Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality

David Edmonds

If you’re not a philosopher, you can be forgiven for never having heard of him, but within philosophy Derek Parfit is widely regarded as one of the most important moral philosophers of the past century. Some go further, claiming he was the most important moral philosopher since John Stuart Mill.

Among other things, he’s famous for his arguments about personal identity – what, if anything, makes a person the same person over time.  He also created a flourishing sub-genre in ethics, population ethics.  In particular, he was interested in what our obligations are to future people – people not yet born.  This is most obviously relevant for how we should think about climate change.

Had it not been for his Harkness Fellowship, Parfit and philosophy might have remained strangers. His undergraduate degree at Oxford, was in history.  He was the best historian of the year.   His tutor, Christopher Hill, was one of his Harkness referees and wrote that Parfit was “the ablest pupil I have ever had.” Another referee taught him at Eton: “The most brilliant young man l have ever tutored.”

Parfit’s initial Harkness study proposal was vague – he wanted “to see the future, and how it works.” He was interested in new developments in society, such as abundance, automation and increasing leisure.  But he ended up going in an entirely new intellectual direction.

On 13 January, 1965, he boarded the ageing Queen Elizabeth Ocean Liner at Southampton for the six-day Atlantic crossing to New York.  His cohort that year included the novelist David Lodge, but Parfit arrived later than the others, after requesting a few months grace to study for the All Souls College Prize Fellowship exam.

He was initially based in New York, and he chose as his first accommodation, the chaotic, seedy, 12-storey redbrick Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street, which maintained a louche charm and was a favourite haunt of numerous artists and writers.  Arthur Miller moved there in 1961, following his divorce from Marilyn Monroe, and stayed on for six years.  At around the time Parfit was in residence, Miller would have breakfast with Arthur C. Clarke, who was developing 2001: A Space Odyssey with Stanley Kubrick.  Clarke was on the top floor and subsisting on tea, crackers and liver pâté.  No doubt their conversation would have turned to the death of Winston Churchill, who passed away five days after Parfit moved in.

After that, Parfit rented an apartment on the upper West Side. He was affiliated with both The New School and New York University, but also attended classes at Columbia, including philosophy classes.  When The New Yorker profiled him,  he told them that “he went to a talk in America by a ‘continental’ philosopher, which was on some important subject such as suicide, or the meaning of life, but which I found very obscure.  I also went to a talk by an analytical philosopher, on some very trivial subject, which was very clear.  I remember wondering whether it was more likely that the continental philosophers would change, by discussing their important subjects in a clearer and better argued way, or that the analytical philosophers would change, by applying their clarity and logic to important subjects.  I decided that the second seemed more likely, and I think I was right.”

He also attended a class on Ethical Theory led by Robert Paul Wolff.  “Derek showed up as a traveling student and asked whether he could sit in on my lectures on ethical theory.  Naturally I said ‘yes’. At the end of the semester, he asked whether he could submit a paper even though he was not taking the course for credit. Well, I thought, I am going to get a batch of 20 papers, what’s one more? So I said yes.”

That proved naïve.  Parfit soon showed up with an essay 48 single-space pages long. It turned out to be a defence of act-utilitarianism, the theory that in any situation we should always act to produce the best possible consequences. “Needless to say, it was worth the time I took to read and comment on it.” After that semester Wolff never saw Parfit again, “but it will come as no surprise to learn that he stuck in my mind.”

The summer of 1965 was spent on the road.  As with other Harkness Fellows Parfit was given money to purchase a car, and was expected to spend a couple of months traversing as much of the US as he could.  He travelled with a girlfriend, Mary Clemmey.  They reached Los Angeles shortly after the Watts riots.

Along the way they picked up a friend of Mary’s who was accompanied by a young British philosopher, David Wiggins. Wiggins would himself go on to develop an international reputation. He had given a series of lectures in Oxford under the title, The Absoluteness of Identity.  This was linked to an ancient issue in philosophy. If a block of marble is a substance, is it still the same substance when it is fashioned into a sculpture? It was fortunate for Parfit that by sheer chance, the person sitting in the passenger seat was (at this stage) considerably more learned and immersed in philosophy than was he.  With his interest in identity, Wiggins appears to have significantly influenced Parfit’s future philosophical direction.

Soon they reached Las Vegas, where the quartet discovered that one of the beds had a quarter slot, that, if fed, gently shook the frame for a minute and a half.  It kept them entertained for half the night. After the two couples went their separate ways, Derek and Mary drove back to New York through the South.  In Alabama they had an encounter with the brutal racism then pervasive across the American South. On one hot and humid evening, Parfit and Clemmey went to eat at a small family-run burger joint.  There was no air conditioning, just a revolving, throbbing, ceiling fan.  A white teenage girl, “sweating profusely”, handed them the menus.  “We were utterly flummoxed that it showed the burgers as costing $50.65 and a Coke as $50.15.  When we queried this, she said in a Southern drawl, ‘Pay no mind to those prices, they’re just for the coloured folk’.”

By now, Parfit had become convinced that his future lay in philosophy – and he applied to study for the two-year Oxford BPhil degree.  In the meantime, he arranged a stint at Harvard, where he worked with John Rawls.  Rawls would blow the dusty lid off political philosophy with A Theory of Justice, a huge book that reinvigorated philosophical interest in questions of justice and equality, especially as these values pertained to liberal democracies.

He was so taken with Parfit that he tried to persuade him to stay on at Harvard, to do a PhD. Parfit was tempted and sought permission from the Commonwealth Fund; political and moral philosophy in the second half of the 20th Century might have been radically altered had his plan been approved.

But as readers of this article will know, the Harkness rule is, and was, that you had to leave the US after the Fellowship, and the Commonwealth Fund would not budge.  So Parfit returned to Oxford and the BPhil.  He had at least decided definitively to shift disciplines.  As his friend Edward Mortimer later put it.

“The rest is…well, not history I suppose”

About the Author

David Edmonds is a Distinguished Research Fellow at Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.  He has written many philosophy books (and one book about chess).  He also co-hosts the popular philosophy podcast, Philosophy Bites. He was a Harkness Fellow at the University of Chicago, 1993-4. His new book, Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality, will be published in April 2023 by Princeton University Press. He has focussed here on Parfit’s Harkness Fellowship.

David’s book, Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality,  will be published by Princeton University Press in April 2023