Derek Parfit

derek parfit

Derek Parfit (b. 1942) is a British philosopher who specializes in problems of personal identity, rationality and ethics, and the relations between them. His 1984 book ‘Reasons and Persons’ has been very influential. His most recent book, ‘On What Matters’ (2011), has already been widely discussed, having circulated in draft form for many years.

He has worked at Oxford for the whole of his academic career, and is presently an Emeritus Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. ‘Reasons and Persons’ is a four-part work, with each successive section building on the last. Parfit believes that nonreligious ethics is a young and fertile field of inquiry. He asks questions about which actions are right or wrong and shies away from meta-ethics, which focuses more on logic and language.

In Part I of Reasons and Persons Parfit discusses ‘self-defeating theories,’ namely the self -interest theory of rationality (S) and two ethical frameworks: common sense morality (CSM) and consequentialism (C). He posits that S has been dominant in Western culture for over two millennia, often making bedfellows with religious doctrine, which united self-interest and morality. Because S demands that we always make self-interest our supreme rational concern and instructs us to ensure that our whole life goes as well as possible, S makes temporally neutral requirements. Thus it would be irrational to act in ways that we know we would prefer later to undo.

As an example, it is irrational for a 14-year-old to listen to loud music or get arrested for vandalism if he knows such actions will detract significantly from his future well-being and goals (such as an academic career in philosophy or having good hearing).

Most notably, the self-interest theory holds that it is irrational to commit any acts of self-denial or to act on desires that negatively affect our well-being. One may consider an aspiring author whose strongest desire is to write an award-winning novel but who, in doing so, suffers from lack of sleep and depression. Parfit holds that it is plausible that we have such desires outside our own well-being, and that it is not irrational to act to fulfill these desires.

Aside from the initial appeal to plausibility of desires that do not directly contribute to one’s life going well, Parfit contrives situations where S is indirectly self-defeating. That is, it makes demands that it initially posits as irrational. It does not fail on its own terms, but it does recommend adoption of an alternative framework of rationality. For instance, it might be in my self-interest to become trustworthy in order to participate in mutually beneficial agreements, even though in maintaining the agreement I will be doing what will, ceteris paribus, be worse for me. In many cases S instructs us precisely not to follow S, thus fitting the definition of an indirectly self-defeating theory.

Parfit uses many examples seemingly inspired by Star Trek and other science fiction, such as the teletransporter, to explore our intuitions about our identity. He is a reductionist, believing that since there is no adequate criterion of personal identity, people do not exist apart from their components. Parfit argues that reality can be fully described impersonally: there need not be a determinate answer to the question ‘Will I continue to exist?’ We could know all the facts about a person’s continued existence and not be able to say whether the person has survived. He concludes that we are mistaken in assuming that personal identity is what matters; what matters is rather Relation R: psychological connectedness (namely, of memory and character) and continuity (overlapping chains of strong connectedness).

On Parfit’s account, individuals are nothing more than brains and bodies, but identity cannot be reduced to either. Parfit concedes that his theories rarely conflict with rival Reductionist theories in everyday life, and that the two are only brought to blows by the introduction of extraordinary examples. However, he defends the use of such examples because they seem to arouse genuine and strong feelings in many of us. Identity is not as determinate as we often suppose it is, but instead such determinacy arises mainly from the way we talk. People exist in the same way that nations or clubs exist.

A key Parfitian question is: given the choice of surviving without psychological continuity and connectedness (Relation R) or dying but preserving R through the future existence of someone else, which would you choose?

Parfit described the loss of the conception of a separate self as liberating:

‘My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness… [However] When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.’

Parfit’s most famous postulations come in Part IV of Reasons and Persons where he discusses possible futures for the world. He shows that, in the discussion of possible futures, both average and total utilitarian standards lead to unwelcome conclusions. Applying total utilitarian standards (absolute total happiness) to possible growth paths of population and welfare leads one to what he calls the Repugnant Conclusion.

Parfit illustrates this with a simple thought experiment. Imagine a choice between possible futures, in A 10 billion people would live during the next generation all having extremely happy lives, lives far happier than anyone lives today. In B, there are 20 billion people all living lives, while slightly less happy than those in A, are still very happy. Under total utility maximization we would prefer B to A, and through a regressive process of population increases and happiness decreases (in each the happiness decrease is more than outweighed by the population increase) we are forced to prefer Z, a world of hundreds of billion people all living lives barely worth living, over A. Even if we do not hold that coming to exist can benefit someone, we still must at least admit that Z is no worse than A.

Parfit makes a similar argument against average utilitarian standards. If all we care about is average happiness, we would be forced to conclude that an extremely small population, say 10 people, over the course of human history is the best outcome if we assume that these first 10 people (Adam and Eve et al.) had lives happier than we could ever imagine. Then consider the case of American immigration. Presumably alien welfare is less than American, but the would-be alien benefits tremendously from moving from his homeland. Assume also that Americans benefit from immigration (at least in small doses) because they get cheap labor, etc. Under immigration both groups are better off, but if this increase is offset by increase in the population, then average welfare is lower. Thus although everyone is better off, this is not the preferred outcome. Parfit asserts that this is simply absurd.

Parfit then moves to discuss the identity of future generations. He first posits that one’s existence is intimately related to the time and conditions of conception. I would not be me if my parents waited 2 more years to have a child. While they would still have had a child, it would certainly be another being; even if it were still their first born son, it would not be me.

Study of weather patterns and other physical phenomena in the 20th century has shown that very minor changes in the initial conditions at time T, have drastic effects at all points after T. Compare this to the romantic involvement of future childbearing partners. By this we can see that any actions taken today, at time T, will affect the resulting people that exist after only a few generations. For instance, a significant change in global environmental policy would shift the initial conditions of the conception process so much that after 300 years none of the same people that would have been born are in fact born. Different couples meet each other and conceive at different times—different people exist. This is known as the ‘non-identity problem.’

We could therefore craft disastrous policies that would be worse for nobody, because none of the same people exist under the different policies. If we consider the moral ramifications of potential policies in person-affecting terms, then we will have no reason to prefer a sound policy over an unsound one provided that its effects are not felt for a few generations. This is the non-identity crisis in its purest form: the identity of future generations is causally dependent, in a very sensitive way, on the actions of the present generations. So much so that they effectively have no identity if one looks as little as a half century into the future. Philosophers have long ignored this problem and have devised systems of ethics that are powerless to argue against our temporally biased policies.

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