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Reasons and Persons

4.26  ·  Rating details ·  1,400 ratings  ·  91 reviews
Challenging, with several powerful arguments, some of our deepest beliefs about rationality, morality, and personal identity, Derek Parfit claims that we have a false view about our own nature. It is often rational to act against our own best interests, he argues, and most of us have moral views that are self-defeating. We often act wrongly, although we know there will be ...more
Paperback, 543 pages
Published February 20th 1986 by Oxford University Press (first published 1984)
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Jeff Cliff It would be a measurably better world if everyone had the wherewithal to read this book and did so. But they will not, and there are reasons for why t…moreIt would be a measurably better world if everyone had the wherewithal to read this book and did so. But they will not, and there are reasons for why this might be the case. I'm going to say that this is a 'soft no'. It's not that the general public shouldn't try, but at the same time don't expect this to be a pop hit along the lines of '50 shades of gray' or 'Harry Potter' at least any time within your lifetime. Even if perhaps the world would be a better place if that did happen. If you want to get a start on what you will learn, start at the end [SPOILERS], and work your way to the start like I did.(less)

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Feb 05, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: philosophy
Reasons and Persons is unquestionably one of the most important philosophical works of the 20th century, although its conspicuous absence from bookstore shelves might suggest otherwise. But for those planning to read Parfit's masterwork of moral philosophy, I would like to offer two words of warning...

First, Parfit is a very, very rigorous thinker.

While the book doesn't require a whole lot of background knowledge, many readers—including those well versed in philosophy—will probably find it quite
Joshua Stein
Dec 26, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: philosophy, ethics
Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons is considered a must read in contemporary ethics. The problem is that it is basically only accessible for those who are already experienced with ethics, and particularly the dense work of many of his predecessors, particularly Henry Sidgwick, to whom Parfit is often compared on the dust jacket. It also requires some familiarity with many of the ethicists that Parfit discusses in the text, particularly Thomas Nagel, John Rawls and G.E. Moore, as well as the clas ...more
Oct 27, 2007 rated it it was amazing
My deep love of this book is counterintuitive; I generally prefer a very different intellectual style to my reflections on the nature of personal identity. Also, I generally tend to get annoyed with excessive use of wildly implausible hypotheticals, which this book uses in droves. Nevertheless, this remains on the most influential philosophical works I've ever read. To what extent are you "the same person" you were 10 years ago? What is your connection to that person? Parfit dramatically and pow ...more
Daniel Hageman
It's genuinely difficult to put into words how paradigm-shifting this book is in the fields of moral philosophy and rationality, and likewise now with respect to the confidence I can espouse in regards to a few of my own beliefs, particularly surrounding rationality and the proper way of understanding personal identity. This was the perfect nonfiction book to read with a small group of like-minded people, to really break down the arguments that, while not difficult to understand, maintain a leve ...more
Nov 08, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: philosophy
Reviewing (and even more so, star rating) Reasons and Persons is difficult. Having some basic understanding of utilitarianism, I felt that I could follow Parfit's arguments reasonably well, but this is by no means an easy read. There are four parts to the book, each building on the former. The first one, on self-defeating theories, is a technical and complicated review of theories of rationality and morality. This is my least favorite part of the book, and I would even say that for the "casual" ...more
Henry Cooksley
May 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favourites
This post also appears on Medium and can be viewed here.

(Please note: I would really recommend this for people with at least a year's worth of studying philosophy at undergraduate level or higher; otherwise, I imagine it will be pretty heavy going and I'd recommend other starting points instead! If that doesn't put you off, or you're still interested but not sure if you have the background, I think you could get a lot out of the book by starting with the Concluding Chapter, then picking any indi
Oct 26, 2007 rated it it was amazing
this book reoriented me philosophically, changed my sense of what i can do with philosophy, and named clearly some things i felt strongly but hazily. parfit, by this book, equipped me with new tools, finer ones. i use it as reference material. i keep it at hand.
Taylor Pearson
This book was recommended by Patrick Collison (@patrickc) and Sam Harris is the densest, most difficult book I've ever read.

Derek Parfit was a British philosopher who specialised in personal identity, rationality, and ethics. He is widely considered one of the most important and influential moral philosophers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This book is his most famous work.

The first half of the book argues against self-interest theory, the idea that each person should seek the outcom
Andrei Khrapavitski
Feb 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Just finished reading “Reasons and Persons” by Derek Parfit, a British moral philosopher who passed away on January 1, 2017. It’s been a while since I enjoyed reading a philosophy book so much! It almost feels like the author was some superhuman, Buddha-like impersonal being. This is the kind of book you would want our artificial superintelligent overlords to read so they wouldn’t want to destroy us after reading the Bible, the Quran, Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, etc. There is a vast array ...more
Sep 28, 2012 rated it it was amazing
A deeply challenging book: challenging to understand even for careful readers, challenging to most of the dogmas of Western analytic philosophy about reasons and persons (while embedded within that tradition), challenging in even subtler ways to initially obvious comparisons with many Buddhist arguments against the existence of a self (Parfit himself probably didn't understand that challenging and complex tradition extremely well, although he didn't claim to). Most of all: it's challenging to re ...more
Mar 25, 2008 rated it really liked it
philosophy for the future
Dec 12, 2018 rated it it was ok
Every now and then, I come across a book that painfully reveals the limitations of my intellect and critical faculties. Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons is one such book. This dense, esoteric text coaxed me right up to the cliff’s edge of my philosophical comprehension, and then shoved me off without ceremony. Even so, I had a few intriguing concepts to contemplate on the way down.

Although I probably lack the raw intelligence to grapple appropriately with the structure of Parfit’s arguments, t
Jon Norimann
Nov 03, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: philosophy
This is a surprisingly good book. It discusses non-religious moral philosophy, in particular what is a good basis for a persons actions. 3 major hypothesis are getting most of the attention, acting morally good, acting on self interest alone or acting on short term desires. The consequences of these basic rules of action are then evaluated both for long term effects and interpersonal effects.

Parfits style is such that no previous knowledge of philosophy is needed to read the book. Significant p
Nick Klagge
Aug 11, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is an extraordinary book. It is also challenging and also imperfect. I don't agree with everything Parfit has to say, but R&P has done as much as any book to make me think hard about philosophical issues. (As a side note, I got interested in reading this book from watching Shelly Kagan's Yale course on Death--highly recommended as a more digestible introduction to some similar topics--as well as, unfortunately, from reading about Parfit after his recent death.)

It's difficult to know where t
Oct 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
It’s 2018 and we still do what we want to do or what we beleive is best to do for us. He takes on each of these approaches and breaks them to failure using thought experiments. Very Dostoevsky like and very John Nash like at the same time. I can’t believe how he managed to pull these two worlds in this philosophical maneuver. Must read for fans of ethics, philosophy and mathematics. And those who loved Brothers Karamazov. It’s the same rigorousness applied to plebeian thoughts.
Jesper Östman
Oct 22, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Read the third part, about Personal Identity and ethics.
A very good, thoughtprovoking and important book.
Mihnea Maftei
Aug 21, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This has been, to me, an awesome book.
Jul 25, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: self, philosophy
“Consider, for example, clubs. Suppose that a certain club exists for several years, holding regular meetings. The meetings then cease. Some years later, some of the members of this club form a club with the same name, and the same rules. We ask: ‘Have these people reconvened the very same club? Or have they merely started up another club, which is exactly similar?’ There might be an answer to this question. The original club might have had a rule explaining how, after such a period of non-exist ...more
Sep 18, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: philosophy
Clearly a classic on confronting self-interest from a reductionist perspective. Straight-forward thought experiments and argument. But took me 3 tries over 4 years to finish, and admits optimistic defeat in the end.
Esther Kemball
I actually finished this book several months ago, except for the appendices, but I didn't want to mark it as read until I had done those and I kept putting them off.

This is an excellent book which I would recommend to everyone who has the spare time to read it. I can't say much about it that hasn't been said, but I just want to recommend it very heartily.
Lenhardt Stevens
Jul 03, 2020 rated it it was amazing
What was the Repugnant Conclusion, again?
Nov 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
This might be the most demanding book I have ever read. There are many books that are hard to understand, either because I lack the background knowledge or because the authors are -intentionally or not- terrible writers. In this book everything is presented as clearly as possible. If you put the effort you will eventually get his points, but the effort required is enormous. Very often you see Parfit arguing for A, then present counter-arguments that for A to be plausible he would have to prove B ...more
Jan 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
There were many parts of this book where I would have benefitted from a greater understanding of the debate Parfit was taking part in, and what exactly he was trying to accomplish, particularly at the beginning, but despite this inadequacy of contextual knowledge this book still managed to get me thinking like few other works. Particularly the sections on The Repugnant Conclusion and even more so on self/identity I found profoundly thought provoking, and am now lost in thought about moral issues ...more
Aug 12, 2012 rated it really liked it
Though I think my expectations for this book were overinflated by reading so much gushing about it in the blogosphere, I am still glad I read it. I found the discussion of how personal identity is not what matters especially interesting. While I actually already believed that there was nothing fundamental about personal identity before reading, I hadn't thought through the implications of this fact for self-interest theory (not good) and morality in general. I appreciate Parfit's argument that l ...more
Ann Michael
Sep 01, 2011 rated it really liked it
This book is not an easy read, but then, it isn't supposed to be. Parfit basically sets out to show that the long-standing "self interest theory" of rational argument and the non-reductionist concept of identity are in error. The book proceeds in the manner of classic argument: claims, premises, altered claims, refutation, dilemmas, thought games, weak and strong theories/claims/arguments...with enough references to previous and current philosophers (he's especially thorough with Sidgwick) to ma ...more
Aug 03, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This is a fascinating read and very well written book, although Parfit employs the method of constructing straw men (and a few patently rediculous theories which, however, are quite popular such as the "Tolstoy" view. I don't know if Tolstoy did believe this though). Parfit then proceeds to demolish the straw men, creating the impression that his views are the only ones left standing. Despite this, there are some great insightful moments and a good account of the implications for identity that f ...more
Mar 23, 2011 rated it liked it
Parfit makes a compelling case for how we should think about personhood, or rather, that we should care about our psychological content and continuity (his ambiguously named, relation-R). Still, he certainly seems smart enough to have made such a case more quickly and less dryly. The book is, though philosophically very significant with respect to personhood (and ethics), pretty boring.
Jul 21, 2013 rated it did not like it
I'm finished with this book. I've been reading it for ages and I can't take the slog any more. By all accounts Parfit is a genius and this book has been hugely influential but for me it felt like an abstract, fastidious, and pedantic exercise, by someone more akin to an alien logician than a human being. ...more
David Gross
Mar 16, 2010 rated it did not like it
I only got a quarter of the way in to it or thereabouts and was bored the whole way, so I gave up. I understand that this has been a terribly inspiring book to many people, but I thought it was poorly-written, deadly-boring, wordy, and off-putting.
Sep 14, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I've often felt this book has not received the attention that it deserves. While not exactly what one would call an easy read, the arguments overwhelm the reader and, perhaps, permanently change one's views. ...more
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Derek Parfit was a British Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University specializing in personal identity, rationality, ethics, and the relations between them.

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