Philosophers Index Abstract
- Some people believe that the identity of a person through time is, in its nature, all-or-nothing. This belief makes them assume that, in the so-called 'problem cases', the question "would it still be me?" must have, both a definite answer, and great importance.
- I deny these assumptions. I try to show that the identity of a person through time is only, in its logic, all-or-nothing. In its nature, it is a matter of degree.
- I then propose a way of thinking in which this would be recognized.
- We can, I think, describe cases in which, though we know the answer to every other question, we have no idea how to answer a question about personal identity. These cases are not covered by the criteria of personal identity that we actually use.
- Do they present a problem?
- It might be thought that they do not, because they could never occur. I suspect that some of them could. (Some, for instance, might become scientifically possible.) But I shall claim that even if they did they would present no problem.
- My targets are two beliefs: one about the nature of personal identity, the other about its importance.
- The first is that in these cases the question about identity must have an answer.
- No one thinks this about, say, nations or machines. Our criteria for the identity of these do not cover certain cases. No one thinks that in these cases the questions "Is it the same nation?" or "Is it the same machine ?" must have answers.
- Some people believe that in this respect they are different. They agree that our criteria of personal identity do not cover certain cases, but they believe that the nature of their own identity through time is, somehow, such as to guarantee that in these cases questions about their identity must have answers. This belief might be expressed as follows: "Whatever happens between now and any future time, either I shall still exist, or I shall not. Any future experience will either be my experience, or it will not."
- This first belief – in the special nature of personal identity – has, I think, certain effects. It makes people assume that the principle of self-interest is more rationally compelling than any moral principle. And it makes them more depressed by the thought of aging and of death.
- I cannot see how to disprove this first belief. I shall describe a problem case. But this can only make it seem implausible.
- Another approach might be this. We might suggest that one cause of the belief is the projection of our emotions. When we imagine ourselves in a problem case, we do feel that the question "Would it be me ?" must have an answer. But what we take to be a bafflement about a further fact may be only the bafflement of our concern.
- I shall not pursue this suggestion here. But one cause of our concern is the belief which is my second target. This is that unless the question about identity has an answer, we cannot answer certain important questions (questions about such matters as survival, memory, and responsibility).
- Against this second belief my claim will be this. Certain important questions do presuppose a question about personal identity. But they can be freed of this presupposition. And when they are, the question about identity has no importance.
For Notes, see "Funkhouser (Eric) - Notes on Parfit, 'Personal Identity'".
- Originally in The Philosophical Review, Vol. 80, No. 1 (Jan., 1971) (pp. 3-27).
- Also in "Honderich (Ted) & Burnyeat (Myles) - Philosophy as it Is",
→ with Introduction by Myles Burnyeat
- "Loux (Michael), Ed. - Metaphysics - Contemporary Readings",
- "Glover (Jonathan), Ed. - The Philosophy of Mind", and
- "Noonan (Harold), Ed. - Personal Identity (Readings)".
- For the full text, see Parfit - Personal Identity
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