So the paper may not yet add enough that’s new.” Of course, he was right. Hating the sceptical notion that morality is ultimately just based on what we desire, Parfit dexterously argued that if we accept that there are non-scientific truths about belief (when it is raining, I ought to believe that it’s raining), and about prudence (I should avoid having unnecessary pain), then that opens the possibility to there being moral truths, too. Derek’s fierce dedication in those sessions to getting to the bottom of things made a lasting impression on me. He said he thought my presence would prove useful and hoped I would come. In most civilizations, most people have believed in the existence of a God, or of several gods. Like others here, his influence on my thinking — both methodologically and substantively — was profound. Parfit himself also somehow seemed to live his theories, helped by perhaps having – as his wife, the philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards, said – Asperger syndrome. It gave me the confidence to continue despite the long road of rejections that awaited me. 80, No.1 (Jan., 1971), pp. Though there will later be many experiences, none of these experiences will be connected to my present experiences by chains of such direct connections …. Then I called all my friends and interrupted their Sunday nights with the news. He also reframed the agenda in moral philosophy, helped to replace the ideal of equality with the principle of prioritising the worst-off, and established a new philosophical discipline, population ethics. He had no apparent ego and was the least status-conscious person I know. I have reason to give to starving people, just as I have reason to jump out of the path of a speeding car or to stop smoking, whatever my desires in either case. I first met Derek as a graduate student in Oxford in 1982. The first two Saturday sessions stole the show though. Derek Parfit has few memories of his past and almost never thinks about it, a fact that he attributes to an inability to form mental images. For example, lets say Donald Trump gets Covid-19. In a new paper, “We Are Not Human Beings,” Derek Parfit argues that persons are identically their conscious, thinking parts, which he identifies as their cerebrums. Saturday morning featured David Lewis’s “Survival and Identity,” which took up Parfit’s “Personal Identity,” which had just appeared in the Phil Review the year before. We continued our discussions about the normative significance of reductionism about personal identity and prioritarianism inside and outside of seminar. I agree with much of what Parfit says, but there is one implication that I cannot accept: his … Your body is destroyed, but only after it has been scanned and the blueprint beamed to Mars, where an organic replica of you is created. And most reviewers would have left it at that, or, perhaps, added a couple paragraphs illustrating where I had made points that Parfit had already made. He was educated at Eton, and won the top history scholarship of his year to read history at Balliol College, Oxford (1961-64). Let's say a person dying will indirectly cause me to be happier. Working in ethics is a trying endeavor. Parfit: “When we are concerned about our future, it is our numerical identity that we are concerned about. A highly specialised photograph shop, and, later, computers, enabled him to create meticulously modified, bespoke photos. Compared with the other sciences, Non-Religious Ethics is the youngest and the least advanced. I am deeply saddened by Parfit’s death. For example, he often told me (particularly when I complained about my inefficiency) that he worried about how fast a reader he was, because most of the people he respected the most were slow readers. I’ve since published probably 20 articles that are either directly on or draw heavily from Parfit’s work. What a Sad Loss: Derek Parfit (1942-2017) | Why Darwin Matters, The Aesthetic Ingredients of Holiday Romance. Our philosophical exchanges had a profound impact on me early in my career and have exerted an abiding influence on my philosophical interests and methods. Indeed, his presence will be unmistakable in the Persons & Values course that I will be teaching this quarter, which will be a fitting way for me to celebrate his life and philosophical contributions. Before the recent past, very few. The world would be much better if more people were like him. He was born in Chengdu, western China, where his parents, Jessie (nee Browne) and Norman Parfit practised preventive medicine in Christian missionary hospitals. I am often left confused, depressed. 3-27. […] I believe the opposite. Surely, then, we should be guided by a more impartial principle requiring us to do what will produce the most wellbeing. During the dinner, he took the time to ask me (a no-name Syracuse graduate student) who I was and to ask me about my work. After my death, there will [be] no one living who will be me. Derek Parfit (1942-2017) was the greatest living moral philosopher. Others will have tales of his generosity, kindness, and gentleness. The first paper I submitted to a journal was my paper “The Total Principle.” I submitted in the early months of 1994 to Philosophy & Public Affairs. The new year brings the terribly sad news that Derek Parfit has died. It was a wonderful, but also dizzying, experience – like being crushed over and over again by a person with nothing in his heart but kindness. I say that there is nothing wrong with simply wanting that person to die of some disease, say Covid-19. There he discussed philosophy for hours. We talked about a piece that he was working on to do with the principle against using people. Today, in losing such a great mind, my hopes were lowered considerably. At one Tibetan monastery, monks intersperse chanting the usual sutras with intoning memorised passages from Reasons and Persons. In On What Matters, Parfit’s massive aim was to try to make systematic sense of three ethical approaches always assumed to be incompatible – Kant’s categorical imperative (deriving moral principles from universalisable impartial reasoning), TM Scanlon’s contractualism (basing them on informed general agreement), and rule consequentialism (focusing on how they achieve the best outcomes) – and combine them into “the triple theory”. He paid no mind to the social hierarchy in philosophy even though he was at the top. Another sister, Joanna, predeceased him. I shall claim that, even if they don't, we should often act as if they do. The combination of unrivalled brilliance and imagination, an extraordinary work ethic, and a deep and unique way of valuing people (or, perhaps more accurately, what people are made up of) made him a towering figure in moral philosophy, and he will be sorely missed. The material and the discussion were incredibly stimulating, and Derek made last minute changes to the book as a result. The family moved to Oxford a year after Derek’s birth. We might say, "I do survive Wiggins' operation as two people. He said that dying became increasingly unregrettable as his selves successively vanished. Unfortunately, though, given the maths, that argument would compel us to prefer a massive population whose lives were barely worth living to a tiny population where everyone was extremely well-off – the so-called repugnant conclusion that Parfit was trying to rebut until his death. I never had the good fortune to meet him, but he did call me out of the blue one evening when I was a grad student. There is no “deep further fact”, no time-spanning, sealed-in entity. Now that I have seen this, my death seems to me less bad…. I shall describe a problem case. Derek Parfit Endearingly eccentric moral philosopher who was ... something good if we cause a person to exist who has a life that is worth living? He had changed his mind and very much hoped I would attend. Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons is considered a must read in contemporary ethics. I may believe that, after my marriage, I shall not be the same person, but this does not make marriage death”. Derek Parfit. They chime with Buddhism, however. The “right kind of cause” mentioned in sentence (3) could be any cause. But, of course, it wasn’t really the same paper at all, as I had to totally rewrite it after Parfit’s helpful comments. Although treating personal identity as a separate issue, he nicely enmeshed it in ethics. And he was financially generous, too, a member of the effective altruism movement, which enjoins everyone to give 10% of their income to charity. But Parfit’s greatest impact on me came from his contagious optimism. When I review the arguments for this belief, and reconvince myself, this for a while stuns my natural concern for the future…. 390–1). We might suggest that one cause of the belief is the projection of our emotions. He died on January 1, 2017, aged 74 The preface to On What Matters, comparing Kant and Sidgwick, is one of my favorite things I’ve read in a book of philosophy. The class would not be designed for someone like me, and so it would likely be a waste of my time and it would be better if I not attend. Cosmic possibilities cover everything that ever exists, and are the different ways that the whole of reality might be. I’m forever grateful to have had this as my first rejection. Over dinner, talk turned to the first world war, and Derek became upset at the thought of the loss of life that the war involved. She survives him, as does his sister Theodora. Farewell, then. When we see ourselves as less separate, ethics becomes more impersonal. Philosopher whose books inspired his academic peers all over the world, Last modified on Tue 28 Nov 2017 07.40 GMT. Derek Parfit was a brilliant man. Parfit’s Kantian rule consequentialism asserted that “everyone ought to follow the principles whose universal acceptance would make things go best”. "7 This is a possible way of giving sense to the claim that 1 survive as … I’ve tried to defend this response, showing that there can be interpersonal psychological continuity that transcends the limits of one’s own life, allowing us to make sense of Plato’s claim in the Symposium that the right sort of interpersonal relationships can be a surrogate for immortality. I found this both unsettling and moving: unsettling because I don’t know anyone else who now has this reaction to deaths that occurred so long ago, and moving because it seemed to me that Derek’s unusual kind of compassion stretched beyond what I or others that I know are capable of. I will always consider myself lucky to have experienced Derek’s incandescent philosophical personality and benefited from his philosophical generosity. Derek Parfit Do possible people have rights and interests? 5 minutes later a third call came. In Bridge, a runaway train will kill five people unless you cause me to fall in front of the train, resulting in my death (Vol. Because this event is so recent, Non-Religious Ethics is at a very early stage. He drew people to him as a bright light draws moths, said a friend, but found mere chit-chat perplexing, wanting only to talk about philosophy. When his friend Larry Temkin, phoning from America, asked, “How is Janet?” there was a baffled silence before Parfit demanded, “Why do you ask that?” Once informed that friends normally inquire about one another’s nearest and dearest, he made sure to remember that from then on. If this sort of quasi-persistence is proportional to the influence one has had on others, then Derek’s personal and philosophical legacy should serve as a tremendous counterweight to his own mortality. His comments started as follows: “I found the paper interesting, and liked some of its new points. He was unfailingly kind, generous, and supportive of me, even though my arguments fell on the wrong side (from his perspective) of what seemed to him the most important divide in ethics (between what he called “subjectivism” and “objectivism” about reasons). At the age of seven, he wanted to be a monk, and prayed fervently that his parents, who had by then lost their faith, should return to it. It was an amazing lineup. In these years, we never managed to have a non-philosophical conversation, and I suspect that I am not alone in this experience. It can in fact be rational to do what is against my self-interest – to throw myself on the hand grenade if what I most want is to save my comrades’ lives. Parfit makes the point that we are responsible for the consequence of our actions on distant people: the fact that they are far from us does not mean we can cause them harm, like make them disappear. Another approach might be this. Parfit was a great philosopher, and derived a mildly unfair advantage from looking more than a bit like Peter O’Toole. An obvious objection to his theories, Parfit admitted, is the psychological impossibility of viscerally feeling as selfless as they assert we are, or ought to be, which renders them effectively unbelievable. Nature does not care if that causes us emotional pain. But, using thought experiments involving brain transplantation, Parfit maintained that “all-or-nothing” identity is not the point. He was scheduled to give a talk to undergraduates there in the evening. 5 minutes later I got a second call from him saying that likely it would be best if I did not come. He didn’t seem to be engaging with anyone out of politeness either, but rather genuine philosophical interest. In 2009 Parfit helped me get a fellowship at All Souls (where Parfit then worked) for a term. A “critical present-aim theory” – that, rationally, I should further my present aims if there are sufficient reasons to have such aims – is Parfit’s suggested rival to the self-interest view of individual rationality that has dominated western thinking since Socrates. It was, of course, rejected. Regardless of whether his death mattered to him, in the end, it matters to the rest of us quite a bit, and it casts a pall on the start of this New Year. In light of the recent death of Derek Parfit, his discussion in Reasons and Persons of “Liberation from the Self” takes on an indelible existential power. We continued our correspondence by post and email for a few years after I moved to the west coast, but eventually lack of face-to-face contact and changes in philosophical and personal commitments meant we lost contact. FROM STEPHEN DARWALL, POSTED HERE WITH PERMISSION. But, despite his obsessive, unremitting industry, he would give exhaustive, invaluable commentaries on other philosophers’ work that were often far longer than the essay or book commented on. He was completely indifferent to where you were employed, or even whether you were employed, in philosophy. Following contemporary cosmology, Derek Parfit writes of the sheer statistical unlikeliness of our existence (LRB, 22 January): ‘Of the range of initial conditions, fewer than one in a billion billion would have produced a Universe with the complexity that allows for life. I had the opportunity to take an undergraduate level seminar with Derek in the spring of 2011. Not long after I took up a position at MIT in 1987, Derek began making regular visits at Harvard giving seminars about personal identity and ethics, prioritarianism, and why there is something, rather than nothing. He was truly one of the greatest teachers I ever had. Derek Parfit’s death just before the publication of the third, and now perhaps last, volume of On What Matters makes reviewing it a rather melancholy task. We cannot yet predict whether […] we will all reach agreement. On the day his class on his then book manuscript of On What Matters was starting he called me up and invited me to attend the class. It is often rational to act against our own best interests, he argues, and most of … At this point I think we had not yet met. He was 74. Derek Antony Parfit FBA was a British philosopher who specialised in personal identity, rationality, and ethics. ), and hung up the phone in a daze. This is due fundamentally to the fact that Parfit’s capaciousness is filled with interesting substantial thought. Irritated at the interruption, I picked up the phone in a mood, growling “Hello? He then went on to explain, with great remorse, why he couldn’t write a letter of recommendation for me that year, due to his many other time commitments and letters to write, but he promised he would do so the next year (which he did, as well as two more years after that). For those who aren't aware, Parfit's book Reasons and Persons talks about a whole lot of things, including self-defeating ethical theories (like egoism), reductive personal identity, desires, reasons, etc and really is a masterpiece. He got up early the next day to do the same thing over again. I met Derek several times, but only talked with him at length once, in his house in Oxford, in the company of Jeff McMahan. I was spending the 1982-83 year as a visiting graduate student at University College. The Philosophical Review, Vol. Parfit himself also somehow seemed to live his theories, helped by perhaps having – as his wife, the philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards, said – Asperger syndrome. DEREK PARFIT a third. These adventures do not have to be theoretically as fancy as the cases, to be discussed later, of human fission or brain swaps: a theory of personal identity tells us whether we can live through the acquisition of complex cognitive capacities in … Parfit, who died last night, was, in the estimation of many us, perhaps the greatest moral philosopher in our midst. How many people have made Non-Religious Ethics their life’s work? !” Response: “Hello, David, this is Derek Parfit.” I was in CA, so it would have been 4 a.m. in Oxford, where he was at the time. 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