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Persons and Personal Identity

Parfit, the Reductionist View, and Moral Commitment

Daniel E. Palmer
Purdue University

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ABSTRACT: In Reasons and Persons, Derek Parfit argues for a Reductionist View of personal identity. According to a Reductionist, persons are nothing over and above the existence of certain mental and/or physical states and their various relations. Given this, Parfit believes that facts about personal identity just consist in more particular facts concerning psychological continuity and/or connectedness, and thus that personal identity can be reduced to this continuity and/or connectedness. Parfit is aware that his view of personal identity is contrary to what many people ordinarily think about persons, and thus if his view is correct, many of us have false beliefs about personal identity. Further, since many of our views about morality are based upon our views about personal identity, it follows that we may also have to change our beliefs about morality as well. Parfit, however, thinks that in many cases such changes represent an improvement over our former beliefs and better fit with our considered moral judgments. But instead, I argue that Parfit’s account poses a serious threat to considered moral judgments, and, in particular, that it seriously undermines any substantial notion of moral commitment. As such, even if Parfit is metaphysically correct, I suggest we may have practical reasons, based on our moral concerns, for holding to a more weighty view of the nature of persons.

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In Reasons and Persons Derek Parfit argues for a Reductionist View of personal identity. According to the Reductionist persons are nothing over and above the existence of certain mental and/or physical states and their various relations. As Parfit states it, "on the Reductionist View, each person’s existence just involves the existence of a brain and body, the doing of certain deeds, the thinking of certain thoughts, the occurrence of certain experiences, and so on." (1) Just as we are not apt to think that a social club has any ontological status over and above the existence of its members and their relations to one another, so too the Reductionist claims that we should not take persons to exist apart from the various physical and psychological events that characterize them. Given this, Parfit believes that it follows "that the fact of a person’s identity over time just consists in the holding of more particular facts." (2) Parfit provides further arguments to show that the facts in question concern psychological continuity and/or connectedness, and thus that personal identity can be reduced to this psychological continuity and/or connectedness. This is what Parfit terms the Psychological Criterion for personal identity. Further, since personal identity just consists in this psychological continuity when it takes a non-branching, or one-one form, personal identity is, as Parfit puts it, "not what matters." What does matter is the psychological continuity and connectedness, what Parfit terms Relation R.

Parfit realizes that his view on personal identity is contrary to what many people ordinarily believe concerning the nature of persons. Parfit thus notes that "even if we are not aware of this, most of us our Non-Reductionists. It thus follows that most of us have false beliefs about our own nature, and our identity over time." (3) Further, Parfit thinks that since our views about morality and rationality are often based upon our views about personal identity we may also come to change our beliefs about rationality and morality when we become Reductionists. He thus writes "when we see the truth, we ought to change some of our beliefs about what we have reason to do. We ought to revise our moral theories, and our theories about rationality." (4) However, Parfit thinks that such changes in many cases represent an improvement over what we formally held to be the case when we considered personal identity to be what matters.

In this essay I will not be concerned with the cogency of Parfit’s Reductionist View of personal identity itself. Rather, I would like to raise some questions as to whether or not the theories of rationality and morality resulting from his views do indeed represent an improvement in the way that Parfit thinks they do over their more common counterparts. More specifically, I wish to examine the implications that Parfit’s view of personal identity has for our understanding of moral commitments such as promises. In order to do this, I will first examine Parfit’s claims concerning what follows about persons and commitments given his Reductionist View. In doing this, I will also provide some examples to show why someone might find Parfit’s claims here initially plausible. Then, I will show why despite such examples, Parfit’s view of what matters for morality actually undermines any substantial notion of moral commitment.

As stated, Parfit thinks that what matters for our deliberation concerning morality and rationality is not personal identity but psychological continuity and connectedness. While personal identity is an all or nothing affair, psychological continuity and connectedness come in degrees; I may have greater continuity with myself last year than I do to the child I was twenty years ago. Once we realize this Parfit believes that it follows that it is not personal identity that carries moral significance but psychological continuity. Thus, in discussing desert Parfit claims that "we can defensibly claims that psychological continuity carries with it desert for past crimes." (5) And, since there are degrees of psychological continuity and connectedness the applicability of our moral commitments will also come in degrees. When the degree of psychological continuity has changed to a large extent within a life, we may then no longer hold someone responsible to their former commitments. We might say that on Parfit’s view we should proportion moral commitments to degrees of R-Relatedness.

What concrete effects does this view have on our consideration of our moral commitments? Parfit uses the example of promises. When we were Non-Reductionists we took personal identity to be what matters for moral considerations. Since personal identity is an all or nothing affair, it seemed to follow that our commitments would extend equally over all parts of our life. Thus, if we take personal identity to be what matters it seems that if we make a promise when we are young we are still morally required to uphold it in our old age. And this will be true even if we are very weakly psychologically related to our youth, because we are still that same person. However, on Parfit’s view our responsibility will be proportioned to the degree of psychological continuity and connectedness. Given this view we may well not be bound to uphold commitments that we made when we were younger. We may actually come to think about and treat certain aspects of our past and future as different selves rather than as equal parts of our life. Just as someone else cannot commit me to something, so too my former self cannot make commitments on my part. Indeed, Parfit notes that "when we are considering commitments, the fact of personal identity enters twice." (6) Thus, we may need to consider the degrees of continuity not only between our own successive selves but the continuity that holds between the persons to whom we make our commitments as well.

Parfit thinks that this result actually fits our moral intuitions better than the Non-Reductionist View. He states that adopting the Reductionist View in these matters and "using the language of successive selves, seems both understandable and natural." (7) He provides an example to show why this is so. The example concerns a young Russian with idealistic tendencies who will inherit a large amount of property. Given his present ideals, he intends to give the land to the peasants. But he also knows that people change over time, and thus that his ideals may fade. In order to prevent this possibility he asks his wife to promise that she will never consent to revoke a legal document that he has signed giving the land away. Parfit thinks that if the man does in fact change later in his life and asks her to revoke the document we would find it perfectly acceptable of her to regard herself as committed to the young man whom he was and thus refuse to be released from her commitments by her present husband. On this view, her husband in his middle ages "is, in some sense, not he to whom she is committed." (8)

In the case of the Russian we might find the results of Parfit’s theory appealing. Many of us would agree that for the wife to revoke the document would be to somehow or another betray her former commitment. I think there are other, even clearer, cases in which Parfit’s theory seems to provide the right result. I will just mention two here. Suppose a soldier is captured behind enemy lines. When in captivity, he is tortured severely; beaten, deprived of sleep, sunlight, food and water and so on. Under great duress he finally gives the enemy highly classified information that he had solemnly promised never to release. We would not, I think, be inclined to hold the soldier morally blameworthy for breaking his promise in such a situation. On Parfit’s view we could easily claim that this is because his torture was extreme enough to render him weakly R-Related to the young recruit who made that promise. The second example I wish to mention involves cases in which persons have lost control over their mental faculties to a large degree. Such cases are quite commonly discussed in legal contexts. Without going into great detail, I think most of us would agree that our commitments to persons is greatly modified when such persons become, say, mentally disturbed or have been stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. Parfit’s view provides a natural explanation for why this is so. We may think that our commitments no longer hold towards them in the same way that they previously did because they are now weakly R-Related to the persons whom we originally made our commitment to. Likewise, we would normally not hold the person stricken with Alzheimer’s responsible for their former commitments either.

It may seem then that Parfit’s Reductionist View actually provides some positive support and explanatory force for our moral intuitions in certain circumstances. However, despite the appeal that Parfit’s theory might have for us in considering such situations, I think that the results of Parfit’s view are actually extremely damaging to our normal conception of moral commitment. To see why I think this is so, I will again provide some examples; this time of situations in which the results of Parfit’s view are less then desirable. I will then make some general claims as to why I think this negative result is inherent to Parfit’s view. Finally, I will say a few words about the relationship between personal identity and morality.

First, consider the following scenario. Suppose I am a struggling artist, unsure of my own abilities, despondent over my situation, and almost ready to end it all. However, just as I am about to throw myself off the bridge an extremely wealthy investor comes upon me. Taking pity upon me, he offers to use his wealth and influence in order to help my career and to make a name for myself in the more prominent art circles. In exchange, he only asks that if he is ever in need of a favor that I promise to help him as well. Due to his patronage, I eventually become an extremely successful artist. My works fetch outlandish prices and my presence commands the respect and admiration of high society. However, my patron does not fare so well over the years. Unscrupulous employees bring about his financial ruin, and he is eventually reduced to tatters, living on the streets from hand to mouth. One day while walking with friends in the park, my former patron sees me and asks me to remain true to my former promise to help him if he should ever need it. We would all, I believe, think it morally repugnant of the me to refuse to honor my commitment. However, on Parfit’s account there are two reasons for thinking that this will not be the case. First, the successful and wealthy artist that I have become is surely very weakly R-Related to that starving and despondent wreck who was about to kill himself so many years ago. Likewise, the decrepit tramp before me now bears little continuity to the commanding and prosperous investor that I made my promise to on that day. Thus, on Parfit’s we could reasonably claim that neither myself nor my former patron are the same selves as those involved in the establishment of the commitment. I thus have no special moral obligation to the person before me.

There are also situations that are even more difficult for Parfit’s theory. Remember, that on Parfit’s theory the R Relation, unlike personal identity, can take a branching or one-many form. Consider Parfit’s Teletransportation case. Here we have a teletransporter that can reproduce a perfect replica of myself that is fully psychologically continuous with me as I am in the present. Suppose I am with a friend who is about to get into the teletransporter. I promise my friend that I will watch her money and other personal possessions for her while she goes into the teletransporter. Now, due to some still unsolved glitches in the teletransporter, it causes some slight damage to the person who is duplicated. However, the replica created on a different site suffers no such damage. The result is that the replica actually will have a higher degree of R-Relatedness to my present friend then she will. Now, imagine the process is completed and my friend comes out. We then turn on our viewing screen and see her replica at a distant site. They both turn toward me and ask me to return their belongings. To whom am I committed? On Parfit’s view it would seem reasonable to maintain that I am more strongly committed to my friend’s replica than I am to her, as her replica is more strongly R-Related to the person to whom I made my promise.

Surely my second example is a bit fantastic. However, it does add additional support to what I take to be the problem with Parfit’s view. According to Parfit, we should weight promises and other commitments in relation to degrees of R-Relations. And, we have seen that the R-Relation can both fail to hold within one life and can branch across more than one life. As such, on Parfit’s theory the R-Relation can range over multiple selves, each individual life can be thought of as a series of successive selves, and the psychological continuity and connectedness that matters always comes in degrees. The problem is whether, given all these factors, we can even make sense of the idea of a commitment or a promise. In effect, as soon as they are made their force begins to weaken on Parfit’s view since R-Relations are arguably always degenerate. Theoretically, their scope could be infinite: after all you could indefinitely reduplicate yourself causing me to be committed to countless generations of yourself. The examples thus show that the results of Parfit’s view are not only counterintuitive, but that his theory would make it impossible to construct any general principles concerning the nature and scope of our commitments.

The real problem here is that if commitments such as promises are to have any practical hold over us, we must take them as having two features. First, the force of a promise holds precisely in so far as we suppose that it will hold through various changes in psychological character. Indeed, the primary reason that we ask others to make promises is in order to assure ourselves that they will remain committed in spite of such psychological changes. Indeed, if we supposed that the strength of a promise held its full strength only when the degree of psychological continuity and connectedness was equivalent with that of the person making the commitment as they were presently constituted, we would have no need for the promise at all since we already know that in their present state they are willing to take on the obligation. Similarly, there is a problem of relevance as well. In other words, on Parfit’s view we would have specify not only what degree of R-Relatedness is necessary for a commitment to hold but what kind of continuities are relevant for the purposes of our commitments since there are many different types of continuity that hold within a single life. The attempt to provide a workable framework of practical deliberation that accounts for such specifications is hopeless. Thus, it seems to me that if we are to give promises any real weight we have to take persons as the basic unit over which they range.

Second, I would maintain that common moral deliberation presupposes that promises and other commitments cannot be degenerate in the way that Parfit’s View entails that they are. That is, if commitments are to practically have any hold over us we cannot suppose that they change their degree of strength over time. This is not to say that we might not have degrees of obligation between various commitments, or that certain types of commitments are stronger than other types, but that whatever degree of strength they do have cannot be altered simply in relation to certain temporal connections between ourselves. Here, I am again simply not sure what sense we could practically make of Parfit’s view that we are obligated to our promises only to varying degrees as our degrees of R-Relatedness to our past changes. If I promise not to tell a secret, what does it mean to say that when my degree of R-Relatedness to my past self changes, I am now only obliged to a certain degree not to tell it? If we are to attach any real practical efficacy to promises we must suppose that their strength over us is not temporally degenerate. Once more, the obvious response is to take personal identity as the basis of our commitments rather than the R-Relation.

Of course, if we reject Parfit’s view on these issues we need to be able to account for the type of situations that they seemed to handle so well. I do not, however, think that this is too difficult. Most of the cases that Parfit’s theory seemed to provide a natural explanation for can easily be covered by considering the other moral obligations that we have. Thus, we have other general commitments towards persons; including perhaps not harming them, acting for their general welfare, and so on. In many cases it is then simply possible that other moral considerations override our commitments and promises, without supposing that the selves involved are in fact different. Likewise, we may arguably disregard certain commitments and promises in certain situations because of other mitigating non-moral factors. Therefore, even if we take the intrinsic nature of our commitments to be invariable there may well be extrinsic factors that allow us to be released from our commitments and promises.

My concerns are not meant to show that Parfit’s theory of personal identity is wrong. Indeed, for the most part I find his Reductionist View convincing. What I do think is that if we are to give certain sorts of moral commitments any practical weight we must suppose that they apply to persons. Thus, in many respects my own view is close to that of Christine Korsgaard who argues that we may have practical reasons for regarding ourselves as the same person over time even if we do not have deep metaphysical ones. (9) In other words, it may be the case that if certain basic assumptions we have about commitments and practicable deliberation are to hold, we may have to suppose that they range over persons even if we have no deep metaphysical grounds for doing so. (10) For matters of practical deliberation it appears at least that we have to suppose that commitments hold between persons. Otherwise, if we follow Parfit’s suggestions concerning the implications of the metaphysics of persons for issues of rationality and morality I think that I have show that we will have to radically reconsider many of our basic assumptions concerning our commitments and the range of their applicability.

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(1) Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986). p. 211.

(2) Ibid., p. 210.

(3) Ibid., p.

(4) Ibid., p. ix

(5) Ibid., p. 325.

(6) Ibid., p. 326.

(7) Ibid., p. 327.

(8) Ibid., p. 328.

(9) See Christine Korsgaard, "Personal Identity and the Unity of Agency: A Kantian Response to Parfit," Philosophy and Public Affairs 18 (1989).

(10) Of course, one might also argue that the failure of Parfit’s view to account for our intuitions concerning the nature of commitments may give us some reason to reconsider the Non-Reductionist View of personal identity.

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