I need to read more Derek Parfit

Brian Leiter links to a fascinating interview with Larissa MacFarquhar, who has among other things profiled philosopher Derek Parfit. I’ve become acquainted with Parfit’s ideas on personal identity through the classes I’ve taken on metaphysics as well as Chalmers’ paper on the singularity, but I confess I’ve never read any of Parfit’s books before. From the interview:

If you’re a philosopher you’re going to be able to get much more out of his books than I can, but what I can add, I hope, is a layer of depth that is gained by looking at the books in the context of his life. To me, for instance, it seems significant that he comes from missionary parents, because he believes there are objectively correct moral principles that exist independently of human thought, in the way that a religious person believes that God exists. (When I was in college, moral realism was quite an uncommon position in philosophy, so I was surprised to find Parfit arguing this; I have been told that these days moral realism is much more common.) Now, Parfit is an atheist, but I thought it was interesting that he came from not just an ordinarily religious family but a deeply religious family that belonged to the Oxford Group, a Christian society that imposed extremely high moral and devotional standards on its members. Parfit himself was quite religious as a child. All of these facts seemed to me to add something to a reading of his books.

As for his various eccentricities, I don’t think they add anything to an understanding of his philosophy, but I find him very moving as a person. When I was interviewing him for the first time, for instance, we were in the middle of a conversation and suddenly he burst into tears. It was completely unexpected, because we were not talking about anything emotional or personal, as I would define those things. I was quite startled, and as he cried I sat there rewinding our conversation in my head, trying to figure out what had upset him. Later, I asked him about it. It turned out that what had made him cry was the idea of suffering. We had been talking about suffering in the abstract. I found that very striking. Now, I don’t think any professional philosopher is going to make this mistake, but nonprofessionals might think that utilitarianism, for instance (Parfit is a utilitarian), or certain other philosophical ways of think about morality, are quite unemotional, quite calculating, quite cold; and so because as I am writing mostly for nonphilosophers, it seemed like a good corrective to know that for someone like Parfit these issues are extremely emotional, even in the abstract.

The weird thing was that the same thing happened again with a philosophy graduate student whom I was interviewing some months later. Now you’re going to start thinking it’s me, but I was interviewing a philosophy graduate student who, like Parfit, had a very unemotional demeanor; we started talking about suffering in the abstract, and he burst into tears. I don’t quite know what to make of all this but I do think that insofar as one is interested in the relationship of ideas to people who think about them, and not just in the ideas themselves, those small events are moving and important.

Reading this passage led me to look up MacFarquhar’s profile of Parfit. The summary on the New Yorker’s website contains these tidbits:

Most of us care about our future because it is ours—but this most fundamental human instinct is based on a mistake, Derek Parfit believes. Personal identity is not what matters. Parfit is thought by many to be the most original moral philosopher in the English-speaking world. He has written two books, both of which have been called the most important works to be written in the field in more than a century—since in 1874, when Henry Sidgwick’s “The Method of Ethics,” was published. Parfit’s first book, “Reasons and Persons,” was published in 1984, when he was forty-one, and caused a sensation. The book was dense with science-fiction thought experiments, all urging a shift toward a more impersonal, non-physical, and selfless view of human life. Parfit’s view resembles in some ways the Buddhist view of the self. After Parfit finished “Reasons and Persons,” he became increasingly disturbed by how many people believed that there was no such thing as objective moral truth.

The full version is here, and contains a lot more interesting material, including the fact that Reasons and Persons was at one point being memorized and chanted by novice monks at a monastery in Tibet.

From what I know of Parfit’s views expressed in Reasons and Persons, I guess you could count me as sympathetic to them, though mostly I just tend to see debates about personal identity as confusing and unresolvable. But reading the profile makes me want to read Reasons and Persons, as well as Parfit’s more recent book On What Matters.

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