In Memoriam Derek Parfit (1942-2017)
Colen (J.A.)
Source: Ethical Perspectives 23, no. 2 (2018): 321-338
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. Derek Antony Parfit’s death occurred a little more than one year ago on January 1st 2017. His theories have stayed with us. Several major books, authored by both him and many of his contenders (and sometimes friends), were published in the very same year of his death, almost at the same time as large numbers of lengthy and deeper than usual obituaries came to print ("Edmonds (David) - Obituary: Derek Parfit" 2017; "McMahan (Jeff) - Obituary of Derek Parfit" 2017; "O'Grady (Jane) - Derek Parfit obituary" 2017, etc.).
  2. Among the many books and essays on Parfit’s moral theories, the volumes edited by "Dancy (Jonathan), Ed. - Reading Parfit" (1997), Simon Kirchin (2017), "Singer (Peter), Ed. - Does Anything Really Matter? Essays on Parfit on Objectivity" (2017), together with the volume authored and edited by Parfit himself – "Parfit (Derek) - On What Matters: Volume Three" (2017b), are among those that go deeper into the problem that Parfit left unresolved.
  3. This unresolved problem concerning his peculiar engagement in meta-ethics, is not, as will be argued here, the problem of the practical applications of the theory. The real problem is that he never answers –and tries hard to avoid answering – the question of how we can understand, respond and eventually act driven by (non-natural) reasons (2011, 31).
  4. Before articulating the problem more fully, we are in profound need of a map to the largely unexplored field of moral inquiry set by Parfit. This mass of recent literature may help us to draw a provisional balance of his contributions to moral philosophy, which is unfortunately left incomplete by his death. He promised a fourth volume, which he will no longer be able to write, but whose content is not difficult to guess. It would have pursued the broad lines defined in the final pages of his last book: “One thing that greatly matters is the failure of we rich people to prevent, as we so easily could, much of the suffering and many of the early deaths of the poorest people in the world […]. What now matters most is how we respond to the various risks to the survival of humanity” (2017b, 436).
  5. After a very brief biographical note, I will start by describing the path to progress in moral theory that Derek Parfit follows in his earlier work, comparing his method with those of some of his ‘nemeses’, Bernard Williams and Robert Nozick, in order to clarify why the problem of our response to moral reasons cannot be solved in Parfit’s own terms. I will try to make it explicit why he turned to meta-ethical inquiry at the core of his triple theory and, to conclude, I will point out the most important questions discussed in the works now made available.
  6. Scholars in recent moral literature express major reservations about – or entirely dismiss – Parfit’s claim that there are objective normative truths irreducible to the natural world. This text explores the application of his peculiar method of ethics and articulates the question that is at the root of this prevailing scepticism. At the root of the unsolved problem is his peculiar method of ethics, which rests on moral intuitions that may simply be ‘revised’ or refined common sense, made more consistent – that is, unless some explanatory problems that are ‘genuine and real’ are addressed.


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