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Reasons and Persons (Oxford Paperbacks) [Paperback]

by Derek Parfit
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)

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Book Description

February 20, 1986 019824908X 978-0198249085 Reprint
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 no one with serious grounds for complaint, and when we consider future generations it is very hard to avoid conclusions that most of us will find very disturbing.

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Editorial Reviews


"Very few works in the subject can compare with Parfit's in scope, fertility, imaginative resource, and cogency of reasoning."--P.F. Strawson, The New York Review of Books

"Complex, brilliant, and entertaining....This book is chock-full of impressive arguments, many of which seem destined to become part of the standard analytic repertory....It is an understatement to say that it is well worth reading."--International Studies in Philosophy

"Extraordinary...Brilliant...Astonishingly rich in ideas...A major contribution to philosophy: it will be read, honoured, and argued about for many years to come."--Samuel Scheffler, Times Literary Supplement

"A brilliantly clever and imaginative book...Strange and excitingly intense."--Alan Ryan, Sunday Times (London)

"Not many books reset the philosophical agenda in the way that this one does....Western philosophy, especially systematic ethics, will not be the same again."--Philosophical Books

About the Author

Derek Parfit is a research fellow at All Souls College.

Product Details

  • Series: Oxford Paperbacks
  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA; Reprint edition (February 20, 1986)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 019824908X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0198249085
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 5.2 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #77,536 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
73 of 74 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Philosophical Equivalent of a Neutron Bomb August 28, 2001
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
When I first read this book on a trip across Europe, I was blown away: I remember thinking again and again "How can something this blow-the-roof-off important be published so late in the game?" Parfit shows how some of our most common-sensical beliefs about self-interest, ethics, personal identity, and (perhaps most interestingly) our obligations to future generations are beset with surprising and thorny problems, or even flatly self-contradictory or incoherent. He's also the master of the subtle-but-important distinction. Probably several longish books could be spun out from all the original material in Reasons and Persons-- certainly many journal articles already have been! However: while Parfit's style is very clear, and he doesn't refer as extensively as some philosophers to the work of previous authors, I probably wouldn't want to tackle this bad boy without at least some training in philosophy.
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64 of 69 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Big, long, and hard to summarize December 12, 2002
This isn't an easy book either to read or to review, and I don't expect I'll be able to provide an adequate summary of it here. But it's one of those massively important books that there's just no way to get around. It's easily the most weighty and thorough work of utilitarian ethics since Henry Sidgwick's _The Methods of Ethics_, and it has something of Sidgwick's spirit of judicious reasonableness.
Derek Parfit exploded onto the scene with this book in 1984. His work is a goldmine of helpful reflections on, and criticisms of, our ordinary notions of moral behavior, rationality, and personality.
The work is divided into four major parts. In the first, he argues that many of our common-sense moral theories are "self-defeating" in the manner of a Prisoner's Dilemma (which, by the way, is the part that first interested me in the book). In the second, he considers the relations between rationality and time and worries about how we should take the past and the future into ethical account. In the third, he offers a theory of personal identity and its relations to morality. In the fourth, he considers the role that future generations ought to play in our moral deliberations.
Well, sure enough, that's _not_ an adequate summary. I haven't even begun to convey the sheer virtuousity with which Parfit raises objections, makes distinctions, brings out difficulties that are so un-obvious that nobody ever noticed them before, and generally develops his arguments with clarity and vigor. Heck, I haven't even adequately conveyed his views themselves.
So I guess you'll just have to do what I did: read the book. If you have any interest in ethics, you're going to have to read it _sometime_. So get a copy, put it on your bookshelf, take it down and browse through it once in a while.
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39 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Do not ignore this book... January 10, 2003
By A Customer
As a graduate student of philosophy doing a thesis on personal identity, I'd say that this is one of the best books available on the topic for several reasons: 1)the scope of the material that is covered; 2) the prose is very smooth - this should be an accessible read for most people; 3) Parfit's analogies are very instructive in challenging our commonsense views of personal identity.
Anyone who has read and enjoyed books by John Searle and Daniel Dennett will probably appreciate Parfit's work.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read October 13, 1998
By A Customer
Parfit's work contains the clearest and most cogent analysis of the philsophical problem of personal identity--i.e., the problem of what makes one the same person over time--I have ever seen. The stuff on ethics and our duties toward future generations is also excellent. Parfit's arguments will challenge, distrub, and perhaps even frighten, any thinking person. This book is a must read. I have nothing bad to say about it.--Greg Klebanoff
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A first-rate work about personal identity... January 10, 2003
By A Customer
Having read enough books about personal identity to choke a horse, I can assure you that this is one of the titles that stands above most others. Parfit's book is excellent because it covers a lot of ground, but it isn't bogged down with a lot of jargon.
He gives many great analogies that challenge the standard ways we think about a person's identity over time...and his conclusion will probably shock those who aren't used to abstract philosophical ideas.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful but not very satisfying July 31, 2007
This book does a very good job of pointing out inconsistencies in common moral intuitions, and does a very mixed job of analyzing how to resolve them.
The largest section of the book deals with personal identity, using a bit of neuroscience plus scenarios such as a Star Trek transporter to show that nonreductionsist approaches produce conclusions which are strange enough to disturb most people. I suspect this analysis was fairly original when it was written, but I've seen most of the ideas elsewhere. His analysis is more compelling than most other versions, but it's not concise enough for many to read it.
The most valuable part of the book is the last section, weighing conflicts of interest between actual people and people who could potentially exist in the future. His description of the mere addition paradox convinced me that it's harder than I thought to specify plausible beliefs which don't lead to the Repugnant Conclusion (i.e. that some very large number of people with lives barely worth living can be a morally better result than some smaller number of very happy people). He ends by concluding he hasn't found a way resolve the conflicts between the principles he thinks morality ought to satisfy.
It appears that if he had applied the critical analysis that makes up most of the book to the principle of impersonal ethics, he would see signs that his dilemma results from trying to satisfy incompatible intuitions. Human desire for ethical rules that are more impersonal is widespread when the changes are close to Pareto improvements, but human intuition seems to be generally incompatible with impersonal ethical rules that are as far from Pareto improvements as the Repugnant Conclusion appears to be.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A Contemporary Classic
A rigorously argued work of genius as it has proven to be in the philosophic community. Clearly, this is a book that is a fundamental read for students at the undergraduate and... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Gary P. Benjamin
5.0 out of 5 stars Very Satisfied
I bought this book for my son. For a used book it was in very good condition and it arrived in a very short amount of time.
I am very pleased.
Published 4 months ago by Judy Himrod
5.0 out of 5 stars Many fascinating ideas in ethics and personhood
I got this book hoping for insights on temporal metaphysics and found a cornucopia of ideas, analyses, and gedankenexperiments on the nature of personhood. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Patrick McCuller
2.0 out of 5 stars Reasons and Persons
I gave this paperback edition only two stars because the actual physical book is horribly put together. For the price, the book is a disgrace. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Juan Malo
3.0 out of 5 stars Too dense to penetrate
I bought this because Douglas Hofstader referred to it in "I am a Strange Loop." I suppose certain philosophers might enjoy this kind of reading, but not me! Read more
Published 13 months ago by redsnapper
5.0 out of 5 stars Very important 1970s study in the theory of rational choice and its...
Very rich discussion of fascinating thought experiments.

One of the most interesting studies in the theory of rational choice and of the theory of personal identity AND... Read more
Published 14 months ago by Dr. JAB
5.0 out of 5 stars Deep, clear, sharp. Invaluable contribution and work of art.
Parfit writes with the utmost clarity about almost intractable subjects. The book consists of four quite different parts: self-defeating theories, rationality and time, personal... Read more
Published on October 26, 2010 by Mr G.
4.0 out of 5 stars Very Good Read
This was the first time I read such a dense philosophical book. Parfit is pretty good at producing reasoning and examples for his causes but there are some serious counterexamples... Read more
Published on March 11, 2010 by Chaddyr23
4.0 out of 5 stars Important book on identity and morality
Little to add beyond what has already been written by others. The writing is dense, as is common in the analytic tradition of Anglophone philosophy of the past century (almost). Read more
Published on February 1, 2010 by H. Sansom
1.0 out of 5 stars Wittgenstein & Reality, 1; Parfit & Fevered Imaginings, 0.
I was excited some years ago to have this book assigned as a reading in a graduate school political philosophy class taught by a well-known American expert in the field . . . Read more
Published on November 3, 2003 by D. humphreys
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