Rethinking the Good: Moral Ideals and the Nature of Practical Reasoning

Rethinking the Good: Moral Ideals and the Nature of Practical Reasoning

Rethinking the Good: Moral Ideals and the Nature of Practical Reasoning

Rethinking the Good: Moral Ideals and the Nature of Practical Reasoning


In choosing between moral alternatives -- choosing between various forms of ethical action -- we typically make calculations of the following kind: A is better than B; B is better than C; therefore A is better than C. These inferences use the principle of transitivity and are fundamental to many forms of practical and theoretical theorizing, not just in moral and ethical theory but in economics. Indeed they are so common as to be almost invisible. What Larry Temkin's book shows is that, shockingly, if we want to continue making plausible judgments, we cannot continue to make these assumptions.

Temkin shows that we are committed to various moral ideals that are, surprisingly, fundamentally incompatible with the idea that "better than" can be transitive. His book develops many examples where value judgments that we accept and find attractive, are incompatible with transitivity. While this might seem to leave two options -- reject transitivity, or reject some of our normative commitments in order to keep it -- Temkin is neutral on which path to follow, only making the case that a choice is necessary, and that the cost either way will be high. Temkin's book is a very original and deeply unsettling work of skeptical philosophy that mounts an important new challenge to contemporary ethics.


The initial idea that eventually gave rise to this book occurred to me many years ago, when I was still a graduate student at Princeton University. It was 1977, and I was sitting in on a seminar by a visiting professor who I had been told was one of the great living philosophers; but I confess that up until that point I had never heard of him. the professor was presenting an early version of a typescript that he would eventually publish some seven years later. the professor, the typescript, and the seminar were quite literally awe inspiring, and they profoundly changed the direction of my philosophical thinking, and indeed my life.

The typescript—of Reasons and Persons —was filled with fascinating arguments and claims, but one problem that particularly gripped me was the earliest version of Derek Parfit’s the Mere Addition Paradox. As the Paradox goes, there are three alternatives, A, B, and A+, and it appears that, all things considered, A is better than B, and B is better than A+, but that, all things considered, A is not better than A+. Noting that “all-things-considered better than” is a transitive relation, Parfit claimed that the three judgments were inconsistent and that one of them had to go. the paradox lay in the fact that each of the three inconsistent judgments seemed extremely plausible, so that even though it was clear that at least one of them had to be rejected, it was hard to see how any of them could actually be given up.

I was utterly taken with the Mere Addition Paradox. I went round and round in my head considering which of Parfit’s three judgments to reject and kept coming up with the thought that it might be a mistake to give any of them up. This led me to entertain a rather radical thought. Perhaps it would be a mistake to reject any of the three judgments. Perhaps each of the three judgments is, in fact, true. Perhaps the lesson to be learned from the Mere Addition Paradox is that “all-things-considered better than” is not a transitive relation.

As I thought about the Mere Addition Paradox more and more, I warmed up to this conjecture, and I managed to convince myself that it was an idea worth pursuing. At that point, I made an appointment to meet with a teacher of mine, Tom Nagel, in order to run my idea by him. I remember sitting in Nagel’s office and explaining that I had been thinking about Parfit’s Mere Addition Paradox a lot, and I thought that perhaps the lesson to be learned from Parfit’s

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

On the Mere Addition Paradox, see chapter 19 of Reasons and Persons.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.