Opinion: Interesting philosophy (Derek Parfit)

POSTED: 06/15/11 1:32 PM

The British philosopher Derek Parfit recently published On what matters – 1,400 pages of highly interesting philosophy. We guess that a lot of this stuff is food for philosophers and not for the average newspaper reader. Parfit, 68, circulated his manuscript for ten years among his peers for their input, to get his statements in top shape and also to reach consensus with other philosophers.

We figure that Parfit once read Oblomov, a novel that took Ivan Goncharov 10 years to finish in the mid-nineteenth century. It were interesting to get Parfit’s take on Oblomov’s character that famously does not leave his bed during the novel’s first 150 pages.

Here is an example of Parfit’s take on moral judgments. “Some people think: ‘volunteers do volunteer work because they want to do it. Do what we want is egoistical, therefore everyone is always egoistical.’ This argument for psychological egoism is wrong because the word want is used in the restricted sense of the word and afterwards in the broader sense. If I give my life voluntarily to save other people’s lives my act is not egoistical, in spite of the fact that I did what I wanted.”

We still think that Oblomov was being an egoistical son of a gun for staying in his bed for 150 pages, though it is of course unclear whether the character really wanted to be there. One could argue that Ivan Goncharov made him do it.

Bringing Parfit’s musings down to a more practical level we figure that doing what we want is more often than not indeed an act of egoism. We take decisions all day long – from getting up or staying in bed, shaving or growing a stubble, dressing up or dressing down, being nice or being nasty, and so on. What makes us tick in a particular way on any given day?

The answer to that one is easy. We do what we want for a purpose. Our little gray cells constantly hop around wondering: what’s in it for me? That’s why criminals commit robberies (for the customary reward of cell phones and cash, with free government housing further down the line), and why others go to work (for the customary reward of money in the bank).

All actions are driven by the expected result, so in that sense we figure that everything we do is egoistical. Here again, and maybe we ought to send this thought to Derek Parfit, the formula intention + action = result applies.

Parfit’s statement that giving up one’s life is not egoistical is therefore up for debate. We’ll only know whether this is true once we know the intention of the one who gave up her or his life and the result she or he expected. What it the intention was to go down in flames as a hero? If that is not a form of egoism, we don’t know what is. voiceQ� dbp8;”on leaders indicates that the public debate will in all likelihood become a trench war – exactly what we do not need.


Instead of blasting others, and making unrealistic demands and assumptions, union leaders ought to open their eyes and look at the facts. So far, those facts are not available for the short term labor contract debate. Let’s consider that fact numero uno.

To overcome that little hurdle, the Ministry for Public health, social development and Labor ought to organize a survey as recommended by Clarence Richardson. When that survey is complete, we will know what we are really talking about.

So far, nobody has said that no abuse is taking place. The fact that there is a draft initiative law on the table indicates that something is going on. We need to pinpoint that something. Once that is done, we have to toss around ideas for the best possible solution.

That solution needs to be balanced – another thing that especially Willy Haize fails to understand. A solution that is so harsh on companies that they will go belly up is not exactly a positive outcome for the people who had a job there. A solution whereby St. Maarten makes the Guinness Book of Records as the top slave driver in the world does not cut it either.

There is a middle ground acceptable for all players in the economy. The task at hand is to identify that middle ground and to lay down rules for future behavior. The unions have a critical role to play in this process, but at the moment they seem unfit for it due to their one-dimensional approach. Until that changes, employees are mainly left to their own devices.


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