The absence of the profs: We know, we know! On Monday, we said we were going to examine the skill levels put on display when some journalists recently tried to answer this basic question:
Should a journalist call a lie a lie?
Our view? As a general matter, the answer is no! But let's return to that tomorrow. For today, let's consider the recent death of Derek Parfit.
Very few people have ever heard of Parfit. In the New York Times, the obituary, by William Grimes, started off like this:
GRIMES (1/5/17): Derek Parfit, a British philosopher whose writing on personal identity, the nature of reasons and the objectivity of morality re-established ethics as a central concern for contemporary thinkers and set the terms for philosophic inquiry, died on Monday at his home in London. He was 74.The obit runs more than a thousand words. Let's consider what is said right there, at the start:
Janet Radcliffe Richards, his wife, said the cause had not been determined.
Mr. Parfit, who was associated with All Souls College at Oxford for his entire career, rose to pre-eminence with the publication of his first paper, ''Personal Identity,'' in 1971.
''It was a revolutionary paper, and it made him a philosophic celebrity instantly,'' Jeff McMahan, a professor of moral philosophy at Oxford and one of Mr. Parfit's former students, said in an interview.
''Reasons and Persons,'' published in 1984, was greeted as the most important work of moral philosophy since Henry Sidgwick's ''The Method of Ethics'' in 1874. In it, Mr. Parfit elaborated his ideas on identity and explored issues in moral choice that reanimated the field of ethics, which had descended into abstruse technical analyses of moral terms like ''ought,'' ''good'' and ''right.''
According to Grimes, Parfit's work "re-established ethics as a central concern for contemporary thinkers." Parfit became a "philosophic celebrity" in 1971. The book he published in 1984 "was greeted as "the most important work of moral philosophy" since a book by Henry Sidgwick in 1874.
These statements struck us as strange. Reason: we'll guess that very few New York Times readers have ever heard of either Parfit or Sidgwick. But according to Grimes, they were the most important writers in the field of ethics and/or moral philosophy in at least the past 150 years!
We decided to check. Given their greatness, how often has either man's name ever appeared in the Times?
The Nexis archives date back, fairly reliably, for thirty to forty years. But when we searched, we found that Parfit's name had appeared in the Times only five times during that period. Sidgwick's name beat him, racking up seven cites.
Trust us—these were almost all fleeting single citations, often in book reviews:
Dates of previous mentions in the New York Times:This struck us as strange, but revealing. Everyone has heard of "morality," "morals" and "ethics." But no one has ever heard of the two most important academic figures in the field of ethics over the past 150 years!
Parfit: 10/3/10; 1/2/11; 10/2/11; 3/18/12; 8/5/12
Sidgwick: 7/15/84; 7/22/84; 9/9/90; 12/2/02; 8/14/06; 8/20/06; 5/8/11
If you read the rest of the Grimes obit, you may come to see why that is. You'll be reading hopelessly abstruse attempts to summarize some hopelessly abstruse work.
The problem will become much more stark if you read Dylan Matthews' schoolboy-crush pretense of a discussion of Parfit at Vox. (Unintentionally ironic headline: Here's Why He Mattered.) Meanwhile, if you click the link Matthews provides, you'll find that he came very close to plagiarizing a hopelessly abstruse account of Parfit's work from a lengthy 2011 profile in The New Yorker.
Over the past thirty years, our national discourse has been disappearing beneath the waves of what is now known as Trumpism. Our journalists have almost completely lacked the skills, or perhaps the will, to confront the attacks of the sanity and the clarity of our discourse. Meanwhile, our professors of ethics have been absent, like central figures from one of Ingmar Bergman's all-time gloomiest films.
God is dead? So are our philosophy professors!
Go ahead! Read the profile of Parfit from The New Yorker. See if you can con yourself into believing that you have any idea what Parfit was talking about. Do you feel sure that he was talking about anything at all?
Was God AWOL for poor Bergman as of The Seventh Seal? Our logicians and our ethics professors have been AWOL for us for a good many years! In their absence, what's the best our journalists can do in their stead? Believe it or not, this is the way the lengthy New York Times obit ends:
GRIMES: In addition to his wife, Mr. Parfit is survived by his sister, Theodora Ooms. In addition to his home in London, he had one in Oxford.Did our greatest moral philosopher write those words? Or was it actually (we're just asking) possibly Chance the Gardener?
On Daily Nous, Mr. Singer offered a snippet from Mr. Parfit's new work:
''Life can be wonderful as well as terrible, and we shall increasingly have the power to make life good. Since human history may be only just beginning, we can expect that future humans, or supra-humans, may achieve some great goods that we cannot now even imagine.
''In Nietzsche's words, there has never been such a new dawn and clear horizon, and such an open sea.''
By way of contrast: And we're just saying. Edie Sedgwick's name has been mentioned several hundred times.