Category Archives: personhood


I’m posting over at A Philosopher’s Take now. Here’s an excerpt from my first post:

What we are likely to create, though, if we allow AIs all the benefits that emerging technologies can bring, are para-persons, things that have all the personhood qualities, or pass all the tests for personhood, that philosophers have set up (self-awareness, ethical cognition, other-awareness, self-respect, linguisticially expressible concerns etc.), but also have an ability that makes them not supra-persons, but something outside of personhood. That is, even if it had all the personhood qualities, it could also have an additional, defeating quality for personhood: the ability to change instantly and without effort. Our ethical systems are designed or adapted to apportion blame and praise to persons. But it’s not clear that they will work with the kind extremely malleable para-persons that strong AI or strong enhancement will produce. read the whole thing at A Philosopher’s Take

Experience Machines

Robert Nozick’s experience machine ask us if we would enter a machine that would give us “any experience [we] desired.” Essentially, a virtual reality machine that makes us think we’re writing a great novel, or touring the world as a classical pianist, or whatever. We would gain nothing from this; we don’t learn to write or play an instrument, it just feels like we do. Nozick claims that most people would not spend their life in the machine. Importantly, he also adds that while you’re in the machine, “you’ll think that it’s actually happening.” This means you won’t remember deciding to go into the machine, or any aspect of your life before the machine that would contradict the experience you’re having within it.

There are two objections to this that I haven’t seen discussed much (though it’s possible I’ve just missed them! If anyone knows of literature to the effect of the following objections, please let me know.) Actually, the first has been at least mentioned; I’m not familiar with anyone discussing the second:

  1. People are terrible predictors of their own behavior. The vast majority of people surveyed believe they would not, in a Milgram-experiment situation, give electric shocks to someone after that person had protested. But the Milgram experiment (and several variant replications) show that the vast majority of people would give the shocks. John Doris’ Lack of Character, whatever its other flaws, is a great compendium of these sorts of experiments, and they do show that in moral cases most people are not very good at predicting how they would choose if presented with a real-world, as opposed to survey, choice. It’s entirely possible that most people, if they lived in a world where experience machines were available, would plug in. Perhaps we should go further and claim that, if they lived in such a world, and there was no social stigma against going into the machine, they would plug in. And studies of conformity suggest that if they lived in such a world, and there was a social stigma against not plugging in, that most people would plug in. So I’m not sure that Nozick proves his point, since it does depend upon most people not plugging in to the machine.
  1. The less discussed problem is that the machine makes us forget the choice of going into the machine. Is part of the problem with the experience machine that we have to give up our memory to go into it? What if we changed the problem so that you could perfectly well remember that you had a life before and made a decision to go into the machine? Presumably, you might then not want to go in because you’d fear being troubled by memories of your former life. But that’s not a point against hedonism; rather, it’s a point for it, since the reason you wouldn’t go in is because it might cause mental distress. Or suppose you knew you were going in, but the machine would take care of any emotional distress. Would that be better?

What I’m trying to get at in the cases in 2 is that the machine produces a certain loss of self. If you forget your former life, it seems like, in some important sense, it isn’t you who is in the machine, just some sort of loose continuer of you. We think of ourselves as tied into our memories–Nichols and Strohminger’s research, most recently, has shown that the vast majority of people associate total memory loss with loss of identity; presumably partial memory loss would, at some point on the spectrum, also be taken as loss of identity. Would you still be you if I deleted the last seven years of your life? Or rewrote your memory so that you believed you arrived at where you are now by a series of decisions, over the course of your life, that you did not, in fact, make? In other words, if I radically altered your self-narrative, as the experience machine clearly must do in order to have you believing that you are a word-famous guitarist or billionaire software developer. I imagine that those sorts of alterations to memory would make people fairly uneasy, and at least draw into question to what extent it will actually be me having these experiences.

If we retained our memories, but the machine took care of our feelings so that we weren’t distressed by the loss of our former lives, or the memory of what we’d left behind, that, too, could count as loss of identity. Again, Nichols and Strohminger’s surveys found that people think that loss of moral character counts as loss of identity. Without debating whether they are right about this, the important thing is that people believe this, and feel it to be true. So if there’s a reluctance to go into the machine, it might have to do with this sense of identity loss: that it wouldn’t be me in there. If the machine alters how I feel about a moral decision, I have a very profound loss of moral character, here understanding “moral character” as the aspects of my personality that I think of as (1) reflective of values and (2) constituting who I am in relation to those values. Surely, on almost any theory of valuing, having emotional attitudes towards things is part of valuing.


Fission, Fusion, and Methuselah in the Real World, Part 2

(Continued from post below)

II Two Approaches to the Cases

There are then at least two different approaches, the linguistic and the affective:

The linguistic approach asks how are we (whoever “we” is) using words like “same person” now, and based on that, how will we use those words in odd cases.

The affective approach asks what sort of feelings of identity do we (again) have towards future and past persons who might be ourselves. Parfit’s Russian nobleman case is a great example of this where “identification” is used in the psychological sense.

In short, there is a young Russian socialist who later inherits land and becomes a wealthy aristocrat. The young socialist would not identify himself with his later form, and would count it as a form of non-continuity of identity, if that aristocrat betrayed the socialist values the young man holds. Recent (unpublished) research by Jesse Prinz  and Joshua Knobe found that most people surveyed had a similar intuition: they would consider themselves non-continuous with a future self that betrayed most or all of their deeply held moral beliefs. Obviously (or perhaps obviously to someone raised in a Western legal tradition) the Russian nobleman would still be responsible for crimes committed and debts incurred when he was the young socialist. But the fact that there is an internal lack of identification is important, in that a person is not just what the law says, but also how we identify our friends, family and selves. If we think someone has changed so drastically as to not be the same person, it’s not helpful to be told that some law or some philosopher has said that this person is the same person. He’s only the same person for some particular purpose, and while the criterion employed may work for identifying one’s creditor, they are clearly not the same as the criteria employed for the purpose of identifying one’s friends, or even oneself (understanding “self” here as that being we identify as.)

Similar points have been raised about emotional connectedness by Marilyn Friedman in Autonomy and the Split Level Self[1], Marya Schechtman in “Self Expression and Self Control,”[2] as well as Tim Henning in “Why Be Yourself”[3] where he argues that we have a particular obligation to desires that our “our own,” and that some desires that we nonetheless feel and experience are not “our own,” nor should be identified as properly our own. Of course the seminal work on self-identification with emotions and desires is Harry Frankfurt’s in The Importance of What We Care About, notably in the essays “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of the Person” and “The Importance of What We Care About.”[4]

I think both the linguistic and affective approaches have value, but it’s important to distinguish them, because they’re asking slightly different questions. Most who do the linguistic analysis approach seem to think they’ll get at the truth about whether a person is two people prior to fission, or one person who ceases to exist in fusion, or etc. Again, I’m not convinced there’s an interesting answer here.

When Plutarch raised the case of Theseus boat, which, over the course of its voyages, had, bit by bit, all of its parts replaced, he seemed to be suggesting that we should be puzzled about whether this was the same boat or not (or at least note that the “philosophers” were puzzled, and since I assume my audience is philosophers, then “we.”) But we all know all the details, we all know when each part was replaced, and that at the end no parts are held in common between the initial and final boat. So what’s the question?

It’s whether we want to apply the term “same boat.” But this is, as Parfit would say, an empty question. We all agree on the particulars, so it’s a matter of convention, or perhaps some practical importance (for purpose of resale, or compliance with law in advertising, etc.) whether we say it’s the same boat or not.

If it’s merely a convention whether it’s the same boat, that convention is nonetheless subject to the forces that create conventions. Perhaps I cannot sell it as the same boat if it has no common parts. Perhaps I can sell it as a “brand new boat,” if all the parts were replaced within the last two months. Etc.

Now, with the thought experiment cases, when we do the linguistic approach, we reach the impasse that we are asking how we are to apply words in cases that are beyond the normal scope of the application of the words and thus, instead of being able to present the “right” use of the terms, sometimes we have to make proposals for ways to use the words. Obviously, words are usable beyond the limited set of ways they’ve been used in the past, but they’re not always going to be infinitely flexible in future circumstances. Heisenberg famously noted that the words “really” and “happens” reach their limits in attempting to talk about what’s “really happening” on the quantum level when no observation is being made[5].

So, how should we make our proposals? That is, given that we reach a linguistic limit, what basis should we use for proposing that we say “same person” or “not same person?” I’d hold that we can look at the thought experiment cases, and naturalize them, to get some idea of what’s important in each case, and then ask about why we would want to say “same person” and why we might not want to say “same person” and see if there are practical reasons for these.

[1] Friedman, Marilyn, “Autonomy and the Split Level Self,” Southern Journal of Philosophy, 24, pp 31, Spring  (1986)

[2] Schechtman, Marya, “Self Expression and Self Control” in The Self, ed by Galen Strawson, Blackwell, , pp 26-44 (2005)

[3] Henning, T, “Why Be Yourself: Kantian Respect and Frankfurtian Identification” Philosophical Quarterly, Vol 61 no 245,  October 2011

[4] Frankfurt, Harry, The Importance of What We Care About, Cambridge Univ. Press, NY , 1988

[5] Heisenberg, W., Physics and Philosophy, Prometheus Books, NY, pg 50, (1959)

Fission, Fusion and Methuselah in the Real World: Part 1

I’m going to blog the paper I’m currently writing. Here’s the first section; I’ll put up the next few sections over the next few days. Obviously, this is first draft material, but that’s what blogs are for!

I Do We Discover or Invent Answers to Fission, Fusion, and Methuselah Cases?

The literature on identity is littered with fission (and fusion) problems: How do we identify continuous identity in a case where one person splits into two? This can be a split brain case, as in Nagel[1], amoeba-like fission, as in Williams[2], and  Parfit[3] (1987) or Parfit’s teletransporter cases (Ibid, pp 200) or  Lewis’ unspecified fissioning[4], or one of the many variants of these found in Shoemaker[5],[6] , John Perry[7] or more recent work by Bakajian,[8] or many others.

Somewhat less work has been done on the “Methuselah problem,” that, is the question of whether someone who lives 900 years, and undergoes a standard rate of change in personality, memory, bodily components, etc., can be said to be the same person. However, Lewis (1976, pp 30), Parfit and others have also tackled this, and it forms an important part of the continuity literature.

I want to note two things about these problems: As presented, it seems likely that there is no solution to them, because our use of person developed without access to such problems, and thus there’s no particular reason to think it would have automatic and clear-cut use in these cases.

Second, I think there are real world correlates of these cases, and applying some of the work on the imaginary cases might open up possibilities for thinking about these cases differently, and productively.

On the first note, Parfit cites Quine as saying “I wonder whether the limits of the [science-fiction-case] method are properly heeded. To see what is ‘logically required’ for sameness of person under unprecedented circumstances is to suggest that words have some logical force beyond what our past needs have invested them with.” (in Parfit, p200) I think it was Hilary Putnam who made a similar claim with regard to whether we could say, at some point in the future, when robots start acting like humans, that the robots have consciousness: (if I recall correctly) he said it would simply be a decision, a convention of language that we would adopt.

That strikes me as wrong, as it seems like there’s a matter of fact about whether an entity is conscious or not.

But I’m not convinced that there is always a matter of fact about whether an entity is the same person as some prior entity. We can demand an answer, but one of the reasons that we have such disagreement on the puzzle cases is that we’re not discovering the truth about the matter, but rather putting forward proposals for policies. If Brown splits into two people, they’re either both Brown, or one of them is, or neither of them are, or each is to a diminished extent, etc.

I think this impasse is reached in part because all of the answers seem reasonable. In fact, the argument usually involves claiming that a rejected answer has consequences “we” would rather not accept (this is Lewis’ move, for example, and Bakajian’s and Williams’.) But that’s not necessarily an epistemic reason for rejecting a position. Lots of true things are things we’d rather were not true. Further, these rejections appeal usually to intuitions about how “we” use words (Lewis, Bakajian, Shoemaker) or what sort of entity “we” would feel an identification with (Williams, Nagel, Parfit.) I think the problem with this “we” is that, given how much disagreement on these cases there is, the extension of the “we” is fairly uncertain. Further, if X-Phi has been informative (and I think it has been!) it has been so in showing that what are often thought by philosophers to be generally accepted intuitions turn out to be not so widely accepted as was thought.

[1] Nagel, T,“Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness”, Synthese 22 (May):396-413 (1971)

[2] Williams, N“Bodily Continuity and Personal Identity” in Problems of the Self, Cambridge University Press, NY, p.24 (1973)

[3] Parfit, Derek, Reasons and Persons, Clarendon Press, Oxford, NY, (1987)

[4] Lewis, D : `Survival and Identity’ in A. Rorty (ed.) The Identities of Persons  Berkeley, University of California Press (1976)

[5] Shoemaker, S, “Brown Brownson Revisited,” The Monist 87 (4):573-593 (2004)

[6] Shoemaker, S, Self Knowledge and Self Identity, Cornel, p23 (1964,)

[7] Perry, J, “Can the Self Divide,” Journal of Philosophy, LXIX, 16, 463-588 (1972)

[8] Bajakian, Mark, “How to Count People,” Philosophical Studies  154:185–204 (2011)

Creative Metaphysics and How To Count People

In doing metaphysics, understood broadly as an inquiry into what some sort of thing is, there are at least two approaches. One is to say, “well, I have this intuition about the way things are, and so here’s an argument to support it.” A lot of continuity of identity theory works this way. We say, “ok, I’m the same person now that I was last week and last year. How is that so?” And then we look for criteria of sameness.

Another approach is to say, “well, I have this intuition about how things are. I wonder if there’s another way to look at things?” This latter approach is a way of adding perspectives. It’s also the heart of discovery. If, for example, Copernicus had just kept adding epicycles, he’d have a much less interesting result. And if Heisenberg had just fudged some numbers to make sure that things were determinate all the way down, we’d be in a far less interesting world. Each had to give up on a common intuition, instead of working to find an argument to support it.

But I think in philosophy, since we’re not going to solve our problems by encountering some object in the world, it’s not exactly like discovery. That is, while observation of the stars and planets has ultimately made it pretty clear that the earth and the planets orbit the sun, there’s no observation which will tell us for sure if I’m the same person now that I was when I was five, or if I’d be the same person after undergoing fission or fusion. We just have to make a judgment on how we should apply terms like “same person” in these instances.

The approach that reaffirms our intuitions could be called “affirmation metaphysics:” I want to say that the person I see before me now is the same person I met forty years ago. So I need a sense of continuity of identity which allows me to apply “same person” to an entity who may bear no physical and few psychological traits in common with the being I met forty years ago.

The second approach is either “discovery metaphysics,” where I discover something about the world that I didn’t previously expect (“look, the earth orbits the sun!” “look, people don’t actually have selves!” “look, the world is merely a collection of phenomenal appearances!”) or “creative metaphysics.” The difference is whether I’m claiming that I’ve discovered this fact, or that I’ve produced a new way of conceptualizing things. Doing the latter is one of the most important tasks of philosophy; if there’s another way of looking at things, and that way is at least, or nearly as, well supported as the standard way, then we have a possibility of critiquing the standard way. So when Nietzsche reconceptualizes standard Christian notions of good and evil as “slave morality” and “master morality,” he provides a perspective that allows for a critique of those categories. Whether he discovered the truth about Christian morality, or simply shifted perspective in a way that presented a viable alternate interpretation, he still provides for a new way of looking , and a way that is not inherently incorrect (assuming it’s internally consistent and consistent with empirical facts). This is the heart of Nietzschean and, to some extent, Leibnizian, perspectivism, that is, the idea that we gain greater purchase on truth by acquiring the most possible correct ways of looking at something (though the thing we look at is not entirely consistent across perspectives; Nietzsche includes the morality of secular Europe as part of the “slave morality” that he’s critiquing, and he sees that as consistent with Christian ethics, whereas an older way of looking would have divided Christian ethics from secular, 19th century European ethics.)

An example: in “How To Count People,”* Mark Bajakian tries to write against the one-person-per-body view, doing some creative metaphysics. Centrally, his claim is that people with two-hemisphere brains (i.e. humans, and anyone else who has a brain structure like us) can and should be counted as two people at all points in time if at some point in time the two hemispheres are split and (as in the many thought experiments on this topic) placed into separate bodies  if they are the sorts of half-brains that could be split in two and still survive as two individuals (i.e. the kind of half-brains found in the thought experiments of Nagel and Williams.) Similarly, if two people are fused into a single thinking thing, that single thinking thing is actually still two people who are thinking the exact same thought at the same time (not just qualitatively the same thought; quantitatively the same).

Ok, I’m not sure I buy that. First of all, I’m not sure there is an answer to the question of how many people there are in fusion/fission cases, because our use of “people” and the way we count them developed in a world with no such cases, and the terms and concepts don’t come pre-packaged with ways to deal with that. So when facing such a case, we pretty much have to be creative.

If Bajakian thinks he’s discovered the truth about this, I think he’s mistaken; I think he’s putting forward a proposal for how we should count people. He certainly has an argument for it, but ultimately what he’s proposing is a convention for person counting. He thinks that this convention will solve a lot of conceptual problems (we don’t have the problem that occurs when, in a fission case, we are forced to say that the pre-fission person doesn’t exist anymore because he can’t be identical with either of his post-fission descendants since they are not identical with each other). But it’s not without its own problems: under Bajakian’s proposal, we have to say that some person who is exactly like any other single person is in fact two people because ultimately this person will undergo fission.

But here’s the interesting thing about that problem: it’s only a problem because that’s not the way we’ve been doing it. That is, it’s simply goes against an existing convention. Philosophers might say that it violates an intuition “we” have been doing it, with the “we” fairly loosely defined. Maybe “we” means “most people on earth,” or “people who share our culture,” or some such. But we (whoever this “we” is) could certainly imagine people who don’t count people the way we do, and if we could imagine a highly functioning society that counts differently, it’s not clear that we can come up with a strong metaphysical (much less empirical) reason that they’re wrong.

So if there is a people (and I think there might be) who counts someone as one person up to a certain point in time, and another after that point (this might be the case in cultures that have rites-of-passage to adulthood, for example, so that a person has a connection to, but is seen as importantly a different person from, his or her pre-rite-of-passage self), can we say they are wrong? In other words, what might be gained from something like Bakajian’s proposal, or learning about another culture that counts differently, or even reading, say, a novel that describes such a people, is that we can learn that our own method of counting is at least in part conventional. It might be bounded by certain natural limitations, but it’s probably not as absolute and fixed as it would seem. And simply appealing to an intuition about how to count people might count as no more than appealing to a cultural prejudice or a traditional way of doing things.

Bajakian, Mark, “How to Count People,” Philosical Studies (2011) 154:185–204

Personhood, Person-Space, and Humans in Vegetative States

The philosophical notion of ‘person’ is not simply equivalent to ‘human being.’ Persons, for philosophers, are those entities that should have rights and responsibilities under the law–so, currently, this might exclusively be human beings, but it could some day include space aliens or self-conscious robots or perhaps genetically modified animals. I mention this up front for those unfamiliar with the philosophical use of the term, so there’s no confusion, and so it’s understood that I’m not suggesting we treat the severely brain-damaged in any but the most caring possible way.

Suppose you have a severely brain-damaged child who never develops language, motor control, etc. Basically, a child born in a vegetative state. There are questions about the person-status of such beings. It’s been pointed out that many animals are more intelligent, more conscious, etc., than such a child. This child meets almost none of the standard criteria for personhood

Marya Schechtman holds that such a child enters “person-space” and is treated as a person, and therefore acquires personhood, because we expect of human beings that they will develop into persons*. “Person-space,” is the institutional and practical space inhabited by humans. An animal might burrow into our house, but it isn’t in person-space, because we don’t clothe it, name it, give it a bed, care for it, and do all the things we do for infants.

However, if we bring a dog home, we might just name it, clothe it, give it a bed, etc. I’m currently a little unclear on why, in Schechtman’s account, such a dog isn’t a person, since it has entered person-space in being treated as a person and receiving the trappings of personhood. One answer she gives is that it is expected that a human child will acquire the characteristics of person; that is, reflective consciousness, language, etc, whereas there are no such expectations for a dog. However, I don’t imagine there are such expectations for the severely brain damaged child, so I find this a little unsatisfying, but I’m open to there being a good explanation of the difference that I haven’t understood or which is forthcoming in future writings.

But Schechtman makes a strong point: there are two parts to personhood: one is having a place in person-space, and the other is the internal set of capacities for personhood (consciousness, language, etc.) Obviously, no one would develop language and most of the other person-characteristics without person-space. Nor would there be person-space without entities that had these characteristics.

But why should the very brain-damaged human child be a person, whereas a chimp that is raised in a house, given clothes, a name, a bed, and maybe can even sign a few words is not granted personhood? The chimp seems to have both (a) entered person space and (b) be in possession of at least some, and certainly more, of the characteristics of a person than the vegetative child.

So a thought experiment: suppose that the severely brain-damaged child is tested at, say, age 9, and it is found out that this is not a human child. It looks like a human, but when tested genetically, it is found to be a non-human. We can imagine this is like Davidson’s “swamp man,” except this is a non-thinking creature, a sort of human-shaped plant or fungus with no mental function.

The fungus been accepted into person space without person-characteristics on the assumption that it’s a  human being, and human beings are expected to develop into persons. But this is a fungus; if we knew that, we might never have treated it as a person, given it a space in person-space, dressed it, etc.

Upon discovering this, I don’t know what the parents would do. Would they continue to love and care for the fungus-child? Would they suddenly reject it? I can certainly imagine that either might be the case, and that different people would respond differently to the same circumstance. I think what this indicates is that treating the severely brain-damaged child as a person is simply a convention (and perhaps a very good one!), and not a reflection of some intrinsic quality. If we simply decide that all redheads are non-persons, it’s obvious we’re making a mistake: their personhood will impinge upon us as they lobby for rights, engage in speech acts, organize socially, etc. Not so with the child in the vegetative state.

I think we can have all kinds of positive attitudes towards the child because it’s our child, because the parent has an attachment to offspring, because it looks like us, came from us, needs care, etc, and that none of this necessitates granting personhood to the non-conscious/vegetative infant. I’m not exactly sure what’s gained by saying that the severely brain-damaged child is a person whereas a chimp raised in a home is not. I think this may just reflect the fact that we, human beings, use “person” to mean “human being.” But the philosophical term “person” is obviously not meant to have the same admission criteria as “human being.” It may well be that the terms are co-extensive, but if their definitions aren’t distinct then the philosophical term isn’t doing much work.

One assessment I might add is the following: if there are two paths to personhood, as per Schechtman, one being admission into person-space (this is somewhat like, but much richer than, Dennett’s “stance” criterion), the other being that one possesses person-characteristics like reflective consciousness, empathy, language, second-order volitions, etc. (making this latter list has been the task of most philosophers of personhood, and I can leave it vague), then these might correspond to two aspects of the forensic concept of a person. Whatever criteria we use for personhood, once we’ve established that an entity is a person we grant that entity certain rights, and also certain responsibilities. It might be that entry into person-space is our basis for judging the rights (we cannot harm the severely brain-damaged child, the child must be fed and cared for, etc.) and having the person-capacities is the basis for responsibilities (we certainly aren’t going to hold the severely brain-damaged child culpable for any crime, for example). So we have a social component, person-space, which is rights-granting, and an individual component, person-capacities, which is responsibility-producing. In fact, if we think about our person-criteria in terms of capacities, these are mostly capacities that allow us to assess guilt or distribute praise or blame.


*Marya Schechtman, “Personhood and the Practical,” Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, 31:271-283, 2010

Mitt Romney and the Difficulty of Seeing Pain

I was thinking about pain in part because of Mitt Romney saying that he can’t convince poor people to take responsibility for their lives. Because, I assume, he has no empathic access to what’s going on in being poor. He doesn’t understand the difficulties and struggles that make it ridiculous to tell someone that they should just stop being poor and earn enough money to pay income tax.

It can be nearly impossible to describe pain to someone, especially if they haven’t felt a strongly analogous pain. Someone I know once referred to this as the “blindness of the privilege of the healthy-bodied,” not unlike the blindness of the privilege of wealth that Romney asserts. A sort of “buck-up and take it” attitude makes sense to people who’ve never dragged pain around for weeks and months.

I think depression has a similar social status. The undepressed don’t understand why you don’t just get your shit together and stop moping.

It’s hard to explain to someone that, every day, you feel the kind of crushing pain that they experience when, say, they hit their thumb with a hammer. Imagine that extended in time, not diminishing, but becoming a part of the background of your life. But the thing is, such a pain can’t stay in the background. When sufficiently distracted we can all tolerate (or, really, fail to fully notice) even fairly severe pain. Distraction is great. But if the pain is strong enough, a slight break in the distraction brings it out of the background and into the foreground. The pain becomes a distraction from the distraction.

Imagine you’re 8  years old and you’re watching Star Wars for the first time (or some other movie that blew you away as a kid). Your little sister say, “look at this ladybug!” Maybe you’ll glance for a second, but she wants you to keep looking as it crawls around her hand. She is amazed by the ladybug. But how long can you really be drawn to the ladybug with explosions and swinging rescues and villains in weird masks dancing across the screen? You’re not going to be able to focus on the ladybug.

That ladybug is the distraction from pain. A good book, a heated debate on a topic you  care about, the presence of friends you love dearly. The pain is the amazing movie you see when you’re a kid. The slightest break in your attention to the distraction, and you’re back in the movie. And you’re going to miss some of what was going on in the distraction.

What did your friend just say? What cute thing did the ladybug do that your little sister is talking about? What happened in the last two pages of that book?

But even if we can convey the distraction, I don’t think we can always convey the pain to the painless. I think many will still be puzzled why we don’t just buck up.

Part of this is because pain is invisible. I’m pretty sure if you had a large, freshly sliced, open wound running the length of your torso, people would understand why you’re not paying attention, why you get distracted. But with the hidden pain, why don’t you just buck up?

And I want to say that our identities are tied up in our experiences. There’s our social identity, that is, what other people identify us as, and our personal identity (and other identities, obviously). That personal identity doesn’t include all our memories: there are those we reject (“that was so unlike me!”) and those we forget (I’m often amazed at the times when I see an old friend and relate an event we shared that meant so much to me and is completely lost to him or her) but also, beyond memory, there’s the texture of our everyday lives. The things we hold as important, what catches our attention as we walk down the street, and the background of our feelings. No two people take the same walk in the woods. And so there’s always a gap between who we think we are and who other people think we are. And the invisible aspects of our experience exaggerate that gap. Loss, loneliness, depression and pain are individuating experiences, and therefore, I think, are a huge part of the identity-making process that goes on within us. The fact that they’re inescapably private makes them powerful elements in making us separate from others.

And I think everyone has trouble taking seriously the hard-to-see struggles of others. Why doesn’t the depressed person just get out of bed? Why is the chronic pain sufferer so cranky? Why isn’t he getting stuff done instead of sitting there staring into space? Because that space is where the pain is, and it’s hypnotizing. It’s the most dazzling, noisy, amazing show on earth, and it takes a lot to turn one’s head away from it. Just because it’s the most unpleasant show doesn’t mean it isn’t completely captivating.

Personal Identity, Personal Change

Obviously, the continuity of personal identity is not the same thing as absolute identicalness. No person is purely identical with his or her past self, neither physically nor psychologically. So it’s clear that “identity” here doesn’t have a mathematical sense.

It also doesn’t have the sense it has in claims that two words have the identical meaning, or that water and H2O are identical, etc.

Rather, we’ve got a slight conflation of identity as sameness, and identity in the sense of who I am, how I and others identify me. My identity is, among other things, the parts of myself, including my moral outlook, that I would think of as essential to who I am, and, alternately, the parts of a person that others think of as essential to who that person is. The question of personal identity then is somewhat complex, and somewhat confused in bringing together identicalness with who or what I identify with, or what others identify me with.

Since we can’t have absolute identicalness of a person across days or weeks or years, what we’re usually asking is about the degree of identicalness of a personal identity. That is, when a person changes, as we all do, we sometimes need to ask“how much sameness is enough?” And that question, because of its vagueness, is not something that there’s a pre-made answer for. Rather, we have to decide it on a case by case (or category-by-category) basis, and we have to know “enough for what?”

For legal purposes, a complete change in the material component of the body is not necessarily a hindrance to sameness, assuming the old saw about changing all the parts of one’s body after seven or twelve or some number of years is true. Rather, an organismic continuity and some degree of psychological continuity are what count.

But the forensic has perhaps been overused as the paradigm for the “enough for what?” question in continuity of identity. Recently, Jesse Prinz and Shaun Nichols did some survey research showing that people have less identity with continuity of memory or continuity of body than with continuity of moral principles and personality (unpublished as yet; this matches a claim I made in “You Are Not the Person I Knew” in Appraisal, vol. 9 no. 1) This would be a somewhat surprising result, since most of the philosophical literature points to memory or body as the basis for continuity. But, if this research and my guesses hold true, people don’t want to identify with an entity that carries on their memory and bodies but does not carry on their moral values and personality.

This change is almost certainly not relevant for legal culpability or forensic purposes in general. So when people said these changes were not “identity preserving,” they clearly had something else in mind.

Further, some change in moral perspective will not be identity destroying, whereas some changes will be. So this brings up the “enough” question. How much is enough?

Let’s take a case:

Myra and Enid are married. At the time, both are supporters of the rights of gay women to marry each other, both are strong libertarians, both attend a Baptist church regularly, and both believe that a loving adoration of Jesus Christ is the surest path to heaven, though, contrary to some church teachings, they hold that good works can be sufficient. Further, both do charitable work every weekend, and both are huge fans of the Star Trek franchise, attending Star Trek conventions at least twice a year.

Now suppose that Myra, in her exploration of libertarian ideals, begins to believe that Ayn Rand’s ideas on selfishness are proper. This contrasts with Enid, who thinks that libertarians should take responsibility for the poor by doing and giving to charity, even though she thinks the government should not be involved in this enterprise. We could imagine this causing a rift between Myra and Enid, but would it be enough for Enid to claim that Myra has changed beyond recognition, or has lost the identity that Enid fell in love with?

Maybe. Maybe they still go to Star Trek conventions, even though Myra no longer attends church (as a Randian atheist, she is opposed), no longer does charitable work, and no longer believes that loving Jesus or good works are paths to salvation. Clearly, a great deal of their shared identity has been severed. There were causes and goals and ideals that they identified with that Myra no longer identifies with.

And maybe Enid will say that that’s enough, that she can’t be with Myra anymore. If so, it’s because the Myra she fell in love with has changed so much that Enid no longer sees her in the Myra she is currently married to. She might well say, “It’s like I don’t know you anymore.” And in a sense that’s true: Enid used to know Myra’s moral landscape as though it were her own. Now it’s a puzzle, and a frustrating one. It really is true, in an important sense of “same person” (though obviously not in a forensic sense) that Myra is not the person that Enid married.

So in this case, my point is, “enough” comes down to the participants. It’s not for a philosopher to tell Enid that Myra is still the same person, or is not the same person. That’s up to Enid.

But imagine that Myra and Enid both became Ayn Rand advocates. They might change together. Then this question might not arise. However, they might look back on their charitable, church-going former selves and say, “I hardly recognize the people we were.” They may indeed have trouble identifying with their former selves, feeling embarrassment at their old moral code, and no longer understanding how they could have believed such things. Again, if they make this claim about themselves, that’s up to them.

Or, they might think of their journey to Randian “objectivism” as continuous with their early exploration of libertarianism, and may think of their earlier selves as continuous with their current selves, though a bit naïve. Or they may have trouble identifying with some of their beliefs, but not others, seeing themselves partially reflected in, and partially alien to, their former selves.

Sometimes, we are asked to identify ourselves, and sometimes we can rightly say, “I don’t even know that person anymore,” when referring to a past iteration of ourselves. And sometimes we are asked to identify a friend or lover, and we can rightly say, “I don’t even know that person anymore,” when she is standing right in front of us.

One last note on change: a parent recently told me that she missed her infant daughter and mourned her loss, as her daughter was now 5 years old. It’s not that she didn’t love the five-year-old. She did! But she missed the baby that, in a very real sense, had ceased to exist. There was no great connection between the five year old and the baby. They form part of the continuous history of an organism, but there was nothing in particular about the personality, appearance, or even the physical make-up (as I understand it, children move through the matter of their bodies fairly quickly) that necessarily linked them.

So I don’t think the mother was wrong in thinking that the infant was gone. I could, distantly I guess, not being a parent, understand that one would mourn the loss of the completely needy, sweet-smelling, bald, non-linguistic creature of 6 to 10 pounds weight and less than two feet length that always wants to be held, while still appreciating the more independent, 45-inch tall child with long hair that sometimes pushes away from a hug or tries to explore on her own, shutting out the mother.

What I’d like to get at here is a sense of the “enough” and “enough for what” that reflect what we value, and how people, in daily life, divide up the world. I’d like to say more, too, about the prospect of changing together, and the way in which we do identify ourselves across change. I think Parfit’s example of the Russian Nobleman (Reasons and Persons, 327-328) is a good starting point for this: Schechtman’s discussion of this in “Personality and Persistence” (American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 2, Apr., 2004, pp. 87-105) and Christine Korsgaard’s discussion in Creating the Kingdom of Ends (p. 207-208; Cambridge, 1996) form interesting commentaries. I’ll try to tackle these in a later post, and expand on the question of how we maintain identity across change, while also losing identity across change.

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

Continuity, Essence, Sex-change and Other Changes

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.