Jeff Mcmahan on Derek Parfit

by on March 31, 2017 at 1:05 pm in Philosophy | Permalink

Above all else, dedicated:

Parfit had a native genius for philosophy. But he also devoted more time and concentrated effort to the development of his ideas than any other philosopher I have known. He once mentioned a passage in a book of economic history that noted that the concept of work had sometimes been understood in such a way that work was necessarily unpleasant. On this understanding, Parfit almost never worked. Yet throughout his adult life he did little other than think about, read, and write philosophy. When I visited Oxford in January and February of 2014, I stayed in his house. During those months, he left the house only a few times. In all but one instance, he left only to walk a few blocks to buy fruits and vegetables for his spartan meals. The other instance was when he walked with me to an appointment I had so that we could continue the philosophical discussion we were having. The one exception to his monomaniacal commitment to his philosophy was his architectural photography, samples of which appear on the covers of his four books. But he gave that up many years ago when he came to fear that he might not live long enough to complete his remaining work in philosophy.

There are many anecdotes about the ways in which Parfit simplified his life to take as little time as possible away from his work. He ate only twice a day, with almost no variation in what he had at each meal. He ate cold food only, mostly fruits and vegetables without any preparation. Even when he could have had freshly ground coffee with only a minute’s additional preparation, he drank instant coffee, often with water straight from the tap. He sometimes kept a book open on the chest-of-drawers so that he could read while putting on his socks. His speed in reading was phenomenal, in part because his power of concentration was prodigious. Wanting to preserve his mental and physical capacities, he took an hour every evening during his last decade to get vigorous exercise on a stationary bicycle, but never without reading philosophy (or occasionally physics) while furiously pedalling.

Parfit’s kindness and generosity, not only to his students and friends but to others as well, are legendary. The comments he gave to people on their manuscripts were sometimes longer than the manuscripts themselves, and the comments were invariably articulated in the gentlest, most tactful, encouraging, and constructive way possible. He frequently wept, not for himself but always from compassion for others.

Here is the full piece, the final two paragraphs are a complete gem.  That is via Joshua Cohen, and various retweeters.

1 rayward March 31, 2017 at 1:37 pm

Complacent?

2 asdfG March 31, 2017 at 4:53 pm

And here you are wasting away your life trolling the MR comments section.

3 Thiago Ribeiro March 31, 2017 at 1:42 pm

OK, the excerpt (I have not read the article yet) says nothing about friendship or family, but https://www.google.com.br/search?q=newton+huxley%3Alove&oq=newton+huxley%3Alove+&aqs=chrome..69i57.12012j0j4&client=tablet-android-samsung&sourceid=chrome-mobile&ie=UTF-8#imgrc=Id3R5fxiQ05OFM:

4 John Mansfield March 31, 2017 at 4:09 pm

So, did the devotion pay off? For those of us ignorant of his work, what were his three most worthwhile contributions? Or did he just prefer prefer reading and thinking for its own pleasure over leaving the house or cooking food, without the need for it to produce something?

5 David Wright March 31, 2017 at 4:55 pm

He is probably most famous for the repugnant conclusion: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mere_addition_paradox

6 JWatts March 31, 2017 at 5:14 pm

Good link, thanks.

7 NatashaRostova March 31, 2017 at 7:14 pm

That stuff is so nonsensical and masturbatory. It’s just playing around with what utility means and acting profound.

I actually respect and understand guys like him, since there was no reason to think, originally, that it’s nonsense — someone had to study it at first. But it’s sad people still study it today as meaningful.

8 Ray Lopez March 31, 2017 at 10:37 pm

That link seems something like Arrow’s “Impossibility of a fair vote” proof.

9 Lex March 31, 2017 at 6:29 pm

“HOW TO BE GOOD: An Oxford philosopher thinks he can distill all morality into a formula. Is he right?”
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/09/05/how-to-be-good

10 A.G.McDowell April 1, 2017 at 12:24 pm

Taking subjects, such as personal identity, and morality, which have largely been treated via different religious assertions from different religions, and showing that they can be viewed philosophically, so that people from different backgrounds can debate reasonably with each other, and perhaps come to improved understandings, is a laudable goal.

Whether it paid off also depends on the alternatives available in his culture and period of time. If, for instance, you were to view family life at that time from the perspectives of woman’s right’s campaigners and of middle aged comedians working to pay for their divorce settlements, you might indeed feel that a life dedicated to pure intellect had much to recommend it.

11 wiki April 1, 2017 at 7:05 pm

Is this taken as a serious contribution? Basic utility theory already acknowledged (for long before Parfit) that it is impossible to compare in a definitive way the welfare of two populations with different distributions. The fact that we use averages is a compromise that is known to be imperfect. Thinking that this point is deep and important is, … laughable.

12 stephan March 31, 2017 at 7:39 pm

In a way I feel sorry for the guy. He seemed to have been in a race against time to develop his philosophy. He didn’t have time for a wife, a girlfriend, a delicious meal, a hike in the woods or any of the normal earthly pleasures. He lived to know but didn’t know how to live. He needed nine lives , one to just enjoy himself and be silly, the others to spend on his philosophy

13 Thor March 31, 2017 at 9:42 pm

He seems to have had a life companion, but I agree with you. It seems paradoxical that someone could discourse so profoundly on the value(s) of the things/goods/events of human life without having experienced terribly many of them.

His life seems to have been very cerebral. That said, his masterpiece is one of the top five philosophy books I’ve ever read, even though I’m not convinced by all of his conclusions.

14 So Much For Subtlety April 1, 2017 at 3:19 am

Didn’t he refuse to take his nephew in and dumped him on Britain’s social services? It is not that he did not experience many of them. It was that he avoided them and perhaps could not feel them.

Should we allow our moral universe to be defined by people who these days would be called autistic and perhaps institutionalized?

15 Thor April 1, 2017 at 3:38 pm

Answer 1). But we don’t, much. He’s not writing policy.

On the other hand…

Answer 2). The elites are out of touch, with the benighted majority. And their idiosyncratic lifestyles should not necessarily become prescriptive.

16 shrikanthk March 31, 2017 at 8:25 pm

What was his politics like?

He was married to a feminist….Sheesh

17 The Other Jim April 1, 2017 at 9:04 am

That’s the least surprising thing ever.

Feminists love to marry doormats.

18 James April 2, 2017 at 1:57 pm

Have you ever read his wife’s work? She’s about as much a feminist as Camile Paglia is.

19 Ray Lopez March 31, 2017 at 10:40 pm

Seems Parfit was like a modern day Kant, taking his stroll every day in a spartan way that’s predictable.

Here’s a paradox for you Parfit scholars: suppose you invent a teleporter that makes a duplicate of you to allow you to travel faster than the speed of light. A mistake is made, and the exact double of yourself is left behind. Now there are two of you, at opposite ends of the universe. What do you say to the nice man who works for the teleporter company with a lethal injection who is advancing towards you, as he says: “Now please be aware there’s a second copy of you, and we’re just cleaning up the mistake; you have nothing to fear”. Kind of like the Trolley problem, but different.

20 Shane M March 31, 2017 at 11:41 pm

There was an Outer Limits episode “Think Like a Dinosaur” about that:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Think_Like_a_Dinosaur_(The_Outer_Limits)

21 So Much For Subtlety April 1, 2017 at 3:44 am

Which one gets the Filippina jail-bait girlfriend half his age?

22 Thiago Ribeiro April 1, 2017 at 7:33 am

President Temer is married to a wife younger than half his age.

23 Thor April 1, 2017 at 3:39 pm

I reckon they’ll have to fire up the machine for a second go ’round to bring her along.

24 polyglot April 2, 2017 at 12:22 am

The other you isn’t in your light-cone. Nothing you can do can affect him- unless you get to use the teleporter again. Why should you be erased? It is enough to ensure you don’t get access to a teleporter. The guy from the company may say ‘well, this is company policy’, but the policy is unconscionable because no evil is averted by its implementation whereas the implementation is evil in itself.
Why?
Well Parfit has a story about ‘Relation R’- psychological connectedness- as defining Identity. Clearly at least one copy of you has Identity of a sort which implies a moral right to exist. However, for a reason David Lewis pointed out, this Relation R also covers copies outside the original’s light cone because this fits the definition of a ‘possible world’.

25 Lanigram April 1, 2017 at 12:12 pm

He appears to have been on the autistic spectrum. I hope he enjoyed his life in his own unique way. He had his gifts and he made his contributions. I’m reminded of Turing’s test for an alien intelligence – would we recognize such a being?

26 polyglot April 2, 2017 at 12:14 am

Parfit’s parents were medical missionaries in China. I think they did a lot of ‘first order’ good. Parfit thought he was doing ‘second order’ good- i.e. he was persuading other people to do first order good. The problem is that ‘second order good’ can crowd out ‘first order good’- i.e. saying ‘do good’ can take the place of actually doing good.
The problem with philosophy, as Socrates noted, is that you must either have an equally good reason to believe what you are doing is worthless or you aren’t doing philosophy at all. In the end Parfit was a genuine philosopher because he shows his work is worthless. Tyler Cowan felt he hadn’t kept up with Choice theory. His first degree was in History so he can’t be blamed too much. At least he didn’t give terrible policy advice- like Amartya Sen.
No doubt he was an excellent academic whose enormous erudition helped his students and colleagues. Still, one feels that this is a wasted life because it was self-defeating.

Consider Derek’s ‘Triple Theory’ of Kantian Consequentialism.
‘An act is wrong just when such acts are disallowed by some principle that is optimific, uniquely universally willable, and not reasonably rejectable.”
Either no act is wrong or at least one act successfully implementing antagonomia (i.e. ‘dissent for dissent’s sake’) re. this Triple Theory is wrong. This is because antagonomia can always choose to express itself as that one wrong act. But, in this case, either antagonomia is itself wrong or else there is a principle within the theory which stipulates that antagonomia be disregarded. But this means, either dissent is forbidden or else it is ignored, ‘on principle’. Clearly this is ‘reasonably rejectabe’, not ‘universally willable’ and, if Knightian Uncertainty obtains, or Darwin, not Deuteronomy, is Schelling salient, provably non-optimific.

By contrast, a contemporary of Parfit’s was Dr. Jack Prager- who retrained as a Doctor (he had an Masters in Econ and then ran a farm) and did incredible work in some of the poorest countries in the world. Prager’s policy recommendations re. Public Health are outstanding. Perhaps his Econ background helped, but ultimately it was the fact that he had ‘walked the walk’ which made a difference. Clearly Prager had a personal philosophy but he isn’t trying to sell it to us and thus we grasp his policy recommendations more easily. Furthermore, his actions challenge the ‘repugnant conclusion’ more particularly because Prager started work in Bangladesh and Calcutta just at the time when the Club of Rome (which included an Indian philosopher/economist) was essentially saying that Bengal was a basket case. It would be kinder to just let these people perish.

27 Enrique April 4, 2017 at 10:18 am

What an asshole (Derek, that is). The irony is that Parfit probably would’ve gotten more done had he worked less: http://nautil.us/issue/46/balance/darwin-was-a-slacker-and-you-should-be-too

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