Remembering Derek Parfit

Jan. 3, 2017

On Tuesday, February 7, Derek’s old friends, colleagues, and students gathered together to share their memories of him. The event began with four brief talks on his philosophical work and then with informal remembrances of Derek.

 “When I believed that my existence was such a further fact, I seemed imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness. 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. . . . My death will break the more direct relations between my present experiences and future experiences, but it will not break various other relations.  This is all there is to the fact that there will be no one living who will be me. Now that I have seen this, my death seems to me less bad.” — Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons

  • Mark Johnston (Princeton University) spoke on Personal Identity;
  • Elizabeth Harman (Princeton University) spoke on The Non-Identity Problem;
  • Larry Temkin (Rutgers University) spoke on Population Ethics; and
  • Thomas Kelly (Princeton University) on Parfit's Philosophical Purity.

Derek Parfit was Emeritus Fellow at All Souls College at the University of Oxford and also affiliated with New York University, Harvard, and Rutgers University. He studied at Balliol College, University of Oxford and was a Harkness Fellow at Columbia and Harvard. He has been a visiting professor at Princeton, Temple, Rice, and the University of Colorado at Boulder, and he was a fellow of the British Academy and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Parfit has made major contributions to our understanding of personal identity, philosophy of the mind, and ethics, and he is regarded as one of the most important moral philosophers of the past century. In addition to many academic articles, his two books published by Oxford University Press are: Reasons and Persons (1984), which is his most known work, and On What Matters (2011).

In 2002, Parfit gave the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at the University of California at Berkeley on What We Could Rationally Will, which ultimately contributed towards his second book. 

Larissa MacFarquhar profiled Parfit in The New Yorker in September 2011 in How To Be Good.

Daily Nous has a lengthy feature on Parfit, with updates, links, and posts, including several from Princeton colleagues, students, and friends, including UCHV's Peter Singer:

With great sadness, I learned today of the loss of the greatest philosopher I have known, and of a teacher, colleague and friend. With no other philosopher have I had such a clear sense of someone who had already thought of every objection I could make, of the best replies to them, of further objections that I might then make, and of replies to them too.

Derek’s On What Matters, Volume Three is in press and will be published by OUP in February. A large part of it consists of responses to the essays in the companion volume I have edited, Does Anything Really Matter: Essays on Parfit on Objectivity, which will be published at the same time.

Derek shared the final version of On What Matters Volume Three with me, and it seems fitting now to share the final paragraphs, which give a brief statement of what Derek considered matters most, as well as an indication of what we have lost by his inability to complete his larger project.

“I regret that, in a book called On What Matters, I have said so little about what matters. I hope to say more in what would be my Volume Four. I shall end this volume with slight revisions of some of my earlier claims.

One thing that greatly matters is the failure of we rich people to prevent, as we so easily could, much of the suffering and many of the early deaths of the poorest people in the world. The money that we spend on an evening’s entertainment might instead save some poor person from death, blindness, or chronic and severe pain. If we believe that, in our treatment of these poorest people, we are not acting wrongly, we are like those who believed that they were justified in having slaves.

Some of us ask how much of our wealth we rich people ought to give to these poorest people. But that question wrongly assumes that our wealth is ours to give. This wealth is legally ours. But these poorest people have much stronger moral claims to some of this wealth. We ought to transfer to these people, in ways that I mention in a note, at least ten per cent of what we earn.

What now matters most is how we respond to various risks to the survival of humanity. We are creating some of these risks, and discovering how we could respond to these and other risks. If we reduce these risks, and humanity survives the next few centuries, our descendants or successors could end these risks by spreading through this galaxy.

Life can be wonderful as well as terrible, and we shall increasingly have the power to make life good. Since human history may be only just beginning, we can expect that future humans, or supra-humans, may achieve some great goods that we cannot now even imagine. In Nietzsche’s words, there has never been such a new dawn and clear horizon, and such an open sea.

If we are the only rational beings in the Universe, as some recent evidence suggests, it matters even more whether we shall have descendants or successors during the billions of years in which that would be possible. Some of our successors might live lives and create worlds that, though failing to justify past suffering, would give us all, including some of those who have suffered, reasons to be glad that the Universe exists.”