lizmckinnell

Philosophy, and things that are not philosophy. That probably covers it.

Month: June, 2013

Freedom is Slavery.

One of the most pernicious assaults on rights and liberty is to put the concepts of rights and liberty themselves in the hands of the anti-perfectionist corporatist political right, who model all rights on liberty, and all liberties on freedom of private ownership. This doesn’t just threaten rights and freedoms: it bleeds all meaning from them, and makes their realisation impossible.

A liberal, libertarian or neo-liberal theory is perfectionist if it takes sides about the nature of human flourishing, anti-perfectionist if it does not. Compare, for example, Mill and Rawls. Mill held that there were better ways for human beings to live and associate, even if he, from his individual outlook and historical position, could not exhaustively characterise what that was.  This idea, based on bringing about a better world through individual and social moral progress, was the cornerstone of his liberalism, which he took to be compatible with socialism.  Rawls, by contrast, aimed to create a political theory which eschewed any fundamental role for an account of human flourishing – all conceptions of the good (at least, those that could be held within broadly liberal western democracies) were to be taken as equally valid in the construction of his political theory, with none privileged above any other.

The problem with the latter type of theory is that it takes itself to be essentially above and independent of particular individuals’ notions of the good. It is purportedly value neutral, in that it claims to take no value as more significant than any other.  This is a little like a mid to late twentieth-century trend in ethics, which held that moral philosophers themselves made no moral judgements, but instead merely described the structures and forms of moral judgement itself.  When an anti-perfectionist liberal theory is combined with a notion of choice that is modelled on consumer choice arbitrated by the ‘invisible hand’, this undermines any notion of meaningful or valuable choice, and hence of liberty itself.

Any dissenting voice, any attempt to live life differently, is cast as just another instance of consumer choice, reduced to nothing more than its exchange value.  Of course, such a translation is possible, and according to the rules of translation applied, it is not false. However, what it does is strip all the meaning from the original.  Once dissent is understood in such terms, we are told nothing about the nature of the dissent, only something about the logic of capitalism.

No way of living can be better than any other: revolt is just the selection of an alternative brand, no more meaningful than picking one kind of margarine over another.  It is no threat to the system, because it is transposed into just another non-distinctive mode of existing within it – a different colour, rather than a different form.

On the rare occasions that the almost-silenced voices are genuinely and correctly heard, the call for freedom is recast as an assault on freedom, and the demand for rights as a violation of rights.

Rights and liberty have not, historically speaking, always belonged to capitalists. Nor have ‘liberty’ and ‘socialism’ generally been viewed as contradictory. Rights and liberties have been appropriated and distorted. It is important then that we do not take an anti-capitalist position to be a position that is critical of rights and liberties, but rather one that makes them mean something beyond the capacity of the powerful to exploit the vulnerable.

Locke on property: what belongs to me, and where I belong

What do philosophers of mind and divorce lawyers have in common? They both make money from arguing about other people’s properties.

Pretty lame joke, I know, but it plays on two distinct usages of the same word. We can talk about the properties of objects (their attributes, qualities or characteristics) or about the political and economic notion of property, in the sense of what is owned or possessed. Philosophers are concerned with both senses of the word, although the philosophers concerned with each one don’t talk to the philosophers concerned with the other as much as they perhaps should.

Property in the latter sense is most often discussed by political philosophers. One of the famous figures in the canon is John Locke, whose account of property ownership has influenced figures as diverse as Jean Jacque Rousseau, Adam Smith, Karl Marx and Robert Nozick.  Locke is responsible for the now notorious ‘labour mixing’ view of property.

The labour mixing argument is supposed to answer a simple but tricky puzzle. Humans have not been around since the dawn of time, and did not come into existence with private entitlements to bits of the world already doled out, so how things move from a state of not being privately owned to being the property of some person or other?

This is what Locke says:

Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.’ (Second Treatise of Government, section 26)

This argument is often spelled out like this:

1. I own my body

therefore,

2.            I own the labour of my body.

3.            I can come to own something by mixing what I own with what I do not yet own,

therefore,

4.            When I mix my labour with something unowned, I come to own the finished product.

This has raised all manner of criticisms. For example, why suppose that I can come to own something by mixing it with what I already own rather than dissipating my property? Also, what is meant by mixing my labour with something? Labour here seems to be something of an abstraction, while the thing is sitting there for all to see – is there some sort of a category error going on there? And how do we explain this seemingly magical process of coming to own things? Some have explained this in terms of the idea of adding value to what was originally there, and this has led to a labour-mixing theory of value hotly debated, and largely maligned, by contemporary economists.

But the bit that I am interested in here is the first premise: do I actually own my body?  It is a common assumption in some circles that I do.  For example, bodily self-ownership is taken to be a central element of liberal feminist arguments about reproduction.  It also plays a central role in many arguments against slavery: nobody else can claim possession of my body, or any other aspect of my being, because I can only belong to myself.

Once we look at this a bit closer though, it seems as though our normal use of the notion of private property doesn’t do a very good job when it comes to the relationship in which we stand to our own bodies. In legal and political theory, a property right, like many other rights, is usually analysed as a complex bundle of entitlements, prohibitions and privileges.  In front of me right now are the remains of an Aero chocolate bar, which I own. My ownership of it means that I can use it, consume it, break it up, surrender ownership of it to others (my partner has been eyeing it longingly) or sell it for profit (which I might do if I were in a bad mood with my partner).

Things to which I have private property rights stand at some distance to me, and can be surrendered or transferred through legal or conventional processes.  This, for most legal and political theorists, is part of what it means to have a property right over an object.  This does not describe, in any serious way, the intimate relationship in which I stand to my own body or person.  This is one of the reasons why recent arguments comparing rape to theft, and more generally crimes against the person to crimes against property, don’t even begin to get to the heart of things.

Looked at like this, it seems hard to see how the Lockean argument can get off the ground – it seems that it is false from the outset.

But it would be wrong to assume that Locke is stupid, and as with many historical texts, it is best to look beyond our crude reconstruction of his argument to what he actually said, and the historical and linguistic context in which he was saying it.

The (pretty poor) joke that I used at the start of this piece would have been even less funny in Locke’s day, the reason being that the distinction between the two meanings of the word ‘property’ that it relies on were far less distinct.  Locke does not say that I own myself, or my body, but rather that ‘every man has a property in his own person’.

The notion of having a property in one’s own person relates to ownership, but is also to do with having a sort of unity or integrity conferred through one’s properties.  This explains why the ‘property in one’s own person’ is such a significant idea: it expresses the idea that the integrity of the person should be respected, that they should be treated as a person rather than as a mere thing.  Having a property in one’s own person means that one cannot be put to use by another (enslaved, exploited etc.)

By mixing one’s labour with something, Locke seems to be suggesting that one makes that thing an extension of oneself.  This does not seem to be such a crazy idea.  When we work in a place, toil on a piece of land, craft an object, cook a meal, or simply walk regularly in a park, there is a sense in which we incorporate elements of our external environments into our identities, just as we become incorporated in the identity of the object or place with which we interact.  This helps to explain why the spaces that we occupy and the objects that we create are not merely externally and arbitrarily related to us – they come to have an integral significance to the nature of the self.  Things that once seemed meaningless can take on new meanings and speak to us in different ways in virtue of the roles that they play in our projects and activities.

Sometimes institutions of private property and monetary exchange can be tools to safeguard the significance of such things, and give us a kind of autonomy over them.  Equally though, money and private property, like other mechanisms of power, can rob places and objects of the significance that they have for people by making them fungible objects of exchange, or by placing them in the hands of those who stand at a distance to them and do not share the intimate relationship that we have with them (Locke’s thought was used to justify enclosure of the commons, although James Tully has forcefully argued that Locke was opposed to imposing such measures on people by act of parliament).

Locke’s argument then does seem to get us somewhere, although perhaps not as far as Locke would like, and certainly a very long way from the views of many of Locke’s contemporary advocates, who would appear fairly alien to Locke himself. He begins with a premise about personal self-identity, rather than personal self-ownership, and thus fails to explain how the whole bundle of entitlements, privileges and prohibitions associated with private property arise.  What he does give us is an extension of the notion of identity beyond the bare individual understood as wholly separate from the world that she inhabits.

Locke can help us think about the significance of objects – and particularly places – to human lives.  People and places cannot be shifted around like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle to solve logistical and economic problems.  This helps us to articulate how a park became the focus of resistance to autocratic oppression in Turkey – it is not an arbitrary sign.  It also explains some of the injustice of the bedroom tax, whose implementation treats the absence of private ownership as justification for the uprooting of people from the environments and communities to which they belong.  It is almost invariably those who are poorest and most vulnerable who are subject to such treatment in their countries, homes and places of work and rest.

‘Belonging’ is a concept that brings us closer to the more ambiguous sense of ‘property’ that was around in Locke’s day.  You cannot simply overlook where we belong, just because where we belong does not belong to us.

Yucky Girly Nature

This is one of those needing-to-get-something-off-my-chest posts, or to put it a more gendered way, one of those things-that-get-on-my-tits posts.

Something that I have come to notice in a few discussions lately (in academic articles, conference papers and on internet discussion forums – it gets everywhere) is a particular identification of women with nature. Of course, this is not a new thing – it has been around for thousands of years. I have been seeing it come up in order to make points supposedly in support of feminist ideas, and also in support of pretty silly anti-feminist ones that should have been consigned to the dustbin quite some time ago.

So let’s get something straight – as a woman I do not have privileged access to the secrets of life. Having a vagina, breasts and a womb does not put me in touch with the sacred feminine. I do not experience time as cyclical rather than linear because of my innate closeness to natural rhythms, and nor does my possession of these organs grant me access to any special sphere of mysterious empathy with my fellow creatures that is inaccessible to those fellow creatures who have sticky-outy bits where I have sticky-inny bits (hmm, maybe best to leave the stickiness out of things).  Just as a man does not automatically have a brilliant adeptness in the fields of culture and logic, I do not, in virtue of my gender or biological sex, know something mystical about nature and intuition that a man does not.  If I started talking about a rarefied form of sacred knowledge that a man cannot express, but uniquely feels through his bollocks, that would not be sensitive and respectful to men, it would be creepy and weird.  So let’s put away the tambourines and have a bit of a think before we all sign up to the cult of the sacred vagina.

Please do not be tempted to try to resurrect this stuff in the name of reifying the feminine: it does none of us any favours, and if you take the bits of it you like, you may have to put up with the crappy bits of being on that sort of pedestal – it often has pretty uncomfortable implications for reproductive rights for example.  If you begin any sentence with ‘As a woman…’ it had better be a good one, and most sentences that begin that way are not.

I am not alone in thinking that this stuff is really problematic. I think most people in mainstream liberal western cultures would take a similar view.  The response will tend to be that this is some bizarre mystical hogwash, that it is unnecessarily gender-essentialist, that we could have pretty much any arrangement of fleshy bits and pieces in our pants, but that none of this implies any particular connection to nature. Best then to treat everyone equally as cultured, active, free citizens, and leave all this woman-nature stuff well alone.

Well yes and no. The problem with this approach is that it attempts to simply cut off a whole bundle of fairly deep-seated cultural associations which are not going to untangle and shift themselves quite as easily as that.  The thing is that there has been a tendency, going right back to a fair bit of ancient Greek philosophy and literature, and probably earlier, to discard a lot of the things that we don’t like about ourselves into a box marked ‘natural’ and ‘feminine’ (yucky and girly).  Into the yucky and girly box go our biological natures, bodily change, mutual dependence, the fact our actions are often more constrained than we would like them to be, the fact that our emotional lives can be messy and confusing, and so on.  Once these things are in the yucky and girly box, we can shut the lid and pretend to be supremely powerful rational agents who, in our most essential natures, are free from all the inconvenient stuff.  So to open the box and invite the girls out, provided they don’t bring any of the yucky girly stuff with them, is not going to solve the problem (even if this were something achievable).  It expects women to conform to an image of masculinity that never served men particularly well in the first place, and which they could only maintain through a correspondingly implausible image of femininity.

These are some of the central issues concerning ecofeminism.  I have never particularly liked the term – ‘Ecofeminist’ sounds like a distinctly irritating and self-righteous superhero – but the concerns behind ecofeminism are important and fascinating.  It is through unravelling these associations (the same ones that lead to the female personification of nature, and phrases like the ‘rape of virgin forests’) that ecofeminists attempt to unpick the psychological and cultural associations between the idea of dominating and oppressing nature, and the idea of dominating and oppressing women.  In doing both, human beings are attempting to oppress and deny elements of themselves with which they are deeply uncomfortable.  Ultimately both are a form of self-harm that is dangerous and unsustainable.

Draft of a Conference Paper on Future Generations

This is slightly more technical than stuff that I normally put up, but I think it is still more or less followable. I’ll be speaking on this next week at a conference on Environmental Ethics.

I was unsure about whether to post this in advance, but figured that it is a work in progress anyway, and would benefit from constructive criticism before or after the event.

Parfit’s Glass Tunnel: Time, Identity and Intergenerational Justice.

This paper has emerged as the result of a crisis that I had when I was working on my PhD a couple of years ago.  One particular chapter, on future generations, tied my brain in knots and occupied me for far longer than it should have done, and at the time I didn’t see quite why.  What I want to do today is expose the root of this problem, which I believe is one that affects moral philosophy quite broadly, but for reasons that will become clear becomes much more acute when we think about intergenerational justice and obligations to future people.  For the sake of brevity I am going to focus on Derek Parfit today. I do this not because he is the worst culprit, but because I think he goes wrong in more interesting ways than many people maintain.

At the heart of the issue is a particular approach to doing ethics generally, whereby a set of properties are identified that make a being worthy of moral consideration, or moral consideration of certain kinds.  These properties are, as it were, pre-ethical, but they need to be picked out in order to assign moral status.  This approach is nicely outlined by Simon James in his book The Presence of Nature:

According to what I shall call the standard approach, normative ethics (environmental ethics included) proceeds as follows. One begins by identifying what it is that marks a being out as worthy of moral consideration. Then one determines which kinds of being possess it.  … the epistemological task of determining what kinds of being there are with what kinds of properties can and should be carried out independently of ethical considerations. … the epistemological part of the procedure is carried out without reference to ethical considerations: it is, one might say, purely epistemological, just as the ethical part is purely ethical.

The tendency is to suppose that the role of the ethicist is to sort out the applications of values once the metaphysical and scientific facts of the matter have been firmly established.  It is only once the solid immovable architecture has been put in place that the ethicists can be called in to argue about the colour of the curtains.  In terms of future generations this tends to play out as follows (apologies to those of you who are allergic to philosophy in this style).

We begin by examining the claim:

C: There is (or will be) some person (or people) a at time t+1, such that we have obligations to a at t.

C is usually accompanied by one or more of the following presuppositions:

1.            a does not exist at t.

2.            a’s existence (and identity) is contingent on decisions made at t.

3.            at t, a has no properties (usually taken as equivalent to what can be truthfully predicated of a).

4.            Moral status or moral considerability is contingent on a given set of properties, either actual or potential.

Assessments of C are made in order to assign truth values to claims about obligations to future people, or to consider whether such claims are truth-apt.  This underpins Parfit’s approach, as well as Thomas Schwartz’s rejection of obligations to future people, and many endorsements of such obligations.

The metaphysical task we are now confronted with, in order to see if the claims of C are borne out in the world, is extremely daunting (and this is what accounted for the hair-tugging PhD crisis).  In order to engage seriously with this question, we need to have answers to issues concerning the unity and persistence of personal identity, counterfactuals, actuality and potentiality, the metaphysics of time and the nature of properties.  A lot of work in this field has very little to say about these issues, often borrowing language from debates in metaphysics and epistemology without fully exploring it, despite the fact that when employing this approach, the whole result of the enquiry could hinge on these matters.

Parfit, however, is far from being guilty of a lack of engagement with metaphysics, and this is what makes him one of the more interesting writers on this topic, even though I think that this approach ultimately causes him problems. Reasons and Persons is probably best known for its articulation of the non-identity problem and other issues affecting our moral dealings with future generations, but in fact this is only one late section in a book that not only covers ethics, but also personal identity, temporal change and epistemology.  In fact, it seems likely that the case of future people is singled out not only as an important moral issue in its own right, but because it presents interesting puzzles at the point where he sees the intersection between metaphysical and epistemological matters and ethics.

I don’t want to rehearse the non-identity problem in detail to a room full of environmental philosophers, but the basic issue relates to the fact that decisions that we make now (about things like population policy, for example) will affect which individuals will come into existence in the future, such that had a different decision been made, the future would be populated by a completely different group of people.  This means that no future individual will be able to claim correctly that they have been harmed (or benefited) by the decision, since they would not exist in the alternative future scenario.  It might then be claimed that there are no obligations to future people, since there are no determinate people for whose sake we are making these choices (note how this roughly corresponds with the ‘standard’ approach to ethics outlined at the start).

Parfit does not claim to have a fully worked out solution to the non-identity problem, but he is not happy to accept the notion that we do not have obligations to future people, and he gives some indication of how he thinks a solution would have to go.  He suggests that to deal with the problem adequately, we must adopt an ‘impersonal’ approach to ethics, which is not concerned with the identities of specific individuals, and can therefore make comparisons between the life of one possible person, and their counterpart or counterparts under another possible future scenario.  In this way, we can preserve the notion of having an obligation to bring about the best future state of affairs without worrying about the fact that the act of bringing it about will affect the identities of the people who partially constitute it.

Given this line of approach to the problem, it is a little surprising that Parfit has gained the sort of reputation that he has among those of us who are ethically committed to the view that we should have moral concern for future generations, and in fact this is quite harmonious with the wider approach to personhood that he expresses elsewhere in the book – an approach which, at least on the surface, seems extremely amenable to certain kinds of ecological consciousness.  Parfit challenges the idea that there is a determinate metaphysical answer to be found to the question of what ensures the continuity of personal identity, thus loosening the grip of a rigid notion of the separate self.  This allows a greater sense of continuity with both the presently surrounding world and community, and with things that occur beyond the boundaries of the individual’s lifetime.  Here is Parfit’s own description of the conscious realisation of this loosening of the boundaries of the self:

My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness… When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. 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 own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.

This fits very well with his impersonal approach the non-identity problem.  Once the significance of individual selfhood is eroded, the matter of distinct future individuals being harmed or benefited becomes less of an obstacle.  We might see some comparisons here with certain strands in Buddhist ethics, where the attachment to an unchanging ultimate self in a world characterised by change and impermanence is regarded as a cause of suffering and selfishness.  This sort of realisation could be seen as a positive transformation if we are to have greater concern for wider communities, for non-human nature, and for what happens over timescales that transcend the individual lifetime.

So why is there a problem here? To start with, I want to be clear that I do not want to put Parfit back in his glass tunnel.  The liberation experienced in finding oneself less cut off, more intricately involved in the lives of others, is something that has a great deal to recommend it.  At the same time, though, there are reasons to be somewhat suspicious about the way that Parfit goes about this.

We might imagine an overwhelming sense of relief that the metaphysics works out after all.  As it turns out, we don’t have to abandon our deep-seated moral convictions.  The critique of the permanent unchanging self is vindicated, and with it our sense that we are not living in un-splendid isolation.  We could imagine an alternative scenario in which Parfit is convinced, against his prior commitments, that actually such-and-such an account of personal identity has won out, and we need to abandon the notion that we can have any coherent obligations to help people who will live after we have died.  It wouldn’t necessarily just be personal identity that could throw such a spanner in the works – let’s suppose for example that we come up with an account of the metaphysics of time that make our obligations to the future incoherent, for example, a radical metaphysical presentism that reduces all talk of past and future objects, properties and events to nonsense.

The problem here seems to relate to the fact that Parfit’s approach is radically unsituated.  The ‘standard approach’ to ethics outlined by Simon James describes just such a third-person view of the relationship between ethics and metaphysics.  We begin by removing ourselves, our own values and commitments, from the picture, asking how the world ‘anyway is’ when we are not in the thrall of value, and then tries to reintroduce that value further down the line.  It is a way of thinking about time and space that bleaches all meaning out of it, and then tries to paint it back on at the end.  We remove ourselves from our particular standpoint, our own commitments and relationships, and feel surprised that we can’t see the value in the world.  As Bernard Williams remarks:

Parfit can convert the metaphysical into the practical so easily, I suspect, because the view that he takes of the practical, and of experience in general, is throughout the book so radically external. Philosophically speaking – it is not true of his literary allusions – he sees everything from the outside. … his neglect of the first-personal view, in the theory of personal identity as in his earlier discussion of one’s need to induce certain dispositions in oneself, leaves a gap. When we think how the argument is to be understood and applied, a dimension is missing.

The notion that ethics has to be approached primarily as though through the eyes of an impartial observer suggests that we have a deficiency because of our spatial, temporal and personal situatedness.  We need to imagine the world as it would be without these obstacles.  But in fact, it is this situatedness that makes moral life possible, and insulates us against the cruelties that could occur through thinking our dealings with others must depend on an objective metaphysic.

But where does this leave us in terms of Parfit’s glass tunnel?  There are two distinct questions here: firstly, is a situated approach psychologically egoistic, and secondly, how are we to relate this to our idea of the self?

 On the first question, it might be maintained that to take the situated view will return us to an isolated state that promotes both egoism and anxiety.  On the specific issue of future generations, it might lead us to be attentive only to those with whom we share a common life.

Typically in other spheres of normative ethics, questions of this sort are well countered by emphasising notions such as care and attentiveness.  The notion of a relational ethic is brought to the fore (e.g. Simon James, Iris Murdoch, Nell Noddings etc.) There seem to be some specific difficulties with this when we are considering future generations.  Whereas in our encounters with other people, with non-human animals, with plants and so on, we can commit ourselves to attentive interaction with them, where we participate in shared activities, this is not possible with members of future generations.  In the cases that Parfit is discussing, there is no overlap between our lives and theirs.  We cannot watch their lives unfolding or engage in any kind of mutual responsiveness.  They are always at arm’s length, and to some extent abstractions.

The points discussed in the non-identity problem re-emerge here, since it is not just the unknown-ness that creates an issue, but also the indeterminacy of future people.  There is, from our perspective, no solid fact of the matter about what sort of people they will be, how and where they will live and so on, and these things – insofar as we can know them at all – will slip and slide in our imaginations as we consider different possibilities about how to act.

I think this is not so much of a problem as it first appears.  Being the age that I am, many of my friends are currently busy making babies.  Much of my old undergraduate circle is in a whirl of scans, knitting, DIY and excited conversations about anticipated children.  It is certainly the case that, at this stage, the genetic identities of their children have been determined.  It is also true that in some instances the prospective parents know some facts about their future children – their biological sex for example, or whether they will be twins.  Nonetheless, a great deal about them – their personalities, the world that they will grow up in – is largely undetermined and largely unknown.  Many factors could intervene and send them on a different course.

Nonetheless, it does not seem irrational, or a wild leap away from our normal moral concepts, to say that a form of moral care and attentiveness is at play here.  In fact, the indeterminacy helps to shape the nature of the attentiveness concerned.  The anticipation of a new baby is coloured by the knowledge that an inconceivable range of possibilities about them are still open, and the care involved includes ensuring that many of the fulfilling possibilities remain.  It may be that, similarly, while the lack of determinacy of future individuals presents us with limitations, it also helps to shape the appropriate moral response.  Non-identity becomes a moral consideration, rather than a problem.  In this way, viewing future people from our own perspective does not necessarily confine us to an egoistic exclusive concern for our contemporaries.

But this brings us to our second question: what happens to the self when we view matters in this way?  On one hand it seems that what is being considered is outward-looking and expansive, allowing us to reach imaginatively beyond our individual temporal grasp, but on the other, to abandon the third-personal approach might be seen as putting us back into the glass tunnel, where there is a determinate self which is the locus of moral deliberation.  Could this be an egoistic account after all?

Parfit’s erosion of the self is reliant on a metaphysical account, not on a moral life as it is lived.  As we have seen, this creates problems if we hold that our strong commitments can be derailed by an unexpected twist in the ontological track.

The same commitment to a third-personal metaphysic as the basis of his account conceals from Parfit how the self is, as far as our lives and relationships are concerned, not just one person among many.  If this were the case, treating it as our indispensable standpoint would be a kind of egoistic bias.  The self does not emerge as particularly significant because it is regarded much as we regard others, just with special privileges. Rather, it is the background against which anything can have significance or value.  The first person perspective is a perspective on the world, not a look in the mirror.  It is our means of living in a world of value, and to eradicate that perspective is to eradicate that value.  In this sense, retaining the self does not confine us to our isolated glass tunnels – it is the reason for our identification and closeness with others.

Both this conception of the self, and the way that we think about our temporal relationships with others may, for what it’s worth, turn out to be ‘illusory’ given a certain notion of ontology, but this hardly seems to be significant.  As Bernard Williams points out:

If time’s passage is an illusion, so is the flow of time apparently involved in action and deliberation themselves; relative to the metaphysical truth of the matter, the whole enterprise of practical deliberation, and all the various principles that might be brought to it, would alike have to be bracketed. If time’s passage is an illusion, we live that illusion, and finding out that it was an illusion would not provide us with a reason for deliberating in one way rather than another within it.

The beauty of Parfit’s approach is that it allows him, as he puts it, to ‘live in the open air’ and therefore to grant himself moral concerns that extend beyond his individual lifetime.  We inhabit a social and political climate where this kind of un-selfing is increasingly needed, both for present and future generations. An egoistic attachment to the self as the main focus of the individual’s concern needs to be challenged, and Parfit evokes very beautifully the liberation that this challenge can afford. His mistake, and my mistake when I was anxious about my PhD thesis, is to suppose that we need to wait for a value-free third-person metaphysical theory to take us there.