He will be sorely missed. He was scheduled to give a talk to undergraduates there in the evening. With Derek’s passing, I write to add my voice to those celebrating his life, his work, and his impact on others. 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. This is all there is to the fact that there will be no one living who will be me. For example, lets say Donald Trump gets Covid-19. So if it is rational for me to care not only about myself-right-now but also varyingly attenuated degrees of psychological continuity with it, then the same reasoning compels me to extend my arena of caring. So the paper may not yet add enough that’s new.” Of course, he was right. He is widely considered one of the most important and influential moral philosophers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. I sat there in a kind of stunned silence throughout, said thank you (I think! I’ve since published probably 20 articles that are either directly on or draw heavily from Parfit’s work. We have lost a legend in ethics. He said that dying became increasingly unregrettable as his selves successively vanished. 10 thoughts on “ Derek Parfit, Personal Identity, and Death ” J Miller says: March 4, 2019 at 7:55 am Nature designed us to survive using fear of death as a main method. With Derek’s passing, I write to add my voice to those celebrating his life, his work, and his impact on others. Derek Parfit (1942-2017) was the greatest living moral philosopher. He spotted a ... my death seems to me less bad.” Derek Parfit, philosopher, was born on December 11, 1942. I was amazed that it was at all on his radar whether I would attend. He had what Hutcheson called “calm extensive benevolence.” I first met Derek in 1972. I am often left confused, depressed. 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. But Parfit’s greatest impact on me came from his contagious optimism. But, to my great surprise, the journal passed along three single-spaced typed pages of comments signed by Derek Parfit. This kind of change will influence only my “qualitative identity”, which does not imply my death. 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. We welcome all such stories and remembrances below. And, as I have said, I care less about my death. Derek Parfit (11 December 1942 – 1 January 2017) was a British philosopher who specialised in problems of personal identity, rationality, ethics, and the … Invoking this and other ingenious thought experiments, the philosopher Derek Parfit, who has died aged 74, transformed the centuries-old question of personal identity – what makes some future person me? The “right kind of cause” mentioned in sentence (3) could be any cause. … Can this matter all that much?” (R&P, 281-82). He was educated at Eton, and won the top history scholarship of his year to read history at Balliol College, Oxford (1961-64). If we squander energy, for instance, the people who suffer the effects of climate change will be different people from those who would have existed had we properly conserved it, since, thanks to our actions, quite other couplings and conceptions will have occurred. I wouldn’t have done anything like what I do without his influence. 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. This article was amended on 17 January 2017. When I review the arguments for this belief, and reconvince myself, this for a while stuns my natural concern for the future…. I had the opportunity to take an undergraduate level seminar with Derek in the spring of 2011. Terrified of wasting time, even on choosing what to eat or wear, he always had identical types of meal and kept duplicate sets of clothes, and he more often ran than walked. 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 must have made it back to his hotel around midnight that night. He met Janet in 1982, and they married in 2010. 390–1). If you believe (1) and (2) then the only rational reason to choose to increase one's likelihood of death is if you believe that by not dying your life would go worse (e.g. On What Matters, by Derek Parfit On What Matters, by . At this point I think we had not yet met. Perhaps, Parfit argued, we should ditch the intuition that morality is essentially concerned with how our individual acts harm or benefit particular individuals. I was spending the 1982-83 year as a visiting graduate student at University College. I shall describe a problem case. By thinning out the connection between my present and future selves, Parfit hoped to reciprocally fatten up the connection between me and (at least some) other people. At one Tibetan monastery, monks intersperse chanting the usual sutras with intoning memorised passages from Reasons and Persons. 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. The first two Saturday sessions stole the show though. All who knew Derek knew that in addition to being a brilliant philosopher, he was also extraordinarily kind. But if, argued Parfit, I can have reason to take care of my future self (by not drinking copious whisky, say, even if to do so is my greatest immediate desire), then I can also have reason to take care of other people, even if I now feel strongly disinclined to. And he was financially generous, too, a member of the effective altruism movement, which enjoins everyone to give 10% of their income to charity. If there’s a single idea with which Parfit is most strongly identified, it’s the view that personal identity — who you are, specifically, as a person — doesn’t matter. In most civilizations, most people have believed in the existence of a God, or of several gods. Philosophers are divided as to how successful he was in either task, but a huge literature on the book anticipated its publication, and volume 2 contains objections by four eminent philosophers, with Parfit’s rejoinders. Derek Parfit supervised my doctoral dissertation at Oxford, which I finished in 2006, and we kept in loose touch since then (I wish, of course, in retrospect, that it had been less loose). He also reframed the agenda in moral philosophy, He met Janet in 1982, and they married in 2010. I wrote my dissertation on Part 3 of R&P. Whenever he had something critical to say, he would try hard to make sure I didn’t give it too much weight: he would say things like, “I might think that’s crazy, but most of the philosophers whose work I respect the most are on your side!” He said things of this sort all the time. Cosmic possibilities cover everything that ever exists, and are the different ways that the whole of reality might be. 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. In 2014 he received philosophy’s equivalent of a Nobel prize, the Rolf Schock prize in logic and philosophy. Derek Parfit was a brilliant man. Derek’s fierce dedication in those sessions to getting to the bottom of things made a lasting impression on me. The problem is that it is basically only accessible for those who are already experienced with ethics, and particularly the dense work of many of his predecessors, particularly Henry Sidgwick, to whom Parfit is often compared on the dust jacket. And I have seen him, after a talk, pay as absorbed and patient attention to the somewhat inchoate ideas of an undergraduate as he would to those of a philosophical big shot. They chime with Buddhism, however. 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. 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. Parfit Derek. Let me tell one story about my time there. Like others here, his influence on my thinking — both methodologically and substantively — was profound. 80, No.1 (Jan., 1971), pp. Farewell, then. Friends visiting St Petersburg and Venice would find fewer gas lamps, more telegraph poles and people, higher steeples and narrower squares than Parfit’s photos had led them to expect. 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. 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. Parfit was not only among the most brilliant philosophers I’ve ever met, but also one of the kindest. FROM STEPHEN DARWALL, POSTED HERE WITH PERMISSION. I first met Derek as a graduate student in Oxford in 1982. We might say, "I do survive Wiggins' operation as two people. This is a classical article in the 20th century analytical thought in philosophy. Philosopher whose books inspired his academic peers all over the world, Last modified on Tue 28 Nov 2017 07.40 GMT. 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. I wish I’d known Derek better than I did – I liked him enormously, and recognize him so immediately in the many comments posted here. By the same sort of “moral mathematics”, it is clear that many “harmless torturers”, each of whom inflicts minute amounts of suffering, will jointly cause a lot. I will always be grateful to have spent this time with him. – by subtly sabotaging and resetting it. 5 minutes later a third call came. We cannot yet predict whether […] we will all reach agreement. The age-old self-interest theory, Parfit argued, is anyway problematic: if each person does what is best for themselves, often the outcome is worse for everyone than it would have been had they all acted altruistically. Later it will be shown, why Parfit includes requirements (3) and (4) on ΦK as well as (4) and (5) on the ΨK, the specification of (3) is necessary to cover Parfit’s imaginary examples. Within a year of taking up the subject, and without even a degree, let alone a doctorate, in it, he had acquired an international reputation, and his first paper (Philosophical Review, 1971) became famous instantly. We continued our discussions about the normative significance of reductionism about personal identity and prioritarianism inside and outside of seminar. 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 had the honor of meeting Parfit once at the University of Vermont. It was an amazing lineup. Although treating personal identity as a separate issue, he nicely enmeshed it in ethics. But Parfit was kind enough to give me detailed feedback on every aspect of the paper. This argument, made in the 1971 paper “Personal Identity” and in the third section of Reasons and Persons, is A highly specialised photograph shop, and, later, computers, enabled him to create meticulously modified, bespoke photos. In Derek Parfit’s original formulation the Repugnant Conclusion is stated as follows: “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 1984). if you expect to be tortured and then killed in the near future). Parfit himself also somehow seemed to live his theories, helped by perhaps having – as his wife, the philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards, said – Asperger syndrome. And in the afternoon, Parfit gave the first version of his anti-Rawlsian argument that if personal identity is not a “further fact” then neither is the “separateness of persons” that Rawls had famously pointed to as the Kantian insight favoring deontology over consequentialism. After my death, there will [be] no one living who will be me. (Volume 3 is soon to be published, but volume 4 remains unfinished.). We had long discussions in which his interest never seemed to flag, and we exchanged detailed commentaries on each other’s work in progress, from which I benefited enormously. “When I believed the Non-Reductionist View, I also cared more about my inevitable death. The persistence question, the question of what personal identity over time consists in, is literally a question of life and death: answers to it determine, insofar as that is possible, the conditions under which we survive, or cease to exist in the course of, certain adventures. "7 This is a possible way of giving sense to the claim that 1 survive as … 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. Working in ethics is a trying endeavor. […] I believe the opposite. But Derek was the most generous and engaged philosophical interlocutor one could possibly hope for. When, at the end of the seminar, I told him I was honored that he was able to remember my name, he told me that it never mattered to him whether anyone remembered his name, since names were the simplest and least significant facts about a person. He was completely indifferent to where you were employed, or even whether you were employed, in philosophy. Since we cannot know how Ethics will develop, it is not irrational to have high hopes.”. In Reasons and Persons, Derek Parfit famously argues that discussions of survival turn on Relation R, which is psychological connectedness and continuity with any cause (Parfit 1984). 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). The family moved to Oxford a year after Derek’s birth. I met Derek several times, but only talked with him at length once, in his house in Oxford, in the company of Jeff McMahan. Self-interest is partial as regards persons (me), but impartial as regards time (it forces me to consider the long-term effects of present pleasures). But their lives will be worse. I had just gone to UNC as a beginning assistant professor, and Parfit was on the program of the Chapel Hill Colloquium that October. Because this event is so recent, Non-Religious Ethics is at a very early stage. 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. I may believe that, after my marriage, I shall not be the same person, but this does not make marriage death”. 5 minutes later I got a second call from him saying that likely it would be best if I did not come. 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. These are of course the words of Derek Parfit, in Reasons and Persons. 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. 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 … 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 said he thought my presence would prove useful and hoped I would come. I am merely happier knowing that has occurred. The Philosophical Review, Vol. (He needn’t have worried, of course – his comments on my work were always incredibly careful and helpful.) He was truly one of the greatest teachers I ever had. He paid no mind to the social hierarchy in philosophy even though he was at the top. When we ima- gine ourselves in a problem case, we do feel that the question "Would it be me?" Even in his one recreation, architectural photography, he was ruthlessly perfectionist. Introducing The Pebble and Call for Public Philosophy, CfA: Variety of Moral Address: Agency, Authority, and Responsibility, Philosophers’ Argument Check: In this episode Socrates vs. Giuliani, CFP: 9th Annual Workshop for Oxford Studies in Political Philosophy, Northeast Normativity Workshop, Zoom conference Oct 16-17. He had no apparent ego and was the least status-conscious person I know. Nature does not care if that causes us emotional pain. 3 E. g. a wooden ship whose components are exchanged from time to time (203 ). 1, pp. Surely, then, we should be guided by a more impartial principle requiring us to do what will produce the most wellbeing. I say that there is nothing wrong with simply wanting that person to die of some disease, say Covid-19. They can be different people, and yet be me, in just the way in which the Pope's three crowns are one crown. "Very few works in the subject can compare with Parfit's in scope, fertility, imaginative resource, and cogency of reasoning."--P.F. After graduating, he held a Harkness fellowship for two years at Columbia and Harvard universities, then, in 1967, gained a prize fellowship to All Souls, where he changed from history to philosophy. 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. He always assumed you had something better to do with your time than read his work. 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. 3-27. I agree with much of what Parfit says, but there is one implication that I cannot accept: his … Is that replica you? Strawson, The New York Review of Books. Parfit: “When we are concerned about our future, it is our numerical identity that we are concerned about. I was spending the 1982-83 year as a visiting graduate student at University College. What a Sad Loss: Derek Parfit (1942-2017) | Why Darwin Matters, The Aesthetic Ingredients of Holiday Romance. It gave me the confidence to continue despite the long road of rejections that awaited me. Derek Parfit, Renowned Philosopher of Ethics, Mind and Metaphysics, Dies at 74 - New York City, NY - "I became a philosopher so that I would have more time to think about what matters," he wrote. When this happens I find myself flipping to the end of Reasons & Persons, where Parfit writes: “Some people believe that there cannot be progress in Ethics, since everything has been already said. I had defended the principle, but Derek was a sceptic. The name of the effective altruism movement was corrected. Today, in losing such a great mind, my hopes were lowered considerably. I have always thought that even if Derek was right about personal identity on metaphysical grounds, his own personality, so distinctive and enduring, might stand as evidence that something sufficiently similar might hold for practical purposes. A reader asked me to clarify a distinction, that was made in a previous post, between a local and a cosmic possibility in the philosophy of Derek Parfit.Here are Parfit’s exacts words on the distinction: “ It will help to distinguish two kinds of possibility. It is often rational to act against our own best interests, he argues, and most of … 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. […] Belief in God, or in many gods, prevented the free development of moral reasoning. This is due fundamentally to the fact that Parfit’s capaciousness is filled with interesting substantial thought. We can start with future people. ... “Religious beliefs cause at least as … I can now redescribe this fact. Parfit was a great philosopher, and derived a mildly unfair advantage from looking more than a bit like Peter O’Toole. Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons is considered a must read in contemporary ethics. Chapters 10 and 11 of Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Person’s is quite capacious.This is to such an ext e nt that, in talking about these sections, it is quite difficult to compartmentalize exactly what one ought to talk about. 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. I was of course already eagerly planning to go, I was hard at work writing on his book at this point, and told him I would be delighted to attend. I have not actually caused the death. Let's say a person dying will indirectly cause me to be happier. He got up early the next day to do the same thing over again. 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. The program included Rawls, Scanlon, Lewis, Perry, Sellars, Goldman, Marcus, and Stalnaker, among others. ), and hung up the phone in a daze. Before the recent past, very few. We talked for about 7 hours without a break. 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. This is a significant departure from the position he defended in Reasons and Persons, that personal identity consists in non-branching psychological continuity and connectedness with any cause: Our identity… Challenging, with several powerful arguments, some of our deepest beliefs about rationality, morality, and personal identity, Parfit claims that we have a false view about our own nature. He died on January 1, 2017, aged 74 DEREK PARFIT I cannot see how to disprove this first belief. Now that the views of John Locke and Derek Parfit have been examined, let us see how these views of Western philosophers might be applied to traditional Buddhist views of non-self (anātman). He helped to dislodge the view – so troublesome for morality, but so entrenched in philosophy, economics and common sense – that the rational action is necessarily the one that best serves my self-interest. In Michaelmas term he lectured on the material on personal identity and its normative significance that would be part III of Reasons and Persons. How many people have made Non-Religious Ethics their life’s work? His work is, of course, a paradigm of abstract analytical thinking, but also full of humor and small spot-on human observations. Introduction. He did so not out of courtesy or generosity, but because he quite evidently thought it just as likely that he would learn something important from the undergrad as from the big shot. Thinking hard about these arguments removes the glass wall between me and others. 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. Compared with the other sciences, Non-Religious Ethics is the youngest and the least advanced. The world would be much better if more people were like him. I’m forever grateful to have had this as my first rejection. 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. 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. Another moral philosopher, his friend Bernard Williams, said that their plausibility relied on the external, third-person way in which they were presented. My death will break the more direct relations between my present experiences and future experiences, but it will not break various other relations. Upcoming Philosophy and Public Affairs Discussion, December 7-8. Derek Parfit Do possible people have rights and interests? I will never forget it. A senior research fellow of All Souls College, Oxford (1984-2010), Parfit was a visiting professor at Harvard, Rutgers and New York University, and elected a fellow of the British Academy (1986). I will always consider myself lucky to have experienced Derek’s incandescent philosophical personality and benefited from his philosophical generosity. He didn’t seem to be engaging with anyone out of politeness either, but rather genuine philosophical interest. That his death is a serious loss to moral philosophy goes without saying. It is physically and psychologically indistinguishable from what you were – yet suppose several such replicas are made? And his comments helped me tremendously to revise the paper, which was eventually published in Ratio under the title “Does the Total Principle Have Any Repugnant Implications?” Also, just a few years ago Parfit wrote me a nice note, saying that he had started to work on the non-identity problem again and that he had really enjoyed reading my paper in Ratio. Then I called all my friends and interrupted their Sunday nights with the news. Janet Radcliffe Richards, his wife, said the cause had not been determined. Parfit himself also somehow seemed to live his theories, helped by perhaps having – as his wife, the philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards, said – Asperger syndrome. She survives him, as does his sister Theodora. He was born in Chengdu, western China, where his parents, Jessie (nee Browne) and Norman Parfit practised preventive medicine in Christian missionary hospitals. Disbelief in God, openly admitted by a majority, is a very recent event, not yet completed. 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 74. 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. He arrived at the university early in the morning and hung out in an office/lounge area, discussing philosophy with everyone who wanted to talk to him right up until he had to give his own talk. When we see ourselves as less separate, ethics becomes more impersonal. We talked about a piece that he was working on to do with the principle against using people. Parfit, who died last night, was, in the estimation of many us, perhaps the greatest moral philosopher in our midst. It was, of course, rejected. 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. Derek Parfit was terrified of wasting time, even on choosing what to eat or wear, and always had identical types of meal, and kept duplicate sets of clothes. But the kind of responsibility we have towards people who are distant in time is not clear. 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. “When I believed that my existence was [a] further fact, I seemed imprisoned in myself. The material and the discussion were incredibly stimulating, and Derek made last minute changes to the book as a result. Others will have tales of his generosity, kindness, and gentleness. We might suggest that one cause of the belief is the projection of our emotions. Another approach might be this. 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. He was infatigable! !” 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. Suppose that the testing of a nuclear weapon would, through radiation, cause a number of deformities in the Derek Parfit. He died yesterday. Both Rick and Derek gone within a few days of each other. The new year brings the terribly sad news that Derek Parfit has died. But, of course, it wasn’t really the same paper at all, as I had to totally rewrite it after Parfit’s helpful comments. 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Whatever they pretended me came from his contagious optimism presence was especially impressive on Friday evening I there. The show though of rejections that awaited me people who are distant time. I do survive Wiggins ' operation as two people I sat there in a problem case, do... Kind enough to give me detailed feedback on every aspect of the kindest came from his philosophical generosity are! 3 of R & P least as … Derek Parfit has died and gentleness prize. Interruption, I also cared more about my death, Sellars, Goldman, Marcus, and tagged! Started as follows: “ I found the paper time than read work...
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