Derek Parfit died on 1st January 2017. He was one of the supreme moral philosophers of our time. I am struck on how the absence of a person that just like me did not believe in a convincing definition of personal identity can make me so profoundly sad.
He made a deep impression with his claim on the non-existince of individuals in one of his first papers, and his first book “Reasons and persons”. Here, he claimed that we are indeed networks of our experiences and actions, yet there is no convincing definition of a personal identity. While he agreed that as a construct we have to assume in our daily life that we are separate from others, he gained at some point in his life the insight that it is indeed the network of interactions that defines us. In addition, experience alters us, making us today a different constructed individual as compared to tomorrow. Lastly, it left an impression that he presented several thought experiments that prove that we cannot be convincingly defined. The most famous example is the transportation of a person from Earth to Mars. In the process the original person on Earth is destroyed, and a facsimile is created on Mars. Did the person travel? And more importantly, what if the “original person” on Earth is not destroyed? Are there two same individuals? I consider it to be highly convincing that the construct of personal identity does not really exist.
Naturally, we all have constructed roles in society, and cannot completely uncouple ourselves from these roles. Based on the numerous obituaries about Derek it seems that he was trying to uncouple from himself. He bought the same clothes several times to not think about what to wear. He seems to have had the same drinking bottle for years to an end. And while there are uncountable description of his friendliness, there are also indications that he did not mind meeting a person anew repeatedly, while the person tried to explain that they encountered each other before. He also went through great length to have his photos -he was an avid photographer- developed and later altered by computers, as normal processing did not match the colours or amount of electric poles he considered to be correct in his reality.
Derek Parfit was also unique in academia as he only wrote two books. His second book -On what matters- was circulated for years to an end in the community, and hundreds of people commented on it before publication. Much of the text of volume 2 are reviews of his text, on which he replied as well within the book. Such a model of reviewed books published on a less than decadal frequency is next to non-existent in academia by now. However the impact of his books is incredible, and I agree that it is quite impressive and pleasing to read his account to create a holistic ethics. While this is of course all still philosophy, to me the strong point about his books is how much these can guide daily action and reflection. To me, Derek is almost like one of the core thinkers that can advise us how to live and act. For me as a sustainability scientist, it is remarkable how Dereks work includes the necessary ethics for sustainability. His work is so integrative, that it does not even rely on sustainability of other constructs, but is way more holistic.
Most consolidating to me are his accounts of the future. He dismissed pessimists, and I agree with him that the good that might happen in the future may outweigh all previous bad. He also dismissed the necessity of suffering. He was also widely critical of utilitarian standards, arguing that a large slightly happy population does not equal a small very happy population. To me he thus opened a door to question our underlying thought models which future we want to achieve, and which frameworks help us to achieve this future. He called that one of the three integrating principles guiding our action should be the question what makes an outcome go best. Looking at his triple theory:
An act is wrong if and only if, or just when, such acts are disallowed by some principle that is
1) one of the principles whose being universal laws would make things go best,
2) one of the only principles whose being universal laws everyone could rationally will….
3) a principle that no one could reasonably reject.
it is already demanding discussion to define reasonable understandings and rationality. The core question to me is how we understand what makes an outcome go best. We have to overcome ignorance, and in the process would overcome many wrong actions, suffering and not-good experiences. However making an outcome go best is a complex reflective excercise. His third volume shall gives more information in how he can actively apply this, and will answer even more question on normative and psychological reasons. I hope that the fourth volume can be at least partly published, as here he promised to be even more concrete on how we should act in daily life.
I personally decided that after consulting Derek last book once again, will make the triple theory as the guiding principle of my action for a few months, and assume that I cannot reverse using the triple theory as guiding principle. While I am aware of the loftiness and ambition that this experiment has, I want to make my daily actions reflected based on Dereks thoughts and ideas. I would be glad that since I agree with so much of his claims, that his insights might continue in me, and the network of experiences that “continues even though the direct relations between his present experiences and future experience is discontinued through his death” (his words) will go on. I can only encourage others to read Dereks work. He once wrote: “What matters now the most is that we avoid ending human history.” If humankind would engage more in his thoughts, and try to apply them then his claim might even more and faster become a reality, that: “Even if the past has been in itself bad, the future may be good, and this goodness may outweigh the badness of the past”.