Empathic Access: The Missing Ingredient in Personal Identity
Schechtman (Marya)
Source: Martin & Barresi - Personal Identity, Chapter 9
Paper - Abstract

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Introduction (Full Text)

  1. Although substance-based views of personal identity still have adherents, psychologically-based accounts have achieved an undeniable prominence in contemporary analytic philosophy. Support for these views comes chiefly from thought experiments1 and puzzle cases. These cases are limited only by the imaginations of the philosophers who have offered them, and take a dazzling variety of forms. One important distinction to be drawn is between those cases which imagine a wholesale movement of a psychological life from one body to another and those which depict partial psychological change taking place within the scope of a single human life. The former category includes John Locke’s prince who "enters and informs" the body of a cobbler, as well as the teleportation2, brain rejuvenation, and brain transplant3 cases found in more modem authors. The latter includes cases based on real-life situations (e.g. conversion, amnesia, brainwashing, dementia) as well as science fiction scenarios (e.g. involving evil neurosurgeons who can manipulate the brain to change traits or psychological states at will).
  2. These two types of cases play somewhat different roles within the discussion of personal identity. The first is used essentially to show that personal identity should be defined in terms of psychological rather than physical features. The second supports this case (by showing that the right kind or degree of psychological change within a human life threatens identity), but it also speaks to the more complicated question of what psychological continuation involves. Cases in which a person’s psychological life moves intact to a new venue make a good case for the claim that between body and mental life it is the continuation of mental life which is required for personal continuation, but fall short of telling us exactly what this entails. It is too much to require the exact preservation of psychological makeup for personal identity, since this is something we virtually never encounter. People do change in their beliefs, desires, character traits and values, and this does not usually imply a change of identity4.
  3. A theorist who wishes to define personal identity in terms of psychological continuation thus needs to tell us what "psychological continuation means, and this requires, among other things, specifying the degree and kind of psychological change that is permissible. A psychological account of identity must, that is, define the difference between ordinary personal development and identity-destroying psychological discontinuity. There have been two main attempts to offer such a definition in the literature: psychological continuity5 theories and narrative accounts. In what follows will argue that neither is adequate to capturing this crucial distinction, at least with respect to one important class of thought experiments6. With respect to the intuitions generated by these thought experiments7, I claim, both psychological continuity8 theories and narrative views leave out a necessary ingredient which I call "empathic access."
  4. I begin with a description of the class of thought experiments9 on which I will focus, offering two as representatives for further discussion, and briefly describing their importance in the discussion of personal identity and personal survival. I then show how the standard psychological accounts fail to capture the intuitions generated by these examples, and diagnose their failure by introducing the concept of empathic access. After further definition of empathic access and a sketch of some of the work which will be needed to develop the concept further, I conclude by discussing the broader goal of providing a viable psychological account of personal survival.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 4: The issues involved in the dispute over whether identity is required for survival are tangential to those discussed here, and I wish to remain agnostic on them. I will thus use the terms “personal identity” and “personal survival” interchangeably. Wherever I have used “identity”, however, “survival” could be substituted.

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