Personal Identity and Ethics - Introduction
Shoemaker (David)
Source: Shoemaker (David) - Personal Identity and Ethics: A Brief Introduction, 2009, Introduction
Paper - Abstract

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For the meaning of any abbreviations in what follows Click here for Note

Six Motivational Questions

To illustrate the complex relationship between ethics and theories of personal identity, Shoemaker introduces us to six TEs:-

  1. Imminent Death: Is there any possibility of post-mortem survival1 (ie. after the destruction of both body and brain). Is it rational to anticipate survival? The post-mortem entity claimed to be me has to be not just a replica of me. I can only look forward to having my own experiences, not someone else’s. I can only have a special concern for myself, however concerned I might be about the fate of others. The “you’re going to be tortured in the morning” TE shows that the concern you might feel for a replica differs from prudential concern felt for yourself. This shows the importance of personal identity
  2. Abortion2: Were you a fetus3? Before we can answer such questions, we need to decide what we are4, which Shoemaker notes to be a controversial question. If you are essentially a person, which a fetus5 isn’t, then it won’t be as bad to kill a fetus6 as it is to kill you, who came into existence after the fetus7. Even if you were a fetus8 (as the Animalists9 claim), is it as wrong to kill a fetus10 as it is to kill you?
  3. Advance directives: Is the happily senile individual the same person (or a person at all) who made the advance directive demanding euthanasia? Whatever the answer, should the directive be obeyed? If she is the same person, which instruction should be obeyed? Should the advance directive be treated as a rash request that she now regrets? If she is not the same person, should one person have a say concerning what is done to another? Well, possibly – guardians do. This seems to raise a number of issues:-
    • Firstly, the whole point of advance directives is that (for various reasons) we think that our future self will not be competent to make decisions: another case might be if we were to be taken hostage; we might anticipate that our captors might induce us to ask for things to be done that we don’t in fact want to be done – though through weakness we might then be made to request them. Depending on the situation, it might be important that our requests from captivity are not obeyed.
    • But also, we might not have fully envisaged the situation we’d be in (either as a hostage or as an old decrepit). Out present comfortable and competent situation may stunt our imagination when we envisage our future self, so we might not be competent to make decisions on that self’s behalf.
    • We might note that – in the case of presumed non-identity – that guardians, while they do have authority over their wards are supposed to have their wards’ best interests at heart, and not their own. But this situation, were the guardian is your “earlier self”, and the ward your “later self”, the ward is perfectly happy (it is said) – it’s the guardian who’s upset at the thought of their later self sitting there contentedly dribbling.
    • Shoemaker introduces the thought that the existence of my demented self acts as a “tragic coda” that undermines many of the goods of my life as a whole. It might do – but usually the last years of great individuals are passed over quietly by posterity (so, Nietzsche’s demented years are not taken to undermine his earlier philosophy). Where the situation might undermine the earlier life is if the demented individual retained authority (cf. Caligula’s last mad years undermined his early good years, so that the latter were forgotten; in general, it might be possible for an individual to undo all the good they once did). But if the individual just declines privately and without doing great damage, it seems that the advance request for termination is made for either aesthetic or economic grounds. Alternatively, it might be made on the self-contradictory assumption that I’m both demented and fully cognisant of my plight, and there seems no good reason to obey muddled commands.
    • Shoemaker discusses the understanding of the case where it is taken that I am indeed the same individual, but no longer a person in my demented state. He seems to imply that in that case it’s not clear that my early self has authority over my later non-self, though I couldn’t altogether follow the reasoning. Shoemaker’s point is that if we are not essentially persons, then the fact that my demented non-self is not a person is not relevant to evaluating the advance directive. Fair enough; but surely it is more likely that we’d accept the advance directive under this description of the case than under other descriptions; for instance, if I was taken to be non-identical to the decrepit individual, either because I’m essentially a person, or because he is a different person?
  4. Cloning: Does cloning rob the person cloned11 of his unique identity? If not, is the reason that this is not so because clones12 develop different psychologies? The trouble with the standard objections to cloning is that they are equally effective against the situation identical twins13 find themselves in. There is more to individuality that genetics. The questions remain:-
    • Whether intentional cloning has a different moral dimension to inadvertent cloning (twinning)14.
    • Whether there is indeed a problem with twinning15 – some loss of individuality (though maybe some gains in comradeship?).
    • Just what makes up an individual’s “identity”?
  5. Childhood misdemeanours: Should the adult continue to be blamed for the sins he committed as a child? Or is he a different person? This seems to force apart two different concepts. The child and the man are clearly the same individual – they are the same animal. So, if identity is all that matters for responsibility (I am responsible for all and only my actions), and we are animals, then the man is responsible for the actions of the child. But, there may be another relation, between stages of a human animal16, called “same person”. This is not an identity-relation – because identity is an equivalence-relation, and so is transitive (as Reid pointed out in his objections to Locke with his “brave officer” parable). But it might be a relation that is as good as identity for the ethical purposes we are considering here. This has implications for what we do with “reformed criminals” (though things get complicated when we move on from ethical to legal matters, as we need to consider what punishment is for - if it’s retributive, or a deterrent, then the reformation of the criminal is not in that respect relevant. But even in matters of private resentment, we need to ask what the on-going resentment is for - if someone has genuinely repented, what’s the use of not forgiving and forgetting?
  6. The cute baby and the budding genius: Is it ever fair to give what one person earned and suffered for to another if the utilitarian sums work out best that way? Shoemaker connects this puzzle with the ethics of compensation, claiming that I can only be compensated for my own sufferings, and cannot be compensated if the compensation accrues to someone else (though maybe – I would suggest – you could if the bond was very tight – as with mothers and their young children). There’s a genuine (utilitarian) dispute about prima facie misdirected compensation, but Shoemaker thinks that its resolution may depend on personal identity claims.
    • Given that in the TE the baby who suffers is (for the sake of the argument) not the same person as the youth that misses out on the compensation, this misdirection may not be unethical. To clarify: the TE is that the there are two sons; one suffers as a baby, and the other reaps the rewards. As the baby that suffered grows up to be a youth, the goods in trust go to his brother. Now, if the youth is not the same person as the baby (because, say, the baby was not a person at all) then why should one person (the youth) have more moral rights to the goods than another (his brother)? Of course, the youth may be legally entitled to the goods, but that’s another matter entirely.
    • Even if the youth is the same person as the baby, the vast psychological differences between the baby and the youth may make this sameness of person morally unimportant. Shoemaker has mentioned this possibility before; but it seems to ignore the importance of psychology in the “same person” relation, and reduce it to the “same animal” relation.
    • Shoemaker posits that identity may come in degrees, but this sounds logically heretical, and I’ll need to see what he says later in the book. Psychological connectedness17 comes in degrees, and this may be the ethically significant relation, but calling it “identity” seems to muddy the waters.
    • Again, if numerical identity18 is all that matters, and the baby and the youth are numerically the same individual, then siphoning off the compensation to a different individual is unethical.
    • None of this seems to address the issues with utilitarianism where there seems no ethical reason (within utilitarianism) to insist that goods are tied to their owners – if taking them from the owner and giving them to another person produces more utility overall.
Before looking at some key concepts and distinctions, Shoemaker outlines the plot of the book.
  1. Considers Case 1 – the possibility of post-mortem survival19 – and then floats four crude and hopelessly flawed theories of PID – souls, memories, bodies and brains.
  2. Two views – the psychological view and the biological view20, which end in a stand-off.
  3. Two more radical views – “narrative identity”21 and Parfit’s22 “identity is not what matters”23. The four views in Chapters 2 & 3 remain in contention for the rest of the book.
  4. Start-of-life problems – abortion24, stem cell research and cloning.
  5. Genetic intervention (pre- and post-natal) and moral responsibility for the creation of entire populations.
  6. End-of-life problems – advance directives, and terminating MPDs25.
  7. Moral responsibility, a motivator for interest in PID; especially Case 5.
  8. The relation between theories of ethics and theories of PID; especially Case 6.
  9. Three methodological questions (and default answers):-
    • The motivation for investigating PD stems from practical rather than metaphysical concerns.
    • Personal identity is prior to ethics.
    • There is just one theory of PID that applies to all our ethical concerns. An alternative view is a mix and match approach.
Concepts and Distinctions

Shoemaker discusses the following items that are of a fairly elementary nature, and require no further comment here:-
  1. Ethics versus Morality. Some take Ethics as meta-morality, but Shoemaker makes no such distinction. Click here for Note for an old attempt on my own part to make a different distinction between ethics and morality.
  2. Ethics as practical concern: self-regarding and other-regarding ethics.
  3. Qualitative vs Quantitive Identity. Click here for Note for what I have to say on similarity and Click here for Note for what I have to say on the logic of identity.
  4. Criteria of Identity26: Metaphysical versus Epistemological.
  5. Kind Membership. Click here for Note for my thoughts.
  6. The relation between kind-membership and identity criteria27.
  7. Essential versus Inessential kind membership.
  8. Necessary & Sufficient Conditions.

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020

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