Derek Parfit is a philosopher whose writing on personal identity, the nature of reasons and the objectivity of morality re-established ethics as a central concern for contemporary thinkers and set the terms for philosophic inquiry
Parfit, who was associated with All Souls College at Oxford for his entire career, rose to pre-eminence with the publication of his first essay, “Personal Identity."
He developed a theory of identity that downgraded the notion, and the importance, of an irreducible self — the “deep further fact,” as he called it” — in terms not dissimilar to Buddhism.
Parfit argues that we continue to exist over time by virtue of certain relations among mental states at different times, such as the relation between an experience and the memory of it, or the formation of a desire and the satisfaction of it.
“It was a revolutionary essay, and it made him a philosophic celebrity instantly,” Jeff McMahan, a professor of moral philosophy at Oxford and one of Parfit’s students, said.
“Reasons and Persons" was greeted as the most important work of moral philosophy since Henry Sidgwick’s “The Method of Ethics."
In it, Parfit elaborates his ideas on identity and explored issues in moral choice that reanimated the field of ethics, which had descended into abstruse technical analyses of moral terms like “ought,” “good” and “right.”
“A whole generation of moral philosophers was inspired by the questions it asked, the way it asked them and the methods it employed to answer them,” Mark Schroeder, of Los Angeles, wrote in Notre Dame Philosophical Review.
"On What Matters" deals with the theory of reasons and morality, arguing for the existence of objective truth in ethics.
In one grand flourish, which he called the triple theory, Parfit tries to reconcile three competing theories of morality — one based on the idea of a hypothetical contract, another based entirely on the consequences of action and yet another based on Kant’s conception of duty.
Philosophers of all three schools, he argued, were actually “climbing different sides of the same mountain.”
The essay includes articles by other leading philosophers criticizing Parfit’s ideas, along with his replies to them.
It was a format that echoed a good part of Parfit’s professional activity.
He was renowned as a commentator, offering extensive, detailed critiques of work sent to him in manuscript.
In the introduction to his essay “The Rejection of Consequentialism: A Philosophical Investigation of the Considerations Underlying Rival Moral Conceptions,” Samuel Scheffler wrote that Parfit’s notes on the work in progress were longer than the book itself.
“With no other philosopher have I had such a clear sense of someone who had already thought of every objection I could make, of the best replies to them, of further objections that I might then make, and of replies to them too,” the philosopher Peter Singer wrote recently on the Daily Nous.
Derek Antony Parfit was born in Chengdu, China.
His father, Norman, and his mother, the former Jessie Browne, were doctors teaching preventive medicine at Christian missions.
They returned to England when Derek was still an infant and settled in Oxford, where Derek attended the Dragon.
After graduating from Eton, he spent a year in New York visiting his older sister, Theodora, and working briefly as a researcher at The New Yorker.
He enrolled in Balliol College and earned a degree in modern history.
While on a Harkness Fellowship at Harvard and Columbia after graduation, he began attending lectures on philosophy and changed course.
“What interests me the most are those metaphysical questions whose answers seem to be relevant — or to make a difference — to what we have reason to care about and to do, and to our moral beliefs,” Parfit told the journal Cogito.
He was elected to a prize fellowship at All Souls, and became a senior research fellow.
For years he was a visiting lecturer at Harvard, Rutgers and New York University.
He was awarded the Rolf Schock Prize by the Royal Swedish Academy, philosophy’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
He published seldom, but to great effect.
His two major works were compendious and staggeringly ambitious.
“Reasons and Persons” was four essays in one.
The first part dealt with morality and rationality, the second part with a theory of individual rationality rejecting the idea that self-interest requires people to be equally concerned about all parts of their future.
In Part 3, Parfit expanded his ideas about personal identity.
Part 4, devoted to moral thinking about future generations and the morality of bringing other humans into existence, offered a number of paradoxes and puzzles challenging traditional moral thinking.
In so doing he opened up a new field of inquiry, population ethics.
“On What Matters,” much of it based on the Tanner Lectures he delivered at the University of California, Berkeley, was similarly wide ranging, with multiple sections, each worthy of its own book, and concluding with a magisterial monograph on meta-ethics.
Oxford University Press plans to publish a third volume of “On What Matters.”
It consists in part of responses to criticism of his work by leading philosophers, which will appear in a companion volume, edited by Singer, titled “Does Anything Really Matter?”
On Daily Nous, Singer offered a snippet from Mr. Parfit’s new work:
“Life can be wonderful as well as terrible, and we shall increasingly have the power to make life good. Since human history may be only just beginning, we can expect that future humans, or supra-humans, may achieve some great goods that we cannot now even imagine.
“In Nietzsche’s words, there has never been such a new dawn and clear horizon, and such an open sea.”