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?

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).