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The Death of Derek Parfit

“When I believed the Non-Reductionist View, I also cared more about my inevitable death. After my death, there will [be] no one living who will be me. I can now redescribe this fact. Though there will later be many experiences, none of these experiences will be connected to my present experiences by chains of such direct connections ….  My death will break the more direct relations between my present experiences and future experiences, but it will not break various other relations. This is all there is to the fact that there will be no one living who will be me. Now that I have seen this, my death seems to me less bad…. When I review the arguments for this belief, and reconvince myself, this for a while stuns my natural concern for the future…. Thinking hard about these arguments removes the glass wall between me and others. And, as I have said, I care less about my death. … Can this matter all that much?” (R&P, 281-82)

These are of course the words of Derek Parfit, in Reasons and Persons. Parfit, who died last night, was, in the estimation of many us, perhaps the greatest moral philosopher in our midst. Regardless of whether his death mattered to him, in the end, it matters to the rest of us quite a bit, and it casts a pall on the start of this New Year.

Many of us were deeply influenced by his powerful and broad writings. Others will have tales of his generosity, kindness, and gentleness. We welcome all such stories and remembrances below.



David Shoemaker

13 Responses to The Death of Derek Parfit

  1. I wrote my dissertation on Part 3 of R&P. I’ve since published probably 20 articles that are either directly on or draw heavily from Parfit’s work. I wouldn’t have done anything like what I do without his influence.

    I never had the good fortune to meet him, but he did call me out of the blue one evening when I was a grad student. I was just settling down with dinner to watch 60 Minutes one Sunday night when the phone rang. Irritated at the interruption, I picked up the phone in a mood, growling “Hello?!” Response: “Hello, David, this is Derek Parfit.” I was in CA, so it would have been 4 a.m. in Oxford, where he was at the time. He then went on to explain, with great remorse, why he couldn’t write a letter of recommendation for me that year, due to his many other time commitments and letters to write, but he promised he would do so the next year (which he did, as well as two more years after that). I sat there in a kind of stunned silence throughout, said thank you (I think!), and hung up the phone in a daze. Then I called all my friends and interrupted their Sunday nights with the news.

  2. The first paper I submitted to a journal was my paper “The Total Principle.” I submitted in the early months of 1994 to Philosophy & Public Affairs. It was, of course, rejected. But, to my great surprise, the journal passed along three single-spaced typed pages of comments signed by Derek Parfit. These were snail mailed to me at my home address. His comments started as follows: “I found the paper interesting, and liked some of its new points. There’s a problem with it, in its present form, however. Some of the author’s main points were already made by me, in the works the author cites. So the paper may not yet add enough that’s new.” Of course, he was right. And most reviewers would have left it at that, or, perhaps, added a couple paragraphs illustrating where I had made points that Parfit had already made. But Parfit was kind enough to give me detailed feedback on every aspect of the paper. And his comments helped me tremendously to revise the paper, which was eventually published in Ratio under the title “Does the Total Principle Have Any Repugnant Implications?” Also, just a few years ago Parfit wrote me a nice note, saying that he had started to work on the non-identity problem again and that he had really enjoyed reading my paper in Ratio. And he was surprised to learn that he had recommend against its publication. He had no recollection of that. But, of course, it wasn’t really the same paper at all, as I had to totally rewrite it after Parfit’s helpful comments. I’m forever grateful to have had this as my first rejection. It gave me the confidence to continue despite the long road of rejections that awaited me. He will be sorely missed.

  3. Michael Thomas Licciardi says:

    I had the opportunity to take an undergraduate level seminar with Derek in the spring of 2011. I will never forget it. He was such a kind, responsive, brilliant person. When, at the end of the seminar, I told him I was honored that he was able to remember my name, he told me that it never mattered to him whether anyone remembered his name, since names were the simplest and least significant facts about a person. He was truly one of the greatest teachers I ever had.

  4. David Sobel says:

    In 2009 Parfit helped me get a fellowship at All Souls (where Parfit then worked) for a term. Let me tell one story about my time there. On the day his class on his then book manuscript of On What Matters was starting he called me up and invited me to attend the class. He said he thought my presence would prove useful and hoped I would come. At this point I think we had not yet met. I was of course already eagerly planning to go, I was hard at work writing on his book at this point, and told him I would be delighted to attend. 5 minutes later I got a second call from him saying that likely it would be best if I did not come. The class would not be designed for someone like me, and so it would likely be a waste of my time and it would be better if I not attend. 5 minutes later a third call came. He had changed his mind and very much hoped I would attend. I was amazed that it was at all on his radar whether I would attend.

  5. Travis Timmerman says:

    I had the honor of meeting Parfit once at the University of Vermont. He was scheduled to give a talk to undergraduates there in the evening. He arrived at the university early in the morning and hung out in an office/lounge area, discussing philosophy with everyone who wanted to talk to him right up until he had to give his own talk. Though only meant for an undergraduate audience his talk was typically brilliant.

    The department took him to dinner afterward and I tagged along. There he discussed philosophy for hours. He was infatigable! During the dinner, he took the time to ask me (a no-name Syracuse graduate student) who I was and to ask me about my work. Those who know him won’t be surprised that there was no air of superiority. He paid no mind to the social hierarchy in philosophy even though he was at the top. He didn’t seem to be engaging with anyone out of politeness either, but rather genuine philosophical interest. He talked with me for a generous amount of time and kindly helped me with a paper I was working on, even though he surely had better things to do. He must have made it back to his hotel around midnight that night. He got up early the next day to do the same thing over again.

    Parfit was not only among the most brilliant philosophers I’ve ever met, but also one of the kindest. The world would be much better if more people were like him. It will surely be worse without him.

  6. […] “In the estimation of many us, perhaps the greatest moral philosopher in our midst.” — David Shoemaker at PEA Soup. […]


    The new year brings the terribly sad news that Derek Parfit has died. All who knew Derek knew that in addition to being a brilliant philosopher, he was also extraordinarily kind. He had what Hutcheson called “calm extensive benevolence.” I first met Derek in 1972. I had just gone to UNC as a beginning assistant professor, and Parfit was on the program of the Chapel Hill Colloquium that October. It was an amazing lineup. The program included Rawls, Scanlon, Lewis, Perry, Sellars, Goldman, Marcus, and Stalnaker, among others. Rawls’s Theory of Justice had just been published the preceding year, so his presence was especially impressive on Friday evening. The first two Saturday sessions stole the show though. Saturday morning featured David Lewis’s “Survival and Identity,” which took up Parfit’s “Personal Identity,” which had just appeared in the Phil Review the year before. And in the afternoon, Parfit gave the first version of his anti-Rawlsian argument that if personal identity is not a “further fact” then neither is the “separateness of persons” that Rawls had famously pointed to as the Kantian insight favoring deontology over consequentialism.

    I have always thought that even if Derek was right about personal identity on metaphysical grounds, his own personality, so distinctive and enduring, might stand as evidence that something sufficiently similar might hold for practical purposes.


    Derek Parfit (1942-2017) was the greatest living moral philosopher. He died yesterday. With Derek’s passing, I write to add my voice to those celebrating his life, his work, and his impact on others. I first met Derek as a graduate student in Oxford in 1982. I was spending the 1982-83 year as a visiting graduate student at University College. Derek was frantically preparing the final version of the manuscript of Reasons and Persons for press. In Michaelmas term he lectured on the material on personal identity and its normative significance that would be part III of Reasons and Persons. The material and the discussion were incredibly stimulating, and Derek made last minute changes to the book as a result. Derek’s fierce dedication in those sessions to getting to the bottom of things made a lasting impression on me. Not long after I took up a position at MIT in 1987, Derek began making regular visits at Harvard giving seminars about personal identity and ethics, prioritarianism, and why there is something, rather than nothing. We continued our discussions about the normative significance of reductionism about personal identity and prioritarianism inside and outside of seminar. In these years, we never managed to have a non-philosophical conversation, and I suspect that I am not alone in this experience. But Derek was the most generous and engaged philosophical interlocutor one could possibly hope for. We had long discussions in which his interest never seemed to flag, and we exchanged detailed commentaries on each other’s work in progress, from which I benefited enormously. We continued our correspondence by post and email for a few years after I moved to the west coast, but eventually lack of face-to-face contact and changes in philosophical and personal commitments meant we lost contact. Our philosophical exchanges had a profound impact on me early in my career and have exerted an abiding influence on my philosophical interests and methods. I will always consider myself lucky to have experienced Derek’s incandescent philosophical personality and benefited from his philosophical generosity.

    Others have quoted the passage from Reasons and Persons in which Derek says that his acceptance of reductionism about personal identity led him to feel less bad about the prospect of his own death (R&P 281-82). I’ve tried to defend this response, showing that there can be interpersonal psychological continuity that transcends the limits of one’s own life, allowing us to make sense of Plato’s claim in the Symposium that the right sort of interpersonal relationships can be a surrogate for immortality. If this sort of quasi-persistence is proportional to the influence one has had on others, then Derek’s personal and philosophical legacy should serve as a tremendous counterweight to his own mortality. Indeed, his presence will be unmistakable in the Persons & Values course that I will be teaching this quarter, which will be a fitting way for me to celebrate his life and philosophical contributions.

  9. […] ‘In the Estimation of Many us, Perhaps the Greatest Moral Philosopher in Our Midst’ – David Shoemaker (PEA Soup) […]

  10. Andrew Forcehimes says:

    I am deeply saddened by Parfit’s death. Like others here, his influence on my thinking — both methodologically and substantively — was profound. But Parfit’s greatest impact on me came from his contagious optimism.

    Working in ethics is a trying endeavor. I am often left confused, depressed. When this happens I find myself flipping to the end of Reasons & Persons, where Parfit writes: “Some people believe that there cannot be progress in Ethics, since everything has been already said. […] I believe the opposite. How many people have made Non-Religious Ethics their life’s work? Before the recent past, very few. In most civilizations, most people have believed in the existence of a God, or of several gods. A large minority were in fact Atheists, whatever they pretended. But, before the recent past, very few Atheists made Ethics their life’s work. Compared with the other sciences, Non-Religious Ethics is the youngest and the least advanced. […] 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. We cannot yet predict whether […] we will all reach agreement. Since we cannot know how Ethics will develop, it is not irrational to have high hopes.”

    Today, in losing such a great mind, my hopes were lowered considerably.

  11. Victor Tadros says:

    I met Derek several times, but only talked with him at length once, in his house in Oxford, in the company of Jeff McMahan. We talked about a piece that he was working on to do with the principle against using people. I had defended the principle, but Derek was a sceptic. It was a wonderful, but also dizzying, experience – like being crushed over and over again by a person with nothing in his heart but kindness. We talked for about 7 hours without a break. At some point in the middle of the discussion, I was wilting despite being Derek’s junior by 30 years and I was grateful when Jeff suggested going out for a bite to eat. Over dinner, talk turned to the first world war, and Derek became upset at the thought of the loss of life that the war involved. I found this both unsettling and moving: unsettling because I don’t know anyone else who now has this reaction to deaths that occurred so long ago, and moving because it seemed to me that Derek’s unusual kind of compassion stretched beyond what I or others that I know are capable of. I will always be grateful to have spent this time with him. The combination of unrivalled brilliance and imagination, an extraordinary work ethic, and a deep and unique way of valuing people (or, perhaps more accurately, what people are made up of) made him a towering figure in moral philosophy, and he will be sorely missed.

  12. Julia Markovits says:

    Derek Parfit supervised my doctoral dissertation at Oxford, which I finished in 2006, and we kept in loose touch since then (I wish, of course, in retrospect, that it had been less loose). He was unfailingly kind, generous, and supportive of me, even though my arguments fell on the wrong side (from his perspective) of what seemed to him the most important divide in ethics (between what he called “subjectivism” and “objectivism” about reasons). Whenever he had something critical to say, he would try hard to make sure I didn’t give it too much weight: he would say things like, “I might think that’s crazy, but most of the philosophers whose work I respect the most are on your side!” He said things of this sort all the time. For example, he often told me (particularly when I complained about my inefficiency) that he worried about how fast a reader he was, because most of the people he respected the most were slow readers. (He needn’t have worried, of course – his comments on my work were always incredibly careful and helpful.) He had no apparent ego and was the least status-conscious person I know. He was completely indifferent to where you were employed, or even whether you were employed, in philosophy. He always assumed you had something better to do with your time than read his work. And I have seen him, after a talk, pay as absorbed and patient attention to the somewhat inchoate ideas of an undergraduate as he would to those of a philosophical big shot. He did so not out of courtesy or generosity, but because he quite evidently thought it just as likely that he would learn something important from the undergrad as from the big shot. His work is, of course, a paradigm of abstract analytical thinking, but also full of humor and small spot-on human observations. The preface to On What Matters, comparing Kant and Sidgwick, is one of my favorite things I’ve read in a book of philosophy. I wish I’d known Derek better than I did – I liked him enormously, and recognize him so immediately in the many comments posted here.

  13. Lois Turner says:

    Both Rick and Derek gone within a few days of each other. Farewell, then.

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