What matters about metaethics?
According to Part VI of Derek Parfit’s On What Matters, some things matter.1 Indeed, there are normative truths to the effect that some things matter, and it matters that there are such truths. Moreover, according to Parfit, these normative truths are cognitive and irreducible. And in addition to mattering that there are normative truths about what matters, Parfit holds that it also matters that these truths are cognitive and irreducible. Indeed this matters so much that Parfit tells us that if there were normative truths, but that these truths were non-cognitive or reducible, then he, Sidgwick, and Ross “would have wasted much of our lives” [OWM2 367]. That it would be a consequence of the thesis either of noncognitivism or of reductive realism that Parfit would have wasted his life is, of course, no evidence against either thesis; it is perfectly possible even for the most brilliant thinkers to waste their lives. Indeed, as any of the students from my introductory ethics course would be quick to point out, it is very difficult to think clearly and objectively about a question in which you take yourself have a large personal stake. My undergraduates readily agree that the steak they have is enough to complicate their thinking about moral vegetarianism; so certainly explosive expressions like ‘wasted my life’ give Parfit the kind of loaded stake in metaethical questions that should make us cautious of trusting his intuitive verdicts in metaethics. Fortunately, as I will argue in this paper, Parfit has not wasted his life, and he would not have wasted his life, even if it turned out that either noncognitivism or reductive realism turned out to be true. In arguing that Parfit has not wasted his life, independently of the answer to any metaethical question, I am, of course, arguing against Parfit’s own conception of what makes his life worthwhile. Parfit clearly believes that the worthwhileness of [much of]2 his life turns on the answer to questions in metaethics..