- According to one tradition, persons are distinguished from their nearest neighbors — robots, corpses, clever chimpanzees — by the capacities required for rational agency. An extension of this view distinguishes individual persons from one another by the policies that guide their choices. The origins of this concept of persons lie in the social practices that require us to assign responsibility and to determine liability: we identify one another by characteristics that determine what we can expect from one another. But legal and social systems differ in the ways they demarcate distinct persons and in the criteria they use to determine the grounds for liability. For instance, liability and responsibility may rest with families or clans, or a chief may be treated as the embodiment of a tribe. A biological individual may be considered to be composed of, or hospitable to possession by, distinguishable persons.
- Characteristically, defenders of the theory that persons are rational agents (PRAT) find that they must treat persons as conceptually distinct from human beings and from selves as subjects of experience. Though PRAT begins with a set of social practices that are taken as definitive, analysis produces a term of art, with distinctions that may be finer, more rigid, or more extensive than those associated with the original. For those who hold the accepted and familiar view that persons are biological individuals, talk of individuals as compounded or discomposed persons is at best metaphorical. If such talk is taken literally, it must be mistaken; in any case, it is argued to presuppose a more fundamental view that identifies persons with biological individuals (the ’one person / one body’ view).
- I want to examine the consequences that follow from taking the capacities for rationality as the criteria for defining personal identity.
- In part I, I shall ignore the variants of PRAT, and trace its assumptions about the extent to which the needs and desires of persons form a consistent system. I shall argue that if the mark of a person is that he have a consistent rational policy, then the class of persons will not coincide with the class of individual human beings.
- In part II, I argue that paradigmatic and parasitic cases of persons cannot be distinguished without a program: the concept of persons is rooted in the beliefs and practices that define the actions of biological organisms of a complex sort. The analysis of the criteria for personal identity is vacuous without an account of the various functions that the concept plays in social life and in scientific theories.
- Finally, in part III, I discuss some of the political and psychological consequences of the views I have defended.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2021
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)