Markets and the Good   /   Fall 2023   /    Book Reviews

Nothing Personal

How ideas made Derek Parfit.

Paul Nedelisky

Portrait of Derek Parfit by Gail Campbell; courtesy of the artist.

In 2007, the American philosopher Susan Hurley was dying of cancer. Twenty years earlier, she had been the first female fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. While there, she had been romantically involved with her philosopher colleague Derek Parfit. The romance faded but had turned into a deep friendship. Now, aware of her terminal illness, Hurley journeyed back to Oxford to say goodbye. Hurley and a mutual friend, Bill Ewald, asked Parfit to go to dinner with them. Parfit—by then an esteemed ethicist—refused to join them, protesting that he was too busy with his book manuscript, which concerned “what matters.” Saddened but undeterred, Hurley and Ewald stopped by Parfit’s rooms after dinner so that Hurley could still make her goodbye. Shockingly, Parfit showed them the door, again insisting that he could not spare the time. In truth, he was under no imminent or unalterable deadline. And even if he were, what is a few hours’ tardiness on a deadline compared to a final parting with an old friend? Was this man Parfit some kind of sociopath? Was this perhaps one of those rare but nevertheless possible momentary lapses of moral judgment? Or was he simply a wicked man?

David Edmonds’s intriguing new biography of Parfit suggests that the answer to all of these questions must be “No.” As Edmonds recounts, the Susan Hurley episode was not atypical for Parfit. His adult life was replete with instances of actively ignoring obligations to friends and family—and to many others besides—for the sake of his philosophical writing. As his partner of thirty years and eventual wife, Janet Radcliffe Richards, put it after his death, “I can’t think of anything we did together that wasn’t what he wanted to do.” On the other hand, he would sometimes publicly weep at the thought of those who had lost their lives in the world wars or of unfinished Bach compositions. He routinely gave selflessly voluminous feedback on students’ and colleagues’ manuscripts, and former advisees claimed that working with him was akin to a religious experience.

What, then, to make of Parfit, the immoral moral philosopher?

Edmonds, a philosopher himself and author of the renowned Wittgenstein’s Poker, hazards the hypothesis that Parfit’s callous behavior toward those close to him was the result of a sort of wager. Parfit came to believe that his philosophical work was deeply important and that anything that took him away from this work must be studiously avoided. Hence, he ate the same food and wore the same clothes every day. He avoided social engagements and nonphilosophical conversation. If he could make a significant and salutary impact on the intellectual landscape, then his resolute spurning of those close to him would be worth it. In light of his philosophical achievements, Edmonds judges that Parfit’s “gamble paid off.” But I would like to examine Parfit’s legacy from a different vantage point, one that leads to a different verdict.

As Edmonds relates, Parfit was born to British Christian missionaries in Chengdu, China, in 1942. Shortly after his birth, however, his parents began trading their religion for a progressive meliorism, and when they were evacuated during the closing years of World War II, they were home for good. Then a young boy, Parfit was initially traumatized by his parents’ apostasy, but he soon followed suit. Parfit’s next ten years were marked by a meteoric academic ascent: from the elite Dragon School to Eton College to the University of Oxford, buoyed by numerous scholarships and prizes. At Oxford, Parfit took a BA in modern history, then spent time in the United States on a Harkness Fellowship, during which he began studying philosophy in earnest at Columbia and Harvard. In 1967, despite having only just begun studying philosophy, he was awarded a Prize Fellowship at All Souls College, which would fund him for seven years. There he began work on a BPhil in philosophy—a degree he would never complete. Parfit would join Saul Kripke on the very short list of analytic philosophers so talented that formal degrees in philosophy were deemed unnecessary. (Kripke became a professor of philosophy at Princeton with only a bachelor’s degree in mathematics.)

Parfit embedded himself in the lively philosophical work of the All Souls community—and further afield. He devoted a tremendous amount of time and effort to discussing and commenting on the many manuscripts circulating among these philosophers, a group that reads like a “Who’s Who” of the preeminent ethicists of the time. Parfit, too, received from these philosophers a great deal of written feedback on his own manuscripts. However, across his entire career, he struggled to move his manuscripts to publication, not because there was no interest from journals and academic presses—far from it—but rather because his perfectionism stood in the way. Ultimately, he was induced to publish just two books: Reasons and Persons (1984), because doing so was his only hope of securing a permanent fellowship at All Souls, and the multivolume On What Matters (2010), because he saw it as immensely important to the status of morality itself and wanted to ensure its appearance prior to his death. (He would beat this deadline by seven years.)

In each case, the appearance of a book from Parfit was a significant event. Reasons and Persons became one of Oxford University Press’s all-time best-selling titles and is probably among the top twenty or so most-cited works in analytic philosophy in the last seventy-five years. But the influence of the book runs deeper than such quantitative indicators. Arguing by way of subtle, precisely defined hypothetical scenarios, Parfit presented novel arguments that reoriented the diverse fields of population ethics, the metaphysics of personal identity, and temporal biases. When I was a graduate student studying metaphysics—twenty-five years after Reasons and Persons came out—much of the conversation still turned on arguments and distinctions Parfit had introduced in that book. By contrast, On What Matters is seen by advocates as an able if unremarkable defense of the objectivity of ethics, and its secondary thesis—that much ethical disagreement can be overcome because major branches of normative ethics can be unified—has impressed few critics.

Parfit’s innovative arguments in Reasons and Persons have established his philosophical legacy, but I believe they also hold a clue to his morally confusing behavior. The book runs about 500 pages and presents an eclectic variety of arguments, many of them destructive in intent. Parfit seeks to undermine—among other things—the preeminence of special duties to those close to us, the rational basis for the fear of death, the existence of the soul, that each person is a separate individual, that people exist independently of social conventions, and that people deserve praise or blame for their actions. Parfit offers replacements for all of these, and the resulting picture goes far beyond ethics and metaphysics into the territory of what we might call secular eschatology.

On Parfit’s rather Humean anthropology, people aren’t a fundamental part of reality, but instead are collections of particular thoughts or experiences. These collections are grouped by degree of psychological similarity. As a result, there is no firm line where one person ends and another begins, and thus there is no firm line where one’s life ends—where one is considered dead. This indistinct threshold made death seem less terrifying to Parfit, and, indeed, he was self-aware in his therapeutic approach to metaphysics, claiming, Edmonds says, that “everything he had ever written was motivated by fear of death.”

People, then, aren’t the solid, primary entities we may have assumed; thoughts and experiences are more basic. This conclusion dovetails nicely with Parfit’s utilitarian inclination to give greater weight in philosophical evaluation to overall happier states of affairs and less weight to our duties to specific other people. Parfit spends several dozen pages in Reasons and Persons arguing against what he calls “Common-sense Morality,” the traditional ethical stance characterized by these sorts of person-specific duties. The arguments all turn on the point that there are cases in which it is possible that the people to whom we owe special duties—say, our children—would be materially better off or happier if we (and enough other people) ignored our duties and instead acted in ways that impersonally benefited the larger community. Never mind that it would usually be all but impossible to know whether enough others had opted in to such a scheme, let alone precisely how many would need to opt in, even in the abstract, for the scheme to succeed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Parfit showed little concern about rejecting millennia-old and deeply felt moral codes in favor of recondite technical arguments grounded in culturally alternative if not alien values.

Parfit’s values were culturally alien at the time, but, in large part due to his influence, they are increasingly less so. One of his consistent claims was that spatial proximity should not matter in ethics: Whether people are next door or in Beijing, their happiness is equally important. This is the core intuition behind his work to undermine Common-sense Morality, with its special duties to family, friends, neighbors, and compatriots. Parfit extended the logic of this position to temporal proximity as well: Whether people live now or in a million years, their happiness is equally important.

These views may very well have remained insulated in academic discussions but for enterprising philosopher-activists such as Peter Singer and William MacAskill who have taken them to the masses. Many of us have now heard of the Effective Altruism movement, if only because of the scandalous downfall of Sam Bankman-Fried, a financial technology entrepreneur, cryptocurrency promoter, and, until his arrest in late 2022 on various charges of fraud, one of the movement’s most prominent (and wealthy) supporters. Effective Altruism counsels people to dedicate their lives to making as much money as they can in order to maximally contribute to the causes that maximize happiness, regardless of spatial or temporal proximity. Following the logic of Parfit’s antiproximity arguments, these causes are predominantly of a certain type: low-probability, distant future events which—if they were to occur—would affect many millions of lives. For example, the movement has recently focused on preventing an “Artificial General Intelligence” that would turn against human beings and threaten to exterminate them. Motivated by Parfitian “moral mathematics,” Effective Altruists on this wavelength believe that the most ethical thing we can do is spend our resources avoiding what theorist Amia Srinivasan has called a “robot apocalypse.”

If you look carefully at Parfit’s reasoning in Reasons and Persons, a common theme emerges: The general approach to moral life that has been taken for granted by most in the West (and, really, the world) is profoundly mistaken. Put simply, the mistake is that this approach has been too personal—too concerned with duties to those who are close to us, too preoccupied with the distinctness of individual people, too hung up on people having souls that unite our experiences, too concerned with who deserves what. Instead, as Parfit sums up at the end of the book, “Our reasons for acting should become more impersonal.”

And that, I believe, is the clue to understanding Parfit’s life.

Reading Edmonds’s biography, one naturally surmises that the reason Parfit’s philosophical work was insensitive to obligations to kith and kin was that he himself was insensitive in this way. His philosophy reflects his antisocial behavior. Indeed, Parfit’s friends sometimes suggested that he may have had an autism spectrum disorder. However, as Edmonds notes, ASD is not something you develop later in life. And those who knew Parfit in his youth deny that he had any such condition at that time. His unfeeling alienation of friends and family seemed instead to grow with time—and after he had begun to deeply explore the moral cosmology he would eventually introduce in Reasons and Persons. This should make us wonder if the causation here is not the other way around: The reason Parfit came to behave more impersonally toward those close to him was that he spent decades meditating on and arguing for the idea that we should behave more impersonally toward those close to us. His antisocial behavior reflected his philosophy. You might say he lived down to his principles.

Ordinarily, I believe that the order of influence is from character to ideas. But surely, what we think can affect how we act. Especially when, as in Parfit’s case, an intellectual project persists for decades and grows from fascination into monomania.

After years of exasperation working closely with the demanding and perfectionistic Parfit on the production of his first book, one of the copyeditors at Oxford University Press said, “The book’s called Reasons and Persons but he had no idea about other persons.” Given Parfit’s arguments in his book, this irony should come as no surprise.