Identity After You Die, Identifying Beyond the Organism

Recently, Bill Cosby proposed an “identity law” which deals with the ways a person’s identity can be used after he or she dies.

It’s clear that there’s a literal sense in which identity persists after death. Our identities, in the sense of the public record of who we are, can in fact suffer misfortune after death (as Aristotle notes in the Nichomachean Ethics in the case of a man whose family comes into terrible disrepute), or a rise in fortune (Van Gogh, for example, did better after death in his identity as a painter.) Of course, none of this affects us subjectively, but the subjective experience of identity is only one aspect of identity.*

And here we see a divergence between persistence of identity and persistence of personhood (or persistence of a human being.) An identity is not simply something we control: it’s partly public. That public identity can undergo interesting changes in our absence or without our consent.

This is part of what Parfit is after in Reasons and Persons, and why he thinks a certain kind of identity is not “what matters” (ch. 12). For Parfit, we should be more concerned that in the future our current interests are protected and nurtured. Another way to say this is that we can identify with a cause or purpose (or maybe with another person, or a family) just as much as with a physical body.

This is obviously true: certainly people die for causes (or for family members), identifying so strongly with the cause that they think its continuation is more important than their bodily continuation. Similarly, people identify so strongly with family or loved ones that they’ll sacrifice their lives to allow that family or the loved one to continue on. And many people derive an identity from some larger entity, such as a nation, a religion or a political cause. Others identify with, or are identified with, something, such as their art works or their reputation, that exists outside of them. Thus, Bill Cosby’s interest in protecting his identity (his reputation, his image, the legacy of his works) after his death.

Notoriously, John Galt, in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, declaims “I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” This is an interestingly impoverished view of self and identity. (Note that Galt swears by his life…he has nothing else to swear by since he holds no other ideals.) I think if we reduce identity to identity with the course of life of a human animal, or some such, we risk impoverishing the concept the in the same way. Not that that’s not an important area for investigation of identity!

But  we identify well beyond our bodies, as Parfit (and Erik Erikson and many others) notes. Further, our identities as such are always tied in to social milieux (or what Marya Schechtman calls “person space.”)

Hazel Rose Markus and Shinobu Kitayama, in “Culture and the Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion and Motivation,” (Psychological Review, vol 98, no 2, 1991, pp 224-253) make an empirical case, by survey method, that in the United States, identity is more closely tied to the individual, whereas in Japan it’s more closely tied to the group (though not necessarily to the whole…the group from which identity is derived tends to be fairly exclusive.) Looking beyond our cultural borders is one way to expand the possibilities of identity, and helps to show that there’s no absolute reason that the unit of identity should be the single organism. Any unit of identity has to be constructed to some extent. Where and how we construct them shows something about what we hold as important, what impinges upon us as an obvious unity, and as a source of identity.

Of course, we can imagine other possibilities here and I think fiction and historical narrative can serve this purpose, reminding us of lives lived in identity with something or someone beyond the simple individual organism.


*It seems that psychological literature, especially social psychology starting with Erikson, has been good on analyzing the different meanings of  “identity” whereas at times philosophical literature has focused overly narrowly on one sense. Markus and Kitayama’s work is an interesting empirical extension of this social psychological tradition


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