In the 1980s there was a seminar held regularly in the wood-panelled Old Library at All Souls College in Oxford. It was known informally as “Star Wars.” Four giants of moral and political philosophy would take turns to lead the discussion and spend the best part of two hours sparring with each other at one end of the room, which would be packed mostly with eager, awestruck postgraduate students. I was one of them and attended for a term.
The four philosophers were Derek Parfit, Amartya Sen, Ronald Dworkin and GA “Jerry” Cohen, all of them in their scholarly prime. In 1982, Janet Radcliffe-Richards, who had just moved to Oxford, decided to go along to see for herself what everyone agreed was the best show in town—dazzling, preening intellectual pyrotechnics. She was then in her late thirties, and a lecturer in philosophy at the Open University. She had recently published a book entitled The Sceptical Feminist.
Sen, who would go on to win a Nobel Prize in economics, already knew Radcliffe-Richards and after the seminar went over to greet her. “Who was that?” Parfit asked him. After extracting her name and being told that she had recently separated from a partner, Parfit wrote her a letter, which she says she will publish one day. “The most remarkable chat up letter in history,” Radcliffe-Richards calls it. He’d bought The Sceptical Feminist as, according to her, “a sort of audition” and proceeded to pursue her assiduously, oblivious to the fact that he was in competition with four other men.
Today, Parfit is considered by many of his peers to be the world’s most important living moral philosopher. His first book, Reasons and Persons, published in 1984, is routinely described as a work of genius. He is now married to Radcliffe-Richards, herself the author of three widely admired books characterised by unflinching logic and a willingness to tolerate uncomfortable conclusions. Not only are Parfit and Radcliffe-Richards arguably the world’s most cerebral romantic partnership, they are a fascinating study in the extent to which a philosopher’s professional convictions, particularly in the sphere of moral philosophy or ethics, shape his or her personal conduct—as Parfit thinks they should. I recently visited them in their north London home.
Janet says she was initially “utterly baffled” by Derek. He lacks certain common traits and doesn’t pick up on many normal social messages. He has no envy or malice (though he is no stranger to pride). During the “courting” process there were none of the usual wooing signals—no flowers or chocolates—but he did once thrust into her arms the complete keyboard scores of Bach. He also lent her an old desktop computer sold to him by Ronald Dworkin. It kept crashing. “It was an indication of the strangeness of what was going on, that when Derek suggested he come round at midnight to deal with the computer, I thought he meant it.” He didn’t.
In 2011, the night before they were due to get married in a register office, Derek and Janet were walking down Little Clarendon Street in Oxford on the way to a low-key celebration at an Indian restaurant. They had been together for 29 years, and had taken the decision to marry largely on pragmatic grounds. They felt they were getting old, and formalising their relationship made it easier to settle issues such as inheritance and next-of-kin. There were to be only four witnesses at the ceremony: Janet’s sister and brother-in-law, her niece and her niece’s partner.
As they approached the restaurant they passed a wedding shop. In the window was one of those meringue bridal dresses, all petticoats, hoops and trains. “That,” said Janet, jokingly, “is what I shall be wearing tomorrow.” “Do you mean that exact one,” replied Derek, in all seriousness, “or one just like it?”
It was the kind of literal-mindedness that Janet has become accustomed to, though it still tickles her. It had taken her some time, after first meeting Derek, to figure him out. “You shouldn’t take up with Derek if you want a normal domestic relationship,” she says. “But I knew by then that I didn’t.”
Janet and Derek are both now Distinguished Research Fellows at Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, where I am a research associate. I was supervised by both of them as a postgraduate. Derek supervised my BPhil dissertation and Janet was the supervisor for my doctorate. My PhD was on the philosophy of discrimination, a subject on which Janet has written a great deal, though Oxford University Press is still waiting for the book she promised them.
My BPhil dissertation was on “future generations” (or population ethics), a topic that falls within the broad category of moral philosophy. It deals with questions such as what obligations and duties we have to people as yet unborn and whether we make the world a better place by bringing in more happy lives. Parfit didn’t so much shape this sub-discipline as create it. Most of the writing on the subject takes issues he has raised as its starting point.
One conundrum that has exercised him is the so-called “non-identity problem.” Imagine that a woman knows that if she conceives a child now it will be born with a disability, but if she waits a couple of months she will have a “normal” child. Now, most people would probably say that she should wait, and not just because of the effect that a disabled child might have on the family and wider society. The stronger intuition is that it is better for the child.
But a moment’s thought allows us to see that this idea is misguided. If the woman delays conception she will not make the life of the disabled child better; she will have a different child. Provided that the disability is not too severe, the woman who does not delay getting pregnant is not making things worse for the handicapped child—if she puts off her pregnancy this handicapped child would not exist at all.
It took Parfit’s brilliance to recognise that this moral dilemma had far-reaching implications. Decisions over climate change or other forms of environmental degradation, for example, have a similar structure. Suppose we have to choose between two policies. Policy A will conserve our resources, while policy B will deplete them. If we choose A, then the quality of life will be lower for a period than if we choose B. But after 300 years, say, it will be much higher, and will remain so indefinitely thereafter.
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Different people will be born depending on which policy we opt for. After three centuries there might be nobody alive who would have been born whichever policy we choose. In Reasons and Persons, Parfit suggests we will grasp this complex point more clearly if we ask ourselves, “If railways and motor cars had not been invented, would I still exist?”
Normally, when we think that something is bad, we think that it is bad because it is bad for one or more individuals. But in these non-identity cases there is nobody for whom the decision is bad. Parfit claims that this makes no difference. If in either of two outcomes the same number of people would live, he argues, it would be bad if those who live have a lower quality of life than those who would have lived.
The reasoning seems watertight. But more perplexing difficulties arise when we are faced with decisions that will create different numbers of people. Parfit draws us down a path that leads inexorably to what he calls the “Repugnant Conclusion.” This has to do with the very real practical issue of what would be the ideal population size. The Repugnant Conclusion holds that “For any possible population of at least 10bn people, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better even though its members have lives that are barely worth living.” Parfit’s label for this conclusion makes it clear that he regards it as unpalatable, but he and other philosophers have found the logic that got him there hard to refute.
As well as future generations, Reasons and Persons makes seminal contributions in other areas of philosophy, including time (and our puzzling bias in favour of the future over the past) and personal identity (what kind of changes can we survive and which changes involve our ceasing to exist). The book overflows with rich and intricate arguments, which are often advanced through the use of wonderfully strange and creative thought experiments.
Two years ago, having hit the mandatory retirement age, Parfit had to vacate his rooms in All Souls for a small house he had bought in the centre of Oxford. The change in circumstance would have been a shock for him if Janet had not returned to Oxford at that point. Derek had lived almost his entire life in institutions—he was a scholarship boy at Eton, then went to Oxford as an undergraduate, to study history, and after winning a Prize Fellowship at All Souls aged 25 he never left. All Souls is a unique Oxford institution in having no undergraduates, only academic researchers.
“Derek has no idea what it is for a building to exist without a manciple and domestic bursar,” says Janet.
“Are you implying that I require looking after?”
“Not at all. That’s what’s so interesting. You don’t demand looking after at all”.
Nonetheless, had Janet not been around, his habitat would have rapidly turned feral. One of Derek’s friends is the Harvard professor Frances Kamm. Derek regards himself as semi-American, and has spent many semesters at Harvard, New York University and Rutgers. When he stayed in Kamm’s apartment he noticed that the plughole in the kitchen sink was blocked. She hadn’t known, because she had never used the sink. “Kamm is the person who is most like me,” says Derek.
He does not know how to operate his oven, though his dietary regimen is scrupulously maintained. Ludwig Wittgenstein once stayed for an extended period with friends in Ithaca and told them that he didn’t mind what they cooked for him so long as it was always the same. Derek does mind. He eats the same staples every day. For breakfast there’s muesli, yoghurt, juice and an enormous cup of instant coffee, industrial strength and often made with hot water from the tap because boiling it would require putting on the kettle. In the evening he has raw carrots, cheese, romaine lettuce and celery dipped in peanut butter. Food has to fulfil two basic criteria: it must be healthy and involve the minimum of preparation. Like Janet, he is vegetarian.
“Isn’t this rather a boring topic of conversation?” asks Derek. This is not auspicious. Derek once wrote that he can’t remember ever being bored. Janet and I retire to the living room upstairs, leaving Derek to his muesli and instant coffee.
Published in 1980, The Sceptical Feminist was a book that seemed calculated to annoy everybody, though Janet denies any mischievous intentions. The “sceptical” bit, which infuriated some feminists, was the assertion that many standard feminist arguments were shoddy or incoherent. The “feminist” bit was a brilliant deconstruction of the illogical justifications used by men to validate their position of privilege over women.
Consider a rule like “Women should be barred from driving buses” (examples such as this felt much more urgent in the unreconstructed 1970s). What’s wrong with it? It can’t be merely the different treatment for men and women that it implies. After all, someone who fails to get a job is treated differently from the person who gets it. In a labour market distinctions are inevitable. Alcoholics are not allowed to become pilots, but we don’t conclude that alcoholics are thereby discriminated against.
What is wrong, Janet argues, is that the rule cannot be justified even in terms of the general standards set by those who propose the policy. Most of these people profess to believe in a meritocracy, but this moral standard is not consistent with the arbitrary disadvantaging of one group.
Janet likes to quote John Stuart Mill. Often those proposing a rule such as the one prohibiting female bus drivers will insist that women aren’t good enough drivers to be permitted behind the wheel. But as Mill pointed out, “what women by nature cannot do, it is quite superfluous to forbid them from doing.” In a genuine meritocracy, in other words, if all women were really hopeless at driving buses, they wouldn’t be employed—it would be unnecessary to have an additional rule excluding them.
This argument reflects a trademark Radcliffe-Richards manoeuvre—she grants an opponent their premise or premises and shows that their conclusions nonetheless don’t follow. The abortion laws, she argues, don’t make any logical sense. If the foetus really is a human being, why should we draw a distinction between a woman carrying a deformed child, a woman who has been raped and a woman who simply got pregnant by mistake?
“The nearest we can get to a coherent account of [current] law,” she says, “is that it is to punish women who have sex when they didn’t intend to have children. The idea is that if you were raped it’s not your fault, you haven’t gone in for sex as an end in itself. If you have a deformed foetus you were properly intending to have children, but were just unlucky and that wasn’t your fault. But you couldn’t just have an abortion because you didn’t want a child after having sex.”
When Janet takes up a subject she does so from scratch, working from first principles and eschewing established templates and frameworks. This is the source of her originality. In her second book, Human Nature After Darwin (published in 2001), she examined aspects of philosophical reasoning through the study of Darwinism. She was particularly interested in claims about innate differences between men and women, which had been left open in The Sceptical Feminist.
Assume, for the sake of argument, that men are more disposed to take up random sexual opportunities than women. Would this imply that society should try to thwart or otherwise re-direct male urges? Or should we just accept that men and women are likely to behave differently and will make different choices? Janet is convinced that there are sexual differences—that men are more competitive and status-driven, for example—but this is not what really concerns her. She cares about the “so what?” She wants to show that feminists have nothing to fear from natural or genetic sexual variations.
In conversation, Janet is more nimble than Derek. She is also an in-demand interviewee and public performer (she lectures fluently without notes). For a couple of series, she was a regular panellist on the BBC Radio 4 radio discussion programme, Moral Maze, although she wasn’t rude enough really to excel in that format and she had what must have been the exasperating habit of telling the presenter and her fellow panellists that they were posing the wrong question.
Unlike Derek, who is proudly a philosopher’s philosopher, Janet’s writings have shaped debate on practical matters—on feminism, naturally, but also on bioethics. More recently, she’s gained attention for her work on the ethics of organ transplants. Most people have an instinctive aversion to the idea of a market in kidneys or hearts, especially as those most likely to be willing to sell their organs would tend to be the poorest in society. But, Janet argues, it is far worse to prohibit such a market. “Of course it’s dreadful if people have to sell their organs. But how does a ban on them selling their organs improve things?”
She cites the case of a poor Turkish peasant desperate to raise the funds to pay for his daughter’s leukaemia treatment. “And we rapidly passed legislation, and sent him back, presumably to watch his daughter die. Then we patted ourselves on the back. Well, really!” As for the campaigners against the trade: “There are these sanctimonious rich American surgeons with second homes on Cape Cod travelling the world, presenting themselves as heroes for saving poor people from exploitation. And of course what they do is force the desperate—for money or kidneys—into a black market where there’s no protection.” Her voice drips with contempt as she says this.
Later, as I’m exchanging domestic trivia with Janet, Derek walks back into the room. The conversation undergoes a handbrake turn. We stop gossiping. The talk is all philosophy. And it is Derek who does most of the talking.
His current preoccupation, and the main focus of his second book, is the question of whether there are objective ethical or moral truths. That book, On What Matters, appeared in 2011 in two gigantic volumes, totalling nearly 1,500 pages. It received the ultimate imprimatur of cultural significance—a lengthy article in the New Yorker—and was also the subject of a substantial review in the New York Review of Books.
While Janet won’t duck controversy when she believes an argument is either bad or dangerous, or both, Derek says he finds conflict over ideas and values uncomfortable. “I’m unusual among philosophers in the extent to which I’m worried by disagreement.” It unsettles him that many leading philosophers, dead and alive, believe that there are no objective reasons for action. Take the example, discussed by the late Bernard Williams, of a man who treats his wife terribly and doesn’t care. Williams claims that although there are several things we can say about the husband—that he is nasty, sexist and brutish—he has no reason to improve his behaviour. We cannot insist that he has a reason to be nicer if he cannot be motivated to change. But Derek’s book is a prolonged defence of the claim that whatever the man’s actual desires or motivations, he does have a reason to behave well.
Questions such as whether morality is objective and what constitutes subjectivity and objectivity are fundamental questions in the area of moral philosophy known as “meta-ethics.” But do they matter outside the seminar room? Parfit thinks they do and argues that people who have doubts about the objectivity of ethics are less likely to behave well. He struggles to remember a passage from a poem by Yeats, and turns to Janet for help identifying the lines: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”
I suggest to Derek that it is unlikely that a person’s meta-ethical views will sway their actual conduct one way or the other. Over the past few years there has been some fascinating empirical research into the links between the opinions and the behaviour of professors of ethics, much of it conducted by Eric Schwitzgebel, a philosophy professor at UC Riverside in the United States. It suggests, for example, that although ethicists believe that people should give more of their income to charity than do non-ethicists, in practice they are no more generous. Parfit retreats a little. He concedes that it is an empirical matter whether subjectivism—the view that there are no objective moral truths—corrodes our ethical responses, but “it would be surprising if it didn’t weaken at least some people’s moral convictions.” And he frets that his arguments about future generations might undermine the belief that something must be done about climate change.
I suspect that the source of this anxiety is his extrapolation from the case of one individual—himself. I am quite willing to believe that if he were persuaded that subjectivism is true it would change his behaviour. When I ask what his and Janet’s philosophy have in common, he answers that they both accept that there are “normative” or ethical truths out there waiting to be discovered. The thrust of his moral thinking has tended in an impersonal direction. It’s consistent with this that both he and Janet have signed up to the Giving What We Can campaign, which requires people to make a public pledge to donate at least 10 per cent of their income to charities that work to relieve poverty.
There are no offspring to whom they could bequeath assets. Given that one half of the couple is a specialist on Darwin and evolutionary psychology, and the other on future people, their decision to remain childless is striking. Janet long ago came to the conclusion that there were already too many people in need in the world, and felt no urge to create any more. Derek was indifferent to the prospect of kids. Janet has never regretted not becoming a mother: “In fact, the more I see about ageing parents the more I’m glad that I have no one to feel resentful about if they don’t look after me”.
Derek is now 71, but he remains the Alexei Stakhanov of the philosophy world. He rises late, but then works with only a few short breaks until 11 o’clock at night, seven days a week. This has been his habit for half a century. It is not an entirely reclusive existence, however, since he’s in constant e-mail contact with philosophers around the world. The acknowledgements page in Shelly Kagan’s book The Limits of Morality is typical. After thanking a number of people, Kagan writes: “[The book] got still longer thanks to the extraordinary and painstaking attention showered on it by Derek Parfit. Derek commented on the whole, not once, but three times, and I have incorporated his suggestions in well over a hundred passages.”
former student of Parfit’s, Jeff McMahan, who will soon become the White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford, recalls arriving for a supervision with him and leaving 14 hours later. On another occasion, McMahan showed up not long after getting off a transatlantic flight. The philosophy began immediately. It didn’t occur to Derek that his guest might need a glass of water or to go for a pee.
The deluge of draft papers and manuscripts into Parfit’s inbox continues, and his extensive notes are returned quickly. “The only thing I pride myself on is the speed with which I can send people comments,” he says. He reads when he’s eating, when he’s on his exercise bike, when he’s putting on his socks and when he’s brushing his teeth. Each year he goes through dozens of toothbrushes, which he purchases in bulk. He has been known to read 80 page articles during a single brushing session. One of the reasons he dresses in the same outfit every day—black trousers, white shirt—is so he doesn’t waste time selecting clothes. His friend Ingmar Persson, the Swedish philosopher, calls him the “most erudite of living philosophers” and says his hard graft has “contributed to make his work tower high above everyone else’s.” His modus operandi is to write multiple drafts and then to re-draft (he quickly wears down letters on his keyboards). He is not secretive about how his work is progressing. Numerous pre-publication versions of On What Matters had long been circulating in the academic world, each of them varying slightly from one another. The acknowledgements section in the book runs to over 250 names.
When his world is not filtered through books, it is mediated by the lens. Or rather, it used to be. For decades his main “hobby” was photographing St Petersburg and Venice, returning numerous times and taking countless shots of the buildings in different light: in St Petersburg each photograph captures the snow under grey skies. “I may be somewhat unusual,” he told the New Yorker, “in the fact that I never get tired or sated with what I love most, so that I don’t need or want variety.” His admiration of certain architectural styles has led him into trouble. Many years ago he insisted that he and Janet buy a house together in rural Wiltshire after falling for its charming Georgian façade. It was miles from Oxford and outlandishly overpriced. In the eight years they owned it, Derek took precisely two walks in the countryside, both reluctantly. The top floor study had breathtaking views, but the curtains were kept closed.
The photographic holidays are no more. After three years of snowless Februaries in St Petersburg, Derek regards that project as complete. A reformed duomaniac, he’s now a mere monomaniac: from now on, it’s all and only philosophy. He’s busy on another book, Does Anything Really Matter?, in which he’ll respond to critical responses to On What Matters.
His reputation, though, is already secure. He has just been awarded the prestigious Schock Prize and two generations of philosophers in their forties, fifties and early sixties revere him. Roger Crisp, a professor of philosophy at Oxford, says Parfit is the most impressive philosophical interlocutor he’s ever met. “In his work on personal identity, Parfit has taken the Humean tradition much further than any previous thinker,” Crisp says. “He has done the same with the rationalist tradition which stretches back to Plato via Immanuel Kant. And he has transformed the utilitarian tradition.”
McMahan, with whom Parfit used to stay when visiting Rutgers, and who called his basement, the “Parfit Suite,” says that his writings, especially on population ethics, have “forced a rethink on almost everything in ethics, including the value of life itself.” What makes Parfit so special, he says, “is that, like a good chess player, he sees many moves ahead—he can see the implications of claims that no one else can see.”
Reasons and Persons is an archetype of a particular approach to philosophy in general and moral philosophy in particular. It proceeds carefully, and methodically, constructing arguments and testing intuitions with thought experiments, from which it generates principles that can be transposed, or so it is claimed, onto the real world.
Many moral philosophers practice their discipline in this way, though none with Parfit’s depth or sheer inventiveness. It would be wrong, however, to give the impression that he is universally venerated. For many philosophers, Parfit’s approach is wholly misguided. Among the objections made to it, perhaps the most powerful is that ethics does not lend itself to a sort of algorithmic analysis. As Roger Scruton puts it in a caustic forthcoming review of On What Matters, “One way of being a bad person is to think that [moral dilemmas] can be resolved by moral arithmetic.” Another notable critic is Simon Blackburn who, in his review of the book, asked whether it was really, as Peter Singer suggested in the Times Literary Supplement, the “most important publication in moral philosophy” since Henry Sidgwick’s The Methods of Ethics in 1874. Or was it, Blackburn wondered, instead “a long voyage down a stagnant backwater?” He left the reader in no doubt as to his own verdict.
n the 1940s a Viennese paediatrician Hans Asperger carried out pioneering work on a group of troubled children. But it was only in the 1980s that Asperger’s Syndrome became recognised as a medical disorder. There are a number of symptoms. They include literal-mindedness, the failure to read social signs and narrow, obsessional preoccupations. Because Asperger’s is relatively new to the psychological literature, few people older than 40 have been diagnosed with it.
Several of Derek’s friends mention “Asperger’s” when I ask them about him. What does he himself think? Might it explain the quality of some of his social interactions and his unusual lifestyle? “There may be something in this suggestion,” he says, though he also attributes it to a boarding school education. The same friends also comment that his remarkable nature has required a huge amount of adjustment on Janet’s part. She agrees. “But the adjustment was relatively straightforward once I had figured him out and stopped looking for what was not there. His way of life gives me enormous independence.”
Although Janet returned to Oxford to teach in 2008, there is still a great deal of shuttling back and forth between there and London, sometimes together, but often separately. Not surprisingly, she says, “many people don’t realise that [Derek and I] are connected.” But the couple have always communicated constantly. Whenever I went to Janet’s house in London to discuss my doctoral thesis, the sessions would invariably be punctuated by calls from Derek. Janet was then teaching at University College London and spent most of her life in the capital. Derek was in Oxford. They spoke many times every day. Here was obviously an extremely close and affectionate relationship between two people who were intellectually, morally and aesthetically compatible. Yet, at some level, Derek seemed strangely unaware that Janet was 60 miles away. “It matters to him that I exist,” she says, “but it matters much less that I’m around.”