Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality

From The Wall Street Journal:

Chances are, unless you’re a philosopher, you’ve never heard of Derek Parfit. A philosopher’s philosopher, he spent most of his career far from the madding crowd in the cloisters of All Souls College, Oxford, determined to demonstrate that there was an objective basis for secular morality rooted in rational foundations. He produced just two books—“Reasons and Persons” (1984) and the multi-volume “On What Matters” (2011, 2017)—but, as David Edmonds makes clear in his wonderful biography, “Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality,” they were outsize in both length and influence.

Mr. Edmonds, co-author (with John Eidinow) of “Wittgenstein’s Poker” (2001), one of my all-time favorite books of philosophy for non-academics, is ideally suited to write about Parfit. His Oxford BPhil and PhD dissertations in the late 1980s and early ’90s—both on ethical issues—were supervised, respectively, by Parfit and his longtime partner (and eventual wife), Janet Radcliffe Richards.

As in “Wittgenstein’s Poker,” Mr. Edmonds exhibits an impressive ability to explain complex philosophical arguments to the lay reader. He takes us into the nitty-gritty of Parfit’s reasoning, breakthroughs and responses to critics. He also locates Parfit in the context of his predecessors and contemporaries in the philosophical pantheon.

Most of this exegesis is remarkably accessible, though my mind balked at Mr. Edmonds’s three-point summary of Parfit’s conclusions and knotty ethical conundrums such as the Asymmetry Problem, the Non-Identity Problem and the wonderfully named Repugnant Conclusion. Offering more than a thinker’s life and career, “Parfit” is a crash course in the evolution of moral philosophy, and the best account I have read of what “doing philosophy” entails.

For Parfit, this entailed devising ingenious scenarios to tease out the ramifications of his ideas—about subjects ranging from the continuity of personal identity and our moral duties to future persons to questions about ideal population size and the intrinsic value of principles like equality. Many of his ideas involved issues concerning Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative and Henry Sidgwick’s utilitarianism. He addressed these via thought experiments that were often variants of the famous Trolley Problem, which involved “individuals endangered in unfortunate circumstances, where there is the option to help, but at the cost of harming others.” In one, you could use a lifeboat to save either a single person stuck on a rock threatened by rising tide, or five people on a second rock. In another, the only way to divert a train from a track that will kill five people is to activate a trap door which will cause a person standing on a bridge above to fall to his death in front of the train. In both cases, Parfit shows how different principles all indicate that choosing to save the five rather than the one is the preferable option.

. . . .

Parfit supplemented his All Souls income (for which he was not required to teach) and broadened his reach with regular half-term stints at American universities, mainly Harvard, NYU and Rutgers. But he was a perfectionist whose name has apt roots in the French parfait, or “perfect,” and he suffered from what Mr. Edmonds calls “chronic publishing constipation.” He tested and retested his theories, circulating draft after draft among dozens of fellow philosophers and graduate students. Spurred by a publish-or-perish ultimatum from All Souls, he became maniacally focused on completing “Reasons and Persons” in the early ’80s, causing him to further cut all social activity, prepare instant coffee with tap water to save time, and read even while brushing his teeth.

Such personal details—and splashes of humor—provide plenty of relief from the book’s abstruse material. Parfit’s succinct summary of the history of ethics is especially delightful:

1. Forbidden by God.

2. Forbidden by God, therefore wrong.

3. Wrong, therefore forbidden by God.

4. Wrong.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal