History and Persons

ERI 149
Arts and Law, Lectures Talks and Workshops, Research
Wednesday 15th November 2017 (15:15-17:00)
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For more information please contact the convenors: Nick Jones and Scott Sturgeon.

Philosophy Society week 8, with Guy Kahane

  • Speaker: Dr Guy Kahane (University of Oxford)
  • Title: History and Persons

Should we regret that Hitler survived the Munich Beer Putsch in 1923 or that the orphan Temujin grew up to become Genghis Khan? Should we approve of, or rather lament, Britain’s decision to declare war on Germany in 1914? Was the agricultural revolution a wonderful breakthrough or humanity’s worst mistake? I will argue that Parfit’s non-identity problem complicates our answers to such questions about history in ways we routinely overlook. This is because even minor historical changes would have affected the whole subsequent sequence of births, dramatically changing who comes to exist next. And this means that we need to distinguish ways in which history could have gone better from ways in which it could have gone better for past people. This distinction opens up two opposing perspectives on the past: an impersonal standpoint concerned only with how much value each course of history contains, and a person-centred standpoint concerned with harms and benefits to the people who had actually existed. 

In this talk I will set out these radically different visions of what matters in history and point out some of their disturbing implications. I will also remark on the odd neglect of history in recent moral philosophy.

All welcome!