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Reasons and Persons

4.23  ·  Rating details ·  1,097 Ratings  ·  63 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…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
Peter Mcloughlin
Feb 09, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: philosophy
This book is a treatise on the nature of individuals and various philosophical foundations of rational (non-religious) ethics. The author describes three moral principles on which to derive ethical rules, common sense morality, self interest theory, present aim theory. All three lead to paradoxical outcomes because they involve a self that changes over time. He decides principle aim is the best for an actor in the present because of the limited time horizon.
He goes into an analysis of self and
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
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.
Mar 25, 2008 rated it really liked it
philosophy for the future
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
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 whe
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.
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.
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.
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
Lyle Gonzalez
“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
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
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.
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.
Aug 06, 2012 rated it really liked it
One of two people (with Christine Korsgaard) investigating personhood theory as relevant to moral questions (IMHO--seriously humble!) back when I wrote my senior thesis. Always sad I didn't get much beyond the surface of parts of this great book.
David Gross
Mar 16, 2010 rated it did not like it
Shelves: ethics, non-fiction
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.
Sep 01, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: philosophy
Challenging; yet, fun.
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Jul 31, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Delightful, wonderfully odd, enchanting, thought-provoking...!
İlker Çağatay
Mar 28, 2016 rated it it was amazing
what a book!
Jeff Cliff
Sep 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is a powerful read. It's a philosophy textbook, so do NOT read this without at LEAST having read some intro to philosophy material to get a handle on what Parfit is doing. Aristotle is as good of place as any to start, though there may be others.

Some of it was even a little above my head, hitting directly head on the ideas that were at the time of the 1970s still currently being promoted, often by the inventor of said idea(like Rawls). This was a time when Philosophy was exciting. Parfit hi
Oct 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I have a friend who is most of the way through a PhD in decision theory. When he recommended Reasons & Persons to me, he described it as the most important book he'd ever read. I am skeptical of claims about books as 'life-changing'. I was particularly skeptical of this. I've read a lot of stuff adjacent to Parfit in the past. I did quite a bit of analytic philosophy in undergrad, and a lot of logic. I told myself I'd 'managed to avoid' R&P. I thought of Parfit mostly as 'the time travel ...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.
“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.” 26 likes
“We ought not to do to our future selves what it would be wrong to do to other people.” 4 likes
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