At first glance, Derek Parfit is indistinguishable from the rest of the crowd. With his thick flop of pure white hair and wire rim glasses, he could pass as anyone’s professor. Yet, in actuality, Parfit is considered one of the most original, and brilliant, moral philosophers in the world, and last Wednesday he presented the 2013 Trinity University DeCoursey Lecture.
Parfit is an Emeritus Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, as well as a visiting professor at Rutgers University, Harvard University and New York University. He has published two books, “Reasons and Persons” in 1984 and “On What Matters” in 2011.
“He’s really smart. I don’t really even know how to give a real picture of how smart he is,” said Matthew Peebles, a senior double-majoring in philosophy and psychology. “My professor told us that he’s probably the only one that can write a book called “˜On What Matters’ and be able to write that.”
Parfit’s lecture, titled “We Are Not Human Beings,” attempted to explain what it means to consider oneself a human being.
“I thought Dr. Parfit’s lecture was an applicable and relevant conversation about figuring out what we define as “˜human,'” said junior Katelyn Underbrink. “As a sociology and environmental studies double major, the question as to what sets our humanity apart from our biological construction as an animal is a constant discussion topic and struggle of mine.”
In essence, Parfit argued that humans have a thinking part that does the thinking, and that is the part that humans associate themselves with. We are not human beings, but rather we are the thinking part of the human being, what Parfit calls the “controlling, thinking, part.” For example, Parfit argues that the stomach is the part of the human being that digests the food, just as the brain is the part of the human that thinks its thoughts.
“If most people actually put some thought into what they are, I think Parfit’s thoughts would usually concur with theirs,” Peebles said. “I really liked how he specifically said what most people think because if you don’t think about it, people just say we’re human beings and can’t articulate what that is.”
In order to support his point, Parfit cited the 1990 Supreme Court Case, Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health. In this case, Nancy Cruzan was diagnosed as being in a vegetative state after being thrown from her car. Her parents fought to take Cruzan off life support, and eventually received an affirmative 5-4 vote from the Supreme Court. Parfit stated that on her tombstone Cruzan’s parents had written, “Departed 1983, At Peace 1990.” This reinforces Parfit’s idea that people are proclaimed deceased when they lose conscious control over their bodies.
“I thought Dr. Parfit’s lecture was truly incredible,” said sophomore Sydney Wright. “I loved how he was subtly talking about the concept of personal identity by relating it to being in a vegetative state. He was saying that it is our personalities, memories and individual life experiences and perspectives that make us who we are, not our physical selves. It was a very eye-opening and unique way of presenting the topic, and he definitely made me think a lot more and sparked a lot of great conversations about it afterwards.”