A lot of professional moral philosophers consider this the best work on ethics since Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics, which was published an entire century prior. Though I am not knowledgeable enough about the history of ethics to offer a meaningful comment on that, I would be really impressed if there were another book on ethics published this century that is more original and thoughtful. One of my professor's estimated that 50% of the contemporary literature in ethics is working directly from ideas in this book. Parfit's writing style is really simple, but that makes the book exceptionally dense with arguments, and there is a strong sense that he spent a lot of time thinking about every word put into the book (given that he was publishing papers about topics in the book 15 years before it was published, I don't think that's a stretch). The ideas themselves are also airtight in their reasoning. Reasons and Persons is divided into four sections, of which I think the 3rd and 4th are the most fun and interesting. The first two systematically showing that ethical egoism and common-sense intuitions about morality are incoherent and that consequentialism solve all the problems these two bases of morality contain. From what my philosophy professors indicate, Parfit is considered to have succeeded. The third section is on personal identity and shows that the two classic western conceptions of how someone keeps their identity over time -- through the continuity of one's memories or body -- both have fatal flaws. He advocates for a reductionist picture of personal identity as a series of relationships to other people and things that wither and change over time. There is no core self tethering it all together. He then discusses the ethical implications of the view. The fourth section is maybe my favorite single section of any philosophy book I've read. It discusses four serious problems in population ethics -- The Nonidentity Problem, the Repugnant Conclusion, the Absurd Conclusion, and the Mere Addition Paradox -- that he thinks any good moral theory must solve. The only problem is that none of the traditional conceptions, most alarmingly deontology and consequentialism, are up to the task. Deontology can't explain the Nonidentity Problem, and Utilitarianism fails to avoid the Mere Addition Paradox. Therefore, no moral theory as of yet is perfectly satisfying. This fourth book has spawned its own industry in professional ethics, and mountains of papers can been written attempting to solve these problems. Thus far, no Deontological solutions to the Nonidentity Problem nor Consequentialist solutions to the Mere Addition Paradox have satisfied people.
In Summary, the book is exceptionally dense but deeply rewarding if you're patient with some of its ideas. I'm not sure I would recommend it to a lay-person interested in ethics (there are many other great ethics books that are more introductory), but if you are really into philosophy and aren't afraid of a profoundly rewarding but substantial challenge, then I couldn't recommend another contemporary philosophical work book more thoroughly other than A Theory of Justice.
Also worth noting: the softcover binding on the book is absolutely terrible. My softcover edition fell apart within a year and decent care of the book. Exasperated, I spent extra for a hardcover because I wanted to keep the book for a long time; it's that valuable to me. Assuming you get a softcover, would avoid traveling with the book at all and try to treat it very gently. The ideas in the book are why I gave it 5 stars, not the physical book of the softcover, which deserves maybe 2 stars.
- Paperback: 560 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press; Reprint edition (23 January 1986)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780198249085
- ISBN-13: 978-0198249085
- ASIN: 019824908X
- Product Dimensions: 19.7 x 2.5 x 12.9 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 680 g
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- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 34,625 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)