Metaphysics for Ethics

First year graduate seminar, Fall 2006. Open only to first-year philosophy graduate students. Participants will be expected to make two presentations during the semester.

Adam Elga (follow link for contact information, office hour). Class meetings (subject to change): Mondays 4:30-6:30 at 1879 Hall Room #121.

Seminar description: It's a familiar pattern: the difference between X and not-X matters a great deal to us. But when some metaphysical analysis reveals what the difference between X and not-X really comes to, it no longer seems worth caring about. That's a way in which metaphysics can inform ethics. We will explore several instances of this pattern, and also alleged influence in the other direction: cases in which a metaphysical analysis is rejected because of its implausible ethical consequences. Topics include:

Readings: To access the readings (all available electronically, as linked below), you will need a userid (the userid is "guest") and a password (announced in class). If you would like to preview the readings, please email

Note: In many cases, only a subsection of the linked reading is required. In those cases, the required page range is listed to the right of the reading.

Desires and time

Mon Sep 18

Can desires be irrational? Is bias in one's own favor rationally required?

Parfit, Derek. Reasons and Persons. Chapter 6: The best objection to the self-interest theory

Mon Sep 25

What respect should one pay to one's past and future desires? How should one accommodate the interests of one's past and future selves? Why not to be biased in favor of near-future (as opposed to far-future) pleasures? Why not be biased in favor of past pain (as opposed to future pain)?

Parfit, Derek. Reasons and Persons. Chapter 8: Different attitudes to time

Mon Oct 02

Does time pass? If not, is it reasonable to be relieved when painful events are over?

Markosian, Ned. How fast does time pass?

Pryor. Thank goodness that's over Middle paragraph on p. 84.

Mellor, D. H. 'Thank goodness that's over'

Personal identity

Mon Oct 09

Physical and psychological criteria for personal identity: brain/body transplant cases and teletransportation cases.

Williams, Bernard. The self and the future

Parfit, Derek. Reasons and Persons. Chapter 10: What we believe ourselves to be

Mon Oct 16

The first-person mode of presentation. Quasi-memories. Reply to Williams's objection to the psychological criterion. Radical consequences of a time-neutral perspective, including the consequence that one should not fear death.

Parfit, Derek. Reasons and Persons. Chapter 11: How we are not what we believe

Velleman, David. "So It Goes": Parfit finally meets the Buddha -- on Tralfamadore!

van Inwagen, Peter. Four-dimensional objects

Mon Oct 23

How to divide one's expectations when one expects one's stream of consciousness to divide. Duplication cases, brain-splitting cases, and the many-worlds interpretation of Quantum mechanics.

Parfit, Derek. Reasons and Persons. Chapter 12: Why our identity is not what matters

Mon Nov 06

Lewis, David. Survival and identity

Parfit, Derek. Lewis, Perry, and what matters

Mon Nov 13

Further discussion of Parfit Ch 12.

Mon Nov 20

Metaphysics as choice-making rather than fact-finding. During this session we will all try as hard as possible to come to believe Carnap's view. Having gotten into a thoroughly Carnapian mood, we will consider the following proposal. In tough cases, our thoughts and practices do not determine answers to personal identity questions. Answering those questions is a matter of choosing to extend our practices in a particular way.

Carnap, Rudolph. Empiricism, semantics, ontology

Sider, Theodore. Criteria of personal identity and the limits of conceptual analysis, sections 1-7.

Mon Nov 27

Johnston, Mark. Relativism and the self

Differences that shouldn't matter morally, but do

Mon Dec 04

You and a friend are trapped on nearby desert islands. Only the friend who sends out a stronger distress signal will be saved. In case 1, you add on an extra battery to boost your own signal. In case 2, you activate a jamming device that reduces the strength of your friend's signal. Do your actions differ morally in the two cases? More generally, does the difference between ducking (avoiding harm in such a way that it will befall someone else) and sheilding (interposing someone else to absorb a threat heading your way) matter morally? What exactly is the difference between ducking and sheilding?

Boorse, Christopher, and Roy Sorensen. Ducking harm

Mon Dec 11

Note changed time: 11-12:15. Meeting location: Marx 201

Guest session leader: Elizabeth Harman

Greene, Joshua. The secret joke of Kant's soul. Pages 9-20, 26-38, 42-48.


Only a moral monster would refuse to incur a small cost to save the life of a nearby drowning infant. Does a similar principle show that morality requires comparable sacrifices in order to save the lives of dying infants who happen to live far away?

Singer, Peter. The Singer Solution to World Poverty

Unger, Peter. Living High and Letting Die. Chapter 2: A puzzle about behavior toward people in great need

Optional background readings

Lewis, David. How many lives has Schrodinger's cat?

Kripke, Saul. Naming and Necessity. Chapter 3 Pages 108-115.

Lewis, David. On the Plurality of Worlds. Chapter 4 Section 4.5: "Against Constancy". Note: section 4.5 is pp. 248-263 of the book, which corresponds to pp. 58-73 of the pdf document linked above.

Sider, T. Four-dimensionalism. Chapter 5

Parfit, Derek. Reasons and Persons. Chapter 16: The non-identity problem

Johnston, Mark. Human Beings

Johnston, Mark. Fission and the facts

Bennett, Jonathan. The Act Itself. Chapter 4: Making/allowing

Bennett, Jonathan. The Act Itself. Chapter 5: Moral significance

Bennett, Jonathan. The Act Itself. Chapter 6: Positive/negative

Adam Elga | Princeton University