Philosopher Derek Parfit Visits Scripps

By Lucy Altman-Newell '17

World-famous philosopher Derek Parfit gave two important talks at Scripps College this April.  Photo courtesy of Meeka Meng ‘18

World-famous philosopher Derek Parfit gave two important talks at Scripps College this April.  Photo courtesy of Meeka Meng ‘18

On Thursday, April 16 and Friday, April 17, world-famous philosopher Derek Parfit came to Scripps College to give the annual Merlan Lecture, established in 1969, and to contribute to the Humanity Institute’s second conference of the semester, “Humans and Selves.”

Parfit — Global Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at New York University; Emeritus Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford University; and Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University — is widely considered the most important and original moral philosopher of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Both of his books, “Reasons and Persons,” published in 1984, and “On What Matters,” published in 2011, are considered the most important books to be written in moral philosophy since Henry Sidgwick’s 1874 work, “The Method of Ethics.”

The Merlan Lecture was given on Thursday, April 16 from 4:15 p.m. to 5:45 p.m. in Balch Auditorium — which was packed to full capacity with students, faculty and community members — on the Scripps College campus and was followed by a reception just outside of Balch. Before he began speaking, Parfit had handouts distributed to help his audience members follow his complex talk. Also to assist the audience members, Parfit took breaks throughout the talk in which to answer questions for clarification and to dig deeper into the substance of his presentation, entitled “Can We Avoid the Repugnant Conclusion?”

The so-called “Repugnant Conclusion” is one of the most troubling problems in ethics — specifically a branch known as population ethics. (This branch is especially significant in philosophy in that it can contribute to real-world decisions on issues such as climate change policy, health care prioritization, global catastrophic risks, energy consumption, and population control.) The Repugnant Conclusion was described by Derek Parfit during his talk as follows:

“Compared with the existence of many people who would all have some very high quality of life, there is some much larger number of people whose existence would be better, even though these people would have lives that were barely worth living.” What is repugnant about this conclusion is not, Parfit clarified, that there could be a world in which there would be an enormous number of people whose lives were hardly worth living—for, after all, these lives are still worth living. Rather, he says, “what’s repugnant is the quite different claim that compared with these billions of people with lives as good as human lives can be, it would be better to have a world with more creatures [such as ‘contented lizards’] whose lives aren’t as good.” The comparison is what is repugnant, as we would like to believe that the first world would be much better than the second.

Parfit then outlined and promptly rejected several views related to the Repugnant Conclusion that have been tried by several different moral philosophers. These included Diminishing Value Views (“though it would always be in itself better if there existed any extra person whose life would be worth living, the goodness of there being much more people would steadily diminish, and would have some upper limit”) and The Imprecise Lexical View (“Anyone’s existence is in itself good if this person’s life is worth living. Such goodness has non-diminishing value, so if there were more such people, the combined goodness of their existence would have no upper limit. If many people exist who would all have some high quality of life, that would be better than the non-existence of any number of people whose lives, though worth living would be, in certain ways, much less good”).

An important part of Parfit’s talk was his point that all proofs that conclude that there is no way to avoid the Repugnant Conclusion imply precision. However, he says, there is no perfect way to measure things; “five minutes of ecstasy can’t be measured as a precise truth in regard to ten hours of entertainment.” This is because the reality is imprecise. When there are great qualitative differences, there cannot be any relational truth. For example, Parfit explained, it makes no sense to compare the genius of scientists with that of composers. But you can say that Einstein was a better scientist than many bad musicians, and that Bach was a better musician than many bad scientists. So, Parfit concludes, while you can’t say that Einstein and Bach are precisely equal, they could, however, be what Parfit importantly calls “imprecisely equal.” Similarly, one might add, while Stephen Hawking and Derek Parfit are not precisely equal, it would not be a stretch by any means to say that they, too,  are imprecisely equal.

This imprecision is the key to avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion. For using it to fight assumptions in proofs that attempt to show that the Repugnant Conclusion can’t be avoided leads to conclusions that both deny and are less implausible than the Repugnant Conclusion, or alternative versions of the Repugnant Conclusion. This means that the Repugnant Conclusion, finally, fails.

For example, continuum arguments for the Repugnant Conclusion assume that “compared with the existence of many people who would all have some quality of life, there are some much large numbers of people whose existence would be better, though these people’s quality of life would all be slightly lower.” However, Parfit argues, we can reject this premise “by claiming [that] such larger worlds would not be better, but would at most be imprecisely equally good.” This way of rejecting the premise is less implausible than the Repugnant Conclusion, so the continuum arguments in support of the Repugnant Conclusion fail. This method holds for many other arguments as well.

The day after giving the Merlan Lecture, Parfit spoke in the Humanity Institute’s conference, “Humans and Selves” from 2:30pm to 4:00pm in the Hampton Room above Malott Commons, which was again followed by a reception. In this talk, titled “We Are Not Human Beings,” Parfit defended the Lockean claim that we are persons, not human beings, against that of the Animalists, who reject this distinction. The full paper on which this talk is based can be found in pdf format online by searching the title, “We Are Not Human Beings.”

The Lockean view of who we are that Parfit champions is that psychological continuity from one moment to another of a certain kind is key to the persisting self; we’re an embodied, thinking part of a human animal. This goes against the Animalist view that we are human beings or human animals which persist as long as the organism lives.

Using extensive science fiction examples and addressing several problems—such as the Too Many Thinkers Problem, the Epistemic Problem, and the Too Many Persons Problem—with his own philosophy which is grounded on intuition and common sense, Parfit seemingly successfully reaches the conclusion that “we are not human beings in the sense that refers to human animals, but are the most important parts of these animals, the parts that do all the things that are most distinctive of these human animals, as conscious, thinking, rational beings” (43, We Are Not Human Beings), as well as puts forward and defends the claim that what matters is not personal identity, but our ideas.

Parfit’s visit to Scripps College can perhaps best be summed up by the words of Rivka Weinberg, Scripps Associate Professor of Philosophy and Department Chair: “we are honored and awed to have him.”