Derek Parfit, who died recently, in two videos from an old TV series…

Parfit was known for his attempts in Reasons and Persons to gently dilute our sense of self using thought experiments about Star Trek style transporters and turning himself gradually into Greta Garbo. I think that by assuming the brain could in principle be scanned and 3D printed in a fairly simple way, these generally underestimated the fantastic intricacy of the brain and begged questions about the importance of its functional organisation and history; this in turn led Parfit to give too little attention to the possibility that perhaps we really are just one-off physical entities. But Parfit’s arguments have been influential, perhaps partly because in Parfit’s outlook they grounded an attractively empathetic and unselfish moral outlook, making him less worried about himself and more worried about others. They also harmonised well with Buddhist thought, and continue to have a strong appeal to some.

Myself I lean the other way; I think virtue comes from proper pride, and that nothing much can be expected from someone who considers themselves more or less a nonentity to begin with. To me a weaker sense of self could be expected to lead to moral indifference; but the evidence is not at all in my favour so far as Parfit and his followers are concerned.

In fact Parfit went on to mount a strong defence of the idea of objective moral truth in another notable book, On What Matters, where he tried to reconcile a range of ethical theories, including an attempt to bring Kant and consequentialism into agreement. To me this is a congenial project which Parfit approached in a sensible way, but it seems to represent an evolution of his views. Here he wanted to be  a friend to Utilitarianism, brokering a statesmanlike peace with its oldest enemy; in his earlier work he had offered a telling criticism in his ‘Repugnant Conclusion’

The Repugnant Conclusion: For any possible population of at least ten billion 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.

This is in effect a criticism of utilitarian arithmetic; trillions of just tolerable lives can produce a sum of happiness greater than a few much better ones, yet the idea we should prefer the former is repugnant. I’m not sure this conclusion is necessarily quite as repugnant as Parfit thought. Suppose we have a world where the trillions and the few are together, with the trillions living intolerable lives and just about to die; but the happy few could lift them to survival and a minimally acceptable life if they would descend to the same level; would the elite’s agreement to share really be repugnant?

Actually our feelings about all this are unavoidably contaminated by assumptions about the context. Utilitarianism is a highly abstract doctrine and we assume here that two one-off states of affairs can be compared; but in the real world our practical assessment of future consequences would dominate. We may, for example, feel that the bare survival option would in practice be unstable and eventually lead to everyone dying, while the ‘privileged few’ option has a better chance of building a long-term prosperous future.

Be that as it may, whichever way we read things this seems like a hit against consequentialism. The fact that Parfit still wanted that theory as part of his grand triple theory of ethical grand union probably tells us something about the mild and kindly nature of the man, something that no doubt has contributed to the popularity of his ideas.

One Comment

  1. 1. Mike Holliday says:

    I was sorry to hear of Parfit’s death, since I read his early articles on personal identity as an undergraduate and they were very influential on me. The main thing I took from them was a strong anti-essentialist and pragmatic message. I did read “Reasons and Persons” sometime in the late 1980s. I then re-read the book last year, but was rather disappointed since I hadn’t appreciated, or had forgotten, that the main thrust of the book was to develop an objective moral theory. This was something that I found uncongenial and overly rationalistic, as I tend to think of moral evaluation as part of something that humans just do – and ironically one of the reasons why my thoughts developed in that way was reading Parfit’s articles on personal identity way back when.

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