Derek Parfit has passed away

Here is the account from Daily Nous.  Here is Parfit on why there is a universe.  Here is the famed New Yorker profile of Parfit, amazing if you have not already read it.  Here is Parfit on death, a major preoccupation in his writings, even if it did not always come through.  And more on death here.  Of all the people I have met, no one comes closer to embodying the ideal of a questioning philosopher than did Derek Parfit.  He was relentless in the best sense of the word, and unforgettable.  And Reasons and Persons is one of the books that has influenced me most.


Daily Nous? How clever.

After reading three paragraphs of Why there is a universe, I feel very thirsty. Why?

Probably anyone who worried about the "virtue signalling" of public morality should read that New Yorker piece.

Why is that

Because most "signalling" complaints are backwards. Higher morality comes from introspection, understanding a place in the world. If later you share your perspective, it should not be waved away, every single time (at MR at least), as nothing more than signalling for status. I mean sure, people who don't have high morals might signal cravenly, but that doesn't mean that high morals should not be aspired to. In fact that is greater reason that they should be.

The truly introspective realize ever further their frailties, and see how ridiculous it is to crow of their triumphs. If you would teach me, show me your frailties.

Signalling for status is an offensive act, used to put someone else down. Self righteous is maybe a better description. There is no righteousness in self righteousness, but it is a veneer used to bludgeon others and often to offset harm. The roots may be from morality, but it isn't moral, but a tool of power.

It seems to me that both "too hot" and "derek" both take the easy way out, complaining about "signaling" without telling us how it can be distinguished from actual morality.

If the implication is that actual morality is always silent, and always yields to immorality .. it is pretty obvious that this does not lead to a good end game.

Read Matthew 23. Fits much of what is called social justice today.

This maybe the best... discussion (or well argued position) on non-topical subjects on MR in the last .... 12 months? Tyler/Alex should really do an annual feature of the most interesting comment on the MR blog. They are very... very rare but makes skimming the others worthwhile.

That's not it. The great moralist Nassim Taleb might refer to "skin in the game" here.

The only way to identify actual morality is to see someone paying a price for their beliefs.

Costless morality is always suspect.

Can you ground that Brian, with any great thinker? Or should we puzzle it out ourselves?

Say one billionaire dropped a few million to save a few thousand lives. Little hurt there. Say a dissident faced a firing squad in 1950's Soviet Union. Much cost there.

Did the dissident do more for you, morally? I personally think achievement matters. The dissident's death was probably wasted (the Soviet Union fell on economics not moral revolution).

Who was "virtue signaling" more than performing?

Yeah, the dissident who gave up his life was acting with moral courage.

The billionaire- it's less obvious.

You yourself have come on here and preened about writing checks. Now, if you had to skip lunch and dinner for a week in order to do so, you get moral credit in my book. If not, maybe you were just assuaging your conscience.

I write checks too, but it's no real sacrifice for me. Yeah, it's what I should do, and it probably helps some people, but I don't think doing what you should do with little or no sacrifice really qualifies as a moral act.

The one thing I do that qualifies as unambiguously moral to me is giving blood. Why? I really, really hate getting stuck in the arm with a needle. But I know it helps people who need blood. Skin in the game, literally.

To me, morality is tied up with courage. I don't think I'm overly courageous or overly moral, and I don't think you are either, but I greatly admire people who are.

I think you espouse a very convenient morality.

Two things. First I think we should council young men against giving too much, especially of their blood, for something that can be gained with more patience, less suffering.

Second, when you have to make up a fantasy for my life to justify your cruelty, maybe you are not acting morally.

I don't think I was acting cruelly, but maybe I was, in which case, I apologize. I love this free-wheeling forum with generally tough-minded people, and sometimes I get carried away. Like I said, I don't think I'm overly moral.

I understand your point about foolhardiness. This quote from Vonnegut is, I think, on point:

“Fathers are always so proud the first time they see their sons in uniform," she said. "I know Big John Karpinski was," I said. He is my neighbor to the north, of course. Big John's son Little John did badly in high school, and the police caught him selling dope. So he joined the Army while the Vietnam War was going on. And the first time he came home in uniform, I never saw Big John so happy, because it looked to him as though Little John was all straightened out and would amount to something. But then Little John came home in a body bag.”

I still think Little John showed moral courage, and his brief life was arguably a better life than the path of dissolution he had been on.

Don't underestimate the power of moral courage. Standing at Calvary 2000 years ago, it would have been easy to declare Jesus' life and death as pointless. I mean, he was a complete nobody. Didn't even scratch the history books.

P.S. Feel free to introspect about your own behavior here too.

I feel like I am comfortably in the zone. I definitely don't think that when I say "I gave to Habitat" the correct answer is "did it hurt?"

The correct answer is "cool."

To be fair we've already had a couple of those since WWII

Grabbers I mean, the casino owning is a first.

Since I don't expect you to go back and see it, anon:

anon January 1, 2017 at 9:51 pm
Go ahead then, explain in any terms how Obama was worse than FDR.

19 Careless January 2, 2017 at 8:27 pm
Given that I think FDR is the worst president in the history of the Republic, that’s not an argument I want to make

You want a prize for that?

I personally do not pretend to know what life I would have had to be alive in 1930, or how I would solve the moral equation for 1930 with that background.

I don't think our ancestors did too badly though. We achieved progress of all kinds.

A prize for what?

It would have been nice if he could have avoided destroying the Constitution

Did someone burn down the National Archives? Damn...

On the topic of public thinkers, is there a reason Sam Harris gets zero mention here? The only thing I found in search was a sneering reference to the writings of "new atheists."

Harris to my mind is one of the clearest thinkers and best communicators out there. Meanwhile Paul Krugman and Matt Yglesias get all sorts of play on MR. What is it?

Harris is good on religion, philosophy and big picture concepts but his views on actual politicians and people seem awfully silly at times.

Here's part of his reasoning for electing Clinton:

"In fact, Donald Trump is so unfit for the presidency that he has done great harm to our society by merely campaigning for it. The harm he could do from the White House can scarcely be imagined."

Juxtapose that statement with the people Trump selected for cabinet.

Here's Harris on Obama becoming president:

"Obama’s candidacy is genuinely thrilling: his heart is clearly in the right place; he is an order of magnitude more intelligent than the current
occupant of the Oval Office; and he still stands a decent chance of becoming the next President of the United States. His election in November really would be a triumph of hope."

As I said, silly. All the critical thinking and sharp reasoning go completely out the window. He falls for people as easily as the people he mocks fall for religion.

And to illustrate further just how ridiculous Harris was on Obama then compared to his statements on Trump now, let's revisit one of Obama's appointments after becoming president.

Van Jones - a lawyer and self-described radical communist who hadn't created a job his entire life - was selected as the green jobs czar for the United States of America.

An example of intelligence according to Sam Harris, but not to anyone living in this thing we call the real world.

I think you should print that first quote out, and put it in a drawer. My money is on it.

Relatedly, any guesses on what this means?

Or this:

(Remember viewers at home. It's listening to the President of the United States that is the "troll," and not nicely ignoring him.)

I take the Maximally Trumpist view that (1) if it is possible that a thread will be hijacked by a Trumpist, it will be actual and (2) the possibility of the threadjacking explains the event that inspired the original thread. I realize that (2), in particular, is counterintuitive but I see no alternative. This the Repugnant conclusion that the President Elect killed Parfitt

I too wondered the same thing. Sam Harris seems like Parfit 2.0. Harris does have some strongly held and controversial views on Islam that Tyler may find onerous but who knows for sure.

Controversial and true, or controversial and not true?

And if it's the former, why would it be controversial?

I don't think you understand what controversial means...

Here's my hypothesis: Maybe Tyler Cowen holds Parfit in high esteem and Sam Harris in low esteem for the same reaons that nearly all professors of philosophy do -- namely, that Parfit is brilliant and his work groundbreaking, while Harris is just obviously confused and out of his depth.

It's pretty stout to say that a UCLA neuroscience Ph.D, and an excellently spoken one at that, is just spewing out of his depth...particularly where it's not philosophical arcana that animate him.

Can you point to specific mistakes?

Perhaps it's because of Harris' advocacy of crude consequentialism that would get a failing mark in an undergraduate course? Honestly only someone who has never taken an intro moral philosophy course would be impressed by his pseudo-philosophical musings.

And re: his PhD in *neuroscience*, I have a PhD too (from a higher ranking institution than UCLA, since you seem to think that matters). But this doesn't give me licence to spout drivel about philosophy. Harris should stick to talking about his cutesy fMRI research and leave philosophy to philosophers.

I am not well-versed in academic philosophy. Nonetheless, I took a Law & Philosophy seminar from someone who (it seems) is highly esteemed in such circles, and from a lay perspective he appeared not as smart and funny as he thought he was.

Is it possible for that Harris achieves popularity with lay audiences because he cuts through b.s. that passes for profundity among academics?

Maybe it's because his fMRI studies are the worst sort of bias-confirming and NPR-seducing junk science in wide circulation.

To clarify: As emphasized in the update to the DailyNous article (, Victoria Matthew's quote from Parfit describes how he *used* to view death.

As a lazy, sloppy student of science in general, after reading the first three or four paragraphs of his essay in LRB, I was quite surprised that he confused the "absence of all things" with the vacuum. No modern Physicist would make that claim. Even more discouraging is his failure to understand (apparently) that there IS no theory of the beginning of the Universe, if by beginning we include t = 0. The Big Bang (lambda-CDM) model explicitly is limited by the physics we understand, which breaks down as you near t = 0 (going backwards in time). The Creation Event, which PRECEDED the Big Bang by definition, is a mystery - our physics, so far is completely unable to handle it. His confusion between Creation (if it actually happened - Physics is silent on that question) and the subsequent evolution of the Universe (the Big Bang) is a freshman level blunder. I stopped reading as he described the jailer and the 1000 straws. Assuming random selection, each straw is just as likely as any other of being picked. If we also assume that one is "special", then he is correct in claiming that it isn't likely to be picked. Unless one picks 10,000 times - or even 500 times. The analogy is just plain wrong. First, the known Laws of Physics are KNOWN to be incomplete. Arguing that the "fine tuning" is a problem, assumes that we understand it and its basis to claim that the alternatives are understood - an idea which is clearly physically untestable. The fine tuning argument assumes we can change one of the "fundamental" parameters without affecting the others, for instance changing the fine structure constant would have no effect on neutrino mass (if it has a mass). This is nonsense, of course. Until we know what the causative reasons are for the values the tuning have taken, we have zero ability to claim that if they were different then A, B, C would be different, and intelligent life (or matter as we know it) wouldn't exist. The idea that the tuning can be changed isn't testable science. One of the ways Science (and our understanding of our Universe) advances is asking "what if" questions - nothing wrong with that. But. There is something wrong with pretending that our answers are correct when we know they just can't be (because they're incomplete). So, given that we understand less than 5% of what is in the Universe, who the heck is this guy to suggest we're ready to answer these questions?

What does science say about the Three Body problem, and this: "Suppose that a scientist were to begin replacing your cells, one by one, with those of Greta Garbo at the age of thirty. At the beginning of the experiment, the recipient of the cells would clearly be you, and at the end it would clearly be Garbo, but what about in the middle?", see also: In 500 words or less...

Or cells are replaced many times over our lifetime already. What is the question?

Why is the death penalty more humane and logically sensible than life imprisonment? After all, once all our cells have been replaced, over time, we are no longer the people we used to be. So why punish Derek in 2016 for a crime Derek did in 2001? Derek-2001 does not exist any more.

Better to have executed Derek-2001 and so avoided punishing the relatively innocent Derek-2016.

Not so , cells of the central nervous system(CNS) are never replaced

Its not that simple.

Eg, neurons and cardiomyocytes aren't.

Well, Aristotle's writings on the vacuum still hold up.

Parfit was an analytic genius and more imaginative than any moral philosopher of his generation. Reasons and Persons represents the summit of anglo-american moral philosophy....much to learn from its virtues and vices and the limits of its methods.

He was a professor of mine and the reason I studied at Oxford.

I have not finished the New Yorker piece, but find it striking that he should have become so closely associated with moral philosophy when he came from a family so handicapped in the department of natural, normal, right conduct, that none of them - Parfit, other sister, grandparents - saw fit to take the child of the dead sister, though they had energy enough to throw into a row with the town council over his placement.

So handicapped in the department of natural, normal, right conduct that none of them could see any way to relate to a father and a sister who were not as academically inclined as they were - condemning the sister to a life of unhappiness. Which is a remarkable commentary on his understanding of real life.

I don't believe US immigration gave him a hard time because he was born in China either. It is not as if the American government didn't have lots of experience distinguishing between the children of missionaries and real Chinese people.

Although in the end what impresses me is that despite few social skills and only two books he was able to hold down a post at All Souls for most of his life. Compare with Leszek Kołakowski for instance. Truly it is a pinnacle of Western civilization.

Population ethics is a neat concept. But I find myself agreeing more with the summary of Bernard Williams's view. No grand moral system will ever be correct. I feel like morality is floating on the surface of the deeper water of human existence, including technology, psychology, living standards, and biology. As these deeper factors change, the morality will change in ways that we cannot predict. There's really no point in thinking about the far future. It's very seductive but it's vanity. Nobody knows enough to say much. And yeah, from the look of it, this guy didn't even know enough to properly take care of his relative.

But that is just a cop out. It is a way of avoiding even thinking about what is right or wrong. It offers no guide for conduct except whatever we want to do now.

There is no reason to think that morality will change with technology or whatever. Because humans don't change much. We are still close relatives to our caveman ancestors. What was moral for them is likely to be moral for us. As a good example of why your view cannot be right - even you think he was a low life for not looking after his nephew. Why? Presumably because there is a genetic link which we all still recognize as conveying obligation. What changes in technology would have to take place for it to be acceptable to dump your nephew on the British Social Services (which means a life time of abuse and neglect. If you're lucky)?

If I was in an ungenerous mood I would say that if you do not believe in your own moral framework, it is not likely to be true.

I'm arguing in favor of contemporary convention instead of systematic or unchanging moral theories. You say humans don't change much. Really? Okay, there are some features of morality that haven't changed but I'm not sure if these are that interesting. What do they tell us about the future? Say we want to know whether high GDP per capita is worth fighting for, or whether large populations or small populations are better. There are many possible futures. The human universals aren't enough to help us decide. I don't think it makes sense to think much about it because nobody in the future is going to care what we say. They're just going to do whatever they believe.

Our contemporary convention is particularly vacuous and trite. It is more or less doing whatever you feel like. Not worth much consideration.

The importance of a DNA link to Parfit's nephew surely tell us a lot about the future - we will care about it if the people in it are genetically related to us. Science Fiction is in decline because the future clearly does not belong to us and making it look that way looks more and more foolish.

There is nothing about modern technology that has changed when it comes to higher GDP. We have always put a price on fighting and weighed that against the value of the lives lost. Usually we say it is not worth it. I don't think that will change.

When people complain about large populations they usually complain about brown people. So the question about population will always be decided by DNA too. Should the US have a population of 1 billion White people of British, Swedish and German descent is a very different question to whether the US should have a population of 1 billion people from Africa. Cruel but true.

Technology, psychology, whatever, change none of these questions. They are shaped by things that were true a thousand years ago. Things that are still true now. Things that are likely to go on being true in the future. We care about whether or not Thomas Jefferson was a hypocrite for banging his

Yes and that's an example of the lack of absolute morality. Maybe the browns want a billion browns in the future, and the whites want a billion whites. Or, whatever. We will never agree on some universal correct goal, at least not until the people who are wrong are just driven to extinction, like the Neanderthal.

I don't think it is morality that changes with technology and living standards, it is that the same old ancient equations produce new answers. Should anyone starve? The answer is different when it means that some (or many) must go to bed hungry, and when no one must.

Some idiot was claiming yesterday that morality was measured by pain of the giver. Not really. And with an affluent society much can be accomplished without pain.

That New Yorker article was painful to read.

What a wanker.

That is not fair. He was cognitively diverse. Somewhere spectacularly down on the autistic spectrum.

He is also a sign of something we have lost. He was able to make reasonable contributions to Western academic life - no teaching at All Soul's unfortunately. He was able to do that because he grew up in a time that may have been tougher on homosexuals and Blacks, but was generous towards people with different brain functions. These days he would probably be institutionalized. Or at least drugged up.

The New Yorker article was was an engaging human interest piece of the kind the New Yorker is good at, a quirky academician with the luxury of doing things his way (Wittgenstein liked to wash the dishes in the bathtub), but left me no closer to understanding anything about Parfit's contributions to philosophy. The Nous article was pretty useless too. It would be nice if in a paragraph or two someone could explain Partfit's contribution to philosophy.

This is what I associate with him, anyway -

FWIW, I find the Ethics and Identity sections more interesting, and of course less abstract.

Science advances with the death of every philosopher.

Especially, the old world anthropomorphists like Parfit. If you demand that the world fits the propensities of a particular biological species the odds are against you.

I read all the links---it's obvious why he's such an important philosopher. (Don't know why so many commenters have trouble seeing it.) I think I have roughly the same view of personal identity and death as he does, but sometimes it's a struggle. Our instincts push in the other direction.

"Don’t know why so many commenters have trouble seeing it."

The links were a bare bones obit, a couple twitter tributes, an essay about the universe which I concede was beyond my ken, but I'm glad you liked it; and a New Yorker piece long on eccentricity and depressing English childhood, as the commenter above noted.

So I went to the the wikipedia page, a weird mix of mostly cursory and too prolix; better is a New Republic review of the more recent book: It's too bad we're not very connected any more to any of Bertrand Russell's most recent experiences, so he could give us a few trenchant paragraphs.

The stuff about how present actions influence the identity of future populations, and so cannot be said to "help" the people whose suffering was being averted, because other people were then born instead ... can something be profound but not very fruitful?

And [much hard to follow logic] QED we ought to love other people's kids as much as our own? A supreme ethics may be brilliant, but it's doomed if it is unnatural.

Then too I just spent five minutes reading about an ACME Company remote control device that catapults the fat man onto the train track to stop the train from killing the people tied to the track, or something.

Is that how philosophy is still being done?

Okay ... don't go changing.

I don't agree with his ideas on future populations but as philosophy goes it seems compelling. I'd like to see a detailed reply by folks who are not moral realists.

I would like that too. And a simple statement of his resolution to the Future Generations Problem. I looked for it here ( but he had not yet arrived at it, I guess. He writes clearly, but at such great length I am not able to get very far.

I paused at this paragraph:

"Consider, finally, slaves ... We object to slavery even when the slaves have lives well worth living. Consider Athens as it actually was, with its wonderful culture supported by slaves ... Other things being equal, it would have been better if none of the slaves had existed, and only machines existed in their place. Here we might agree."

I think this only makes sense if identity as traditionally conceived is meaningless as (I guess?) Parfit believes. If it is not, the Greek slave's life is unusually well worth living, as he lives in the knowledge that who he is is so valuable to the Romans they require his service, and that his culture, which otherwise fades, is being transmitted. It is not central to his argument and being invoked so curtly must be treated elsewhere in his writing, and no doubt persuasively. But it struck me as very contrary.

And I would be interested in hearing how the lives of other creatures fit into his ethics - I know they must not be subsumed under Contributing to Human Quality of Life.

Each time someone famous, influential or simply cherished dies, we go through the same thing. "What a terrible loss". We age and we die and it seems that there isn't enough of life. He was preoccupied with death. Even the best philosophers fall short confronted with it. As people age, nearly everyone becomes preoccupied with aging and death. Never mind Em and such, why not make all efforts to extend healthy biological life.

Why isn't there a Manhattan project for aging ? Is there no support? Is it too expensive ?, I am guessing it is not compared to the payoff . Isn't that the number one problem humanity has ever faced ? ( humanity not evolution)

Parfit gets close to the idea of evolutionary universes, where stable ones somehow multiply and become more statistically likely.

As a thought experiment- suppose Hannan consistent 'regret minimization' under Knightian uncertainty (rather than Von Neumann probabilistic 'utility maximization') had been the paradigm of 'rationality' for pedagogy- would Parfit's thought have had a different trajectory?
In this case, Parfit's 'persons' would have had mixed-strategy 'reasons' and Public Morality would have been envisioned in terms of Evolutionarily Stable strategies- including the need for accepting antagonomic preferences. In other words, Parfit would not have felt Bernard William's antinomianism to be a 'scandal' but something required by his theory.
Interestingly, actual Buddhism- unlike what one meets with in Philosophy books- has a way of incorporating 'regret minimizing' intentionality through its ontological notion of an 'antarabhava' which parallels the Arab 'barzakh' or Greek 'metaxu'.
Ultimately, Parfit's work reflects on, not Philosophy, by certain hypertrophied academic availability cascades whose 'persons' are as but Golems with 'amat' (Truth) inscribed on their foreheads by some Professor. Once the aleph in amat is erased- once we see these being are not animated by truth but are dead (mat)- the Golem crumbles back into dust.
Parfit is now in 'bardo' or 'barzakh' (limbo) and perhaps it is only now that his 'reason' acquire lucidity because he has finally become its compossible person by returning to clay.

Signalling can arise from first order engagement (in which case there is a 'demonstration effect' or mimetic kinetic) or remain second order simply. It would be easy to show that even genuine 'second order' effects correspond to non commutative operators and thus increase Uncertainty.
Parfit, according to Peter Singer, ended up endorsing a silly 'second order' effective altruism which Economists know to be wicked and worthless.
I personally have a lot of love for that charming man and regret that my natal country did not make it easy for Doctors, of whatever color or creed, to come to help our poor. Dr. Jack Preger was a bright guy with an Oxbridge MA in Econ. He retrained as a Doctor and came to the East. Great man. When he says something, it's worth listening. When Amartya Sen or Parfit or Nussbaum say something- this is not the case.
The tragedy is Parfit's parents were Medical missionaries. People like Sen, or my father come to that, were trying to stop 'White Man's burden' types coming to our horrible countries coz...dunno, it seemed a good idea at that time.
I think Parfit would have changed course, had some brown or black person said to him- 'Screw Moral Philosophy- us guys don't give a shit about it. We're just here for a Credential and to learn ways to baffle your F.O's bullshit. So, dear fellow, study Medicine or Agronomy or something useful. Otherwise, shut the f**k up'
The same end would have gained if someone had explained to Parfit that Sidgwick, unlike Wickstead, was ab ovo fuxd because, as Coase pointed out w.r.t stupid Yankees, he didn't get the global nature of the concept of opportunity cost.

He would have benefited from a rigorous course or two in probability and statistical inference. His babbling on about the estimated probability of the universe, of life, of himself, etc. despite having no "given that" conditionals from which to do his calculations belies the claim that he's some sort of deep thinker.

Absolutely gutted by this loss. Derek Parfit is my favorite intellectual *by far.* Deeply hurt by this.

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