It's been a while since there's been a good philosophy bunfight. Certainly, nothing to match the glory days of the late nineties, when Daniel Dennett engaged in a couple of running disputes, one with Jerry Fodor, another with Stephen Jay Gould. (The Gould one got particularly nasty; at one point Gould wrote something like "if Thomas Huxley was known as Darwin's bulldog, Daniel Dennett is Richard Dawkins' lapdog").
But there might be one a-brewing. For years now, the ethics community has been waiting for Derek Parfit's two-volume epic, On What Matters, drafts of it have been circulating for a while. I've never liked Parfit's work -- I was forced to read his Reasons and Persons as a grad student, and I'll never forgive my supervisor for insisting on it. Nor do I find the overarching mission of On What Matters -- to show how Kant and Mill can be shown to be arguing the same thing -- to be an interesting or useful project.
I'll never read the books, but the reviews from people I respect are devastating. Tyler Cowen writes "I see the biggest and most central part of the book as a failure, possibly wrong but more worryingly “not even wrong” and simply missing the questions defined by where the frontier — choice theory and not just philosophic ethics — has been for some time." And that's no good, since Cowen had earlier been cheerleading the work as the philosophical equivalent of a Beatles reunion tour.
But more devastating still is the review from Simon Blackburn, which the FT declined to publish. Blackburn opens his review by praising the publisher for getting the book's price point down to a nice level, and the compliments only get more backhanded after that. As for the question that leads the second paragraph ("So is this, as Peter Singer hailed in the TLS, the most significant contribution to moral philosophy since 1874, when Henry Sidgwick sculpted his own great tombstone, The Methods of Ethics? Or is it a long voyage down a stagnant backwater?"), it's probably not necessary to say upon which horn of that dilemma Blackburn impales his subject.
Given how much time and intellectual effort Parfit has spent on this, and how many people's reputations are at stake (Parfit apparently lists 260 philosophers who have helped him), there has to be a response. It can only get more entertaining from here.