What a Sad Loss: Derek Parfit (1942-2017)

Derek Parfit

On January 1, we lost one of the most influential moral philosophers of 20th century. Derek Parfit was  Emeritus Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford and visiting professor of Philosophy at NYU, Harvard and Rutgers. His book ‘Reasons and Persons’ claimed to be one of the important works in moral philosophy literature.

Parfit on death:

“When I believed the Non-Reductionist View, I also cared more about my inevitable death. After my death, there will [be] no one living who will be me. I can now redescribe this fact. Though there will later be many experiences, none of these experiences will be connected to my present experiences by chains of such direct connections ….  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…. When I review the arguments for this belief, and reconvince myself, this for a while stuns my natural concern for the future…. Thinking hard about these arguments removes the glass wall between me and others. And, as I have said, I care less about my death. … Can this matter all that much?” (Reasons and Persons)

via Daily Nous

Parfit on What Matters:

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.

Areas of Interest:

Reasons, persons, ethics, meta-ethics, epistemology, normativity, the
passage of time, systematic moral theories, Kant’s ethics, contractualism,
consequentialism, pluralist common-sense morality, deontological
prohibitions, ontology, reality, existence, cosmogony, and what matters.

Derek Parfit
 image credit: © Gerard Vong


Reasons and Persons  On What Matters (Volume 1)  On What Matters (Volume 2)

On What Matters (Volume 3)  Does Anything Really Matter


‘Personal Identity’ – Derek Parfit (The Philosophical Review: 1971)

Extended Profile:

‘How to be Good’ – Larissa MacFarquhar (The New Yorker: 9.5.11)


‘Derek Parfit (1942-2017): Jeff McMahan says farewell to a friend’ – Jeff McMahan (Philosophy Now)

‘Derek Parfit (1942-2017)’ – Justin W. (Daily Nous)

‘An Undisputed Pillar of the Contemporary Canon of Western Analytic Philosophy’ – Cody Fenwick (New York City Patch)

‘In the Estimation of Many Us, Perhaps the Greatest Moral Philosopher in Our Midst’ – David Shoemaker (PEA Soup)

‘The Whole Philosophy Community is Mourning Derek Parfit. Here’s Why He Mattered’ – Dylan Mathews (Vox)

‘Derek Parfit, Philosopher Who Explored Identity and Moral Choice, Dies at 74’ – William Grimes (The New York Times)


‘An Interview with Derek Parfit’Key Philosophers in Conversation 


‘Tanner Lectures 2002-2003’ – Derek Parfit (audio)

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