Derek Parfit

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Derek Parfit (born December 11, 1942) is a British philosopher who specializes in problems of personal identity, rationality and ethics, and the relations between them. His 1984 book, Reasons and Persons (described by Alan Ryan in The Sunday Times as "something close to a work of genius") has been very influential. He has worked at Oxford for the whole of his academic career, and is presently an Emeritus Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. He is also a Visiting Professor of Philosophy at New York University, Harvard University, and Rutgers University. Between 1965-66 he was Harkness Fellow at Columbia University and Harvard University [1].


Ethics and rationality

Reasons and Persons is a four-part work, each successive section building on the last. Parfit believes that non-religious ethics is a young and fertile field of inquiry. He asks questions about which actions are right or wrong, and shies away from meta-ethics which focuses more on logic and language.

In Part I of Reasons and Persons Parfit discusses "self-defeating theories", namely the self interest theory of rationality (S) and two ethical frameworks: common sense morality (CSM) and consequentialism (C). He posited that the S has been dominant in Western culture for over two millennia, often making bedfellows with religious doctrine, which united self interest and morality. Because S demands that we always make self interest our supreme rational concern and instructs us to ensure that our whole life goes as well as possible, S makes temporally neutral requirements. Thus it would be irrational to act in ways that we know we would prefer later to undo.

As an example, it is irrational for a 14-year-old to listen to loud music or get arrested for vandalism if he knows such actions would detract significantly from his future well-being and goals (such as an academic career in philosophy or having good hearing).

Most notably, the self-interest theory holds that it is irrational to make any acts of self-denial or to act on desires that negatively affect our well-being. One may consider an aspiring author whose strongest desire is to write an award-winning novel. However, in doing so, she suffers due to lack of sleep and depression. Parfit holds that it is plausible that we have such desires outside our own well-being, and that it is not irrational to act to fulfill these desires.

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