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Reasons and Persons Reading Group: In-Person Meeting 1
March 25 @ 2:00 pm - 3:00 pm
EA DC will meet to read and discuss Reasons and Persons, one of the most influential texts both in mainstream ethical philosophy and in effective altruism. In my (Andy’s) opinion the book is one of the best examples of analytic philosophy writing period. While the writing and arguments are dense and sometimes difficult, the book requires no background in philosophy and the author clearly spells out the arguments without relying on the reader to be familiar with prior books. Among other things the book’s arguments cover ethical issues involving possible future people, the philosophy of personal identity and wellbeing, and arguments against ethical egoism. A lot of what developed into contemporary longtermism originated in this book.
The book is available among other places on Amazon, including used copies. I would strongly recommend not buying the audiobook. Reasons and Persons is accessible but dense and does not convert well to audio, and we will be reading it out of order which may make following along with an audiobook more difficult.
What to read before Meeting #1 (page numbers refer to the 1987 paperback edition)
- Introduction – pages ix-x – The goals for the book are explained.
- Appendix I: What Makes Someone’s Life Go Best – pages 493-502 – This reading does not build off of previous parts of the book and is a good way to acclimate to Parfit’s specific writing style and way of arguing. Notice that the chapter attempts to represent each possible belief fairly, draw out all the absurd implications of each belief, and then choose the least absurd of the conclusions as a candidate for what is true. This pattern will repeat throughout the book.
- Chapters 10-13 – pages 199-307 – We’ll begin reading the book halfway through in Part 3: Personal Identity. This is (in my opinion) the most exciting and accessible part, so it’s a great place to begin. The first two parts of the book are spent exploring different ethical theories and theories of rational action in general. We will circle back to these later. One central argument in the first two parts is that it is rational to care about other people, and to (sometimes) put their interests before your own. To many this seems obvious, but the question of why we shouldn’t always follow our own self interest has been central to Western ethical philosophy since Plato, so Parfit is especially interested in answering it. Part 1 and 2’s answer to why we should care about other people is that ethical egoism (the belief that you should always follow your own self interest) is contradictory and self-defeating. Part 3 presents a different argument for why we should put the interests of other people above our own: the self does not exist in a meaningful sense, and the “you” that exists in the future is effectively a different person. Chapters 10-13 are spent arguing for this view. The rest of the book will draw out moral implications of the belief that the self does not exist.
What to expect for the discussion
For the discussion itself we’ll break down the reading together, answer any questions and offer any clarifications, and discuss and debate the many ideas presented. Disagreement is encouraged! There are a lot of contentious ideas in the book and you may find yourself disagreeing with the book’s whole approach to ethics.
I have some experience moderating philosophy discussions. I was the head of my college’s philosophy club for 3 years and taught a high school philosophy course for 1 year, so I’m looking forward to providing some useful structure and inputs to the conversations!
Vegan snacks will be provided!
Reach out to me to talk if you’re having any trouble with the reading
Reasons and Persons can be a challenging read! If you’re finding that there are sections of the book or ideas that are giving you trouble please feel free to email me at Andy@EffectiveAltruismDC.org or schedule a Zoom meeting using my Calendly. Please don’t hesitate to reach out, talking about this stuff is always extremely fun for me.