Altruism Is So 2011, And Even More So 2017

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Derek Parfit has few memories of his past and almost never thinks about it, a fact that he attributes to an inability to form mental images. Photograph by Steve Pyke / GETTY

Even though we had started a series of posts on the topic of altruism in 2011, our first year creating this platform, it was just after this article was published that we started paying close attention to the topic, and we had forgotten about it until just now.

Derek Parfit communicates convincingly about a logic for the common good being more important than that of the individual, and even put his own life and mortality into perfect context of the logic he was developing. So, though we resist posting obituaries of even our greatest heroes, his passing this week makes us think this profile is worthy of re-reading and sharing.

Even though our early attention to altruism led to hundreds of posts since 2011 for which altruism is at the core, this remembrance may stimulate even closer attention to altruism, a topic more worthy of attention than ever:

HOW TO BE GOOD

An Oxford philosopher thinks he can distill all morality into a formula. Is he right?

By Larissa MacFarquhar

What makes me the same person throughout my life, and a different person from you? And what is the importance of these facts?

I believe that most of us have false beliefs about our own nature, and our identity over time, and that, when we see the truth, we ought to change some of our beliefs about what we have reason to do.

You are in a terrible accident. Your body is fatally injured, as are the brains of your two identical-triplet brothers. Your brain is divided into two halves, and into each brother’s body one half is successfully transplanted. After the surgery, each of the two resulting people believes himself to be you, seems to remember living your life, and has your character. (This is not as unlikely as it sounds: already, living brains have been surgically divided, resulting in two separate streams of consciousness.) What has happened? Have you died, or have you survived? And if you have survived who are you? Are you one of these people? Both? Or neither? What if one of the transplants fails, and only one person with half your brain survives? That seems quite different—but the death of one person could hardly make a difference to the identity of another.

The philosopher Derek Parfit believes that neither of the people is you, but that this doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that you have ceased to exist, because what has happened to you is quite unlike ordinary death: in your relationship to the two new people there is everything that matters in ordinary survival—a continuity of memories and dispositions that will decay and change as they usually do. Most of us care about our future because it is ours—but this most fundamental human instinct is based on a mistake, Parfit believes. Personal identity is not what matters.

Parfit is thought by many to be the most original moral philosopher in the English-speaking world. He has written two books, both of which have been called the most important works to be written in the field in more than a century—since 1874, when Henry Sidgwick’s “The Method of Ethics,” the apogee of classical utilitarianism, was published. Parfit’s first book, “Reasons and Persons,” was published in 1984, when he was forty-one, and caused a sensation. The book was dense with science-fictional thought experiments, all urging a shift toward a more impersonal, non-physical, and selfless view of human life.

Suppose that a scientist were to begin replacing your cells, one by one, with those of Greta Garbo at the age of thirty. At the beginning of the experiment, the recipient of the cells would clearly be you, and at the end it would clearly be Garbo, but what about in the middle? It seems implausible to suggest that you could draw a line between the two—that any single cell could make all the difference between you and not-you. There is, then, no answer to the question of whether or not the person is you, and yet there is no mystery involved—we know what happened. A self, it seems, is not all or nothing but the sort of thing that there can be more of or less of. When, in the process of a zygote’s cellular self-multiplication, does a person start to exist? Or when does a person, descending into dementia or coma, cease to be? There is no simple answer—it is a matter of degrees.

Parfit’s view resembles in some ways the Buddhist view of the self, a fact that was pointed out to him years ago by a professor of Oriental religions. Parfit was delighted by this discovery. He is in the business of searching for universal truths, so to find out that a figure like the Buddha, vastly removed from him by time and space, came independently to a similar conclusion—well, that was extremely reassuring. (Sometime later, he learned that “Reasons and Persons” was being memorized and chanted, along with sutras, by novice monks at a monastery in Tibet.) It is difficult to believe that there is no such thing as an all-or-nothing self—no “deep further fact” beyond the multitude of small psychological facts that make you who you are. Parfit finds that his own belief is unstable—he needs to re-convince himself. Buddha, too, thought that achieving this belief was very hard, though possible with much meditation. But, assuming that we could be convinced, how should we think about it?

Is the truth depressing? Some may find it so. But I find it liberating, and consoling.

(Parfit’s words, in his books, in e-mails, and even in speech, all have a similar timbre—it is difficult to distinguish them. In all, a strong emotion is audible under restraint.)

When I believed that my existence was such a further fact, I seemed imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.

It seems to a friend of Parfit’s that his theory of personal identity is motivated by an extreme fear of death. But Parfit doesn’t believe that he once feared death more than other people, and now he thinks he fears it less…

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