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Go to the Index of 120 Philosophers Squared

Derek Parfit (1942 – 2017) was a British philosopher who specialized in problems of personal identity, rationality, ethics, and the relations among them. No question is more sublime than why there is a Universe: why there is anything rather than nothing.

Derek Parfit

A photo of Derek Parfit about the time he wrote Reasons and Persons


Sources for Derek Parfit quotations: Stafforini, GoodReads, Common Sense Atheism, Wikiquote.



Parfit quotes

What now matters most is that we avoid ending human history. If there are no rational beings elsewhere, it may depend on us and our successors whether it will all be worth it, because the existence of the Universe will have been on the whole good.

What now matters most is that we rich people give up some of our luxuries, ceasing to overheat the Earth’s atmosphere, and taking care of this planet in other ways, so that it continues to support intelligent life.

If there were no such normative truths, nothing would matter, and we would have no reasons to try to decide how to live. Such decisions would be arbitrary. We would not be the animals that can understand and respond to reasons. In a world without reasons, we would act only on our instincts and desires, living as other animals live. The Universe would not contain rational beings.

We might neglect our future selves because of some failure of belief or imagination.

To be a person, a being must be self-conscious, aware of its identity and its continued existence over time.

What am I more than elaborate sentience?

Though everything is identical with itself, only I am me.

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.

When we know why something is true, we don’t need to ask why this thing is true.

What interests me most are the metaphysical questions whose answers can affect our emotions, and have rational and moral significance. Why does the Universe exist? What makes us the same person throughout our lives? Do we have free will? Is time’s passage an illusion?

It’s a good reason for postponing pleasures that you will then have more time in which you can enjoy looking forward to them. I remember exactly when, at the age of eight, I changed over from eating the best bits first to eating them last.

Philosophers should not only interpret our beliefs; when they are false, they should change them.

If there’s a reason why it isn’t done, give the reason—if there’s no reason, don’t attempt to stop me doing it. All other things being equal, the mere fact that something “isn’t done” is in itself an excellent reason for doing it.

When some principle requires us to act in some way, this principle’s acceptability cannot depend on whether such acts are often possible. We cannot defend some principle by claiming that, in the world as it is, there is no danger that too many people will act in the way that this principle requires.

Consider the fact that, in a few years, I shall be dead. This fact can seem depressing. But the reality is only this. After a certain time, none of the thoughts and experiences that occur will be directly causally related to this brain, or be connected in certain ways to these present experiences. That is all this fact involves. And, in that description, my death seems to disappear.

I sometimes want to kick my car[.] Since I have this anger at material objects, which is manifestly irrational, it’s easier to me to think, when I get angry with people, that this is also irrational.

When I consider the parts of the past of which I have some knowledge, I am inclined to believe that, in Utilitarian hedonistic terms, the past has been worth it, since the sum of happiness has been greater than the sum of suffering.

Non-Religious Ethics is at a very early stage. We cannot yet predict whether, as in Mathematics, we will all reach agreement. Since we cannot know how Ethics will develop, it is not irrational to have high hopes.


COMMENTS on Derek Parfit

I was intrigued by Parfit’s comment, What now matters most is that we avoid ending human history, because that has been a major problem for me too. So far as I know he didn’t do anything particular to save humanity, and I did many things. None of mine were particularly successful, so far as I know, but I did them and we are still here.

He also wrote, What now matters most is that we rich people give up some of our luxuries, … Well let the repeat go, but we all want to live our lives as best we can, and for most of us that includes physical things which consume nature’s resources. The problem isn’t that we individually consume too much for the Earth to support; the problem is there is an overabundance of us, and the human population is exploding to where the Earth can’t sustain us for very much longer. Science to the rescue? Maybe?

That is where his statement, We might neglect our future selves because of some failure of belief or imagination, becomes meaningful because it appears that human beings collectively cannot solve their population problem without stressing some resource to the failure point. When that natural problem has been encountered historically there is a population collapse, usually from wars which precipitate a widespread famine. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in order: War, Disease, Famine, Death.

There is a popular idea circulating lately here in Bend that the only moment in time that is relevant is now, now, now … now. It is coupled with a statement totally discounting any future. Parfit says, To be a person, a being must be self-conscious, aware of its identity and its continued existence over time. With his statement requiring a person’s awareness of its continued existence over time he thrusts all of these living people into the abyss of non-personhood. Well, Parfit died a couple of days ago so he can’t argue the point anymore, but I agree with him.

It’s a good reason for postponing pleasures that you will then have more time in which you can enjoy looking forward to them. It’s statements like that that make people hesitant to follow philosophers. We have experiences where not taking a pleasure when it is available means the possibility of having it goes away and is lost to us forever. We arrange our investments in pleasures such that depriving ourselves of a small pleasure in the present now will reliably bring a greater pleasure in a foreseeable future now.

It seems that many people are led astray by believing without proof what Parfit said is always true, that —

When we know why something is true, we don’t need to ask why this thing is true.

 

 

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