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12 April 2023

Derek Parfit: the perfectionist at All Souls

Brilliant and eccentric, the Oxford philosopher spent his career grappling with fundamental moral questions.

By David Edmonds

Reasons and Persons (1984) earned Derek Parfit a reputation as one of the greatest moral philosophers of the past century. It is the book in which he gives the fullest account of his views on personal identity: what is it, if anything, that makes the baby, Derek Antony Parfit, born in China to missionary parents in 1942, the same as the Etonian schoolboy Derek Parfit, the author of Reasons and Persons, and the same individual as the Derek Parfit who died in London on 2 January 2017?

It’s also the book that encompasses his arguments about people who will exist but who are yet to be conceived. What should be the nature of our concern for future generations? What are our duties towards them? Is it relevant that these people are not yet born? So long as lives are happy, should we try to create as many lives as possible? Before Parfit, philosophical writing on population ethics was sparse, especially on the topic of our obligations to merely possible people. Parfit fashioned a sub-genre of moral philosophy and triggered a mini-industry of research. 

Few works of philosophy have the urgency of Reasons and Persons, which was written with extraordinary speed, driving its author to the brink of collapse and its publisher to despair. Parfit was 41 when the book was published; for an academic who’d already acquired an international reputation, he was ancient. But there had been widespread scepticism that any book by the fanatically perfectionist Parfit would ever appear.

[See also: Herbert Marcuse: Multi-Dimensional Man]

Quite probably it never would have done, had it not been for pressure from the most elite of Oxford colleges – All Souls, where Parfit was based. All Souls is an undergraduate-free zone and one of the few institutions where researchers are exempt from teaching.

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For such a benign character it might seem odd that Parfit had college enemies. But he did. There were various reasons for this. Certainly, he was regarded as a bit of an oddball, a college misfit. He had a nocturnal schedule; as other fellows retired to bed, he would start playing Wagner – usually the Ring Cycle, Tristan und Isolde or Parsifal – and the music would float across the north quad for several hours. He was known to consume a huge cocktail of pills and vodka every night in an effort to fall asleep. He seldom appeared before lunchtime.

Then there was his role in the fight in the late 1970s about whether to admit women. A change of college statute required a two-thirds majority and, although they were a minority, the college had more than its fair distribution of dyed-in-the-wool misogynists. In this mini culture war, Parfit was one of the leaders of the pro-reform faction, baffled by the world-view of opponents who seemed to think that the smell of perfume might inhibit the enjoyment of college port, or who resorted to logistical objections, such as inadequate toilet provision.  

There would be another vote, two years later, on whether Parfit should be awarded a senior research fellowship, effectively a job for life. By this stage, he had already spent 14 years at All Souls, seven as a prize fellow and another seven as a junior research fellow. His opponents asked what there was to show for it. 

Parfit had reason to be confident that the result would go his way. He had an A-list suite of referees. The Harvard political theorist John Rawls had previously informed All Souls that Parfit was the most important moral philosopher of his generation, based on fewer than a dozen articles. Several referees made excuses for his poor publishing record. “He is not as other men are,” explained the White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy, RM Hare. He held on to his manuscripts because his standards were higher than other people’s. But there was unanimity about his originality. “If he does not deserve a senior research fellowship, I cannot imagine who does,” wrote the ethicist Jonathan Glover. The Academic Purposes Committee – which assessed the academic qualifications of the applicant – unanimously recommended his election.  

The All Souls meeting was held on 13 June 1981. Parfit was not allowed to be present. He assumed that his future was now assured and that fellows would simply take their lead from the Academic Purposes Committee. But it turned out several of them carried not a rubber stamp but a sharpened knife. The Conservative politician William Waldegrave was present. “The great men defended him,” Waldegrave remembered, while “the less distinguished middle-aged scholars who were very proud of their own mediocre publishing lists were the ones who criticised him.” The economics Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen told me that, “Some silly idiots thought that it should all depend on how many books you’d written.”

As the debate over Parfit’s credentials heated up, his detractors (led by a sociologist, Bryan Wilson) proposed a compromise. This would deny Parfit the senior fellowship but grant him an extension of his existing junior fellowship for another three years, with an ultimatum that by the end of this period he must have published a book. The amendment received overwhelming backing.

For Parfit, it was the biggest setback of his career and the outcome was a shock. His supporters were also outraged. Isaiah Berlin called the episode “the famous Parfit scandal”.

[See also: Who is afraid of Martin Heidegger?]

Parfit reasoned backwards. His first opportunity to reapply for the senior research fellowship would be March 1984, so a book needed to appear, or be about to appear, a month or two earlier. Parfit calculated that he only had about 20 months to turn the book in.  

In the history of philosophy, there have been some heroic efforts to hit deadlines. The philosopher Karl Popper nearly killed himself producing The Open Society and Its Enemies during the Second World War – he called it “his war effort”. Parfit’s book – like Popper’s – would occupy almost every waking hour of almost every day.

It was the most stressful period of his career, and accelerated a retreat from the non-philosophical world. Of course, there were humdrum non-philosophical activities essential for health and survival. But Parfit would accommodate these by minimising the time and effort expended on them, or by running them in parallel with philosophy. He began to develop some distinctive habits. In toothbrushing, for example: teeth had to be cleaned, but that was no reason for philosophy to stop. Parfit was an enthusiastic and comprehensive tooth-brusher; no incisor, canine or molar was neglected. Toothbrushing took up more of his time than eating. He would buy toothbrushes in bulk with a brush attrition rate of roughly three per week. And during one toothbrushing session he could read 50 pages. 

He had the same attitude to staying fit. The exercise bike was philosophy-compliant; it was perfectly possible to combine cycling and reading. Sometimes he would brush his teeth while cycling. Clothes, food and drink were more problematic, but Parfit devoted as little time to them as possible. He wore the same outfit every day – grey suit, white shirt, red tie – so that there was no time-wasting and energy-sapping decision to be made each morning. He drank coffee, but boiling a kettle became an unnecessary luxury; so he would throw a dollop of instant coffee into a mug, and fill it with hot water from the tap. Sometimes, cold water would do. The caffeine was what mattered.   

As the deadline for the book approached, his routine grew more manic still. He sent drafts to scores of philosophers and felt he had to address every comment. The arguments had to be watertight. This process did not always improve the text. The arguments in the early versions were those Parfit had ruminated about for years. With the deadline imminent, he was introducing ideas that he had reflected upon for barely 30 minutes.

[See also: Philosopher Martin Heidegger’s Nazi legacy and its influence on right-wing ideology]

Parfit’s personal papers contain evidence of the scramble to the finish line. He dispatched the book to Oxford University Press (OUP) chapter by chapter. By the final week, in the autumn of 1983, Parfit was on the brink of a breakdown. He was up all night every night, before seeking some pill- and alcohol-induced rest. 

Philosophy doctoral student Jeff McMahan (now the Sekyra and White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at Corpus Christi College) was checking references. On the penultimate day, Parfit rang two friends, Susan Hurley and Bill Ewald. He had finished a draft of the conclusion, but his brain could no longer process the text; “The words are swimming on the page,” he said. “I’ve got to sleep.” He asked them to proofread the last chapter, and ensure it reached OUP before the deadline. 

The opening sentence of the short concluding chapter was arresting. “When he was asked about his book, Sidgwick said that its first word was Ethics, and its last failure.” The chapter Ewald and Hurley received from Parfit ended with a quote from Nietzsche.

At last the horizon appears free to us again, even granted that it is not bright; at last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an “open sea”.

After Hurley and Ewald had read the chapter, they held a consultation. Hurley thought it could be improved upon in many places. “The sentences are too staccato, they’re marching in fascist lockstep,” she opined. Hurley and Ewald agreed that they could smooth out some sentence transitions. Then they reached the denouement. Above the Nietzsche quote was a rather insipid paragraph, preceded by one that concluded as follows:

Belief in God, or in many gods, prevented the free development of moral reasoning. Disbelief in God, openly admitted by a majority, is a very recent event, not yet completed. Because this event is so recent, Non-Religious Ethics is at a very early stage. We cannot yet predict whether, as in Mathematics, we will all reach agreement. Since we cannot know how Ethics will develop, it is not irrational to have high hopes.

Ewald had a neat idea. This seemed like the perfect end. Henry Sidgwick’s book had closed with the word “failure”, so why not complete Parfit’s book with “hope”? It was a clever contrast. Parfit was fast asleep and could not be roused – he disappeared for 24 hours – so his two friends took a bold decision. They ditched the dull paragraph that followed this one, and moved the Nietzsche quote to an epigraph at the front.  

By the time Parfit emerged the following midday, Ewald had already walked to the OUP offices on Walton Street, Oxford, with the floppy disk containing the last chapter. Ewald explained what he had done over the phone. There was a long – and nerve-racking – pause. Then Parfit agreed that they had made an improvement.

[See also: The aspirations of Agnes Callard]

After Parfit’s missionary – and by now religiously disillusioned – parents left China in 1944, they eventually settled in Oxford. Derek would live a cloistered existence – literally. From the cloisters of Eton, to the cloisters of Balliol College, Oxford, the cloisters of Harvard, and then the cloisters of All Souls. A prodigy, he won almost every school and university academic prize that was going.

His undergraduate studies were in history. When he broached the idea that he might study philosophy, politics and economics, his Eton history teacher replied, “Nonsense boy, you’ll do history.” The teacher told Balliol that Parfit was the best student he’d ever taught. His Oxford history tutor, Richard Cobb, thought him a genius. But it was on a Harkness fellowship in the US that he first took some classes in philosophy and decided to switch disciplines. “The rest,” as Parfit’s school friend Edward Mortimer said, “is… well, not history I suppose.”

Returning to Oxford, he successfully sat for an All Souls prize fellowship. The most notorious part of the process was a three-hour exam in which candidates turned over a blank page to be confronted by a single word, on which they had to compose an essay and display their erudition. A probably mythical story is that this was of such fascination to the outside world that even non-candidates would congregate outside the college to discover which word had been chosen. When Parfit flipped over the page in 1967, he was confronted with “space”.

His life was now philosophy, philosophy and philosophy… Oh, and some photography. Every year, for many years, he would travel to Venice and Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and take photographs of the same buildings, and then spend thousands of pounds having the images altered and enhanced to achieve his exacting aesthetic standards.

[See also: Nietzsche, narwhals and the burden of consciousness]

If Reasons and Persons has an overarching theme, it is that we should focus less on ourselves, our family and friends, and more on the common good. In other words, what’s best not just for us and those we know, but for people overall. But that is a loose thread. The book’s four sections are very distinct.

A notable feature of Reasons and Persons was its use of imaginative thought experiments. To test our intuitions about personal identity, Parfit imagines that we enter a “Teletransporter” to go to Mars. “The Scanner here on Earth will destroy my brain and body, while recording the exact states of all of my cells. It will then transmit this information by radio. Travelling at the speed of light, the message will take three minutes to reach the Replicator on Mars. This will then create, out of new matter, a brain and body exactly like mine. It will be in this body that I shall wake up.”

Would the person on Mars be the same person as the one previously on Earth?

Another thought experiment built on real medical cases, in which patients with epilepsy had the connection between their two brain hemispheres cut, and then reported two separate streams of consciousness. Parfit imagines that I am one of three identical triplets. My body is fatally injured, as are the cerebral hemispheres of my two identical brothers. The two hemispheres of my brain, each of which is capable of supporting my psychology, are separated and each hemisphere is transplanted to a body. “Each of the resulting people believes that he is me, seems to remember living my life, has my character, and is in every other way psychologically continuous with me. And he has a body that is very like mine.”

So what are your intuitions? Do I cease to exist? Many people will feel that I continue to exist. But if so, would I be one brother or the other, or both? The answer cannot be that I survive only in one brother; that sounds too arbitrary. But, logically, I cannot be identical to both, since then they would have to be identical with each other. And they cannot be identical to each other, because if they both carried on living, they would soon have different experiences and memories.

Parfit’s fanciful thought experiments were used to make the following claims. First, there is nothing, over and above my body and its brain and an interrelated series of mental and physical events that makes me me. There is no separately existing entity. Rather, I am constituted by my body, brain and psychology over time. Parfit calls this “reductionism”. René Descartes was quite wrong to posit the existence of a soul.

This point is related to a second one. Sometimes there is no true answer to the question of whether a particular person continues to exist. If there was a separately existing entity to my body and brain, then, so long as that entity was maintained, I would continue to exist. There is no such entity; as a result, we can know all the facts and still not have a definitive answer about whether a person has continued to exist. Whether that person still exists may be indeterminate. What is more, identity is not what really matters. This was the claim to which Parfit was most committed. What should matter to me is whether some future person will be psychologically connected with me. And this is not a question of all or nothing. This is a matter of the degree of my psychological connections to the future person. 

If we embrace the radical Parfitian position, there will be implications for how we regard ourselves and perhaps too in how we behave. One implication might be a weakened relationship between us now and our past and future selves. We might, for example, take a more lenient attitude to punishment for crimes committed a long time ago. We might, too, alter our view about how much money we put into our pension pot, to save for “our” future.

[See also: Adam Tooze: Bruno Latour and the philosophy of life]

“Future people” are people who will exist but who are yet to be conceived. We have strong views about future people. Many of us, for example, worry about the impact of climate change on forthcoming generations. And Parfit’s basic starting point was this. Just as it makes no difference whether a life is harmed one mile from my home, or 1,000 miles away, it is as bad to harm a life in the future as a life now. If I leave broken glass in the undergrowth of a wood, and a child steps on it in 100 years, what difference does it make if this child is not yet alive? 

But there are far tougher puzzles.

Imagine a 14-year-old girl. Let’s call her Angela. She chooses to have a child. Because she is so young, her child (let’s call him Bill) has a bad start in life. It will still be a life worth living. But had Angela waited for several years, she would have had a different child, who would receive a better start in life.

Most people believe that it would be better if the girl had waited. But Parfit noticed an intriguing feature of this case. Angela’s bad decision, to have the child, made nobody worse off. If she had delayed having a child, Bill would not have been better off, since Bill would not have been born. Another child would have been born in his place. How strange. Can an action be wrong if nobody is wronged by it?

Philosophy is an ancient discipline. What can we know? Do we have free will? What is truth? There are few novel problems. 

One of Parfit’s most important achievements was to identify a new problem; he called it the “non-identity problem”. After he spotted it and applied his usual rigour to drawing out its implications, it became impossible to view crucial aspects of morality in the same way again. More than that, it seemed such an obvious conundrum that it was a wonder that nobody had ever noticed it before. Many of our actions and decisions run up against the non-identity problem.

Each of us is the product of a union between a particular sperm and egg. You, reader, are extremely fortunate to be here. Had someone rung your parents’ telephone at a crucial moment, or had there been a rail strike so that mum or dad was late home, or had there been something better on TV that evening, you might not exist: possibly somebody else would be here instead. A major shift in government policy, on the economy, transport, health, the environment, is bound to affect who is born. This means that a bad policy can be bad even when it’s bad for nobody.

Failing to take action to tackle climate change would be bad, even if there was no individual person who suffered as a result – because different people would end up being born. If we find this difficult to grasp, Parfit suggests we ask ourselves whether we would still be here if railways and cars had never been invented.

[See also: Herbert Marcuse: Multi-Dimensional Man]

The reception for Reasons and Persons in 1984 was everything Parfit could have hoped for. For once, the publishing cliché “an instant classic” is not hyperbole. It became OUP’s bestselling academic philosophy title of the past 50 years, and perhaps ever. But was it good enough for All Souls? RM Hare once again acted as a reference. “I see that when I wrote to you on 30 March, 1981, I said that he was probably the best moral philosopher of his generation… If anything, I would now remove the ‘probably’.”  

But having been burnt by the college once, Parfit was nervous. The college meeting took place in mid-June 1984. Isaiah Berlin spoke up on Parfit’s behalf. He later claimed to have “made a very tear-jerking speech… and more or less said that there was absolutely no possible reason not to elect him”. It was the last speech Berlin made in All Souls, and for that reason might have been memorable, but others present have no recollection of tears. 

This time, a Parfit victory proved a formality. Following the triumph of Reasons and Persons, the college would have collectively blushed had he been rejected; even opposition from the crustiest of fellows melted away.

For Parfit it had been a traumatic few years. But had it not been for his All Souls enemies it’s quite possible he would never have produced a book. He was now academically secure for life.

He became increasingly obsessed with the question of whether morality was objective. This issue would be addressed in his second book, On What Matters – published in three volumes: two in 2011 (followed by a third in 2017) – whose birth was just as painful as Reasons and Persons. On What Matters had taken more than a quarter of a century to appear and reviews were mixed. The general tenor was that Parfit’s project resembled a vast baroque cathedral that evoked a sense of awe less for its beauty than for its sheer construction.

The year the book was completed, Parfit finally married his long-term partner, the philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards. It was an unconventional relationship and for a long time they had lived in different cities. “It matters to him that I exist,” Janet once told me; “it matters much less that I’m around.”

Four years later, Parfit had a near-death experience while teaching at Rutgers University in New Jersey; he couldn’t breathe after eating a meal at a Thai restaurant. He was rushed to hospital and put under a general anaesthetic. Later, still hooked to a ventilator, he was visited by a stream of philosophers. One of the nurses joked to Parfit that Jesus had had only 12 disciples and he seemed to have many more. What do you work on? she asked. “I work,” he replied, “on what matters.”

It was probably the same underlying medical condition that took his life. Sometime during the hours separating 1 and 2 January 2017, while staying with Janet in London, Derek Parfit stopped breathing. He had been suffering from a severe cold and had not felt up to exercising on his bike. But apart from that, New Year’s Day had been much like any other. He had put in a full day’s work, not finishing until 10pm.

David Edmonds is the author of “Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality” (Princeton University Press)

[See also: Gilbert Murray: the Oxford don who made Greek chic]

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This article appears in the 12 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue