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.