Derek Parfit, Renowned Philosopher of Ethics, Mind and Metaphysics, Dies at 74
Fenwick (Cody)
Source: Patch, 3rd January 2017
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Authors Citing this Paper: Parfit (Derek)

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  1. "I became a philosopher so that I would have more time to think about what matters," he wrote.
  2. Derek Parfit, an academic philosopher known for his influential thinking and arguments on issues including ethics, personal identity, the meaning and importance of time, the promise of philosophy, attitudes toward death, our duties to future generations, the nature of reality and the origins of all existence, died on Sunday. He was 74.
  3. He was an emeritus fellow at the prestigious All Souls College at the University of Oxford and a global distinguished professor of philosophy at New York University. He also held positions at Harvard University and Rutgers University.
  4. He was known as an eccentric individual, and he was widely regarded as intensely brilliant. Both within the world of philosophy and without, he is best known for his book "Reasons and Persons." A dense work of rigorous and compelling philosophy, it brings to life many deeply puzzling philosophical questions with engrossing thought experiments that students and academics have pondered since its publication in 1984.
  5. Are we obligated to bring about the best possible consequences with every choice we make? How much faith should we put in our common-sense moral intuitions? Is the person we are at age 10 the same person who exists at age 40? Should we prefer to fulfill whatever our desires presently compel us to do, or should we consider what would be best for our future selves? How should we weight the value of future populations in our moral calculus?
  6. Though his work is an undisputed pillar of the contemporary canon of Western analytic philosophy, he was happy to note the similarities between his thought and Buddhist teachings. He argued provocatively that there is no "deep further fact" about who we are apart from the psychological connections and continuity that exist between us and any future selves, which may have been what Buddha meant when he said, "There exists no individual, it is only a conventional name given to a set of elements."
  7. While the question of the self's nature is of deep philosophical import, Parfit also took his answer to have great personal significance. Because he saw his interest in continuing to live as depending on psychological connections, like the persistence of certain memories, attitudes, desires, beliefs and dispositions, rather than on some fundamental core that was "Derek Parfit," death became less frightening to him.
  8. "Instead of saying, 'I shall be dead,' I should say, 'There will be no future experiences that will be related, in certain ways, to these present experiences,'" he wrote in "Reasons and Persons."
  9. "Because it reminds me what this fact involves, this redescription makes this fact less depressing."
  10. He did not believe in afterlives or souls, and many find his reductionist view of the self depressing in its own terms. But for Parfit, his arguments showed not that we've lost something for not having a soul, but that the very idea is less compelling than it seems. There are things more important than this kind of survival, such as the projects we pursue and the connections we make to other people.
  11. This view transformed his own perspective on life:
  12. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness.When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.
  13. To draw out the reader's intuitions on these issues, he memorably asked them to imagine how they would respond to the technology of a "tele-transportation" device — not unlike those conceived in the series "Star Trek."
  14. If this machine were to break down your molecules piece by piece, and rebuild a completely identical replica of you on Mars, would this be just a more efficient method of travel than a spaceship? Would that really be "you" who ended up on Mars, or just an exact copy who "thinks" it's you?
  15. Parfit thought we should hop in the tele-transporter, even if it makes us nervous. In his view, there's no significant difference between you and your identical copy. You should be happy to live on as either (or even, perhaps, as both).
  16. But many readers who found his arguments compelling were still wary enough to opt for the shuttle instead.
  17. Beyond his interest in personal survival and death, Parfit was deeply concerned with ethics and reasons for action. When he thought about our obligations to future generations, he discovered philosophical puzzles he was never able to solve to his own satisfaction.
  18. Consider: Would it be better to have a future human population of 10 billion, all of whom are extraordinarily happy, or a population of 1 trillion, all of whom live very difficult lives that are only barely worth living?
  19. Most people think we should prefer the smaller, happier population. But in "Reasons and Persons," Parfit showed through extensive arguments that it is very difficult to defend this position under scrutiny. Parfit dubbed this the "Repugnant Conclusion," because his arguments force us to believe that we should plan for future populations to be as large as possible, as long as their lives are just barely worth living.
  20. Though his arguments led him to this conclusion, Parfit did not accept it. He hoped someone would discover a theory that could explain why the "Repugnant Conclusion" was not required.
  21. After "Reasons and Persons" was published in 1984, Parfit was established as a philosophical heavyweight, and his work was immediately destined to be scrutinized for decades to come. Volumes of secondary literature already exist, parsing his words and dissecting his arguments.
  22. It wasn't until 2011 that "Reasons and Persons" would have company on its shelf — though Parfit published many essays in the meantime — this time in a two-volume set called "On What Matters." The arguments and chapters that make up "On What Matters" were circulated among academics long before publication and were wrestled over with students and colleagues in seminar rooms.
  23. "On What Matters" marks a distinct shift in focus from "Reasons and Persons." The first volume analyzes the moral theories of consequentialism, Kantian theory and contractualism, and attempts to merge them into one "Triple Theory" of Kantian consequentialism.
  24. It states, in its briefest form: "An act is wrong just when such acts are disallowed by some principle that is optimific, uniquely universally willable, and not reasonably rejectable."
  25. He argued that the primary contenders for universal moral theories were all essentially aiming at the same endpoint, or as he put it in an intriguing metaphor, their theorists were climbing different sides of the same mountain. Other philosophers have been reticent to accept these claims and arguments, and many argue that the disparate moral theories are inherently in tension.
  26. The second volume of "On What Matters" largely focuses on a related, but conceptually distinct, meta-ethical question: What grounds the truth value of moral statements?
  27. The topic of meta-ethics to which he turned, which focuses on the fundamental nature of moral truths rather than on prescriptions about how to live, is relatively obscure and esoteric, mostly attended to by those who make philosophy their life's work. Parfit was deeply drawn to these questions and felt they required persuasive answers. But he also felt he should explain why he wanted to answer them.
  28. "Though I became a philosopher so that I would have more time to think about what matters," he wrote, "much of this book is about other questions. It may be worth explaining why."
  29. Some of what matters is relatively obvious, Parfit notes, such as alleviating suffering and injustice in the world. "Reasons and Persons" discussed issues that were important, but less obviously so.
  30. He had intended to explore those ideas in further detail in his next book. By the time he wrote "On What Matters," however, his priorities had changed.
  31. "I became increasingly concerned about certain differences between my views and the views of several other people," he wrote. "We seemed to disagree not only about what matters, but also about what is would be for things matter, and about whether anything could matter."
  32. He was troubled in particular by philosophers, many of whom were close friends, who argued that moral reasons were derivative of desires, somehow subjective, incoherent or otherwise not universally applicable. Many popular views make these kinds of claims, such as post-modernism, subjectivism, relativism, desire theory, emotivism and expressivism.
  33. So he argued for the bulk of the 700-page tome that radical skepticism about moral claims is not warranted. Moral claims are coherent and meaningful. They are not reducible to other kinds of facts; they have their own jurisdiction.
  34. In his view, this is not provable, but it is not rationally doubted.
  35. If you were to stick your hand into an open flame, he points out, you would have a very good reason to withdraw it: It would cause you intense suffering.
  36. What does it mean for the suffering to be a reason to withdraw your hand? It means that it counts in favor of this action.
  37. And could anyone deny that the suffering caused by a burning flame counts in favor of, or is a reason for, withdrawing your hand?
  38. Parfit argued that, rationally, they could not. It is a simple, yet deeply important, fact. For him, this fact elucidates the nature of reasons, and reasons are the foundation of all morality.
  39. "After many thousands of years of responding to reasons in ways that helped them to survive and reproduce, human beings can now respond to other reasons," Parfit wrote. "We are a part of the Universe that is starting to understand itself. And we can partly understand, not only what is in fact true, but also what ought to be true, and what we might be able to make true."
  40. He hoped his work would contribute to the clarification of what is true and what matters.
  41. In addition to his work in philosophy, he was also an accomplished photographer. His own photographs served as the cover art for his books.
  42. Parfit is survived by his spouse, Janet Radcliffe Richards, a philosopher and lecturer at the University of Oxford specializing in feminism and bioethics. The world will have reason to miss him.


For the full text, see Patch: Derek Parfit.

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