The Loss of a Genius

Last week, we were stunned by the deaths of Carrie Fisher and less than 48 hours later her mother, Debbie Reynolds. This week, the world lost an insightful and influential British philosopher, Derek Parfit at age 74.

I know what you are saying: Derek Parfit, who on earth is he? He was the author of very few works, but the books he did write (“Reasons and Persons” and “On What Matters”) rocked the philosophical world. He enjoyed wrestling with age-old problems that I’ve always found fascinating; for example, how do we decide right and wrong?

Most of us were raised to follow a set of religious-based precepts of right and wrong that we all can recite easily. But what if we were born without that background and were forced to decide for ourselves what behavior is morally acceptable? For atheist Derek Parfit, there were three basic alternatives:

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Consequentialism is to judge the efficacy of your actions by its consequences. You may remember several months ago when I posited for your consideration “the Trolley problem?”  The alarming hypothetical placed you on a train track with the option of pulling a lever, which would divert a runaway trolley away from causing the certain death of five track workers. However, the trolley would then kill one other unsuspecting soul. Do you pull the lever?

Most people answering this question have exhibited the influence of the utilitarian movement (the greatest good for the greatest number), which was made popular by Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill. Hence, a majority of people would pull the lever, saving five but killing one. Agreeing with this analysis is Professor Michael Scriven. He wrote a book (“Primary Philosophy”) so compelling that I traveled across the country at age 20 to meet him at his Berkeley campus (only to learn the adult lesson that calling ahead might be an intelligent option). He subscribes to the principle that ethics are subjective in nature. Like the Utilitarians, morality for Scriven shifts with the sands of changing societal mores and customs.

Immanuel Kant argued that from practical reasons we can arrive at moral principles. Moral principles are not subjective for him but rather universal, the same for everyone. To understand whether an action is moral or not, imagine the consequences if it’s duplicated by everyone. His Kantian categorical imperative means that lying, for example, could never be morally condoned since if everyone lied all the time the very fabric of society would collapse. But imagine that a killer asked someone for your location as he intended you to be his next victim. You better hope that the person he asks is a consequentialist since they would have no trouble lying while a Kantian would consider it his “duty” to tell the truth.

Contractualism, made famous by Thomas Hobbes, is rooted in the concept of a social contract. It provides the foundation for most modern day conservative movements. Its fundamental assertion is that we must begin our inquiry by recognizing the existence of a social contract. This is comprised of an agreement of all those involved in society and its proponents assert that it can be said to literally carve out the precise content of morality by mutual assent. For contractualists, the crucial thing is consent, not consequences or duty.

For centuries, brilliant philosophers were drawn to each of these three traditions, which offered what appeared to be unbridgeable disagreements. If Parfit is to be remembered for anything, it is his lifelong goal of demonstrating how these traditions are really different paths up the same philosophical mountain or, as he put it, his famous “Triple Theory.”

To connect three seemingly distinct theories, he began by suggesting that Kantian ethics and consequentialism were not in conflict. To accomplish this, he needed to modify the categorical imperative ever so slightly. His nuanced version read as follows: “Everyone ought to follow the principles whose universal acceptance everyone could rationally will.” By doing this, he was able to marry all three traditions in what he heralded as his “top of the mountain formula” or the “Triple Theory,” which essentially stated: an act is wrong just when such an act is disallowed by some principle that is optimific (producing the maximum amount of good), uniquely universally willable, and not reasonably rejectable.

Let’s try to apply the Parfitian analysis to a contemporary issue. A politician has recently suggested without any evidence that millions of votes had been cast illegally in last November’s national election. The truth (not the fake news) is that outside of literally a handful of complaints, this declaration is without merit and is either an outright lie or a reckless assertion.

Firstly, making such a claim would not pass the first condition of our morality test in that it would not be optimific. Its logical consequence, if believed, would be state governments’ unwarranted suppression of the right to vote, mainly among the disenfranchised. Secondly, it would not be universally willable since the vast major of Americans recognize it to be a self-serving and totally unsupported allegation. Finally it would be reasonably rejectable and hence flunk all three prongs of our ethics test. We can, therefore, utilizing the Parfit test, state unequivocally that making such a baseless public announcement is morally wrong.

Derek Parfit’s contributions to man’s quest to answer ultimate questions will not soon be forgotten. His remarkable collection of essays first released early in this century, “On What Matters,” will forever be a testament to the depth of his intellect and the remarkable diversity of his interests. Fortunately, next month Oxford Press will publish a third volume of “On What Matters” with a companion volume aptly entitled, “Does Anything Really Matter?” Given his passing, it is appropriate that I end this column with Professor Parfit’s own words:

“Life can be wonderful as well as terrible, and we shall increasingly have the power to make life good. Since human history may be only just beginning, we can expect that future humans, or supra-humans, may achieve some great goods that we cannot now even imagine.”


The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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