An Atheist’s Guide to Sainthood – – James Dominic Rooney


In his time, Derek Parfit was the sort of academic philosopher that a well-read non-specialist might know. A charismatic philosophical figure, he appeared both on film and in print, occasionally featured in the Times and similar publications. His characteristic thought-experiment-driven reasoning is not so much in vogue today as in the past, but the discussions he began regarding personal identity, and the obligations present-day people have to future people, remain relevant. For instance, can we, by our policies and actions today, infringe upon the rights of future generations? Many would be inclined to think we can. If saddling our children with massive debt would do them wrong, that might raise serious questions about our present planning in economics and politics. 

Parfit’s work has also been particularly instrumental in the rise of the “effective altruism” movement, a consequentialist movement that urges individuals to maximize the impact of their giving, even going so far as to choose lucrative careers so as to give more to charity. Such movements were endorsed explicitly by Parfit, whose work helped turn their focus toward the long-term maximization of benefits for future persons. 

Parfit’s intellectual currency has already seen significant depreciation since his death in 2017, despite David Edmonds lauding him as “one of the greatest moral thinkers of the past hundred years” in Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality. It is not my place to call this judgment into question but I do wish to comment on the way in which sic transit gloria mundi applies very much to philosophical fads. Edmonds believed that Parfit’s life held much significance for the future of philosophy. I want to reflect, therefore, on the significance of a philosophical life like that of Parfit.

I confess to having known little about Parfit’s life prior to reading this biography. 

Coming from this disinterested position, I found myself musing over the extraordinarily ambitious subtitle: “A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality.” The author paints Parfit, especially in later years, as aiming to save morality from various kinds of skepticism about the existence of objective, normative truths. In one way, it is refreshing to find an ally against the sorts of relativism or emotivism popular in our age. Yet some might wonder (as I did) whether Parfit’s goals were really to save morality or to save something else, such as the value of disinterestedly “doing good.” It remains, I think, an open question whether these are identical. 

As the author explains, “all his life Derek Parfit had a missionary zeal.” Parfit’s life story begins in Chengdu, China, where his parents were missionaries. But they gradually became disillusioned with their Christian compatriots. Derek retained the remnants of the faith a little longer than his parents, it seems, dreaming (at age seven) of becoming a monk. He prayed for his parents’ souls, asking God to save them from their lack of faith, but then came a revelation that (the author implies) influenced the direction of his subsequent academic life: “He found it impossible to believe that a Christian God, a good God, would punish people, and send them to hell, as doctrine stipulated.” 

Parfit was an eccentric in the order of taking off his pants while teaching. But, beyond all that strange behavior, he does not seem to have cared much about other people as people.

The author implies at points that Parfit’s philosophical outlook has its roots in this childhood rejection of a Christian theological vision. For instance, Parfit rejected the concepts of both moral desert and retributive punishment; his rejection of this was apparently quite animated and vehement. Yet Parfit apparently wanted to move as far away from such a vision as possible in more fundamental ways. He seems to have made it his mission to save ethics from its connection to religion. That is, he took the non-existence of God as a given, and saw one of the greatest challenges to morality in the apparent need for moral beliefs to be refounded on a decidedly atheistic basis.

Parfit concludes his first book, Reasons and Persons, with a revealing declaration: 

Belief in God, or in many Gods, prevented the free development of moral reasoning. Disbelief in God, openly admitted by a majority, is a very recent event, not yet completed. Because this event is so recent, Non-Religious Ethics is at a very early stage. … Since we cannot know how Ethics will develop, it is not irrational to have high hopes. 

Parfit’s atheism seemingly inspired him to focus on ethics as the path to making a difference in this world, as evinced by his vehement zeal in defending “what matters” (viz., the title of his second book) and aiming to bring others to endorse his own views. But Parfit’s own relations with other people were, as the author depicts them in the biography, quite odd. His own doctoral student, Ruth Chang, describes Parfit as “intensely uncomfortable in the normal social world” and “probably the strangest person I know.” She admits she acted as his “gatekeeper” to control interaction with him. Parfit was an eccentric in the order of taking off his pants while teaching. But, beyond all that strange behavior, he does not seem to have cared much about other people as people. He seems to have cared about his sister to some extent, as evidenced by their letters, and after thirty years of living together he did eventually marry his long-time partner, Janet Radcliffe Richards, but only at her suggestion that it would make things more convenient. 

Parfit impressed his colleagues as something of a saint (as Jeff McMahan remarks in his endorsement). He left a lasting imprint on those who took him to be a brilliant and insightful philosophical mind. Many students, especially those inclined toward consequentialism, were entranced by his persona. To the contrary, the biography paints a picture of someone who seems to me odd in more senses than one. 

What I find most revealing about his attitudes toward other people is his response to the question of whether the extinction of human beings would constitute a tragedy. “Parfit had little to say about this, but he once told a friend that ‘what really distressed him about the thought that mankind might cease was that there would be nobody anymore to listen to Mozart.’” He seems detached from others at many points in the biography, becoming increasingly isolated and eccentric as he ages, losing (the author suggests) that veneer of social adjustment that he projected in high school and allowing a persona that resembles that of a sufferer of Asperger’s Syndrome to come to the fore, caring less and less about others’ interests. 

On the other hand, Parfit would break down in tears at the mention of the name of someone he believed to have suffered a great deal of needless pain: Nancy Cruzan, a young woman kept alive for a number of years in a vegetative state after a car accident. The author notes that Parfit at many points seems to have regarded it as his life’s mission to show that needless pain was evil in a way that no rational person could deny: “Parfit needed his morality to be anchored in bedrock. There had to be an objective reason to relieve from suffering someone who is needlessly in pain.” 

Parfit’s famous approach to personal identity seems to supply a philosophical basis for his lack of concern: he argued that there is no answer to whether a given person persists, concluding that there are no persons, and that personal identity does not matter. I myself may or may not still exist five years or even a month from now, but this is unimportant; what matters is only whether a future person is psychologically connected to me. Other people in the present might be more connected to me than I am to my future self, and so ought to matter more to me. (The obvious coincidence with Buddhist thought is something in which he rejoiced.) Given this perspective, I wonder whether his ethical reflections are what result from someone who never really took other people and their independent existence very seriously. Other people were not what mattered, but only the way in which their psychological states were affected and affected others. And, indeed, Parfit was (intensely) pained to imagine other people suffering, and this often seems to be the chief way in which others impacted him. 

Parfit’s work will eventually be largely forgotten, except among specialists in late twentieth century consequentialist ethics. 

To me, however, this looks simply odd—not saintly. His philosophical work in What Matters aimed, for example, to show that we had objective reasons to be moral. He was very concerned to establish that everyone who thought rationally would already agree or converge on his own perspective. When others, like Bernard Williams, failed to agree with his perspective, Parfit simply argued that they lacked the concept of a normative, objective reason, and thus had missed the point of ethics. (To those who have read Williams’ “A Critique of Utilitarianism,” this seems a bit mad—as even the biography’s author admits. Williams criticized consequentialists like Parfit for ignoring the way that an intense focus on disinterested do-gooding failed to capture many other important moral values, such as integrity or love of those close to us.)

In the end, I never knew Derek Parfit the man, and can only speak to what I do know, from this biography and from some of his work. Edmonds’ biography is very well written, engaging, and summarizes Parfit’s work clearly for non-specialists. But while I can admire Parfit as a brilliant philosophical mind who could engage in complicated and insightful reasoning on genuinely important matters, I do not share the author’s admiration for him as a saint on a quest to “save morality.” Indeed, the biography’s evangelical fervor, which paints Parfit as an unparalleled genius of atheist and post-Christian morality, strikes me as absurd. Parfit the man strikes me as resembling Don Quixote, an often strange and misguided individual who had serious difficulties in relating to others, who seemed to care about the elimination of suffering but not about actual persons or their concerns, and who therefore launched on a glorious and chivalrous quest to convince everyone else that they already agreed with Parfit about what mattered. Those admirers of the radical consequentialism embodied in effective altruism, and its values of disinterested promotion of the good of all sentient creatures, will be inclined to see Parfit and those like him as self-sacrificing “bloodless” martyrs in the crusade of doing good. For the rest of us, the “moral ideals” involved just seem starkly bloodless and empty. 

I cannot say whether Derek Parfit was a good or a bad person, but I can speak somewhat to his significance as a philosophical mind. I suspect Parfit’s work will continue to progressively decline in importance over the coming years. A new fad will take the place of “effective altruism.” Debates will continue among those inclined to consequentialist views. Parfit’s work will eventually be largely forgotten, except among specialists in late-twentieth-century consequentialist ethics. 

What matters, it seems to me, lies instead in what lasts—and that was not something Parfit seems to have worked much on.


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