Who are we? Derek Parfit in 2015. Credit: Roger Askew/Shutterstock

Mr Morality: the astonishing mind of Derek Parfit

He was one of the greatest philosophers of the late 20th century. Now he has a biography that lives up to his genius and enigmatic character
June 14, 2023
Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality
David Edmonds (RRP: £28)
Buy on Bookshop.org
Buy on Bookshop.org

Philosophers are not terribly good advertisements for the life philosophic. It’s not that they tend to be reprobates, although a few of them are. It’s just that their lives are usually so damned uneventful: read, write, teach, sleep, repeat. Having to wade through a pile of their autobiographies to research a paper was one of the most eye-shutting experiences I’ve ever had.

But, in another sense, it was eye-opening. Once you find out about a philosopher’s personality, life and temperament, it becomes impossible to believe that they arrive at their views by following the argument wherever it leads, as Plato said they should. The personal is not just political, it’s philosophical.

It’s unsurprising, therefore, that the relationship between thought and thinker is one of the main fascinations of David Edmonds’s new biography of Derek Parfit. Edmonds wisely draws no pat conclusions, refusing to reduce Parfit’s philosophy to a mere expression of his personality. Yet, at the same time, he manages to make Parfit’s cloistered, eccentric life of the mind a source of endless astonishment. It is surely the best biography of a philosopher since Ray Monk’s hitherto peerless Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (1991). 

Parfit never became a well-known public intellectual, but within English-speaking academe he is acknowledged as one of the most important philosophers of the late 20th century. He made his name with a single journal paper that breathed new life into an old problem that had drifted into obscurity, mainly because no one had anything new to say about it. The problem was: what needs to be true to correctly identify a person as the same person at two different times?

One obvious answer is something like: do a DNA test. But if having the same body is what makes us the same person, then it doesn’t make sense to conceive of life after death or of uploading ourselves into an AI world, as transhumanists look forward to doing. Nor does it account for the feeling we have that we are, in important senses, not the same person as our toddler selves, or that people in late stages of dementia are not the people they once were.

The broad shape of Parfit’s answer was basically the one John Locke gave in the 17th century. What makes us the same person is what Parfit called “Relation R”: psychological connectedness and continuity. The novelties were in the details. Parfit thought the question of identity could be “empty”—that is, without an answer—and that, in any case, “identity is not what matters in survival”. Imagine that I could make two perfect copies of you and then destroy the original. Both would be psychologically continuous with you, but they couldn’t both be you because you cannot be two independent entities. You would “survive” in an important sense, but you wouldn’t be identical with either survivor.

This is surely the best biography of a philosopher since Ray Monk’s hitherto peerless “Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius”

But most of Parfit’s work was on moral philosophy. He was deeply troubled by the view—widely held at the time by philosophers—that there was no objective basis for moral judgements. As Edmonds puts it, he thought that: “If morality was not objective, there was no reason to act in one way rather than another.” Worse, “If morality were not objective, life was meaningless.” Hence the subtitle of Edmonds’s book: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality

That it needs saving, however, is as unobvious to Parfit’s critics as it was obvious to him. He called his last, three-volume book On What Matters, but many philosophers are reconciled to the view that, from the most objective perspective possible, nothing matters at all. Things only matter to creatures for whom things matter. “Objective mattering” is an oxymoron because the objective point of view has no such partial interests. But that doesn’t mean that what matters to us, as creatures, is meaningless, or that we should not care deeply about murder, rape and other immoral behaviours. If caring vanishes when we take a god’s eye view, that simply shows that caring requires a mortal gaze.

Yet Parfit was convinced that ethics required taking the mind to Olympian heights. It is perhaps telling that he argued that, contrary to appearances, the major moral theories did not in fact disagree, but were merely “climbing the same mountain on different sides”.

But from so high up, people lose their individuality, with strange and sometimes absurd consequences. For example, Parfit was troubled by a line of moral reasoning that he thought was impeccable, but which led to what he called “the repugnant conclusion”. If we grant, as he thought we must, that it is always better if there is more happiness in the world than less, then it is better for the world to contain as many extra lives as possible that contain more happiness than unhappiness, even if each of those lives is barely worth living. So, an Earth crammed with 30bn barely happy souls would probably be preferable to our current one of 8bn people of varying happiness. If it wasn’t, you would just need to keep adding barely happy lives until it was.

A clue to Parfit’s fundamental error comes in one of the countless extraordinary anecdotes recounted by Edmonds. Parfit once watched a documentary about the Nazi invasion of France in which Hitler danced a little jig after his army’s triumph. The philosopher said, without irony, “At least something good came out of the German victory.” The logic is simple: a world with more happiness is always better than a world with less. So, a world in which Hitler was not pleased by his monstrous success would be worse than one in which he was.

The problem, as the late, great Bernard Williams most clearly articulated, is that Parfit’s kind of moral philosophy takes as its fundamental unit of value the negative or positive experiential consequences of actions—as though they were separable from the people who felt them. As Edmonds neatly summarises the criticism, this brand of consequentialism, Parfit’s brand, “treats people as mere inputs into a giant do-gooding algorithm, and cannot carve out adequate space for the role of integrity and personal projects.”

It is not that Parfit’s morality is cold. He could be moved to public tears by accounts of the deaths of soldiers in the First World War or the thought that Bach died before finishing The Art of Fugue. But as the philosopher Victor Tadros said, this admirable kind of objectivity came at “the price of the distinct personal relations that we have with those who are special to us.” Parfit deigned to attend funerals, but would not disturb his routine for weddings. He once refused an invitation to have dinner with a group of old friends, including Susan Hurley, who was dying of cancer, because he thought he could not spare time away from work. One of them fumed, wanting to tell him, “Derek, you’re writing a book of moral philosophy, called On What Matters. Well, this matters.”

At times like these, it seems there is a gulf between ways of thinking that do not allow for mutual comprehension, let alone resolution. For example, Parfit was so convinced that no one deserved reward or punishment for their actions that he refused to read a paper on retribution and did not consider a book on the subject of moral desert for a series he was editing, although it was written by a friend. This conviction seems driven as much by temperament as reason: Edmonds says that Parfit just never felt any resentment or a desire for revenge.

This is challenging for those who hope that disagreements about the nature of morality can be solved by reason and argument alone. Reading Edmonds, it becomes evident that Parfit had a very particular and peculiar cast of mind that shaped his philosophical views at least as much as his evidently brilliant brain. It may or may not be significant that both his parents and all four grandparents were missionaries. Although his parents lost their faith when Parfit was still young—which troubled him enormously until he lost his own—the phrase “missionary zeal” would seem to apply to his pursuit of the final, objective moral theory.

In later life, his philosophical calling became monomaniacal. Yet as a precocious youth his interests ranged widely. He played piano solos in school concerts, loved jazz and wrote poems, one of which was published in the New Yorker when he was 19. He was also highly competitive and came top at school in pretty much everything, winning prizes galore. With his fellow student at Eton College Jonathan Aitken, who would, of course, go on to become a (disgraced) cabinet minister, Parfit reached the finals of the English Public Schools Debating Competition.

The older he got, however, the narrower his interests became. Having once enjoyed live opera, he decided it was instead preferable to get the best stereo equipment that money could buy and listen at home. He thought that going to art exhibitions was a waste of time when he could look at high-quality reproductions in art books. He watched wildlife documentaries, but had no interest in being in nature. When he briefly lived in a house with fantastic rural views, he kept the curtains shut. His own life supports his theory that our identity over time is not all or nothing, but that we are always slowly becoming a different person.

“Derek really does seem to live wholly in his mind,” said his Oxford colleague Ruth Chang. “He treats his body like a mildly inconvenient golf cart he has to drive around in order to get his mind from Oxford to Boston to New York to New Brunswick.” Although he evidently enjoyed food as a boy, as a man it was just fuel. He’d even make instant coffee with hot water from the tap to save time. “Frivolity was not a Parfitian vice,” says Edmonds, with some understatement.

Parfit had a very particular and peculiar cast of mind that shaped his philosophical views at least as much as his evidently brilliant brain

Many, including Parfit himself, have wondered whether he was on the autism spectrum, perhaps Asperger’s syndrome. When Edmonds started his book he assumed this to be true. He became less sure, not least because Parfit’s most autistic traits—“literal-mindedness, narrow and obsessional preoccupations, and the failure to read social signs”—all became more pronounced as he got older. But one does not develop autism: you either have it from childhood or you don’t.

Of course, there must be a sense in which Parfit was neurodivergent. His brain clearly worked in extraordinary ways. But to give him a label or a diagnosis would be to downplay his uniqueness, and make it easier to dismiss some of his more challenging ideas as mere reflections of a psychological condition.

Parfit certainly had some odd priorities for someone who was so committed to ethical impartiality and “what matters”. He objected to the effective altruism movement’s Giving What We Can pledge to donate at least 10 per cent of signees’ incomes to relieve poverty, because he thought it was obvious that people could donate more. He also objected to the word “giving” for implying that this was optional, when he thought we were not morally entitled to our wealth. Yet in the years when he pursued photography as a serious hobby, he would spend thousands of pounds on a single print. Obsessed with typesetting, he offered to reimburse his publisher Oxford University Press for the extra costs of following his strict instructions, on one occasion paying £3,000 for wet proofs to check how the pages would actually come out from the plates. He also overpaid for a house by £50,000 just because he fell in love with it.

It takes a kind of genius to be able to rationalise how this could possibly be consistent with focusing on what matters and maximising general happiness. And Parfit clearly was brilliant, the closest to a genius that the philosopher Peter Singer ever met. “Getting into a philosophical argument with him was like playing chess with a grandmaster: he had already thought of every response I could make to his arguments, considered several possible replies, and knew the objections to each reply as well as the best counters to those objections.”

The worry the reader is left with after reading Edmonds’s book is that, if arguably the greatest philosophical mind of recent decades had huge blindspots and was obviously misguided in certain respects, what hope for the rest of us? Yet Parfit’s failings do not damn the whole enterprise of moral philosophy. He shows the futility and contradictions of a certain vision of philosophy: one that believes it can transcend the human and achieve a pure, crystalline objectivity.

There is, however, another notion of objectivity, set out brilliantly by Thomas Nagel. It says that we can never get to the top of the mountain and achieve a god-like view from nowhere. But we can go beyond our own prejudices and personalities to see things from more shared perspectives, less dependent on our subjective ones but not entirely free from them. Parfit did philosophy as though the subjective and the personal were irrelevant and could be ignored. As a result, he failed to see how they were actually central to his own philosophical enterprise. 

Parfit often said, “If my arguments don’t succeed, my life has been wasted.” Fortunately he was wrong. He ultimately failed, but more brilliantly than almost all the rest of us could ever succeed.