Brad Hooker on Derek Parfit’s Philosophical Legacy

By Aart van Gils and Joshua Wells

The first session of REAPP, 19th January 2017, in this term was convened under unpleasant circumstances, those being the death of Derek Parfit, who died on the 2nd of January 2017. Derek Parfit requires no introduction to those who are familiar with moral philosophy or those who read this blog (‘Equality and Priority’ was read last term). Our session was led by Professor Brad Hooker, who outlined the development of Parfit’s moral philosophy.

Parfit studied history as an undergraduate at Balliol College Oxford, then he won a Harkness fellowship to study and Harvard and Columbia. Upon returning from the USA his interests had shifted from history to philosophy. Soon after his return to Oxford, he won a fellowship to All Souls College (he follows the footsteps of other philosophical greats by receiving this fellowship such as Isaiah Berlin, Stuart Hampshire and Bernard Williams).

Parfit’s first book, Reasons and Persons, was published in 1984. At this stage, Parfit had already spent over 10 years at All Souls. It has hard to understate the impact of this book. Suffice to say, if you wanted to be taken seriously in moral philosophy, it seems like you had to be familiar with Parfit’s Reasons and Persons. This first book by Parfit spans over 500 pages and is made up of four parts. Brad very helpfully outlined the history of the book, meaning how it is a product of Parfit’s previous publications. The list of the relevant publications before Reasons and Persons is as follows:

1971. ‘Personal Identity’, Philosophical Review 80 (January): 3–27

1972. ‘On the Importance of Self-Identity’, Journal of Philosophy 68 (October): 683–90.

1973. ‘Later Selves and Moral Principles’, in Alan Montefiore (ed.) Philosophy and Personal Relations, Routledge.

1979a. ‘Is Commonsense Morality Self-Defeating?’ Journal of Philosophy 76 (10): 533–45.

1979b. ‘Prudence, Morality, and the Prisoner’s Dilemma’, Proceedings of the British Academy.

1982a. ‘Future Generations: Further Problems’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 11 (2): 113–72.

1982b. ‘Personal Identity and Rationality’, Synthese 53 (2): 227–41.

1983. ‘Rationality and Time’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 84: 47–82.

Focusing on the four different parts within Reasons and Persons, and relating these parts to the list of relevant publications above, Brad gave us the insightful analysis of this monumental work in moral philosophy:

1984. Reasons and Persons, OUP.

Part One: ‘Self-Defeating Theories’ (Self-interest Theory is not really self-defeating; Common-sense Morality is self-defeating because of its agent-relativity.) See 1979a, 1979b.

Part Two: ‘Rationality and Time’ (Self-interest Theory of Rational/Good Reasons for Action is time-neutral but agent-relative, which makes it vulnerable to attack from the time-relative and agent-relative Present-aim Theory and the time-neutral and agent-neutral act-consequentialism.) See 1982b and 1983.

Part Three: ‘Personal Identity’ (Strict identity is all-or-nothing and transitive. What matters is psychological continuity and connectedness, which of course is not all-or-nothing. The metaphysical truth about personal identity impugns Self-interest Theory and extreme retributivism.) See 1971, 1972, 1973.

Part Four: ‘Future Generations’ (Repugnant conclusion: There are compelling arguments for adding people and then redistributing so as to make people equally well off. But repeating this indefinitely leads to a massively larger population of people each of whom has a life barely worth living. That is a repugnant conclusion. But where does the argument for that repugnant conclusion go wrong?) See 1982a.

Each section of this book has attracted considerable interest from the philosophical community. Producing the book undoubtedly had its impact on Parfit who afterwards was told to rest by his doctor. It appears that despite his greatness Parfit like so many academics felt the burden of publishing – a reassuring thought for philosophy students who will find themselves struggling at any stage: even Parfit was only human. Crucially, Reasons and Persons was enough for Parfit to become a permanent member of All Souls College. Brad thinks that this move from a prized to permanent fellow is something which no one else has ever done(!)

And for a long time that looked like it might be it for Parfit on the book front. The following articles might be considered those that marked Parfit’s transitional period from Reasons and Persons to his next, again incredibly influential manuscript, On What Matters:

1991a. ‘Equality or Priority’, The Lindley Lecture, University of Kansas. See 1997b.

1991b. ‘Why Does the Universe Exist?’ Harvard Review of Philosophy 1 (1): 4-5.

1992. ‘The Puzzle of Reality: Why Does the Universe Exist?’ in Peter van Inwagen & Dean W. Zimmerman (eds.), Metaphysics: The Big Questions. Blackwell. pp. 418–27.

1997a. ‘Reasons and Motivation’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supplementary Vol. 71 (1): 99–130

1997b. ‘Equality and Priority’, Ratio 10 (3): 202–21.

2002. ‘What We Can Rationally Will’, Tanner Lectures on Human Values.

2003. ‘Justifiability to Each Person’, Ratio 16: 368–90.

2004. ‘Kant’s Arguments for His Formula of Universal Law’, in Christine Sypnowich (ed.), The Egalitarian Conscience: Essays in Honour of G. A. Cohen. OUP.

However, Parfit was a perfectionist par exemple and it seemed that he would never be happy enough with the draft of On What Matters to publish it. In 2011 though, he was happy enough with some of On What Matters and published the first two volumes – the third has been made available very recently! The style of On What Matters has been almost as influential as its content. Brad gave us the following breakdown of what he – like Parfit himself – considers to be Parfit’s greatest work:

On What Matters, vols. I and II

The first volume starts with 1997a, then 2002, 2006, 2003, 1991b, 1992.

Parfit carefully considers the strengths and defects of many different possible formulations of the categorical imperative, some of which definitely count as revised formulations of Kant’s imperative. Parfit’s analysis reveals that the best (albeit revised) formulation is that everyone ought to follow the rules whose universal acceptance everyone could rationally will.

This formula holds that the correctness of proposed moral rules turns on what everyone could rationally will. According to Parfit, if we have true beliefs, what we can rationally will depends what good reasons there are for willing this or willing that. And he contends that the good reasons we can have for willing universal acceptance of one set of rules rather than another come either from facts about what the consequences would be for others or from facts about what the consequences would be for ourselves.

Parfit develops a highly impressive, though contentious, “value-based” theory of good reasons for desiring and willing. He then argues that everyone does have sufficient reason to will (and thus can rationally will) that everyone accept rules whose universal acceptance would produce the best consequences impartially considered. And he argues that there is there is no other set of rules that everyone has sufficient reason to will that everyone accept.

The second moral theory to which Parfit gives extended attention is Thomas Scanlon’s contractualism. According to Parfit, the best version of this theory is that everyone ought to follow the rules that no one could reasonably reject. There are issues about how to interpret this theory. But, on what is arguably the best interpretation of Scanlon’s contractualism, the rules that no one could reasonably reject do coincide with the rules whose universal acceptance everyone could rationally will. Hence, the best version of Scanlon’s contractualist ethics and the best version of Kantian ethics may converge on the same rules and thus coincide in their implications.

Parfit goes on to argue that both Kantian ethics and contractualism lead to rule-consequentialism, according to which an act is wrong if forbidden by the rules whose universal acceptance would have the best consequences, impartially considered. Parfit argues that the rules whose universal acceptance everyone could rationally will, which are also the rules that no one could reasonably reject, are in fact the rules whose universal acceptance would make things have the best consequences impartially considered. Rule-consequentialism is thus argued to be the upshot of the best forms of Kantian and contractualist ethics.

The first part of vol. II of On What Matters is taken up by papers by 4 critics of vol. I: Susan Wolf, Allan Wood, Barbara Herman, Tim Scanlon. Parfit then replies and adds further material.

After the vol. II of On What Matters, Parfit produced two more noteworthy publications to the study of moral philosophy.

2012. ‘Another Defence of the Priority View’, Utilitas 24 (03): 399–440.

2013. Vol. III of On What Matters. Shipped today. Also replies to critics, this time mostly about very metaethical topics.

Parfit’s absence from the philosophy community is a great loss to those who care about philosophy. His passion for philosophy can be seen this by the following anecdote. In the 1980’s, Parfit, G.A Cohen, Amartya Sen, and Ronald Dworkin took part in a reading group, which was mostly them disagreeing with each other – Brad mentioned that Oxford philosophy students referred to these sessions as ‘Star Wars’, for obvious reasons. It is said that in this room of greats, Parfit stood out due to not having any ego in the debate, he was only interested in following the logic and testing the strength of the arguments discussed. This is what philosophy has lost, a great and innovative mind, for whom all that mattered was the truth.

We would like to end this blog by saying thank you to Brad for an incredibly insightful talk about one of most interesting philosophers of the past century who will matter to the discipline for (at least) decades to come.