Derek Parfit on the New Yorker

I have been meaning to post about this article since it came out a couple of months ago and I finally get around to it.  It is a long New Yorker article about the philosopher Derek Parfit.  Students at Puget Sound encounter Parfit in courses like Introduction to Philosophy, Metaphysics, and I taught a senior seminar on personal identity last spring where we spent about half the semester reading his work.  Here is an abstract of the article:

ABSTRACT: ANNALS OF IDEAS about the moral philosopher Derek Parfit. Most of us care about our future because it is ours—but this most fundamental human instinct is based on a mistake, Derek Parfit believes. Personal identity is not what matters. Parfit is thought by many to be the most original moral philosopher in the English-speaking world. He has written two books, both of which have been called the most important works to be written in the field in more than a century—since in 1874, when Henry Sidgwick’s “The Method of Ethics,” was published. Parfit’s first book, “Reasons and Persons,” was published in 1984, when he was forty-one, and caused a sensation. The book was dense with science-fiction thought experiments, all urging a shift toward a more impersonal, non-physical, and selfless view of human life. Parfit’s view resembles in some ways the Buddhist view of the self. After Parfit finished “Reasons and Persons,” he became increasingly disturbed by how many people believed that there was no such thing as objective moral truth. This led him to write his second book, “On What Matters,” which was published this summer. Parfit lacks the normal anti-social emotions—envy, malice, dominance. He is less aware than most of the boundaries of his self, and he is helplessly, sometimes unwillingly, empathetic. Parfit was born in China, in 1942. The following year, his family moved to England. In the early summer of 1961, he went to work at The New Yorker, as a researcher for The Talk of the Town. In the autumn of 1961, he went up to Oxford to read history. After Oxford, he went back to America for two years on a Harkness Fellowship. He decided to study philosophy, and he won a Prize Fellowship to All Souls, at Oxford, which entitled him to room and board at the college for seven years, with no teaching duties. He also had appointments at Harvard, Rutgers, and N.Y.U. Sometime around 1982 or ’83, the philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards moved from London to Oxford, and, after she attended a seminar that Parfit was teaching, they began a relationship. Around the mid-nineties, Parfit started reading Kant. He became more and more troubled by the ways in which Kant diverged from Sidgwick, and by the way that modern Kantians disagreed with modern consequentialists and both disagreed with contractualists. He came up with what he called the Triple Theory: An act is wrong just when such acts are disallowed by some principle that is optimific, uniquely universally willable, and not reasonably rejectable. Mentions Bernard Williams. Parfit moved out of All Souls last year. Since then, he and Richards have been living together in a house in Oxford. Last August, after nearly thirty years together, they married. Meanwhile, Parfit experienced an episode of transient global amnesia. He recovered his memory, but smaller aftershocks have continued.

You can read the whole article, from a campus computer or with subscription, here.

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