Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality
David Edmonds (Princeton, $40, 380 pages)
Oxford University philosophy professor Derek Parfit is one of the most important and influential philosophers of the last half century but is barely known outside academia. He made important contributions to questions such as identity and freedom, but might be best known for his ideas about future generations. Parfit coined the phrase “the repugnant conclusion” to describe his analysis that because it is better to exist than not exist, then it is not only desirable but a moral imperative to increase global population even if it means a large decrease in well-being for those who inhabit it. Parfit used a series of unexceptional premises that if accepted as true lead inevitably to the “repugnant conclusion.” David Edmonds describes this and Parfit’s other ideas in his masterful biography. That said, the book is less about Parfit’s ideas than his life, a life of the mind, which allowed him to think relentlessly and deeply about philosophical ideas. The sketch is very much of an academic who lived in his mind more than he did the tangible world, foregoing dinner and wedding invitations because they left him with less time to think his deep thoughts. Interestingly, Edmonds finds that this deep thinker who addressed issues of population and future generations has only once referred to abortion and in that case it was a private letter to his sister. Quite often books about thinkers are dull, but Edmonds makes a life that ostensibly escaped much intrigue and adventure thoroughly engaging.