Personal Identity for Post-Personal Beings

Human enhancement and strong AI-based robotics converge upon the creation of entities that are fully capable of rewriting themselves. As so many contemporary philosophers have noted (e.g. Douglas[1], Buchanan[2], Levy[3], Brown[4], Liao, Sandberg, and Savulescu, etc.) this possibility creates ethical dilemmas not envisaged in existing theories. If a self becomes so malleable that it can, at will, jettison essential identity-giving characteristics, how are we to judge, befriend, rely upon, hold responsible, or trust others? While these ethical questions are being approached by neuroethicists and those working in the ethics of enhancement, at base there is an identity question: can a being that is capable of self-rewriting be said to have an identity? Since responsibility, trust, friendship, and, in general, most human interactions that take place across more than a few minutes time rely upon a steadiness in the being of the other person, a new form of person, capable of rapidly altering its own memories, principles, psychological traits, desires and attitudes creates tremendous problems not only ethically, but metaphysically as well. How can we re-identify others when their inner core is unstable? For example: imagine an AI that is sentient and sapient, or a human enhanced such that it can rewrite its memories and personality. Such a being, having desires, would be capable of vice. It could then commit a crime, profit from it, erase all memory of the crime from itself, and alter its character such that it would find such a crime unthinkable. What do we make of the new being? Should it be punished for what it had done? Or is it the case that such complete erasure and rewriting destroys the person who committed the crime? Suppose a friend decides that the character traits and memories that you share with it are holding it back. At one time, such a realization could have met with years of effort at self-alteration, during which the friendship could grow and evolve, or fade away, or alter its character in many other ways. But if, the next day, the friend showed up re-written, no longer enjoying the activities it shared with its friend, what attitude should be taken towards it? Does it even make sense to identity it as the same entity? Animalists (Olson, etc.) have claimed that only the continuous organic being of a person is necessary for identity, but when a person is non-organic, or so enhanced as to be able to overcome its organic limitations, what will count as re-identifying? Are we on the verge of making beings that lack identity? A highly eclectic account is called for here, looking to the continuation of context relative-traits. When criminal guilt is assessed, a “right mind” criteria is applied; if enhancement is created, a “same mind” criteria might need to be instituted. Is this being still, in criminally relevant ways, the same being? Similarly, for relations like friendship, marriage, contractual obligations, and assessment of ethical character, we need to do a fine-grained analysis of precisely which traits were relevant to this relation, and ask to what extent they persist, and under what conditions they changed. This may undo the notion of simple, one-to-one identity, but that may be a necessary consequence of the complexity of interacting with beings who relate to themselves as projects that may be re-written or re-made at will.

[1]Douglas, Thomas. “Human enhancement and supra-personal moral status.”Philosophical studies 162.3 (2013): 473-497.

[2] Buchanan, Allen. “Moral status and human enhancement.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 37.4 (2009): 346-381.

[3] Levy, Neil. Neuroethics: Challenges for the 21st century. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

[4] Harris, John. “Moral progress and moral enhancement.” Bioethics 27.5 (2013): 285-290.


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