Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality, by David Edmonds, Princeton University Press,
The subtitle of David Edmonds’s biography of the English philosopher Derek Parfit (1942-2017) is liable to raise more than a few eyebrows. Surely a mission to save morality is something only a God-like being could take on. And since God is dead, or rather has ceased to be believable, the prospect of rescuing morality must have vanished too. So is the subtitle to suggest that Parfit really was blessed with superhuman powers? Or are we to read it ironically, perhaps as a satirical comment on one philosopher’s exaggerated view of his own importance?
The book’s first page leaves the reader in no doubt that the protagonist’s own view of what he was doing was seriously intended. Edmonds opens with an episode when Parfit, in his later years, found himself hospitalised following a sudden failure of his lungs. Observing the steady stream of visitors entering the patient’s room, one of the nurses grew curious and asked Parfit what he did for a living to which he replied: ‘I work on what matters.’ As Edmonds relates, Parfit’s understanding of what matters centred on answering the notoriously knotty question of the objectivity of morality:
[Parfit] felt that he had to demonstrate that secular morality – morality without God – was objective, and that it had rational foundations. Just as there were facts about animals and flowers, stones and waterfalls, books and laptops, so there were facts about morality. He genuinely believed that if he failed to show this, his existence would have been futile. And not just his existence. If morality was not objective, all our lives were meaningless. The need to refute this, the need to save morality, was a heavy emotional as well as intellectual burden.
How would someone arrive at such a belief? That’s the theme that motivates and shapes Edmonds’s robustly sympathetic portrait of Parfit:
How he [Parfit] came to bear this burden, and how it shaped him from a precocious and outgoing history student into a monastically inclined philosopher obsessed with solving the toughest moral question, is the subject of this book.
Does Edmonds achieve his goal? The verdict must be ‘only partially’. On the credit side, he has produced a meticulously researched, revealing and, on the whole, enjoyable cradle-to-grave account of one of the more influential academic philosophers of the last fifty years. Prior to the publication of Edmonds’s four-hundred-page tome, the most detailed account of Parfit’s life was Jonathan Dancy’s twenty-page tribute to the philosopher, published by the British Academy in 2020 (and oddly absent from Edmonds’s bibliography). Edmonds adds considerable flesh to the bones of Dancy’s memoir. We are told about Parfit’s parents, Jessie and Norman, from their childhood, university years, courtship and marriage, their time as Christian missionaries in China in the 1930s, the birth of their three offspring, gradual disillusionment with religion, through to their eventual return to postwar England. We are also informed about Jessie’s intelligence, kindness and resilience, Norman’s progressive feelings of inferiority, frustration and resentment, the contrasting fortunes of their respective careers as doctors, and finally their retirement and dotage. We learn a great deal about Derek’s childhood, his dazzling cleverness from an early age and seemingly effortless success in securing the top scholarships to Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, and his talent as a debater, poet and editor. Edmonds also recounts Derek’s early romantic involvements, the virtual inevitability of achieving a First (in history) in his finals, followed by a coveted two-year Harkness Fellowship to the US, and how he capped things off on his return to Oxford with a Prize Fellowship at All Souls College in 1967. The one hiccup along the way occurred on his first attempt to gain entry to Oxford’s most exalted college, although this failure was perceived even at the time only as a temporary setback – John Sparrow, then Warden of All Souls, confided in the crestfallen candidate that he was within a hair’s breadth of securing the blue riband award and advised him to try a second time.
Academically speaking, being a fellow of All Souls is equivalent to being a member of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton ‑ incumbents are free to engage in their own research, unhampered by the duties and burdens of teaching. This privilege, which he would end up enjoying for the remainder of his professional life, marked a turning point for Parfit. Having fallen under the spell of philosophy during his time in the US, he was now free to pursue what would become his lifelong passion. It also meant that his inclination to engage in intense, solitary study was given free rein, resulting in his becoming more obsessive and removed from the everyday world. All Souls provided the perfect, and perhaps only, place where Parfit the philosopher could flourish – one wonders what would have become of him as a philosopher and a person if he hadn’t been admitted a fellow. Edmonds brings out splendidly his subject’s increasingly eccentric ways within the walls of what is a most peculiar yet fascinating institution.
Parfit’s arrival at All Souls also prompts a change of gear in the biography as narrative gives way to a more thematic approach. The pattern of his life became increasingly fixed and ascetic from the early 1970s; he spent the vast majority of his time in hermit-like isolation, punctuated by annual teaching stints in the US. Apart from the show taking place between his ears, few noteworthy events took place in his life. Those that did get a thorough airing by Edmonds. They include the so-called ‘Parfit Scandal’; his passion for photography; his romantic relationships (initially with the philosopher Susan Hurley, the first woman to be made a fellow of All Souls, and later his long-term partnership and eventual marriage to another notable philosopher, Janet Radcliffe-Richards); finally, his intellectual friendships and associations with various colleagues and graduate students.
‘The Parfit Scandal’ (the longest chapter in the book) took place in 1981; I apply quotation marks as readers unfamiliar with the precious world of All Souls will most likely be puzzled about how the incident qualifies as a scandal. Having had his initial seven-year prize fellowship upgraded in 1974 to a seven-year junior fellowship and looking forward to the prospect of securing tenure with elevation to a senior research fellowship, Parfit found himself unexpectedly facing the biggest challenge of his life. A number of fellows raised concerns about his academic record; in applying for the position he then occupied he had promised books ‑ which had not appeared, and some judged that this put the college in a very bad light. The upshot was that he was given an ultimatum to publish or perish. He was allotted two more years to produce a work worthy of earning him a senior fellowship at Oxford’s most elite college. Under pressure, he managed to produce the goods by the deadline; Reasons and Persons, published in 1984, was instantly declared a work of genius by a number of eminent philosophers. His beloved college duly awarded him the ultimate prize, which meant a job for life.
Parfit’s interest in photography began at an early age after he was given a camera as a gift by a rich uncle, but it was only later that his enthusiasm for it rivalled his obsession with philosophy. From the 1970s on he would go on regular trips to Venice and St Petersburg to photograph what he regarded as the most exquisite buildings in the world. The book reproduces in colour several of these photographs, featuring The Winter Palace and San Giorgio Maggiore, taken at either dawn or dusk. None of them includes people. Edmonds asks whether Parfit’s photography sheds any light on his philosophy and suggests, rightly it seems to me, that any connections between the two are tenuous. His chapter on the subject, however, discusses an event that illustrates just how deeply eccentric Parfit was. A close colleague of his, Larry Temkin, was visibly struck by one of Parfit’s photographs while visiting his rooms. It was a photo of Oxford’s Radcliffe Library, on which Parfit had spent a huge amount of time and a very considerable amount of money to achieve a specifically desired aesthetic effect. When Parfit was visiting Temkin a year later in the US he emptied his travel bag and pulled from its contents a crumpled-up photograph that he handed to Temkin as a gift. It was the same photograph but almost damaged beyond repair.
The photo on the cover of Edmonds’s book was taken by the strikingly beautiful Susan Hurley. Parfit had campaigned energetically for Hurley’s election as a fellow of the college and Hurley in turn provided expert assistance to an exhausted Parfit as he completed the final part of Reasons and Persons. An intense romance ensued but irreconcilable differences, mainly about priorities, meant their relationship did not last beyond a year. Not long afterwards he met Janet Radcliffe-Richards, whom he wooed by posting a love letter critiquing her book The Sceptical Feminist. Parfit had more in common with Janet, including a commitment to scholarly perfectionism and a settled disinclination to having children. His relationship with her didn’t inhibit him from continuing to devote his days (and nights) to solitary study. Although she described herself as ‘a sideshow in his life’ and wrote that ‘I can’t think of anything we did together that wasn’t what he wanted to do’, their relationship appears to have worked for both of them and to have flourished in its own strange way until the end. However, as Edmonds drolly remarks, their marital arrangement tested the validity of the stock example of a necessary truth: ‘All bachelors are unmarried men.’
Philosophical engagement with others was the only other activity for which Parfit was prepared to take a temporary break from his own work. Though there was often an overlap of interest between what he was working on and what he discussed with philosophical colleagues and students, he did show a level of interest and commitment to the work of others that went well beyond the call of duty. The acuity and detail of his comments, together with the speed with which he turned around people’s work, was staggering. He paid especially scrupulous attention to the work of his doctoral students. However, as the years progressed and as he became not just more eccentric but progressively obsessive about his own philosophical work, his openness to dissenting voices gradually narrowed. One philosopher commented on the later Parfit’s intellectual intransigence by contrasting it with the earlier Parfit who ‘wanted to open rather than close, [who] wanted people to be excited rather than agree’.
The growing philosophical dogmatism of the later Parfit coincided with his obsession with the question of the objectivity (or otherwise) of morals. While the problem of moral objectivity (or moral realism) has taken different forms over the ages, its essence can be stated simply and concisely enough. Are we to believe that there is such a thing as an objective morality in the sense of being non-subjectively and non-relatively true or are we to regard morality as fundamentally subjective, as a phenomenon that is ultimately as arbitrary as a particular individual’s or culture’s culinary tastes? We are keen to describe murder as objectively wrong and yet we also feel bound to recognise the undeniable fact that the moral codes of individuals and societies are a function of historical contingency. What makes this a philosophical problem is that there appear to be good reasons for thinking two incompatible things – that, on the one hand, morality is something that can and should be considered objectively and universally true and, on the other, that it is an entirely subjective affair. Since we cannot attribute two conflicting properties to morality it would seem that something has to give.
The modern form of the philosophical (or meta-ethical) problem of moral realism may be thought to confront a greater test than its predecessors. Its peculiar challenge was famously expressed in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: ‘If God is dead, then everything is permitted.’ Premodern responses to the question of moral realism tended to come down in favour of ethical objectivism, either by invoking the authority of an all good, omniscient and ubiquitous God (as with Aquinas) or by endowing the cosmos or human nature (as with Aristotle) with a purposeful moral identity. However, the disenchantment associated with modernity diminished the credibility of traditional forms of moral realism while raising profound doubts about the very existence and coherence of moral knowledge. Philosophical wisdom now appeared to be on the side of ethical scepticism and even nihilism. Among the more influential philosophical doctrines of the twentieth century was logical positivism which claimed that moral statements are essentially meaningless since they are factually uncheckable. Ethical judgements were defined by the leading English proponent of logical positivism, Freddie Ayer (1910-1989), as emotional ejaculations entirely devoid of reason.
The early philosophical Parfit, from 1967 to the publication of Reasons and Persons in 1984 was largely unaffected by logical positivism and its successor, linguistic philosophy – two schools of philosophy that sought to deflate or, in the latter case, dissolve the objectivist pretensions of morality and its philosophical exponents. During this period he wrote moral and political philosophy of the full-blooded, normatively recommending sort in the same vein as John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice and Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics. The later Parfit, from roughly the early 1990s until his death in 2017 – and culminating with the publication of his second major work, the three-volume On What Matters (vols I & II published in 2011 & vol III published posthumously in 2017) ‑ continued to focus on addressing substantive moral and political problems. But during this time he also became increasingly obsessed with the more theoretical question of the philosophical status of morality. Put slightly differently, his interest in what he regarded as ‘what matters’ was as much concerned with establishing that ‘what matters’ really does matter as it was with generating a systematically normative moral theory that would define the content and implications of an objective morality.
For the later Parfit, there is an intimate link between his general view that morality is objective and the particular substantive moral position he was putting forward. He believed that if morality isn’t objective then our lives are pointless and he also believed that he had produced a secular moral philosophy that reflected the objective status of morality. These are big, ambitious philosophical themes that the vast majority of contemporary moral philosophers either shy away from or discuss in severely modest ways. Rare birds like Parfit remind us of the significance of the connection between philosophy and life. A passage from another distinguished and recently deceased thinker, Ronald Dworkin, conveys the same urgency about this topic:
The only kind of scepticism that counts, anyway, is the really disturbing kind, the chilling internal scepticism that grips us in a dark night, when we suddenly cannot help thinking that human lives signify nothing., that nothing we do can matter when we and our whole world will in any case perish in a cosmic instant or two. That kind of scepticism cannot be owned or disowned by semantic reclassifications or meta-ethical refinement. It takes hold as a terrifying, overwhelming, substantive fact, and until its grip is loosened by competing conviction we cannot be sophisticated or ironic, or anything else but hollow, or paralyzed or sad. (‘Objectivity and Truth: You’d Better Believe It’)
To his credit, Parfit had the intellectual vision to see philosophy as a single subject with distinct yet interweaving branches, the courage to take on life’s big questions, and the care to write about them in clear, precise and vivid prose.
Another laudable feature of his approach is the sharpness of its perception of a vital continuity between conceptions of the philosophical authority of morality and particular moral theories and doctrines. He had no time for the once dominant viewpoint in analytic circles that moral philosophy should be pursued in a value-free way, that the business of a professional philosopher is to analyse and elucidate the meaning of moral terms but to resist engaging in substantive moral debate. One of the advantages of reading history as an undergraduate was that he avoided being infected by the stridently inhibiting and arid strain of postwar analytic moral philosophy. His approach to the subject was from the start refreshingly unhidebound.
The other major features of Parfit’s ambitious moral vision invite more criticism. It’s one thing to state that the question of the objectivity of morality is a legitimate one and quite another to claim that morality’s objectivity can be demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt. Of course Parfit might have responded by declaring that the purpose of confronting the question of the objectivity of morality is to solve it and that’s precisely what he was seeking to fulfil in On What Matters. There are at least two problems with this kind of reply. The first is that it’s far from clear that the problem of ethical objectivity is susceptible to the type of definitive solution Parfit felt he had achieved. Indeed the flaws and inadequacies of his ‘solution’ act as a negative reminder of why the more stubborn problems of philosophy are probably insoluble but no less genuine and pressing for that. The second is that a moral theory which claims to have finally solved the problem of moral objectivity is bound to raise more than a soupçon of scepticism. These objections are related. Those who have doubts about the kind of moral philosophy put forward in On What Matters are likely to have doubts about the viability of settling the problem of moral realism once and for all. Two types of fundamental doubt about Parfit’s outlook can be stated briefly.
Parfit’s view of philosophy and Edmonds’s largely approving account of it share a quality of otherworldly abstraction that is typical of a still influential brand of introspective analytic philosophy. Among the specific hallmarks of this particular approach to the subject are a bias towards theoretical unity, a fondness for elaborate thought experiments, and an obliviousness to the deep historical contingency of human reality coupled with a view of philosophical problems as essentially timeless. Simply stating these characteristics of Parfit’s mode of philosophy is not sufficient grounds to dismiss it but it should give us cause for scepticism concerning the more immodest claims made in its behalf. As a general rule, the interests of philosophy are not well-served by either its boosters or its knockers. Parfit was one of philosophy’s most distinguished boosters. He ended his first and arguably better book, Reasons and Persons, as follows:
There could clearly be higher achievements in the struggle for a wholly just world-wide community. And there could be higher achievements in all of the Arts and Sciences. But the progress could be greatest in what is now the least advanced of these Arts and Sciences. This, I have claimed is Non-Religious Ethics. Belief in God, or in many gods, prevented the free development of moral reasoning. Disbelief in God, openly admitted by a majority, is a 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, as in Mathematics, we will all reach agreement. Since we cannot know how Ethics will develop, it is not irrational to have high hopes.
These words could just as easily have come from the pen of one of the founders of the European Enlightenment as they did from one of its distant offspring. It’s hard not to be exhilarated, if only momentarily, by such faith in the power of human reason and such hope for the future of humankind. More specifically, in Parfit’s case, it’s also difficult not to be impressed by the breadth and rigour of his thinking, the ingenuity of his intelligence and the confidence to take on several of philosophy’s most difficult problems. None of this, however, should blind us to the glaring absence of a sense of reality, a recognition that the main obstacle in the ‘the struggle for a wholly just world-wide community’ is not belief in God and its residual effects but the profound limitations of human nature and human thought.
The second type of doubt is more directly relevant to the central argument of On What Matters. In that book Parfit seeks to show that three leading and competing moral theories ‑ consequentialism, Kantianism and contractualism – are not just fundamentally compatible with each other but are all climbing the same mountain to reach a common moral end. This is a classic instance of moral monism, the idea that all genuine human values and ways of life form a harmonious whole and that if we could just make ourselves reason a little better and try a little harder there is nothing in principle preventing us from achieving a rationally based consensus concerning objective moral truth and making possible an entirely secular utopia. One of the best short retorts to this strangely persistent illusion of the Western speculative tradition is expressed in a footnote by the philosopher JL Austin (1911-1960), another Prize Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford:
This is by way of a general warning in philosophy. It seems to be too readily assumed that if we can only discover the true meanings of each of a cluster of terms, usually historic terms, that we use in some particular field (as, for example, ‘right’, ‘good’, and the rest in morals), then it must without question transpire that each will fit into place in some single, interlocking, consistent conceptual scheme. Not only is there no reason to assume this, but all historical probability is against it, especially in the case of language derived from such various civilizations as ours is. We may cheerfully use, and with weight, terms which are not so much head-on incompatible as simply disparate, which just do not fit in or even on. Just as we cheerfully subscribe to, or have the grace to be torn between, simply disparate ideals – why must there be a conceivable amalgam, the Good Life for Man? (‘A Plea for Excuses’)
Those who don’t buy the jigsaw puzzle view of humanistic thought are unlikely to be convinced by Parfit’s ingenious version of moral monism. After all, why should we think that all genuine human ideals and values, such as equality, freedom, justice and compassion, must form part of some pre-ordained or constructible harmonious whole? The evidence would suggest otherwise: that is, that an irreducible conflict of ethical ideals and values is the unalterable human situation (past and present). Monists like Parfit perceive the undeniable fact of moral disagreement as an avoidable state of affairs and one that can be eliminated through the application of human reason. And moral monists also tend to believe, as Parfit unequivocally did, that the only coherent form of moral realism is moral monism ‑ in other words, that the only alternative to the view that there is a single, true morality is moral relativism, or its unblushing first cousin, moral nihilism, the philosophical view which denies the existence and possibility of objective moral values.
But moral monism and moral nihilism do not exhaust the options for making sense of humanity. There is at least one other credible way of understanding morality, which is known as pluralism. Value or ethical pluralism doesn’t so much provide a middle ground between moral absolutism and moral nihilism as redefine the contours of the moral landscape. Pluralists argue, on the one hand, that the conflict between human values and ideals is inescapable in theory as well as in practice and, on the other, that there is no clinching reason to deny that moral disagreement is compatible with moral realism. For pluralists, the existence of irreducible conflict between human ideals reveals that morality is objective and rational rather than merely subjective and relative. For example, the conflict between freedom and equality or between patriotism and friendship or even between less morally impregnated values such as open-mindedness, discretion, humility and truthfulness is about as philosophically real as human reality permits. Moreover, a recognition that ideals and values inevitably compete and collide is liable to prompt a certain curiosity about where they came from and why some have proven more steadfast than others over time. Such curiosity is bound to make us more historically and culturally self-aware, and, if we have a philosophical turn of mind, to want to make philosophy a more historically informed and self-conscious discipline. It’s worth highlighting in this context that of all the critics who troubled Parfit none troubled him more than Bernard Williams (1929-2003). Williams was as brilliantly clever and quick as Parfit and, like Parfit, he chose moral and political philosophy as his main area of focus. Yet Parfit was unable to convince Williams of the basic validity of his view of morality and, as Edmonds reports, he became increasingly perplexed by his failure to do so. But the reason extends much wider and deeper than Parfit or Edmonds intimate. Williams was a radical pluralist who regarded the kind of monistic, ahistorical moral theory put forward by Parfit as not so much wrong as pre-wrong.
Does this mean that pluralism is straightforwardly right and monism straightforwardly wrong? No. Nor does it mean that pluralism is unstraightforwardly right and monism unstraightforwardly wrong. A better way of framing the nature of the contrast between Parfit and Williams is to see it in terms of Raphael’s celebrated portrayal of Plato and Aristotle in his The School of Athens. Plato is pointing upwards to the heavens, and Aristotle down to the earth. Philosophy is a broad church that can accommodate idealists and pragmatists, objectivists and sceptics, monists and pluralists and it’s important that it does. In its most authentic form as a discipline exemplifying rigorous, independent, truth-oriented thought, philosophy is a friend of diversity and dissent and an enemy of dogmatism and crude dichotomies. Williams may exemplify a more historically inflected conception of philosophy as a humanistic discipline, but he also leaves us with several perplexing questions such as what prevents his bleak realism from collapsing into nihilism? Similarly, we may regard aspects of Parfit’s outlook as possessing a fairy-tale quality without denying the originality of his account of what a non-naturalistic species of moral realism amounts to. Intellectual dissent may be the engine of philosophy but it’s also true that genuine philosophy shares a respect for a core set of intellectual virtues and a concern about their corresponding vices. Williams may disagree profoundly with Parfit’s view of moral philosophy and vice versa but both are at one in their commitment to objectivity and truth.
Although Edmonds is by no means an uncritical admirer, it’s evident that his own philosophical affinities are broadly in tune with Parfit’s philosophical methods and outlook. This is perhaps unsurprising given that Edmonds had Parfit as his postgraduate supervisor at Oxford and published a book on the famous ‘Trolley Problem’, which is precisely the type of thought experiment that appealed to Parfit as a way of addressing ethical dilemmas. Another germane fact is that Edmonds was supervised by Janet Radcliffe-Richards for his PhD, so his bonds with the Parfit family run deep. Whatever the cause, Edmonds does not achieve the degree of critical distance between himself and his subject that one might hope for in such a biography. This shortcoming doesn’t spoil the experience of reading his unfailingly elegant, conscientious and generous-spirited book but it does give rise to a number of reservations.
Is Edmonds’s life of Parfit necessary? A fairer first question might be the more general one: does the world require a biography of Parfit? If the primary purpose of a biography of a philosopher is to provide a key to understanding his work, then the answer is No. The character of the relationship between Parfit’s life and philosophical doctrines is not comparable to that which applies to thinkers like Socrates, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, where the connections between their life and thought compel deep and nuanced biographical treatment. If we adopt a more oecumenical view of the purpose of intellectual biography the answer is less certain. Quite a number of biographies of philosophers have been published in last few decades, such as Michael Ignatieff’s Isaiah Berlin (1998), Ben Rogers’ s A.J. Ayer (1999), Peter Conradi’s Iris Murdoch (2001), and more recently, Cheryl Misak’s Frank Ramsey (2020), which have shown that an exploration of a philosopher’s thought is not the only arresting reason for writing about their lives. Each of the aforementioned books reveals to a greater or lesser extent that their subjects lived captivating lives beyond what they pondered in their armchairs.
Edmonds claims that Parfit lived a full life before All Souls, but that after he arrived there his life became his work. But is it really the case that Parfit’s life before 1967 was all that rich, and, more relevantly, that his life merits detailed biographical treatment? Even though Parfit’s pre-All Souls’ life was more eventful in the everyday sense than what followed, it’s also the case that it could be described as distinctly conventional, even predictable. After all, the path from Eton to Balliol to All Souls is hardly an untrodden one. Moreover, being told ad nauseam about the countless accolades young Parfit won at school, that his name in French stands for ‘perfect’, that he once borrowed Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana from the local gramophone library ‘whilst his mother chose Delius’s A Mass for Life’ and so on, hardly counts as fascinating material. Even several coy chapter headings – ‘Made in China’, ‘Prepping for Life’, ‘History Boy’, ‘An American Dream, ‘Soul Man’, etc strike a rather banal tone, reflecting a seemingly eager attempt to make the subject’s life appear interesting.
More absorbing is Edmonds’s attempt to offer a speculative explanation of the psychological trajectory of Parfit’s life. He declares at the start of the book that he changed his mind three times about Parfit the person but we have to wait until the end of the final chapter, before he discloses what caused him to change his mind. There he says he began with the view that Parfit had Asperger’s Syndrome, now officially known as Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and that this manifested itself most obviously in his extreme literal-mindedness, narrow and obsessional concerns and failure to register social signs. However, Edmonds developed major doubts about this viewpoint when he reflected on the contrast between early (pre-1970s) sociable Parfit and the late (post-1980s) solitary Parfit: one either has autism or one doesn’t. More recent research into ASD provides a possible answer with its discovery that those who suffer from it often develop ways to mask their disorder and that these masking strategies can be more or less successful. Edmonds thinks these findings may provide a more plausible explanation of the psychological-behavioural discontinuity in Parfit’s life; he successfully masked his autism in the early part of his life but that the mask became more difficult and unnecessary in the latter half of his life. The difficulty asserted itself when Parfit faced the crisis of being rebuffed for promotion in 1981 which was then exacerbated by having to engage in two intense years of manic study to produce his first book. The inexpediency of maintaining a mask arose after he was granted tenure – All Souls is not a club that requires its members to be psychologically well-adjusted or socially competent. Edmonds adds a third twist to his diagnosis by attributing a layer of agency to his subject with the suggestion that Parfit judged himself to have a rare ability to solve a major intellectual problem and that he consciously dedicated his genius to the full-time task of solving it with missionary zeal.
These various speculations share a certain plausibility, but the case of Parfit’s psychological profile remains largely inscrutable. One of the more perceptive judgements about his personality was put forward by his friend Bill Ewald; ‘he never did anything cruel, he also never did anything deeply self-sacrificing’. This verdict is given by someone who witnessed at first-hand what many of us would consider an unforgiveable act of heartlessness to his colleague and former girlfriend Susan Hurley. Hurley had been diagnosed with cancer and had asked Ewald and Parfit if they would join her for supper in All Souls for old time’s sake. Parfit declined saying he was unavailable and later on in the evening when Ewald and Hurley paid a visit to Parfit in his college rooms he shooed them away saying he was too busy working on his book. We are told that Parfit would at a later date give Hurley the pick of his treasured photographs for her to gift to two wealthy friends who had helped her through her cancer treatment. Although this second act of kindness hardly redeems the earlier act of callousness, it was enough to prompt Hurley to write this odd note to Parfit shortly before she died at the age of fifty-three:
It’s a strange kind of thank you, for a gift that enabled me to give a gift to people who have given so much to me. By doing so I impose on your incredible generosity in a strange sort of way […and] it means a very great deal to me.
A less imponderable feature of Edmonds’s book is his handling of Parfit’s philosophical doctrines. Edmonds admits that Parfit is a philosopher’s philosopher, which makes almost impossible the already very difficult job of combining the story of his life with a clear account of his evolving ideas. Edmonds has proven himself a fluent and reliable communicator of philosophy to non-specialists over a prolonged period but sadly these talents do not serve him well in conveying Parfit’s philosophy to the uninitiated. His succinct summaries of various parts of Parfit’s philosophical outlook are predictably fluent and engaging but they fail to capture, let alone do critical justice to, the overall depth and power of Parfit’s work. It’s akin to viewing a large, ambitious and multi-layered painting through a magnifying glass which limits the range of its focus to a few of the more obvious features of the picture. It’s not that Edmonds’s descriptions are wrong, it’s just that they are too disjointed. Dancy’s twenty-page memoir of Parfit, referred to earlier, contains more philosophical illumination of his thought than Edmonds’s doorstopper. This is philosophy lite in the bad sense.
Readers unacquainted with Parfit’s ideas may have their appetites whetted to explore them at first-hand. Those who are more familiar with his work are unlikely to discover anything new about his philosophy, but they will learn something about the man himself. From both perspectives, Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality can be described as something of a curate’s egg.
The book ends with a chapter entitled ‘Parfit’s Gamble’. The gamble was to devote the last third of his life, at whatever cost to himself and others, to the task of rescuing ethics, of showing that there is an objective secular morality. Edmonds claims that it paid off. That verdict seems both premature and unstable. It’s too early to tell if Parfit’s legacy, especially in relation to On What Matters, will prove enduring ‑ the early signs are not that promising. More fundamentally, one might ask whether Parfit deserves the legacy he and his followers would wish. That’s a trickier question. One response might be that he certainly did philosophy a significant service in keeping some of its deepest problems alive, but that the wisdom and relevance of the assumptions, methods and doctrines he brought to bear to solve these questions is at best precarious.
Rather than finish on a mixed note, it feels more fitting to end a review of a book that is generous to a fault with an anecdote from Parfit’s life that expresses the authentically liberal side of his personality and of his conception of philosophy and philosophers:
In 2012, a young student, Jonny Pugh, who was applying ideas from On What Matters to debates in bioethics, contacted Parfit, who, in his typically generous fashion, sent back multiple comments on some draft work. Pugh was at that stage in a precarious financial position, after some funding had fallen through, and Parfit sent him an encouraging note: ‘If you are forced financially to give up the hope of becoming a paid philosopher, as so many excellent philosophers had to do in the previous period when funds and jobs were scarce, you should remember that you can still be an unpaid philosopher who also does something else.’
Johnny Lyons is an unpaid philosopher who does something else to pay the bills.