Parfit at Harvard University in April 2015
|Died||1 January 2017 74) (aged|
London, England, United Kingdom
|Alma mater||Balliol College, Oxford|
Janet Radcliffe Richards (m. 2010)
|Awards||Rolf Schock Prize in Logic and Philosophy (2014)|
Derek Antony Parfit, FBA ( // ; 11 December 1942 – 1 January 2017) was a British philosopher who specialised in personal identity, rationality, and ethics. He is widely considered one of the most important and influential moral philosophers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Fellowship of the British Academy (FBA) is an award granted by the British Academy to leading academics for their distinction in the humanities and social sciences. There are three kinds of fellowship:
In philosophy, the matter of personal identity deals with such questions as, "What makes it true that a person at one time is the same thing as a person at another time?" or "What kinds of things are we persons?" Generally, personal identity is the unique numerical identity of a person in the course of time. That is, the necessary and sufficient conditions under which a person at one time and a person at another time can be said to be the same person, persisting through time.
Rationality is the quality or state of being rational – that is, being based on or agreeable to reason. Rationality implies the conformity of one's beliefs with one's reasons to believe, and of one's actions with one's reasons for action. "Rationality" has different specialized meanings in philosophy, economics, sociology, psychology, evolutionary biology, game theory and political science.
Parfit rose to prominence in 1971 with the publication of his first paper, "Personal Identity". His first book, Reasons and Persons (1984), has been described as the most significant work of moral philosophy since the 1800s.His second book, On What Matters (2011), was widely circulated and discussed for many years before its publication.
Reasons and Persons is a 1984 philosophical work by Derek Parfit, in which the author discusses ethics, rationality and personal identity.
On What Matters is a three-volume book of moral philosophy by Derek Parfit. The first two volumes were published in 2011 and the third in 2017. It is a follow-up to Parfit's 1984 book Reasons and Persons. It has an introduction by Samuel Scheffler.
For his entire academic career, Parfit worked at Oxford University, where he was an Emeritus Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College at the time of his death. He was also a visiting professor of philosophy at Harvard University, New York University, and Rutgers University. He was awarded 2014 Rolf Schock Prize "for his groundbreaking contributions concerning personal identity, regard for future generations, and analysis of the structure of moral theories."
All Souls College is a constituent college of the University of Oxford in England.
Harvard University is a private Ivy League research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with about 6,700 undergraduate students and about 15,250 postgraduate students. Established in 1636 and named for its first benefactor, clergyman John Harvard, Harvard is the United States' oldest institution of higher learning. Its history, influence, and wealth have made it one of the world's most prestigious universities. The university is often cited as the world's top tertiary institution by most publishers.
New York University (NYU) is a private research university originally founded in New York City but now with campuses and locations throughout the world. Founded in 1831, NYU's historical campus is in Greenwich Village, New York City. As a global university, students can graduate from its degree-granting campuses in NYU Abu Dhabi and NYU Shanghai, as well as study at its 12 academic centers in Accra, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Florence, London, Los Angeles, Madrid, Paris, Prague, Sydney, Tel Aviv, and Washington, D.C.
Parfit was born in 1942 in Chengdu, China, the son of Jessie (née Browne) and Norman Parfit, medical doctors who had moved to Western China to teach preventive medicine in missionary hospitals. The family returned to the United Kingdom about a year after Parfit was born, settling in Oxford. Parfit was educated at Eton College. From an early age, he endeavoured to become a poet, but he gave up poetry towards the end of his adolescence.He later studied Modern History at the University of Oxford, graduating in 1964. In 1965–66 he was a Harkness Fellow at Columbia University and Harvard University. He abandoned historical studies for philosophy during the fellowship, returning to Oxford to become a fellow of All Souls College.
Chengdu, formerly romanized as Chengtu, is a sub-provincial city which serves as the capital of Sichuan province, People's Republic of China. It is one of the three most-populous cities in Western China, the other two being Chongqing and Xi'an. As of 2014, the administrative area housed 14,427,500 inhabitants, with an urban population of 10,152,632. At the time of the 2010 census, Chengdu was the fifth-most populous agglomeration in China, with 10,484,996 inhabitants in the built-up area including Xinjin County and Deyang's Guanghan City. Chengdu is also considered a World City with a "Beta +" classification according to the Globalization and World Cities Research Network.
The Republic of China (ROC) was a sovereign country that existed between 1912 and 1949 in what is now the People's Republic of China. It was established in January 1912 after the Xinhai Revolution, which overthrew the Qing dynasty, the last imperial dynasty of China. The Republic's first president, Sun Yat-sen, served only briefly before handing over the position to Yuan Shikai, the leader of the Beiyang Army. Sun's party, the Kuomintang (KMT), then led by Song Jiaoren, won the parliamentary election held in December 1912. However, Song was assassinated shortly after and the Beiyang Army, led by Yuan, maintained full control of the Beiyang government. Between late 1915 and early 1916, Yuan Shikai was the self-proclaimed Emperor of China before abdicating due to popular unrest. After Yuan's death in 1916, the authority of the Beiyang government was further weakened by a brief restoration of the Qing dynasty. Cliques in the Beiyang Army claimed individual autonomy and clashed with each other during the ensuing Warlord Era.
Western China is the west of China. In the definition of the Chinese government, Western China covers one municipality: Chongqing; six provinces: Sichuan, Guizhou, Yunnan, Shaanxi, Gansu, and Qinghai; and three autonomous regions: Tibet, Ningxia, and Xinjiang.
Parfit supported effective altruism.He was a member of Giving What We Can and pledged to donate at least ten percent of his income to effective charities.
Effective altruism is a philosophy and social movement that uses evidence and reasoning to determine the most effective ways to benefit others. Effective altruism encourages individuals to consider all causes and actions and to act in the way that brings about the greatest positive impact, based upon their values. It is the broad, evidence-based approach that distinguishes effective altruism from traditional altruism or charity.
Giving What We Can (GWWC) is an effective altruism associated organization whose members pledge to give 10% of their income to effective charities. It was founded at Oxford University in 2009 by the ethics researcher Toby Ord.
Parfit was an avid photographer who regularly traveled to Venice and St. Petersburg to photograph architecture.
Venice is a city in northeastern Italy and the capital of the Veneto region. It is situated on a group of 118 small islands that are separated by canals and linked by over 400 bridges. The islands are located in the shallow Venetian Lagoon, an enclosed bay that lies between the mouths of the Po and the Piave rivers. In 2018, 260,897 people resided in the Comune di Venezia, of whom around 55,000 live in the historical city of Venice. Together with Padua and Treviso, the city is included in the Padua-Treviso-Venice Metropolitan Area (PATREVE), which is considered a statistical metropolitan area, with a total population of 2.6 million.
Saint Petersburg is Russia's second-largest city after Moscow, with 5 million inhabitants in 2012, part of the Saint Petersburg agglomeration with a population of 6.2 million (2015). An important Russian port on the Baltic Sea, it has a status of a federal subject.
Parfit met Janet Radcliffe Richards in 1982.They married in 2010.
In Reasons and Persons, Parfit suggested that nonreligious ethics is a young and fertile field of inquiry. He asked questions about which actions are right or wrong and shied away from meta-ethics, which focuses more on logic and language.
In Part I of Reasons and Persons Parfit discussed self-defeating moral theories, namely the self-interest theory of rationality and two ethical frameworks: common-sense morality and consequentialism. He posited that self-interest has been dominant in Western culture for over two millennia, often making bedfellows with religious doctrine, which united self-interest and morality. Because self-interest demands that we always make self-interest our supreme rational concern and instructs us to ensure that our whole life goes as well as possible, self-interest makes temporally neutral requirements. Thus it would be irrational to act in ways that we know we would prefer later to undo.
As an example, it would be irrational for a 14-year-old to listen to loud music or get arrested for vandalism if they knew such actions would detract significantly from their future well-being and goals (such as having good hearing or an academic career in philosophy).
Most notably, the self-interest theory holds that it is irrational to commit any acts of self-denial or to act on desires that negatively affect our well-being. One may consider an aspiring author whose strongest desire is to write an award-winning novel but who, in doing so, suffers from lack of sleep and depression. Parfit argues that it is plausible that we have such desires which conflict with our own well-being, and that it is not necessarily irrational to act to fulfill these desires.
Aside from the initial appeal to plausibility of desires that do not directly contribute to one's life going well, Parfit contrived situations where self-interest is indirectly self-defeating—that is, it makes demands that it initially posits as irrational. It does not fail on its own terms, but it does recommend adoption of an alternative framework of rationality. For instance, it might be in my self-interest to become trustworthy to participate in mutually beneficial agreements, even though in maintaining the agreement I will be doing what will, other things being equal, be worse for me. In many cases self-interest instructs us precisely not to follow self-interest, thus fitting the definition of an indirectly self-defeating theory.
Parfit contended that to be indirectly individually self-defeating and directly collectively self-defeating is not fatally damaging for.[ clarification needed ] To further bury self-interest, Parfit exploited its partial relativity, juxtaposing temporally neutral demands against agent-centered demands. The appeal to full relativity raises the question whether a theory can be consistently neutral in one sphere of actualisation but entirely partial in another. Stripped of its commonly accepted shrouds of plausibility that can be shown to be inconsistent, self-interest can be judged on its own merits. While Parfit did not offer an argument to dismiss S outright, his exposition lays self-interest bare and allows its own failings to show through.[ citation needed ] It is defensible, but the defender must bite so many bullets that they might lose their credibility in the process. Thus a new theory of rationality is necessary. Parfit offered the "critical present aim theory", a broad catch-all that can be formulated to accommodate any competing theory. He constructed critical present aim to exclude self-interest as our overriding rational concern and to allow the time of action to become critically important. But he left open whether it should include "to avoid acting wrongly" as our highest concern. Such an inclusion would pave the way for ethics. Henry Sidgwick longed for the fusion of ethics and rationality, and while Parfit admitted that many would avoid acting irrationally more ardently than acting immorally, he could not construct an argument that adequately united the two.
Where self-interest puts too much emphasis on the separateness of persons, consequentialism fails to recognise the importance of bonds and emotional responses that come from allowing some people privileged positions in one's life. If we were all pure do-gooders, perhaps following Sidgwick, that would not constitute the outcome that would maximise happiness. It would be better if a small percentage of the population were pure do-gooders, but others acted out of love, etc. Thus consequentialism too makes demands of agents that it initially deemed immoral; it fails not on its own terms, for it still demands the outcome that maximises total happiness, but does demand that each agent not always act as an impartial happiness promoter. Consequentialism thus needs to be revised as well.
Self-interest and consequentialism fail indirectly, while common-sense morality is directly collectively self-defeating. (So is self-interest, but self-interest is an individual theory.) Parfit showed, using interesting examples and borrowing from Nashian games, that it would often be better for us all if we did not put the welfare of our loved ones before all else. For example, we should care not only about our kids, but everyone's kids.
In his second book, Parfit argues for moral realism, insisting that moral questions have true and false answers. Further, he suggests that the three most prominent categories of views in moral philosophy — Kantian deontology, consequentalism, and contractarianism (or contractualism) — ultimately converge on the same answers to moral questions.
In the book he argues that the affluent have strong moral obligations to the poor:
"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. The money that we spend on an evening’s entertainment might instead save some poor person from death, blindness, or chronic and severe pain. If we believe that, in our treatment of these poorest people, we are not acting wrongly, we are like those who believed that they were justified in having slaves.
Some of us ask how much of our wealth we rich people ought to give to these poorest people. But that question wrongly assumes that our wealth is ours to give. This wealth is legally ours. But these poorest people have much stronger moral claims to some of this wealth. We ought to transfer to these people (...) at least ten per cent of what we earn."
In his book On Human Nature, Roger Scruton criticised Parfit's use of moral dilemmas such as the trolley problem and the lifeboat problem to support his ethical views, writing, "These 'dilemmas' have the useful character of eliminating from the situation just about every morally relevant relationship and reducing the problem to one of arithmetic alone." Scruton believes that many of them are deceptive; for example, he does not believe one must be a consequentialist to believe that it is morally required to pull the switch in the trolley problem, as Parfit assumes. He instead suggests that more complex dilemmas, such as Anna Karenina's choice to leave her husband and child for Vronsky, are needed to fully express the differences between opposing ethical theories, and suggests that deontology is free of the problems that face Parfit's utilitarian reasoning.
Parfit was singular in his meticulously rigorous and almost mathematical investigations into personal identity. In some cases, he used examples seemingly inspired by Star Trek and other science fiction, such as the teletransporter, to explore our intuitions about our identity. He was a reductionist, believing that since there is no adequate criterion of personal identity, people do not exist apart from their components. Parfit argued that reality can be fully described impersonally: there need not be a determinate answer to the question "Will I continue to exist?" We could know all the facts about a person's continued existence and not be able to say whether the person has survived. He concluded that we are mistaken in assuming that personal identity is what matters in survival; what matters is rather Relation R: psychological connectedness (namely, of memory and character) and continuity (overlapping chains of strong connectedness).
On Parfit's account, individuals are nothing more than brains and bodies, but identity cannot be reduced to either. (Parfit concedes that his theories rarely conflict with rival Reductionist theories in everyday life, and that the two are only brought to blows by the introduction of extraordinary examples, but he defends the use of such examples on the grounds that they arouse strong intuitions in many of us.) Identity is not as determinate as we often suppose it is, but instead such determinacy arises mainly from the way we talk. People exist in the same way that nations or clubs exist.
A key Parfitian question is: given the choice between surviving without psychological continuity and connectedness (Relation R) and dying but preserving R through someone else's future existence, which would you choose? Parfit argues the latter is preferable.
Parfit described his loss of belief in a separate self as liberating:
My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness... [However] 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. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.
Fellow reductionist Mark Johnston of Princeton rejects Parfit's constitutive notion of identity with what he calls an "Argument from Above".Johnston maintains, "Even if the lower-level facts [that make up identity] do not in themselves matter, the higher-level fact may matter. If it does, the lower-level facts will have derived significance. They will matter, not in themselves, but because they constitute the higher level fact."
In this, Johnston moves to preserve the significance of personhood. Parfit's explanation is that it is not personhood itself that matters, but rather the facts in which personhood consists that provide it with significance. To illustrate this difference between himself and Johnston, Parfit used an illustration of a brain-damaged patient who becomes irreversibly unconscious. The patient is certainly still alive even though that fact is separate from the fact that his heart is still beating and other organs are still functioning. But the fact that the patient is alive is not an independent or separately obtaining fact. The patient's being alive, even though irreversibly unconscious, simply consists in the other facts. Parfit explains that from this so-called "Argument from Below" we can arbitrate the value of the heart and other organs still working without having to assign them derived significance, as Johnston's perspective would dictate.
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In part four of Reasons and Persons, Parfit discusses possible futures for the world.Parfit discusses possible futures and population growth in Chapter 17 of Reasons and Persons. He shows that both average and total utilitarianism result in unwelcome conclusions when applied to population.
In the section titled "Overpopulation," Parfit distinguishes between average utilitarianism and total utilitarianism. He formulates average utilitarianism in two ways. One way is what Parfit calls the "Impersonal Average Principle", which he formulates as "If other things are equal, the best outcome is the one in which people's lives go, on average, best."The other formulation of average utilitarianism is what he calls the "Hedonistic version"; he formulates this version as "If other things are equal, the best outcome is the one in which there is the greatest average net sum of happiness, per life lived." Parfit then gives two formulations of the total utilitarianism view. The first formulation Parfit calls the "Hedonistic version of the Impersonal Total Principle": "If other things are equal, the best outcome is the one in which there would be the greatest quantity of happiness—the greatest net sum of happiness minus misery." Parfit then describes the other formulation, the "non-Hedonistic Impersonal Total Principle": "If other things are equal, the best outcome is the one in which there would be the greatest quantity of whatever makes life worth living."
Applying total utilitarian standards (absolute total happiness) to possible population growth and welfare leads to what he calls the repugnant conclusion: "For any possible population of at least ten billion people, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better, even though its members have lives that are barely worth living."Parfit illustrates this with a simple thought experiment: imagine a choice between two possible futures. In A, 10 billion people would live during the next generation, all with extremely happy lives, lives far happier than anyone's today. In B, there are 20 billion people all living lives that, while slightly less happy than those in A, are still very happy. Under total utility maximisation we should prefer B to A. Therefore, through a regressive process of population increases and happiness decreases (in each pair of cases the happiness decrease is outweighed by the population increase) we are forced to prefer Z, a world of hundreds of billions of people all living lives barely worth living, to A. Even if we do not hold that coming to exist can benefit someone, we still must at least admit that Z is no worse than A.
Parfit makes a similar argument against average utilitarian standards. If all we care about is average happiness, we are forced to conclude that an extremely small population, say ten people, over the course of human history is the best outcome if we assume that these ten people (Adam and Eve et al.) had lives happier than we could ever imagine.Then consider the case of American immigration. Presumably alien welfare is less than American, but the would-be alien benefits tremendously from leaving his homeland. Assume also that Americans benefit from immigration (at least in small amounts) because they get cheap labour, etc. Under immigration both groups are better off, but if this increase is offset by increase in the population, then average welfare is lower. Thus although everyone is better off, this is not the preferred outcome. Parfit asserts that this is simply absurd.
Parfit then discusses the identity of future generations. In Chapter 16 of Reasons and Persons he posits that one's existence is intimately related to the time and conditions of one's conception.Parfit calls this "The Time-Dependence Claim": "If any particular person had not been conceived when he was in fact conceived, it is in fact true that he would never have existed."
Study of weather patterns and other physical phenomena in the 20th century has shown that very minor changes in conditions at time T have drastic effects at all times after T. Compare this to the romantic involvement of future childbearing partners. Any actions taken today, at time T, will affect who exists after only a few generations. For instance, a significant change in global environmental policy would shift the conditions of the conception process so much that after 300 years none of the same people that would have been born are in fact born. Different couples meet each other and conceive at different times, and so different people come into existence. This is known as the 'non-identity problem'.
We could thus craft disastrous policies that would be worse for nobody, because none of the same people would exist under the different policies. If we consider the moral ramifications of potential policies in person-affecting terms, we will have no reason to prefer a sound policy over an unsound one provided that its effects are not felt for a few generations. This is the non-identity problem in its purest form: the identity of future generations is causally dependent, in a very sensitive way, on the actions of the present generations.
Consequentialism is the class of normative ethical theories holding that the consequences of one's conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness or wrongness of that conduct. Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right act is one that will produce a good outcome, or consequence.
Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct. The field of ethics, along with aesthetics, concerns matters of value, and thus comprises the branch of philosophy called axiology.
Normative ethics is the study of ethical action. It is the branch of philosophical ethics that investigates the set of questions that arise when considering how one ought to act, morally speaking.
Utilitarianism is a family of consequentialist ethical theories that promotes actions that maximize happiness and well-being for the majority of a population. Although different varieties of utilitarianism admit different characterizations, the basic idea behind all of them is to in some sense maximize utility, which is often defined in terms of well-being or related concepts. For instance, Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, described utility as
The mere addition paradox, also known as the repugnant conclusion, is a problem in ethics, identified by Derek Parfit and discussed in his book Reasons and Persons (1984). The paradox identifies the mutual incompatibility of four intuitively compelling assertions about the relative value of populations.
Bernard Gert was a moral philosopher known primarily for his work in normative ethics, as well as in medical ethics, especially pertaining to psychology.
John Stuart Mill's book Utilitarianism is a classic exposition and defence of utilitarianism in ethics. The essay first appeared as a series of three articles published in Fraser's Magazine in 1861; the articles were collected and reprinted as a single book in 1863. Mill's aim in the book is to explain what utilitarianism is, to show why it is the best theory of ethics, and to defend it against a wide range of criticisms and misunderstandings. Though heavily criticized both in Mill's lifetime and in the years since, Utilitarianism did a great deal to popularize utilitarian ethics and has been considered "the most influential philosophical articulation of a liberal humanistic morality that was produced in the nineteenth century."
Rational egoism is the principle that an action is rational if and only if it maximizes one's self-interest. The view is a normative form of egoism. It is distinct from psychological egoism and ethical egoism.
Rule utilitarianism is a form of utilitarianism that says an action is right as it conforms to a rule that leads to the greatest good, or that "the rightness or wrongness of a particular action is a function of the correctness of the rule of which it is an instance". Philosophers Richard Brandt and Brad Hooker are major proponents of such an approach.
Act utilitarianism is a utilitarian theory of ethics which states that a person's act is morally right if and only if it produces the best possible results in that specific situation. Classical utilitarians, including Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick, define happiness as pleasure and the absence of pain.
Two-level utilitarianism is a utilitarian theory of ethics developed by R. M. Hare. According to the theory, a person's moral decisions should be based on a set of 'intuitive' moral rules, except in certain rare situations where it is more appropriate to engage in a 'critical' level of moral reasoning.
Utilitarianism usually states that maximising the quality of conscious experience is important; indeed it is generally the basis of its consequentialist approach to ethics. However, Henry Sidgwick has asked, "Is it total or average happiness that we seek to make a maximum?"
Prioritarianism or the priority view is a view within ethics and political philosophy that holds that the goodness of an outcome is a function of overall well-being across all individuals with extra weight given to worse-off individuals. Prioritarianism resembles utilitarianism. Like utilitarianism, prioritarianism is a form of aggregative consequentialism; however, it differs in that it does not weight the well-being of all individuals equally, but instead prioritizes those individuals that are worse-off.
Brad Hooker is a British-American philosopher who specialises in moral philosophy. He is a Professor at the University of Reading and is best known for his work defending rule-consequentialism.
The Methods of Ethics is a book on ethics first published in 1874 by the English philosopher Henry Sidgwick. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy indicates that The Methods of Ethics "in many ways marked the culmination of the classical utilitarian tradition." Noted moral and political philosopher John Rawls, writing in the Forward to the Hackett reprint of the 7th edition, says Methods of Ethics "is the clearest and most accessible formulation of ... 'the classical utilitarian doctrine'". Contemporary utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer has said that the Methods "is simply the best book on ethics ever written."
Negative utilitarianism is a version of the ethical theory utilitarianism that gives greater priority to reducing suffering than to increasing happiness. This differs from classical utilitarianism, which does not claim that reducing suffering is intrinsically more important than increasing happiness. Both versions of utilitarianism hold that morally right and morally wrong actions depend solely on the consequences for overall well-being. 'Well-being' refers to the state of the individual. The term 'negative utilitarianism' is used by some authors to denote the theory that reducing negative well-being is the only thing that ultimately matters morally. Others distinguish between 'strong' and 'weak' versions of negative utilitarianism, where strong versions are only concerned with reducing negative well-being, and weak versions say that both positive and negative well-being matter but that negative well-being matters more.
Negative consequentialism is a version of the ethical theory consequentialism, which is "one of the major theories of normative ethics." Like other versions of consequentialism, negative consequentialism holds that moral right and wrong depend only on the value of outcomes. That is, for negative and other versions of consequentialism, questions such as "what should I do?" and "what kind of person should I be?" are answered only based on consequences. Negative consequentialism differs from other versions of consequentialism by giving greater weight in moral deliberations to what is bad than what is good.
Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek is a Polish utilitarian philosopher and an assistant professor at the Institute of Philosophy at University of Łódź.
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