Derek Parfit was one of the most influential moral philosophers of the last 50 years. But saying that, I suspect, undervalues his contributions to the field of philosophy. It is certain that his work will continue to be read and to influence future philosophers for a very long time.
Parfit’s work had a very great effect on my own development as a philosopher. In my junior year of college, I read his Reasons and Persons and was overwhelmed by the lucidity and compelling nature of his arguments. Not only did my views about personal identity change significantly as a result of my encounter with Parfit, but I came away from the book knowing that philosophy was my passion. Ever since, Parfit has been a model for me of how to do philosophy; he is careful, deeply thoughtful, respectful of the views with which he disagrees, and places the highest value on clarity of expression.
I want to share a short quote from Volume 1 of On What Matters. This quote does not capture the essence of Parfit’s moral views or the most significant aspect of them, but I think that it well-captures the kinds of views he had, the challenging nature of those views, and also his style. It is a quote that I’ve had many occasions to come back to and ponder since I first read it.
We can deserve many things, such as gratitude, praise, and the kind of blame that is merely moral dispraise. But no one could ever deserve to suffer. For similar reasons, I believe, no one could deserve to be less happy. When people treat us or others wrongly, we can justifiably be indignant. And we can have reasons to want these people to understand the wrongness of their acts, even though that would make them feel very badly about what they have done. But these reasons are like our reasons to want people to grieve when those whom they love have died. We cannot justifiably have ill will towards these wrong-doers, wishing things to go badly for them. Nor can we justifiably cease to have good will towards them, by ceasing to wish things to go well for them. We could at most be justified in ceasing to like these people, and trying, in morally acceptable ways, to have nothing to do with them.
Here is a video in which Parfit discusses what he is probably most famous for: his views about personal identity.