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on 23 November 2001
... I concentrated mainly on the 'persons' side of the book.
I first read it in 1992, while studying philosophy at university and finding the entire subject frustrating. So much philosophy in the anglo-german tradition is a game of semantics. Reasons and Persons is different - it is a well reasoned argument that can have life-changing consequences.
His discussion of personal identity - what makes a person the same person across a spatio-termporal path - was revelatory. By explaining that, frankly, we do not have a consistent identity over time the implications for ethics become explosive.
I don't want to make it sound like some drippy self-help book, it certainly isn't, but it had a profound and life-changing effect on me and my notions of justice, punishment and my own identity.
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on 10 July 2012
I first read the Persons part of Reasons and Persons at university, and was blown away. I am now just coming to the end of a full re-read of all four sections and have to conclude this is one of the best works of philosophy written in the past couple of hundred years.

Parfit's work is as wonderful as it is for three reasons:

1. He relentless uses logical argument to force the careful reader to accept deeply counter-intuitive conclusions about our reasons for action and the nature of personal identity over time. It's rare to be gripped by philosophy in the way that I was gripped as I read the latter half of Part Three of this book.

2. Parfit writes incredibly lucidly. Whilst the concepts in Reasons and Persons will at times tax even those with a background in philosophy, the language is admirably simple, clear and fluid. Parfit rarely uses jargon and never unnecessarily.

3. The conclusions that Parfit reaches are not esoteric, but rather have deep and immediate implications for how each of us lives our everyday life. Without wanting to be too glib, if we all accepted what Parfit argues (and we should) we'd need to throw out most economic theory, and transform our attitudes towards personal autonomy, abortion, and the ethics surrounding death.

A work of philosophy that can do each of the above three things deserves, in my mind, to rank up there with the very best.

I do have one reservation about Reasons and Persons, though. This is that Parfit uses a range of imaginary cases to argue his point. I am not a good enough philosopher to know whether there is a flaw in use of such cases, or to know what the flaw is even if there is one. Yet it does leave me feeling as though I might just have been hoodwinked a little - that in the real world his conclusions might not hold. I can't justify this feeling - most likely it is simply a result of my intuitions railing against the logic contained within the book. All the same, the feeling remains.
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on 17 May 2004
This is a brilliant seminal work of 20th century ethics. Parfit argues in a very clear style, attempting to decide between attitudes to decision-making, mainly consequentialism, 'common-sense morality', and self-interest theory (rational egoism). He is also concerned with questions of personal identity, i.e. what (if anything) makes a person the same person over time? This in turn feeds into questions of morality and rationality, developing an intriguing and provocative position. Parfit also reflects on the question of what we owe to future generations. This is an extremly important issue and Parfit handles it well, though it is perhaps not that closely related to questions from the earlier parts. But any complaints we might have can only be mere quibbles; it is impossible to deny that Parfit discusses issues of earth-shattering importance in a tremendously insightful and stimulating way. Parfit admits that there are many questions left open at the end, but this is unsurprising: it would be too much of a miracle to expect all the problems of ethics to be solved in one go, even by an intellectual giant of Parfit's calibre. However, it does leave open the issues for all those inspired by the book (and who wouldn't be?) to put forward their own theories.
In short, if you are interested in the question of how to make decisions and what morality says you should do - which is a pretty universal issue - this book is essential reading.
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on 7 November 2011
Quite simply an awesome book, rigorous and detailed on every point, and beautiful because of it. A definite challenge that any ethical theorist must defeat.
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on 27 October 2000
It surprises me that no-one has yet reviewed this. Reasons and Persons is not only tremendously influential in contemporary moral philosophy, it also deserves to be. It is astonishingly thorough, sensitive and original in its treatment of a range of issues: the constitution of moral reasons, their practical status, the structure of several key normative ethical theories, and so forth. I have not read the Persons half as closely as the Reasons half, but I well imagine that it would be as instructive to personal identity theorists as the other half is to those interested in normative ethics.
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on 8 September 2013
I have wanted to read this book for some time and I am pleased I bought it, but it is going to be a challenge for a non-philosopher!
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on 3 April 2015
One of the greatest philosophical texts of our time.
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on 27 April 2013
This person while claiming not to believe in the self is an embodiment of something far bigger - the ego.

He, Galen Strawson and Steven Collins strut around telling everyone how it is while believing they are it.

I had a miserable time with these egotists in 1996 at a conference at King's College, LONDON. They didn't even face the audience when they had the chance but made a scrum at the conference table. They wanted to be seen doing philosophy without letting anyone but themselves know what they were talking about. There are so many poseurs in philosophy.

These people are philosophical actors. It is people like these that make Oxbridge so repulsive to me.
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on 7 January 2009
I freely admit to neither owning this book, nor even reading past page seven (the whole first chapter is available online elsewhere). On the plus side, it is clearly well written and easy to follow.

I would not, however recommend this book to anybody. Not because its badly written (it isn't), but because it is a load of rubbish. On page 4 he blatantly builds a straw man, stating as fact a huge assumption/stipulation regarding the Self-interest Theory for which there is absolutely no justification*. At that point I would normally walk away from a book. Instead I decided to read on to see how he would use this straw man to prove his point. I did not get that far. By page seven he had used such flawed reasoning to come to a completely invalid and incorrect conclusion** that I could not continue without risking my sanity. He uses very logically sounding (but flawed) reasoning which amounts to sophistry. Whether he does this intentionally or subconciously is irrelevant to me as a reader. It seems as if the author has a point to make, and this book is just a sad atttempt at rationalisation of an untenable position. There may well be some good ideas and sound philosophy in this book, but I am not willing to retain in my mind all the flawed steps in his reasoning whilst reading through an argument to decide at the end whether they matter or not. It is the author's responsibility to present arguments that are already rigorous, valid, and complete.

In conclusion, I would avoid like the plague not only this book, but any publication that Derek Parfit authored or co-authored.

I am not well read in philosophy or ethics, but if this is an example of "a brilliant seminal work" it makes me worry about the quality of modern philosophy.

*The assumption was that equal weight should be given to each stage of a person's life. This may well be true, but is not necessarily so and cannot be simply stated without justification. Any future conclusion based upon this assumption would not be valid for those variations of S that do not include this axiom.

**His flawed reasoning was based upon a total lack of understanding of optimisation theory. He assumes extreme discrete positions in the levels of quality of work produced by his hypothetical author instead of a continuous spectrum. In order to make his reasoning valid, he should produce a mathematical model, with all his assumptions explicitly made, and then use his model to find the optimal quality of work desirable. Instead, he assumes that any model would result in an inconsistency.
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