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Physical Continuity, Self and the Future

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Jeff McMahan's impressive recent defence of the embodied mind theory of personal identity in his highly acclaimed work The Ethics of Killing has undoubtedly reawakened belief that physical continuity is a necessary component of the relation that matters in our self-interested concern for the future. My aim in this paper is to resist this belief in a somewhat roundabout way. I want to address this belief in a somewhat roundabout way by revisiting a classic defence of the belief that enormous changes in the contents of a person's psychology does not preclude justified fear of future pain. I have in mind Bernard Williams' The Self and the Future (1970) in which he argues, against the psychological view, that physical continuity is necessary for survival. I examine Williams' second thought experiment which ostensibly supports that intuition and afterwards defend two related claims. First, I argue that a close examination of the second thought experiment reveals that one's prior commitments to a particular criterion of personal identity can influence one's response to that thought experiment. Second, I argue that Williams' second thought experiment is set out in questionbegging terms. I do not claim, however, that the intuition under consideration lacks justification; I only claim that Williams' second thought experiment does not provide the needed support.

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The thought-experiment presented by Bernard Williams in ‘The self and the future’ continues to draw the attention of writers in the debate about personal identity. While few of them agree on what implications it has for the debate, almost all agree that those implications are significant ones. Some have even claimed that it has consequences not only for personal identity, but also concerning the viability of thought-experiment as a method. This paper surveys what these consequences might be at both levels—as a substantive contribution to the debate on identity, and as to what it shows about the usefulness of thought-experiments. It argues ultimately that thought-experiments like Williams's do provide a useful philosophical tool as long as we temper our expectations of them, and that it offers some support to a view of personal identity but one which is at odds with Williams's own view.
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Philosophy & Public Affairs 31.4 (2003) 413-442 We all agree that it is generally wrong to kill persons. Although we may differ over exceptions, and over which beings qualify as persons, the judgment that it is wrong, other things equal, intentionally to kill paradigm persons represents common moral ground. At the same time, there is profound disagreement regarding the ethics of killing—or allowing to die—those beings whose moral status is less certain than that of paradigm persons: nonhuman animals, fetuses, infants, the severely retarded and the severely demented, individuals in permanent vegetative states (PVS), and others. Moreover, for those who assume that we human persons have moral status for as long as we exist, related controversies concern the boundaries of our existence: When did we come into existence, and when do we go out of existence or die? Let us refer to all these issues as the marginal cases. One commonly hears that the marginal cases represent areas of moral and/or ontological indeterminacy. According to this position, our clashing beliefs about, say, abortion or meat-eating reflect diverging assumptions about moral status that lie beyond the reach of rational adjudication. Many philosophers, however, are more optimistic. A common strategy for addressing the marginal cases is to appeal to a theory of moral status. A relatively novel approach within this broader strategy is to support a theory of moral status with a theory of personal identity. Theories of personal identity generally offer a definition of the term person and address the issue of personal identity:"In what does a person's continuing existence over time consist?" Since the publication of Parfit's Reasons and Persons, personal identity theorists have also generally addressed the issue of what matters in survival: "What in our continuing existence (e.g., identity itself, psychological continuity) primarily matters from a prudential or self-interested standpoint?" Since the 1990s, the issue of our essence has also become prominent: "What are we human persons, most fundamentally: persons, human animals, or something else?" Can philosophical argumentation help us to settle some or all of the marginal cases? Two recent, outstanding works—Jeff McMahan's The Ethics of Killing and David Boonin's A Defense of Abortion—answer confidently in the affirmative. McMahan defends and appeals to a theory of personal identity in developing a theory of moral status and the ethics of killing in addressing the full range of marginal cases. His book is an enormously rich contribution to personal identity theory, ethical theory, and applied ethics. Let me briefly describe the five hefty chapters, each of which could be a short book of scholarly significance. Chapter 1, which will receive extensive consideration in the next section, addresses personal identity theory. McMahan argues that we are essentially neither souls, human animals, nor persons (defined as self-conscious beings), but rather embodied "minds" (embodied beings with the capacity for consciousness); our identity is a function of the continuation of this capacity. As for what matters in survival, McMahan contends that the degree to which one should be egoistically concerned about some event in one's future varies with the degree of psychological unity between oneself now and oneself at the later time. Chapter 2 presents the most probing investigation of the harm of death of which I am aware. Its thesis is that we should understand this harm not in terms of the (prudential) value of one's life as a whole, but in terms of one's time-relative interest in continuing to live; as explained in the next section, this thesis draws from his view of what matters. Chapter 3 defends a two-tier account of the ethics of killing (as discussed more fully in this article's section on abortion). The ethics of killing "minded" nonpersons—in particular sentient animals and severely cognitively impaired humans—is to be governed by the time-relative interest account, which suggests that death harms nonpersons less than persons. Meanwhile, the ethics of killing persons is to be governed by a requirement of equal respect, which overrides consideration of persons' time-relative interests in continuing to live. The highly original Chapter 4 tackles abortion, employing both the...
Book
A comprehensive study of the ethics of killing in cases in which the metaphysical or moral status of the individual killed is uncertain or controversial. Among those beings whose status is questionable or marginal in this way are human embryos and fetuses, newborn infants, animals, anencephalic infants, human beings with severe congenital and cognitive impairments, and human beings who have become severely demented or irreversibly comatose. In an effort to understand the moral status of these beings, this book develops and defends distinctive accounts of the nature of personal identity, the evaluation of death, and the wrongness of killing. The central metaphysical claim of the book is that we are neither nonmaterial souls nor human organisms but are instead embodied minds. In ethical theory, one of the central claims is that the morality of killing is not unitary; rather, the principles that determine the morality of killing in marginal cases are different from those that govern the killing of persons who are self‐conscious and rational. Another important theme is that killing in marginal cases should be evaluated in terms of the impact it would have on the victim at the time rather than on the value of the victim's life as a whole. What primarily matters is how killing would affect that which would be rational for the victim to care about at the time of death. By appealing to various foundational claims about identity, death, and the morality of killing, this book yields novel conclusions about such issues as abortion, prenatal injury, infanticide, the killing of animals, the significance of brain death, the termination of life support in cases of persistent vegetative state, the use of anencephalic infants as sources of organs for transplantation, euthanasia, assisted suicide, and advance directives in cases of dementia. In particular, the book defends the moral permissibility of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia in certain cases and argues that brain death is not the appropriate criterion of death either for a person or a human organism.
Book
When philosophers address personal identity, they usually explore numerical identity. When non-philosophers address personal identity, they often have in mind narrative identity. This book develops accounts of both senses of identity, arguing that both are normatively important, and is unique in its exploration of a wide range of issues in bioethics through the lens of identity. Defending a biological view of our numerical identity and a framework for understanding narrative identity, David DeGrazia investigates various issues for which considerations of identity prove critical. © Cambridge University Press 2005 and Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Article
Personal Identity is a comprehensive introduction to the nature of the self and its relation to the body. Harold Noonan places the problem of personal identity in the context of more general puzzles about identity, discussing the major historical theories and more recent debates. The second edition of Personal Identity contains a new chapter on 'animalism' and a new section on vagueness.
Article
The Standard View of personal identity says that someone who exists now can exist at another time only if there is continuity of her mental contents or capacities. But no person is psychologically continuous with a fetus, for a fetus, at least early in its career, has no mental features at all. So the Standard View entails that no person was ever a fetus--contrary to the popular assumption that an unthinking fetus is a potential person. It is also mysterious what does ordinarily happen to a human fetus, if it does not come to be a person. Although an extremely complex variant of the Standard View may allow one to persist without psychological continuity before one becomes a person but not afterwards, a far simpler solution is to accept a radically non-psychological account of our identity.
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