Parfit (Derek)
Source: Russ Shafer-Landau (ed.) Oxford studies in metaethics, vol. 1, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006, pp. 325-380
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction (arbitrarily truncated)

  1. A young Swiss guest of Richard Hare's, after reading a book by Camus, concluded in despair that nothing matters. Hare suggested that his friend should ask 'what was the meaning or function of the word "matters" in our language; what is it to be important?' His friend soon agreed, Hare writes,
      that when we say something matters or is important, what we are doing, in saying this, is to express our concern about that something ... Having secured my friend's agreement on this point, I then pointed out to him something that followed immediately from it. This is that when somebody says that something matters or does not matter, we want to know whose concern is being expressed or otherwise referred to. If the function of the expression 'matters' is to express concern, and if concern is always somebody’s concern, we can always ask, when it is said that something matters or does not matter, 'Whose concern?'
  2. As Hare pointed out, his friend was concerned about several things. So was everyone – except a few fictional characters in existentialist novels. People’s values differ, and may change. But, since we all care about something, it is impossible to overthrow values as a whole'. Hare's treatment worked. 'My Swiss friend ate a hearty breakfast the next morning’.
  3. If someone doubts whether anything matters, it may not help to ask 'Whose concern?' Hare managed to convince his friend
      that the expression 'Nothing matters' in his mouth could only be (if he understood it) a piece of play-acting, Of course he didn't actually understand it.
  4. There is, I believe, a use of the word 'matters' which Hare does not understand.
  5. When Hare writes that we use such words to express concern, he is not, he claims, using 'express' in an 'emotivist' sense. 'I am no more committed to an emotivist view of the meaning of these words than I would be if I said the word 'not' is used in English to express negation".' Despite this disclaimer, Hare does accept an emotivist or, more broadly, non-cognitivist view. That is why, when Hare’s friend concluded that nothing mattered, Hare didn't try to remind him that some things, such as suffering, do matter. As Hare writes:
      My friend ... had thought mattering was something (some activity or process) that things did … If one thinks that, one may begin to wonder what this activity is, called mattering; and one may begin to observe the world closely ... to see if one can catch anything doing something that could be called 'mattering'; and when we can observe nothing going on which seems to correspond to this name, it is easy for the novelist to persuade us that after all nothing matters. To which the answer is, ‘"Matters" isn't that sort of word; it isn't intended to describe something … ‘
  6. On Hare's view, nothing can be truly described as mattering. The truth is only that we care about some things. In saying that these things matter, we are not claiming that they really do matter. Rather, as emotivists claim we are expressing our concern.
  7. Hare assumes that, in making these claims, he is not denying anything that others might mistakenly believe. There is nothing to deny, he claims, since no other view makes sense.


For the full text, see Parfit - Normativity.

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