In my metaphysics class today we were discussing Aristotle and I was explaining the idea of accidental and essential changes. One student asked, “what if something has two distinct functions, could the same change be accidental with regard to one function and essential with regard to the other?”
First, I applauded the student for creative thinking (see this post.) Then, taking off from this I gave the example of a wheeled office chair that was used by children as a continuing prop in a game of monster: the chair played the role of the monster, and they would run from it, sneak up on it, roll it towards each other and scream, etc.
A cigarette is accidentally dropped on the seat of the chair, and the seat burns away, but the rest of the chair is largely unharmed. It can no longer be used as a chair, so there’s been an essential change: in a sense, it’s no longer a chair. But it’s only an accidental change in its role as monster. It still rolls and it looks enough the same that it can still serve its role
So it’s had an accidental change on one interpretation of the object, and an essential change on another. It’d be easy enough to think of other cases like this. There’s a kitchen knife that I use as a screwdriver. It’s tip breaks off so that it will no longer fit into a screw slot, but it’s still a perfectly good kitchen knife. I have a TV/radio. The screen burns out, so it’s essentially not a TV anymore, but the speakers still work so it’s a perfectly good radio (note to young people: there used to be these objects that were combination TV/radios). Or, it’s still a perfectly good TV for my blind roommate, but I no longer get much pleasure out of it as a tv. So it’s essentially not a sighted person’s TV, but it has undergone no essential change for a blind person.
I was thinking this is similar to the question of continuity of identity. Sometimes we need to know the specific function for which the continuity question is being asked.
The example that came to me was a sex change operation. Joe is married to Keisha. Joe gets a sex change and becomes Josephine. Josephine is still liable for Joe’s crimes and debts, but Keisha could quite rightly say “Josephine is not the man I married!” This is doubly true: Josephine is not in fact a man. For Keisha’s purposes, Joe has undergone an essential change and ceased to be, because it was essential for Keisha that Joe be a man. Joe the man is gone. And as a result, Keisha is within her rights to say, “I am not married to that person! [actually, in some parts of the U.S., the sex change does nullify the marriage, though Keisha could say this anywhere, and could probably get the marriage annulled] That person is not Joe!” There some elision here between “man” and “person,” but from Keisha’s perspective, part of the essence of the person she married was that he was a man. In changing that, Joe/Josephine changed an essential characteristic of the person Keisha loved.
Of course, from Josephine’s perspective, it’s probably the case that she now better embodies an internal essence that she always felt. I think there’s a lot to be said about that: that Josephine’s new bodily form is a better expression of her self than her old form.
So this may require some teasing apart of “person,” “self,” and “man.” But at the same time, I think it’s not unfair to say, without providing technical and stipulative definitions of these terms, that Keisha is not wrong when she says, “that’s not the person I married,” and Josephine is not wrong when she says, “I’m the same person I always was,” they’re just interested in different senses of continuity of identity. For Keisha, Joe’s identity included being a man. For Joe, it did not. And we can’t simply say that Joe is right because it’s his identity; sometimes we have to accept, as in criminal law, that our sense of ourselves is not the key to who we are. I might think myself a hero for having shot someone, but if the law finds that I’m a criminal, my point of view may not matter (I can be delusional, or have a very different ethical perspective than the law, etc.).
Again, this comes back to first- and third-person accounts of identity, and I want to give some weight to social identity, or identity-in-relation to others. And I definitely want to give weight to the spouse who says, “that’s not the person I married,” in this case and in many other cases not involving anything like a sex-change, but rather strong shifts in values or personality, because someone’s personhood can change in ways so radical that we cease to accept them as the same, and this can be a justified move.