is no mind-independent or objective indeterminateness, alternative possibilities cannot exist mind-independently within reality or actuality – alternative possibilities cannot themselves be actual. This is to say that indeterminateness within reality would actually ground or include the possibility of alternatives within actuality and its constraints – within a concrete (so to speak) reality rather than in some separate, abstract, or non-ontological realm.

Even if there were some abstract realm which provided for such things as alternative possibilities, there would still have to be some indeterminateness about or within the actual reality in order for reality to ever be able to accommodate an actual choice about which amongst related alternative possibilities come to constitute actuality.

In On What Matters, Parfit does not concern himself directly with metaphysical indeterminateness any more than he does in Reasons and Persons. However, in On What Matters, Parfit does, in effect, accept that there is such indeterminateness when he notes that “much of our thinking about the world, essentially involves the belief that there are such things” as the alternative possibilities which make choosing actual rather than illusory. And he also says that there is “no decisive metaphysical objection to such beliefs … these [beliefs] don’t commit us to the existence of strange entities as parts of reality.”31


Parfit is not particularly concerned with whether that metaphysical indeterminateness upon which he relies is naturalistic, by which Parfit means compatible with a scientific world-view and subjectable to investigation by the natural and social sciences. But, then, Parfit believes that “Naturalism … is false.”32 Accordingly, Parfit pursues the matter of choosing and its importance to lives in a manner that is apart from any attempt at a more thorough metaphysical development.

On the other hand, in his book, The Democracy of Objects,33 Levi Bryant does pursue what can be deemed a materialistic – if not naturalistic – metaphysical accommodation of indeterminateness. Bryant does not specifically mention indeterminateness, and Bryant does not concentrate on or even posit (as Parfit does) any particular “importance to how we choose to live”.

What Bryant does posit is a non-epistemic uncertainty, and he especially notes that the conversion of that uncertainty to the relative certainty of actuality can take place in the case of living things (referred to as autopoietic objects) in a way that is unavailable to the non-living objects (referred to as allopoietic objects).34

Allopoietic objects act “in more or less constant ways”; they act with a stable and significantly limited number of ways in which they respond to what occurs within their environmental contexts. Autopoietic objects, on the other hand, have an ability to increase the ways – to develop new ways – in which to respond to contexts. Of course, autopoietic objects can do this only if the environment contains the indeterminateness of multiple alternative possibilities for the ways in which a particular environmental state can change to another condition.

Consequently, Bryant does, in effect, put forth reality as containing the actual indeterminateness of multiple alternative possibilities. Being a metaphysical rather than a merely logical or epistemic indeterminateness, it is an indeterminateness which is such that there is mind-independent metaphysical uncertainty as to which one of the related alternatives alone becomes sequentially actual.

Such indeterminateness provides a means by which Bryant could put forth events as mind-independently actual composite objects rather than “merely the result of some linguistic or social convention”. An event can be defined, delimited, or characterized in terms of identifiable indeterminateness that becomes settled as per one available alternative to the exclusion of the other available alternatives which all together constitute or characterize the indeterminateness.35

In light of Bryant’s depiction of allopoietic and autopoietic objects, this way of distinguishing the nature of events will most often technically associate events with living things while most often associating non-living things with the ongoing-ness of more general processes wherein the actions of non-living things will occur with a seeming unavoidability, as if those things and their actions were the medium through which some momentum were being uninterruptingly transmitted with predictable certainty.

Events will, of course, also be constituent of processes, but events will refer to mind-independent metaphysical indeterminateness within processes; the indeterminateness indicates situations in which the coursing of the encompassing process could, so to speak, be deflected.36

However, metaphysical indeterminateness cannot and does not itself determine which among multiple alternatives becomes actual; furthermore, this indeterminateness is not sufficient to preclude regularity and effect chaos in what occurs.

Bryant discusses autopoietic objects (living things) as having some ability to develop new ways in which to act, which is to say that these things have – or can have – what can be described as a capacity to take account of and make use of the actual indeterminateness within a context. But, capacity proceeds to actual capability only as a result of development.37

Accordingly, with regards to the importance that choosing – the exercising of choice – has for Parfit, it must be noted that any act of choosing depends upon the extent to which there is the development of the capability to imagine and characterize actual indeterminateness in terms of the multiple alternative possibilities to which that indeterminateness is constricted by the rest of reality.


Parfit essentially assumes that metaphysical reality is such that it can provide for situational choosing between alternatives; however, he does not concern himself in either Reasons and Persons or in On What Matters with the nature of choice as a capability to be developed. This may be at least in part because Parfit’s is most concerned with the nature of reasons, in particular those which are factual as well as non-naturally normative and, therefore, both objective and ethically or morally prescriptive.

Given the mind-independent objectivity of these reasons, Parfit seems to find it important to stress that these reasons are so very mind-independent that they are wholly apart from any considerations about psychological motivations to act on those reasons.

Parfit accuses Hume and others of “mistakenly conflating normative and psychological claims”38 when they consider reasons as being necessarily dependent upon or susceptible to preferences, motivations, sympathies, inclinations, and the like. In contradistinction to those who conflate normative and psychological claims, Parfit says that when he “and other Non-Naturalists … know what [they] have decisive reasons to do … [they] conclude that they ought to do something, [and] that is quite different from their choosing to do it.”39

This suggests that Parfit might to some extent be associating choosing with motives for acting (hence with desires for acting) rather than with mind-independently decisive reasons for acting. This is to say that decisive reasons for doing something are inescapable in the sense that to do otherwise would be to act wrongly. There would still be the indeterminateness that is necessary for choosing, but it would be a motivational matter which would give rise to choosing to act contrary to the act for which there are decisive reasons, and the decisive reasons themselves do not depend upon any such motivation for being inescapably correct.


Alternatively, or maybe in addition, Parfit seems to regard choosing as a wholly conscious occurrence which is not necessary in order to act on decisive reasons. He notes that “[w]e can respond to [decisive] reasons … without knowing that this is what we are doing.” This, however, does not make choosing incompatible with acting on decisive reasons; indeed, Parfit acknowledges that in many kinds of cases a conscious consideration is all that can or will lead to becoming aware of decisive reasons. Then again:

in many other important cases, we should make our decisions in less calculating and conscious ways. … our mind goes through some processes of reasoning of which we, as conscious thinkers, know nothing. When we need to make some important decision, we should start by thinking carefully about the various facts that might give us reasons for … different aims or acts. But we should let these facts sink in. We would often later find, perhaps after a night’s sleep, that we have already made the right decision, and know what to do.

Since decisions presuppose the same sort of indeterminateness that is necessary for choosing, all that Parfit’s remark does, in effect, is note that there is more to us as thinkers than the overtly conscious and extensively linear thoughts by which philosophical considerations – even philosophical considerations of the not-conscious parts of our thinking – get expressed.

It is worth noting that even if choosing were defined as being always a conscious act such that individuals can on occasion know decisive reasons for what ought to be done and act accordingly without (consciously) choosing to so act, the fact remains that an occasion of acting without choosing to act might itself be dependent on previous conscious activity, including choices that were made. After all, according to Parfit, some

people never make claims, or think conscious thoughts, that use the concept of a purely normative reason. But these people respond to such reasons, and they often do that better than Rationalists … If such people are not aware of their responses to reasons, that is not surprising. We often don’t know how our minds work. … Of [those people who deny that there are objectively normative reasons and yet] respond so well to reasons, many, I suspect, earlier believed that there are some normative, reason-involving truths. Such people’s past beliefs may have continuing effects on what they care about and do. If other people never have had such normative beliefs, they are likely to do less well.40

Here Parfit seems to be saying nothing more than that having an experience of contexts in which objectively normative reasons are essentially asserted or relied upon can be formative for persons and can have a lasting effect. That effect might well persist even through later thinking which consciously denies legitimacy to thinking in terms of objectively normative, reason-involving truths. The most prominent and lasting feature of this exposure is acting in ways based upon considerations which in essence deny that one’s own desires for one’s own well-being are the foundation or sufficient justification for what one does.

That being the case, it can well be asked: What difference does it make – why is it important – whether a person acts in a particular way because that person (thinks he or she) has non-motivating objectively normative reasons for acting that way or whether a person acts in that same particular way because that person has extensively consistent and coherent desires which motivate the person to act in that very same way despite the person thinking that there are no irreducible objectively normative, non-natural reasons upon which his or her desires are based?


James Lenman notes that Parfit is concerned that the absence of objectively normative reasons can unleash an horrific moral relativism upon the world. Lenman says,

suppose a Hitler arises … determined to kill and cruelly subjugate millions. [Desire theorists who disagree with Parfit and hold that there are no non-natural, objective and normative reasons] might concede that this Hitler does indeed have reason to achieve his aims. But they could still consistently insist that they, motivated as they are by an altruistic concern for the millions thus threatened, have reason to thwart and oppose him.

Lenman prefers to see things differently. For Lenman, “Where there is a space of desires there is a space of reasons but only when those desires are your desires.” From this and from the fact that Lenman does not have anything similar to Hitler’s desires, it follows that Lenman can say that “Hitler … had no reason to murder those millions of Jews.”

Lenman’s semantic maneuver might serve as some sort of apologetic that preserves his use of the term reason so that he can say that he has a reason while Hitler does not. That maneuver might also enable Lenman to use reason in place of desire so that he can say he has a reason to object to or oppose Hitler rather than a mere desire to do so (no matter how strong that desire may be). But, none of that substantially “tames the relativism that troubles Parfit.”

Nonetheless, Lenman is quite correct to note that, if Hitler does not have an internal(ized) reason to desire other than what he has been desiring, it would likely be a “singularly pointless waste of time” to tell Hitler that there are external and objectively normative reasons for doing something other than what he currently desires to do. At the same time, Lenman notes that “there may be abundant reason to express … to all kinds of other people” reasons for opposing Hitler – and these may even include the sorts of external reasons alleged to be objectively normative.41

Reasons for opposition are expressed constructively when the presented situations give rise to issues that seem to matter and in some way demand the sort of attention which can lead to at least a sense of what actions are responsively correct (or, at least, preferable). Instances of Hitler-type situations force there to be some focus upon the quite common need for different people to come to be of sufficiently like mind – or to be participants in a communal purpose – as a precursor necessary for correct actions to be more likely effective and successful.

This need to instantiate a communal action in turn forces the question of whether any means – including those which bring the acting body together – should be necessarily forbidden.

If there are mind-independent, objectively normative reasons to act in a particular way in a particular situation, is it ever right for those who know those reasons to in any way coerce others to do the acts for which there are decisive reasons? Put another way, do Parfit’s decisive reasons justify paternalism?


In Reasons and Persons, Parfit says:

We do not believe that we have a general right to prevent people from acting irrationally. But we do believe that we have a general right to prevent people from acting wrongly … we believe that it cannot be wrong, and would often be our duty, to prevent others from doing what is seriously wrong … even if this involves coercion.42

It is beliefs such as those in the passage above which lead some to object “that a substantive value-based theory [including Parfit’s theory regarding mind-independently objective normativity] ‘opens the door to despotic requirements, externally imposed’.”43

Were that the case, then Parfit would have as much reason to object to his own theory as he does to historically religious ethics wherein, by his reckoning, “Belief in God, or in many gods, prevented the free development of moral reasoning.”44 After all, given situations for which there supposedly are known mind-independently and objectively normative decisive reasons to act, there would be no need for deep moral reasoning beyond the (most likely analogical) process which associates a situation with an already known decisive reason.

Parfit, however, does not seem to actually think that paternalism is an always justified mode of action. As he says, “It is better if each of us learns from his own mistakes.”45

Even so, it would be preposterous to assert that “despotic requirements, externally imposed” follow only from theories, such as Parfit’s, which hold that there are objectively value-based normative reasons. Theories which assert that reasons to act are ultimately only desire-based, for example, can every bit as easily tend towards despotic and externally imposed requirements whenever it seems that there is a need to bring broad communal action to fruition.


Parfit notes that it is quite common to associate the very notion of objectively normative moral facts with the notion of normative authority wherein authority is commonly taken to be a demand for deferential acceptance. But, this is a misconstrual. Parfit says:

Most of us do not … claim authority for ourselves. We would at most claim authority for the principles to which we are appealing. … we would not be demanding influence. That would be to confuse authority with power.46

These remarks by Parfit are veritably identical to what Hannah Arendt had to say about authority. According to Arendt:

authority “is commonly mistaken for some form of power or violence.” However, the nature of authority is such that it “precludes the use of external means of coercion”. Furthermore, authority is “incompatible with persuasion” inasmuch as authority does not have its effect “through a process of argumentation.” Arendt goes on to say that “[i]f authority is to be defined … then, it must be in contradistinction to both coercion by force and persuasion through arguments.”47

This means that insofar as it is Parfit’s position that normative facts about what ought to be done are themselves matters of authority, then any ought which is concomitant with normative facts essentially loses its authority once the action which it is right to do is in any way forced upon others.

Since Parfit’s objectively normative facts and reasons are by their very nature matters of authority, it can be claimed that these reasons lose something of their objective normativity once these reasons are used either to coerce action or to persuade rather than simply inform. This being the case, the authority which Parfit finds to be constitutive of what he frequently refers to as decisive reasons is itself a basis for the rejection of paternalism.

Parfit acknowledges that “[m]ost philosophers seem to reject [his] meta-ethical and other meta-normative beliefs”, and he adds that “[m]any of these people don’t even understand what I believe.”48 Inasmuch as Parfit relies upon the above-described authority, the fact that he is apparently often not understood should come as no surprise. Arendt noted decades ago that this very understanding about authority “has vanished from the modern world.”

But, then, this understanding about authority is not purely conceptual, because there is an experiential aspect to authority. Authority is experienced as “a compelling of the mind, a compelling which does not resort to coercion or (even implied or threatened) violence or persuasion through argument.”

Religious expressions of the experience had of authority emphasize an awareness of the very otherness of authority, the fact that its actuality – its very being – in no way depends upon the self who experiences authority. Religious expressions indicate authority as experienced “with astonishment, with a wonderment so overwhelming that it seems to demand something, some kind of reaction.”49 There seems to be a demand when something of the otherness of authority has been internalized.

In some traditions, this authority is referred to as God. But, relevant to the nature of authority, it is to be appreciated that certain God-traditions advise against referring to authority as either justification or, especially, as a reason to compel others to act. This is the insistence that God’s name not be taken in vain, which is to say as justification for what one does, for what one thinks or knows should be done, or for what one wants done.

This is not to say that authority is maintained only with silence, passivity, or inaction. However, with regards to others, it might be that authority is maintained only when made manifest on an individual basis and when presented in a way to be informative rather than to be persuasive and, possibly, to be inviting rather than appealing.

This is all to say that even if there is non-natural and objective authority, it is not the externality – the very otherness – of this authority which matters; instead, what matters is the means by which it can become internalized and become the fabric of each self.


While, for Parfit, reasons – certainly decisive reasons and particularly those which normatively establish what to do – are external to us owing to their being mind-independent, it is worth considering what might be the value he associates with learning such that it would be better for each of us to learn what act to do rather than have us be coerced to do that act.

On the face of it, what value there is to be associated with learning would seem to be a matter of some sort of personal internalization of what was previously only external to the person. Mere mimesis of acts said to be objectively normative could be regarded as providing some degree of personal internalization in the same way that acculturation occurs only with some degree of personal internalization.50 Exposure to whatever reasoning there might have been which brought to light the objectively normative basis for acting in a particular way could effect still further personal internalization; this reasoning provides an opportunity for a deeper – and, therefore, a presumably more valuable – learning.

But, those who deny that there is a non-natural, objective basis for morality – for instance, those who assert desire as the deepest basis or motivation for morality, even when that morality includes Lenman’s “altruistic concern” – may well wonder in what way an objective normativity is necessary if: 1) the personal internalization which comes with learning to do what is right is better (presumably objectively better) than simply doing what is right or being coerced to do what is right, and 2) desired-basis morality similarly values the personal internalization which comes of learning the reasons which support a call to do a particular act.

To put it another way, if the ends sought by those who believe there is a non-natural, objective basis for morality and moral reasoning turn out to be effectively identical to the ends sought by desire-theorists who also reason although without seeking to identify objectively normative sorts of decisive reasons, then is it not the case that the purported objective standing of morality is redundant?

Not quite. Or, not necessarily.

Seeking and finding similarities shared between otherwise apparently dissimilar approaches is good, but it would only be on occasions where the approaches diverge that the non-natural objective authority aspect of Parfit’s position would be most relevant and, therefore, possibly not redundant. And where might such a divergence occur? Or, where is it most likely to occur?

If, in order to maintain the authority of objectively normative reasons, Parfit must concentrate on the distinction between power and authority (a distinction so very complete that power is not constituent of – and may even be incompatible with – authority), then that alone can suffice to make an understanding similar to – or at least related to – Parfit’s differ on occasion from many (although not necessarily all) desire-basis moral understandings.


In Reasons and Persons, Parfit proceeds through extensive considerations about the place of the impartial, the impersonal, and the personal within ethics and morality. None of these in themselves were found to be a sufficient or sound basis for morality or ethics. Consequently, Parfit ends up concluding that “we need a new theory about beneficence”, and he notes that he had not yet found this theory51 but was hopeful that the field of “Non-Religious Ethics”52 would eventually succeed at attaining – or, at least, would soon make further progress towards – this new theory.

In On What Matters, Parfit says:

After starting to discuss these questions in [Reasons and Persons], I intended to think about them further. As the contents of this [later] book show, that is not what happened. I became increasingly concerned about certain differences between my views and the views of several other people.53

The fact that non-natural and objective normativity seems to be inextricably associated with an authority reminiscent of religious thinking makes it unlikely that Parfit will have assuaged those who have disagreed with him. Even so, as the discussion here about the nature of authority suggests, such a thing as non-natural and objective authority can be a fact about reality, but moral development consistent with and in accord with this authority can proceed without first having established the fact of this authority and without directly referring to that authority.

It is a matter of history that “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is a religious statement. Likewise, that statement is supposed to be objectively normative. But, is there any reason why that statement might not also well serve Parfit’s interest in a non-religious formulation of beneficence? Of particular note is how this statement retains the personal within at least all moral (if not all ethical) considerations. This is an issue which has been taken up in other essays54 here and will be taken up and further developed in subsequent installments.

1 Graham Harman, see here.

2 Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman, “Towards a Speculative Philosophy”, in The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman, eds. Also available here.

3 Shaviro, Steven, “The Actual Volcano: Whitehead, Harman, and the Problem of Relations”, pp. 279-290, in The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman, eds. (Available here)

4 Parfit, Derek, Reasons and Persons, Oxford University Press (1987), p. 223.

5 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 226.

6 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, pp. 210-211.

7 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 251.

8 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 273.

9 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 266.

10 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 502.

11 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 241.

12 Levi Bryant, here.

13 Bryant, here:

Objects are always wholes, but they are wholes that are composed of other objects that are, in their turn, independent objects in their own right. Cats are no less objects that cells and atoms, and cells and atoms are no less objects than aardvarks. Likewise, social systems like cities and markets, and large objects like galaxies are no less independent objects than persons.

14 Bryant, here.

15 Bryant, here.

16 Bryant, here.

17 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 215.

18 Bryant, here.

19 Bryant, here.

20 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 445.

21 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 280.

22 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 281.

23 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, pp. 445-446.

24 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 281.

25 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 211.

26 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 209.

27 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 282.

28 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 213.

29 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 214.

30 Parfit, Derek, On What Matters, Volume 1 and Volume 2, Oxford University Press (2011).

31 Parfit, On What Matters, Vol. 2, p. 487.

32 Parfit, On What Matters, Vol 1, pp. 109-110.

33 Bryant, Levi R. The Democracy of Objects, Open Humanities Press (2011).

34 Bryant, The Democracy of Objects, here.

35 See, in particular, Section 9 in Revisiting the Cosmological Argument

36 The compatibility between Parfit’s and Bryant’s approaches is again found in Parfit’s remarks from On What Matters, Vol. 2, pp. 466-467.: “… we should claim that there are events and processes … and regard occurring as one way of existing.” It is also worth noting, if only for further clarification with regards to persons, that Parfit rejects a most extreme form of what he calls naturalistic Fundamentalism wherein “[a]ll that exists are sub-atomic particles.” Parfit says “[w]e should claim instead that many physical objects are composite … made up of smaller components … [t]hough many composite objects exist, these objects do not exist separately from their components, since their existence consists in the existence and interrelations of their components.”

37 See Matters of Choice and Free Will

38 Parfit, On What Matters, Vol. 2, p. 454.

39 Parfit, On What Matters, Vol.2 p. 451.

40 Parfit, On What Matters, Vol. 2, pp. 461-462.

41 Lenman, James. “Naturalism without Tears” in Essays on Derek Parfit’s ‘On What Matters’, Suikkanen, Jussi and Cottingham, John, eds., Wiley-Blackwell (2009), pp. 32-33.

42 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 321.

43 Parfit, On What Matters, Vol. 1, p. 66.

44 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 454.

45 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 321.

46 Parfit, On What Matters, Vol. 2, p. 407.

47 See, in particular, Section 15 of About ‘Militant Modern Atheism’ and Religion

48 Parfit, On What Matters, Vol. 2, p. 452.

49 See Section 16 of About ‘Militant Modern Atheism’ and Religion

50 See Evidence, Beliefs, and ‘Wise Blood’, in particular, sections 2 and 3:

The very otherness of … explanations – the fact that they clearly originate from outside the subjectivity of the person to whom the explanation arrives – tends to impart a sense of (a more) accomplished objectivity (even facticity) to the explanation. However, where the understanding that has been formed only regards how to satisfy the expectation about how an explanation is to be re-presented acceptably, then, with regards to that explanation itself, what has been formulated is a mimesis, a replication, a repetition of the explanation rather than an understanding of the explanation. Such mimesis of an explanation is minimally subjective, to the extent that it is subjective at all. …

51 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 451.

52 Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 454.

53 Parfit, On What Matters, p. 427.

54 For example, see The Tree of Life and The Way of Grace as well as, especially starting from the end of Section 9, About ‘Militant Modern Atheism’ and Religion.

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