Mar 15th 2017

A Life that Mattered

PRINCETON – On January 1, Derek Parfit, one of the greatest philosophers of my generation, died. Just a year earlier, in a poll on a leading philosophy website, Parfit had been voted the most important living Anglophone philosopher.

Of all the philosophers I have known since I began to study the subject more than 50 years ago, Parfit was the closest to a genius. Getting into a philosophical argument with him was like playing chess with a grandmaster: he had already thought of every response I could make to his arguments, considered several possible replies, and knew the objections to each reply as well as the best counters to those objections.

Parfit was not a household name. Few people outside the world of academic philosophy have read anything he wrote. Nor did he appear on television, although late in life, he spoke about effective altruism, and two of those talks can be seen online.

He also published very little before his first book, Reasons and Persons, came out in 1984, when he was 42 years old. His readers then had to wait another 27 years for his second book, On What Matters, unless they were able to read one of the drafts that Parfit circulated in order to receive suggestions for improvement.

To say that Parfit wrote only two books, however, is misleading. Reasons and Persons brings together novel ideas on three separate topics. First, he discusses theories of rational action. Is it rational always to act in our own interests, or to act in accordance with our present desires, or to bring about the best consequences for everyone, timelessly?

The second topic is personal identity. Whereas we commonly take the distinction between our self and others as an all-or-nothing matter, because we assume that we are the same person throughout our life, Parfit argued that our identity changes over time as the psychological connections between our earlier and later selves alter. Parfit found this view liberating: “Other people are closer,” he wrote, “I am less concerned about the rest of my own life and more concerned about the lives of others.”

In the final part of the book, Parfit asked: What is the optimum population for a country, or a planet? Should we aim for the greatest possible total quantity of happiness, or the highest average level of happiness?

Assuming that the average level of happiness is positive, these choices will diverge if increasing the planet’s population will reduce the average, but not by enough to offset the fact that now more happy people exist. In thinking about this question, we can put aside the environmental constraints that provide reasons for not increasing the population, because Parfit is trying to get at an underlying question of value. He shows that both the “total” and “average” answers have paradoxical or counter-intuitive implications. But then, so does every other answer that has been proposed since Parfit revived the problem and other philosophers began to offer their own solutions.

If Reasons and Persons could easily have been three separate books, On What Matters really is: the first two volumes were published in 2011, while a third, in press when Parfit died, has just appeared. In this monumental work, totaling about 1,900 pages, Parfit challenges the idea – almost universally assumed by economists, and by many philosophers from David Hume onward – that the role of reason is to tell us how to get what we want, but not to tell us what to want.

On the contrary, Parfit argued, desires can be irrational. It is, for example, irrational to wish to avoid agonizing pain every day of the week except any future Tuesday.

In order to show that there can be objective truths in ethics, Parfit boldly sought to reconcile three major normative theories: Kantianism, contractualism, and consequentialism. Adherents of each of these theories are, Parfit suggested, “climbing the same mountain on different sides,” taking their own routes to a common element of truth in each theory.

In On What Matters, Volume Three, Parfit again tried to reconcile three major theories, this time theories about the nature of ethics, and the basis on which one might call an ethical judgment “true.”

Parfit was not only a remarkable philosopher; he was also extraordinarily generous with the resource that was most precious to him: his time. So concerned was he about not wasting time that he read philosophy while brushing his teeth, and his wardrobe was full of identical shirts and suits so that he would not have to think about what to wear. Yet when students or colleagues sent him work, he would read it and, whether he agreed with it or not, write detailed comments, sometimes longer than the work itself. I benefited from that, as did countless others.

I will let Parfit have the last word. At a time when many people are despairing about current political trends, the penultimate paragraph of On What Matters, Volume Three encourages us to take a longer and more optimistic perspective:

“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.”


Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. He is the editor of Does Anything Really Matter? Essays on Parfit on Objectivity, which has just been published as a companion volume to Parfit’s On What Matters, Volume Three.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jul 10th 2019

 

The eight-mile ‘river of flowers’ that grows alongside a motorway nea
Jul 5th 2019
"........since World War II, 97% of unimproved grassland habitats have vanished from the UK. This has contributed to the loss of pollinating insects – and the distribution of one third of species has shrunk since 1980."
Jun 25th 2019
"For many of us, eating a meal containing meat is a normal part of daily life. But if we dig deeper, some sobering issues emerge. Every year, 66 billion terrestrial animals are slaughtered for food. Predictions are that meat consumption will rise, with increasing demand for meat from China and other Asian countries as their standards of living increase. The impact of grazing animals on the environment is devastating. They produce 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases, and livestock farming is a major contributor to species extinctions."
Jun 22nd 2019
"Throughout history, people who have gained positions of power tend to be precisely the kind of people who should not be entrusted with it. A desire for power often correlates with negative personality traits: selfishness, greed and a lack of empathy. And the people who have the strongest desire for power tend to be the most ruthless and lacking in compassion."
Jun 21st 2019
"In this era of Trump, it should perhaps come as no surprise to find supposed experts lacking in historical perspective. Yet it is still disappointing to find this deficit in the New York Times, which prides itself on clinging to a pursuit of the truth. So it is a bit sad to read the plaintive cry of Allison Schrager’s op-ed of May 17, lamenting that the domination of art markets by the super-rich will somehow force smaller galleries to go out of business, and imperil the careers of young artists."
Jun 17th 2019
Extract: "ust as an earlier generation resisted the limiting post-War era "white middle class" definition of being American by giving birth to an awakening of cultural pluralism and ethnic pride, it falls to our generation to fight for an expanded view of the idea of being American that rejects the narrow view projected by Trump and white nationalists. The idea of America isn't theirs. It's bigger than they are and unless our national cohesion is to unravel, this challenge must be met by projecting an inclusive vision of America that celebrates our inclusive national identity in an increasingly globalized world."
May 28th 2019
Whatever other attributes Homo sapiens may have – and much is made of our opposable thumbs, upright walking and big brains – our capacity to impact the environment far and wide is perhaps unprecedented in all of life’s history. If nothing else, we humans can make an almighty mess.
Apr 29th 2019
A century ago, unspeakable horrors took place on every continent that were known only to the victims and the perpetrators. Not so today. As a result of advances in communications – from the telegraph and radio to satellite television and the internet – the pain and loss of global tragedies are brought home to us in real time.   Because of this expanding consciousness, the post-World War II era has witnessed the rise of visionary leaders and the birth of countless organizations dedicated to alleviating suffering and elevating the causes of peace, human rights, and tolerance among peoples. Individually and collectively, they have championed the rights of peoples in far-flung corners of the world, some of which had been previously unknown to those who became their advocates. These same leaders and groups have also fought for civil rights and for economic, social, political, and environmental justice in their own countries. 
Apr 23rd 2019

 

“Cursed be that mortal inter-indebtedness which will not do away with ledgers. I would be free as air; and I’m down in the whole world’s books. I am so rich… and yet I owe for the flesh in the tongue I brag with” (Moby Dick, chapter cviii). 

Apr 20th 2019
Economists speak in numbers only, clinging to statistical data and quantitative models. We do so in the hope of looking objective. But this is counter-productive – “data” cannot tell us everything. Other social sciences such as sociology and anthropology use a broader range of methods, and consequently have a broader perspective on society. If we take our societal role of adviser on economic matters seriously, we will need to open up and adopt the insights that these other disciplines bring us about how the economy works.Politics and economics are inextricably intertwined, as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx knew all too well. Somehow this has been forgotten. This does not mean economists need to get political or choose sides. But it does mean that we ignore politics at our own peril – by blindsiding ourselves or dismissing it as “external stuff”, we hamper our understanding of the very system we study.
Apr 16th 2019
Although it is not likely that many visitors who pass by the Giacometti sculptures on their way to Las Meninas will ponder it, the contrast between these works underscores the single greatest transformation in the history of western art, from a regime in which artists tailored their works to the aims of individual patrons, to one in which artists choose their techniques and motifs according to their own concerns, and only then present the products to an anonymous competitive market
Apr 4th 2019
On March eleventh, the world lost someone who was very special, who made a mark and touched people with his voice, as a singer, a humorist and writer..........I had the great good fortune to know him and spend time with him, playing music, talking with him – he was a man of immense culture, fluent in Hebrew, German, English, and Romanian. He loved New York City and Vienna and we would often swap apartments so that he could stay in New York while I lived at his place in Vienna.
Apr 1st 2019
The ongoing controversy over admissions to American universities has overlooked the one of the most telling aspects of the scandal—that it took place with the connivance and active participation of administrative bureaucracies able to act with impunity in the pursuit of their interests. Neither the professoriate, often the target of opprobrium from the left and the right, nor the student body, also the target of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum, bore any of the responsibility.  Current debates over “what ails” U.S. colleges and universities consistently ignore the single most important dynamic of all institutions—their structure of power. I suggest that the way in which power is allocated within American universities is strikingly similar to that of Soviet-type regimes. Presidents, chancellors, provosts, deans, and their bureaucratic apparatuses preside over vast real-estate and financial holdings, engage in the economic equivalent of central planning, have inordinate influence over personnel, and are structured hierarchically, thereby forming an enormously powerful “new class” like that described by the renowned Yugoslav dissident, Milovan Djilas, in the mid-1950s. 
Mar 22nd 2019
When you think of religion, you probably think of a god who rewards the good and punishes the wicked. But the idea of morally concerned gods is by no means universal. Social scientists have long known that small-scale traditional societies – the kind missionaries used to dismiss as “pagan” – envisaged a spirit world that cared little about the morality of human behaviour. Their concern was less about whether humans behaved nicely towards one another and more about whether they carried out their obligations to the spirits and displayed suitable deference to them. Nevertheless, the world religions we know today, and their myriad variants, either demand belief in all-seeing punitive deities or at least postulate some kind of broader mechanism – such as karma – for rewarding the virtuous and punishing the wicked. In recent years, researchers have debated how and why these moralising religions came into being.
Mar 19th 2019
European food and ingredients have become staple food choices for the British. The use of ingredients such as garlic, peppers, avocados, Parmesan cheese and all those other European ingredients that are now taken for granted are relatively new and were still rare in the 1990s. When I was growing up in rural Devon in the 1970s, olive oil was only really readily available in chemists as a cure for earache – now it is found in most food cupboards. And wine drinking has permeated through all social classes.
Mar 12th 2019
The Guggenheim’s strange and wonderful exhibition of Hilma af Klint’s groundbreaking, yet largely unknown body of abstract art is an important event – one that challenges us to not only rethink the early history of twentieth century abstract art, but to recognize her vision of art and reality as unique, authentic, and deliciously puzzling. 
Feb 25th 2019
Looking at the world today, it's clear that the consequences of this imperial legacy are still with us. If anything has changed it is that we are now beyond just viewing the former "natives" as far-away oddities. They are now living within our borders, having come to find the opportunities they were denied at home. So when I hear the reactions in the West to the influx of South Asians going to the UK, or North Africans going to France, or Central Americans migrating to the US, I can only say "Guys, these are the fruits of your conquest – your chickens coming home to roost."
Feb 25th 2019
Extracts: "The new novel Sérotonine by Michel Houellebecq, the bad boy of French literature, is a saga of depression and death told with such irony and wit that readers seem to love it despite the unsettling themes. Maybe it’s just me but I found myself laughing out loud.......True to form, the French don’t agree on Houellebecq – or anything else, for that matter. The impact of his new novel has divided the readers into opposite love-hate camps with hardly any middle ground. Houellebecq cannot leave you indifferent, notes a literary friend of mine"........Picture: Michel Houellebecq, by the reviewer Michael Johnson. 
Feb 19th 2019
The term “smiling depression” – appearing happy to others while internally suffering depressive symptoms – has become increasingly popular. Articles on the topic have crept up in the popular literature, and the number of Google searches for the condition has increased dramatically this year. Some may question, however, whether this is actually a real, pathological condition. While smiling depression is not a technical term that psychologists use, it is certainly possible to be depressed and manage to successfully mask the symptoms. The closest technical term for this condition is “atypical depression”. In fact, a significant proportion of people who experience a low mood and a loss of pleasure in activities manage to hide their condition in this way. And these people might be particularly vulnerable to suicide.
Feb 19th 2019
Outstanding, experienced journalist Michael Johnson, whose articles, often accompanied by his striking portraits, has now brought his love of music and of pen, ink, gouache and watercolor to create a study of remarkable insight, strong opinions and beauty in this gorgeous book. Written in both French and English the brief descriptions of musicians he has met, studied, interviewed are accompanied by distinctive portraits that, as his title suggests, some may be caricatures. I argue that the author/artist has created insightful studies of the human face engaged in the pursuit of music. The only caricature is his own self-deprecating, slyly wry self-portrait that opens the book—and it is worth the book’s purchase on its own.