Request: Parfit and the Election


For our inaugural request blogging, I take the question: "Which candidate's positions are more compatible with Parfit's philosophy, and why?" Parfit is, of course, Derek Parfit the distinguished philosopher and author of the brilliant Reasons and Persons. Were I Real Journalist I could, of course, just ask him. But instead I'll tell you what I think. For these purposes, I'll take "Parfit's philosophy" to mean "the views espoused in Reasons and Persons" since I haven't read the unpublished Climbing the Mountain and don't know what it said.

Parfit's philosophy is notable for its lack of direct engagement on public policy questions about the distribution of wealth, etc. But I'd say that from a Parfittian point of view, the key facts are that, on the one hand human civilization could plausibly persist for thousands of years (or more) but on the other hand it could plausibly be wiped out much sooner than that. Under the circumstances, the key priority is to avoid the Very Bad Outcome of total destruction. This tends not to get discussed in our political debates because it's also a Very Unlikely Outcome but one key point Parfit makes is that there's no ethically defensible reason to indulge the human psychological penchant for ignoring small chances.

Thus, I think you'd have to say that thought the odds of a McCain administration blundering into a civilization-destroying nuclear exchange with Russia are quite remote, they're also much higher than the odds of an Obama administration doing so. Relative to Obama, McCain puts a low priority on avoiding conflict and a high priority on the potential gains of toughness and resolve. It can be plausibly (though I think wrongly) mistakenly argued that the most probable outcome of a bias toward "toughness" is superior to the most probable outcome of a more conciliatory approach, but I don't think it can be denied that the anti-conciliators are increasing the chances of disaster. This pertains not just to Russia, but also to the fact that McCain is more likely to set into motion a chance of events that leads eventually to a Sino-American superpower standoff and a revival of 1950s-1980s situation of an elevated risk of total global destruction.

Similarly, on climate change the worst you can say from a pro-McCain point of view about Barack Obama's approach is that he may be hampering economic growth to an unnecessary degree. McCain, by contrast, is increasing the risk that we'll be exposed to an out-of-control climate feedback mechanism that renders the planet uninhabitable. In both the climate and the geopolitical case, it's conventional in U.S. politics to ignore the difference between a 0.001 percent chance of something happening and a 0.00001 percent chance of it happening, but Parfit warns us that when the consequences of the Very Unlikely Outcome are also Very Bad that we ignore these kind of differences at our peril.