Personal Identity and the Unity of Agency: A Kantian Response to Parfit
Korsgaard (Christine)
Source: Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Spring, 1989), pp. 101-132
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction1

  1. A person is both active and passive, both an agent and a subject of experiences. Utilitarian and Kantian2 moral philosophers, however, characteristically place a different emphasis on these two aspects of our nature. The utilitarian emphasizes the passive side of our nature, our capacity to be pleased or satisfied, and is concerned with what happens to us. The Kantian emphasizes our agency, and is concerned with what we do. Alternatively, we may say that the utilitarian focuses first on persons as objects of moral concern, and asks, "what should be done for them?" whereas the Kantian addresses the moral agent, who is asking, "what should I do?"
  2. One might think that this can only be a difference of emphasis. Any acceptable moral philosophy must take both sides of our nature into account, and tell us both how people ought to be treated and what we ought to do. Yet the difference of emphasis can lead to substantive moral disagreement. Kantians believe in what are sometimes called "agent-centered" restrictions, obligations which are independent of the value of the outcomes they produce. Even when thinking of persons as objects of moral concern, the Kantian is more likely to focus on agency. The question "what should be done for them?" is answered, roughly, by "they should be given the freedom to make their own choices, and to do things for themselves." Rawls believes that asking the agentless "what should be done for them?" leads to distortion in the utilitarian view of moral and political decision. The idea that burdens for some people can be justified simply by benefits to others "arises from the conception of individuals as separate lines for the assignment of benefits, as isolated persons who stand as claimants on an administrative or benevolent largess. Occasionally persons do so stand to one another; but this is not the general case." When persons are viewed as agents who are making agreements with one another, this way of looking at their relations is not the natural one.
  3. Of course the utilitarian claims to take agency into account. He acknowledges that persons do not just want things to be done for them but want to do things; he can argue, with Mill, that persons should be free to make their own choices because it makes them happy. The utilitarian regards agency as an important form of experience; he includes actions and activities among the things that happen to us. This is characteristic of the empiricist tradition in which utilitarianism has its roots, and is nowhere more evident than when Hume writes: "I desire it may be observ'd, that by the will, I mean nothing but the internal impression we feel and are conscious of, when we knowingly give rise to any new motion of our body, or new perception of our mind." Hume here identifies the will not with our power to initiate action, but with the feeling we experience when we exercise that power.
  4. And of course our actions and activities are among the things we experience. But in an equally undeniable sense, having experiences is among the things that we do. Activity and passivity are aspects of our nature, not parts, and each can be reduced to a form of the other. I will argue, however, that from a moral point of view it is important not to reduce agency to a mere form of experience. It is important because our conception of what a person is depends in a deep way on our conception of ourselves as agents. My argument is directed against the views about personal identity advanced by Derek Parfit3 in "Parfit (Derek) - Reasons and Persons". I believe that Parfit4's arguments depend on viewing the person primarily as a locus of experience, and agency as a form of experience. If we regard persons primarily as agents, we will reach different conclusions both about the nature of personal identity and about its moral implications.

Author’s Conclusion5
  1. Some of the discussion of Parfit6's work has revolved around the question whether we can, or even should, use a morally neutral, metaphysical conception of the person to support one moral theory over others. I believe that the answer depends on what "morally neutral" is taken to mean. When we say a conception is morally neutral, we may mean that it is constructed without regard to the fact that we are going to employ it in moral thinking; or we may mean that it is constructed without prior dependence on any particular moral theory. I see no point in being neutral with respect to the purposes of moral thinking, nor do I see that metaphysics achieves that kind of neutrality any better than, say, psychoanalysis or biology. On the other hand, if we are to find a basis for deciding among competing moral theories, an initial neutrality with respect to particular theories might be worth having. But Parfit7's conception of the person does not have this kind of moral neutrality.
  2. According to Parfit8, utilitarians disagree with those who insist on compensation and other distributive values because utilitarians think that the question "to whom does it happen?" is like the question "when does it happen?" They regard both of these as "mere differences in position" (340). Reductionism supports this parallel between the two questions because the Reductionist holds that an impersonal description of life is possible. Persons can be said to exist, but, according to Parfit9, "this is true only because we describe our lives by ascribing thoughts and actions to people" (341). It is a matter of grammatical convenience. Therefore "it becomes more plausible, when thinking morally, to focus less upon the person, the subject of experiences, and instead to focus more upon the experiences themselves" (341).
  3. So Parfit10 thinks that Reductionism supports the thesis that the quality of experiences is what matters, and so supports a utilitarian theory of value. But I believe instead that Parfit11 has assumed this theory of value from the start. The metaphysical argument about whether a person is a separately existing subject of experiences, or merely a stream of experiences with no separately existing subject, is preceded by an essentially moral assumption – the assumption that life is a series of experiences, and so that a person is first and foremost a locus of experiences. If you begin with the view that a person is a subject of experiences, and take away the subject, you are indeed left with nothing but experiences. But you will begin with that view only if you assume from the start that having experiences is what life is all about12.
  4. This assumption dictates the reduction of agency to a mere form of experience which I described at the beginning of this article. That is, it involves regarding our actions and activities as among the things that happen to us, and so, once the subject is removed, as simply among the things that happen. Because they regard doings as mere happenings, Parfit13 and other utilitarians suppose that the question "who does it?" is like the question "to whom does it happen?": according to them, it is merely a question about position. But from the deliberative standpoint our relationship to our actions and our lives is not merely one of position. It is essential to us that our actions are our own, and we regard living our lives as something that we do.
  5. Unless persons are separately existing entities, Parfit14 supposes, the ascription of actions to people is a matter of mere grammatical convenience. The Kantian reply is that neither metaphysics nor grammar is the basis for such ascriptions. Rather, the conception of ourselves as agents is fundamental to the standpoint of practical reason, the standpoint from which choices are made. And it is from this standpoint that we ask moral questions, and seek help from moral philosophy. This makes the conception of the agent, along with its unity, an appropriate one to employ in moral thinking. In fact, it is from the standpoint of practical reason that moral thought and moral concepts – including the concept of the person – are generated.


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In-Page Footnotes

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