Personal Identity, Rational Anticipation, and Self-Concern
Shoemaker (David)
Source: Shoemaker (David) - Personal Identity and Ethics: A Brief Introduction, 2009, Chapter 2
Paper - Abstract

Paper SummaryBooks / Papers Citing this PaperNotes Citing this Paper

For the meaning of any abbreviations in what follows Click here for Note. My comments in general appear as footnotes at the bottom of the page.

  1. Introduction: Rational anticipation of future goods (or ills) appears to presuppose numerical identity (NI). Similarly, self-concern differs in kind from concern for others – Shoemaker gives the usual “being tortured in the morning” example – and again, self-concern seems to presuppose NI. So, we need to try harder to find a criterion, as SC, BC, MC & BBMC have all failed. Most contemporary philosophers support one of the two following:-
  2. The Psychological Criterion
    • PC: X at T1 is the same person as Y at T2 iff Y is uniquely psychologically continuous with X.
    • Motivation: this recognises the advantage of MC, while sorting (if only by stipulation) the duplication problems. It also correctly widens “memory” to include other psychological attributes This both allows for bouts of amnesia and takes into account the following four relations:-
      (1) Present-past: Y’s memories of the acts and experiences of X.
      (2) Present-future: X has an intention that Y carries out.
      (3) Persistence: X’s beliefs, desires and goals are had by Y.
      (4) Resemblance: X and Y have similar characters.
    • Continuity: PC refers to psychological continuity, and Shoemaker makes the same distinction between continuity and connectedness that I’ve noted elsewhere (Click here for Note). If X and Y share the above four relations to some degree, they are psychologically connected to that degree. We can imagine all sorts of degrees of connectedness, including zero. This means that psychological connectedness is as hopeless a criterion of PID as was memory – because of the failure of transitivity – as in Reid’s Brave Officer case considered under MC1 in "Shoemaker (David) - Personal Identity and Immortality". So, we need overlapping chains of psychological connections2
    • Strong Connectedness: Shoemaker is worried that some psychological connections are too weak to count. He gives the dubious example of a memory-trace transplant3 that we’ve seen in the previous chapter – though his purpose is just to use this as an example of “minimal psychological connectedness”. So, how much connectedness is enough? It’s unclear – 100% is enough, but isn’t necessary. But the epithet Strong Connectedness reflects the achievement of the threshold, whatever it is. He quotes "Parfit (Derek) - Reasons and Persons", p. 206, where Parfit claims that it’s implausible to specify a threshold, but that we might take 50% of the normal day-to-day connections as sufficient. As Shoemaker notes, this is plucked out of the air4.
    • Psychological Continuity5 : is what is needed – loosely defined as the concatenation of overlapping strongly-connected stages. Strong Connectedness itself is no use as an identity criterion, as it is in general non-transitive. This agrees with our intuition that the 80-year-old is identical to the 10-year-old, despite minimal psychological connectedness, because there is a continuous stream6 of psychology connecting the two.
    • Uniqueness: Shoemaker just notes that the uniqueness clause in PC is a stipulation, introduced as in MC3 to avoid some absurdities. But it itself seems absurd, in that it makes my identity dependent on someone else’s existence, in the duplication cases. A radical response is the IDM (Identity Doesn’t Matter) approach, but consideration of this is reserved until the next chapter ("Shoemaker (David) - Personal Identity and Self-Regarding Ethics - Alternative Approaches"). For now Shoemaker thinks we must live with this absurdity as at least it’s better than the SC and BBMC (unmotivated), and less absurd than BC. It’s also well-motivated, as it accounts for RA – for how can I rationally anticipate some future state with which I’m not psychologically continuous7?
    • Wide and Narrow Criteria: of psychological continuity8; depending on the cause of the continuity.
      1. On the Narrow Criterion, we require the normal (brain-based) cause.
      2. On the Wide Criterion, any psychology-preserving cause will do, provided the psychological continuity9 is unique10.
  3. Advantages of the PC
    • Rational Anticipation: is accommodated well (as is self-concern). Without psychological connection to a future person, why should I care about his fate? The PC – by tying identity to psychology – has it that the future person is both me, and has my psychology, so it makes good sense for me to be prudentially concerned with his welfare.
    • Resurrection: makes sense on the Wide Criterion of the PC. You, on the PC account, would survive the death of your body if psychological continuity11 is uniquely preserved.
    • Self-identification: is performed using psychological criteria. We don’t check we have woken up in the same body, or have the same soul. Shoemaker notes that people can be deluded as to their identities (in “Napoleon”, or duplication cases), but in general the PC is a reliable indicator.
  4. Disadvantages of the PC
    • The Method of Cases Problem – Intuition Reliability: our intuitions in the various TEs that try to prise apart body and psychology are that “we go where our psychologies go” But, we’re asked to imagine cases that could not happen (based on our current knowledge and skill). So, how are we to trust our intuitions? And things are no better if we try to imagine these cases happening for beings for which they could happen. In neither case can we draw “enlightening and stable” philosophical conclusions. Shoemaker thinks this response overblown. We (presumably) share concepts and values with those to whom the TEs are actual, so what’s the problem? They only differ in technology, and would have the same rational anticipation as we do.
    • The Method of Cases Problem – Contradictory Intuitions: Shoemaker rehearses the well-known case in "Williams (Bernard) - The Self and the Future" where different descriptions of what is exactly the same situation give contradictory intuitions. Does this invalidate all TEs? Shoemaker thinks not, as the Williams case may be a one-off, or nearly so. But, he also suggests that even if we can’t rely on TEs12, the PC doesn’t depend just on TEs, but has other advantages13.
    • The Essence Problem: Shoemaker considers this – the most troublesome problem facing the PC. It starts from the question What are we14?. This leads on to kinds, in particular to …
    • Basic Kinds: we belong to lots of kinds … from parents to human animals15 to philosophers to persons to … but the question is what we are16 essentially, and this is our basic kind17, which defines our necessary identity conditions (Click here for Note on persistence criteria, a related term). Shoemaker rehearses the different persistence criteria of statues and lumps of bronze (though does not draw the conclusion that there’s such a thing as contingent identity as does the well-known statue/clay paper "Gibbard (Allan) - Contingent Identity").
    • So, what are we18? The answer given by supporters of the PC is that we are essentially persons and our persistence criteria are psychological. Shoemaker quotes the famous Lockean definition. Shoemaker notes that this Lockean use of the term person is as something of a term of art, in that it pulls apart the notions of “person” and “human being”, which are often conflated in popular diction. In Locke’s terms, a human being might not be a person if the appropriate psychological factors fail. But this leads to problems:-
    • The Fetus19 Problem: Since (early term) fetuses don’t have the appropriate psychology, I couldn’t have been one if I’m essentially a person. But,
      (a) doesn’t it make sense to say – looking at an old sonogram – “that’s me”?
      (b) if you had fetal alcohol syndrome, wouldn’t it make sense to say that you had been damaged in utero?. So,
      (c) “just as … I existed prior to being an adult, so … I existed prior to being a person20.”.
    • The PVS Problem: If I suffer a brain-injury and enter a PVS, then according to the PC, I would cease to exist – since I’m essentially a person, and those in PVSs, lacking any psychology, are not persons. But wouldn’t my hospital visitors be visiting me? The being in the PVS would seem to be the same human animal21 as me, at any rate.
    • The Person / Animal Problem: The human animal22 and the person are not temporally co-extensive, and this leads to two problems, effectively a dilemma:-
      (a) On the assumption that there’s only one substance present at a time, what happens to the non-person at the temporal termini of the person? Shoemaker (for good reason) denies that it dies or disappears when the person arises, or that it’s born or pops into existence when the person ceases. Birth and death don’t work that way (they are biological terms) and things just don’t pop in and out of existence (as far as we know).
      (b) The alternative is that there are two partially temporally and spatially overlapping substances. Then, during the period of existence of the person, there are two co-located things present. Shoemaker contents himself with saying that this seems a little odd23.
  5. The Biological Criterion24: We are essentially human animals25, and personhood is (like adulthood) a stage certain special animals go through. So:-
    • BioC: if X is a person at T1, and Y exists at T2, then X=Y iff Y’s biological organism is identical to X’s biological organism.
  6. Three Points: Shoemaker points out three aspects of the BioC:-
    • Non-persons: It’s no longer assumed that both X and Y are persons. This represents a departure from the previous attempts at developing identity criteria for persons27.
    • Biological Continuity28: the BioC cashes out as continuity of biological organisms, which in turn (says Shoemaker) cashes out in terms of inheritance of life-sustaining functions or, alternatively, of tracking a biological organism uniquely through space-time.
    • Organisms, not Bodies: the BioC is not at all the same as the BC. Following Olson (in "Olson (Eric) - The Human Animal - Personal Identity Without Psychology", no page reference), Shoemaker sees two objections to bodies as such. Just what is meant by a human body?
      (1) It is what we can feel and directly move.
      (2) It is that to which any of your temporal or spatial attributes really apply.
      Both of these proposals are open to objections and counter-examples:-
      (1) At least three objections:-
      … Paralysed people have bodies;
      … We cannot move internal organs, which are still body-parts;
      … We directly move implements and prosthetics.
      (2). The objection is that this proposal assumes (says Shoemaker) what is in question – that I am my body – because it assigns all my physical and spatio-temporal attributes to my body. But (says Shoemaker) some deny that I am my body – in which case we have two possessors of these attributes – me and my body. By denying this, the second attempt to clarify what is meant by “body” fails as well.
  7. Three advantages30 of the BioC over the PC:
    • Provides a more plausible account of our essence: Because I and “my” animal are one and the same thing, the BioC makes good sense of saying that I – whose current phase is a person – was once a fetus and may be in a PVS.
    • Provides a tight and direct connection between the metaphysical and epistemological criteria of identity: I can’t see psychologies31 or souls, but I can see the human animal32.
    • Is broader, in that it provides PCs for human non-persons: Shoemaker’s example is that of an anencephalic infant – which he describes in a footnote as “ … lacking a major portion of the brain … The lack of a forebrain means that the child will be permanently without any conscious functions”. Now, I dare say this is debatable – are no animals without forebrains conscious? Just where is conscious experience “generated33”? Either way, isn’t the issue that it’s not phenomenal consciousness that’s definitive of the person, but self-consciousness – and this is probably lacking from perfectly normal infants. So, the BioC allows me to say that I was once an infant, which is not really open to the supporter of the PC (though it is to the supporter of the SC).
  8. Problems for the BioC:
    • The Conjoined Twins Case: Shoemaker thinks it’s obvious that in the Hensel dicephalus case that we have two persons in one body – and, more to the point here – one human organism34. DeGrazia’s view (in "DeGrazia (David) - Human Identity and Bioethics"), says Shoemaker, is that we have two overlapping organisms as they mostly have separate organs. Shoemaker’s view is that all this is too quick. He admits that there are cases of conjoined twins – eg. the original Siamese Twins (Eng and Chang Bunker – see Link) – where it is natural to think that we do have two human animals35 joined by a band of flesh. But, in the case of the dicephalus, the twins have a single skin, various shared vital organs, and if one were to die, the death of the other would shortly follow36. Shoemaker takes this fact to imply that they are a single organism.
      Shoemaker presses this thought by considering (hypothetical) cases even more conjoined than the Hensel twins, eg.
      1. Where there is one body and two heads: in this case, taking separate cardio-pulmonary systems as individuative of organisms (which works for the Hensels) would fail and
      2. Shared body and brain-stem, but two cerebra and faces: there would be a single autonomic control centre, but two streams of consciousness.
      Shoemaker says that DeGrazia – an animalist38 – claims this latter case (2) is an analogue of MPD – ie. there is a single organism but two streams of consciousness. Shoemaker rejects this response, on the grounds that in MPD the streams of consciousness are cut off from one another. But whatever our view on this score, his main objection is that the motivation for saying that the Hensel twins are two individuals – that they disagree about things and are otherwise independent – would (ex hypothesi) be true in the case of case (2); so, if DeGrazia is willing to agree that the Hensel twins are two persons and two individuals (human animals)39 he should have the same view in case (2) – but it is hard to argue that the extreme case of conjoint twins really does represent two almost overlapping animals (which is why DeGrazia tries to wriggle out of the problem by introducing the MPD analogy).
    • The Corpse Problem: There’s physical continuity between me and my dead body – but what is my relationship to it? There are three alternatives, says Shoemaker:-
      1. I will be that corpse: Shoemaker thinks this “wildly implausible” – though admits that some have held this view. His reason is that, at death, the presumption is that “we are no more”, and that this is what mourning is all about. He sees incoherence40 if we were still there, as a corpse.
      2. My “corpse-to-be” has existed all the while alongside me: Shoemaker thinks this is both “creepy” and that it undermines the main motivation for animalism41 – on not having two things of different kinds co-located (ie. persons and animals – or in this case, animals and “corpses-to-be”). So, does Baker – and Olson, though Olson gets out of the bind by denying that this is a sensible option, instead preferring …
      3. My corpse comes into existence at my death: This is Shoemaker’s “best bet” (and rightly so) – because the persistence conditions of a human animal42 and a corpse are so different, why are they not different things? But he’s worried by the vagueness of death – just when do I cease to exist and my corpse start to exist? He’s worried43 by this for two reasons: (1) it’s worrying that we can’t tell the demarcation between two such distinct entities and (2) if we’re reduced to a stipulation, how can this have an ontological impact?
    • The Transplant44 Intuition: Animalism45 seems to give the wrong46 answer – in that the recipient of the cerebrum transplant47 is (said to be) the same animal as prior to the graft – but now confused as to its identity.
    • The Prudential Concerns Problem: The assumption has been that identity is a necessary condition for rational anticipation and prudential self-concern (and I agree) – but is it a sufficient condition? Not for the animalist48, for though I am identical to the unfortunate in the PVS, there’s nothing to anticipate. The animalist49 can respond by simply denying the sufficiency condition – but we still have a distinction between what is rationally required and what is permissible. I’m permitted50 to anticipate the experiences of my senile old self, but not required51 to do so (says Shoemaker); but it’s not permitted for me to anticipate anything from a PVS.
  9. Summary: PC vs BioC

    / Considerations




    1. “Intuition pump” science fiction cases
    2. Self-identification
    3. Rational Anticipation

    1. Our Essence
    2. Third-person identification
    3. Identity conditions of human non-persons


    1. Method of Cases problem
    2. The Essence Problem:-

    1. Dicephalus
    2. Corpse Problem
    3. Transplant52 Intuition
    4. Rational Anticipation

  10. Who wins?:
    • Shoemaker thinks the game is undecided. We can’t count bullets and declare the PC the winner, as the Essence Problem is the most serious issue. BC’s failure on the issue of Rational Anticipation might be deemed irrelevant if we’re more interested in metaphysics than practical concerns.
    • So, it’s pretty much a draw, and it’s unclear how to make progress. Shoemaker seems three possibilities:-
      1. Look in detail at the defences each side provides to counter the objections. Since each side has lots of smart advocates, we can’t expect a reolution any time soon53.
      2. See how the rival theories perform when stressed by various moral concerns, such as abortion, advance directives, moral responsibility and compensation – a job for Part 2 of the book.
      3. See if there are radical alternatives – the job of the next chapter ("Shoemaker (David) - Personal Identity and Self-Regarding Ethics - Alternative Approaches").
  11. Works Cited:-
  12. Outstanding Tasks54:

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 2: Why is Shoemaker focused on connectedness? I suppose “overlapping chains of strong psychological connections” just is a definition of psychological continuity, so continuity has to be cashed out in terms of connectedness. So, … isn’t continuity just the ancestral of connectedness, so we have the full psychological analogue of MC1a … and then of the other MC tweaks to circumvent duplication?

Footnote 4: And it’s not even clear what it means, in my view.

Footnote 6: This seems to me to be related to Baker’s FPP, sameness of which she takes to be constitutive of PI.

Footnote 7: In the text on which the above comment is based, Shoemaker says “connected” – which might be intended, but then makes the PC false in the non-transitivity cases where connectedness fails.

Footnote 10: This uniqueness condition is a symptom of the problem with the PC, at least in its wide form. Since there’s nothing to stop duplication – and only the logical possibility of duplication is required – then identity can never be preserved (if we insist that one thing’s existence cannot be affected by the mere existence of another thing: see, eg., "Noonan (Harold) - The Only X and Y Principle").

Footnote 12: Shoemaker’s rejection of the objections to TEs is all a bit quick and glib, given the extensive literature on the subject. I need to follow up on this (Click here for Note).

Footnote 13: Only the self-reidentification factor, as far as I could see, though maybe also it motivates rational concern for the future).

Footnote 17: Shoemaker has a footnote to the effect that the assumption that each “concrete object” that exists belongs most fundamentally to one and only one fundamental kind that provides the object’s diachronic identity conditions can be challenged. He asks us to bear in mind that (maybe)Footnote 19: For the Fetus Problem, Click here for Note.

Footnote 20: This final comment from Shoemaker motivates my thought that persons are phase sortals of human beings (or of other appropriately psychologically-endowed beings).

Footnote 23: Shoemaker doesn’t explain the oddness. The explanation would presumably develop into Olson’s TA argument for animalism. There are too many thinkers present (as both the animal and the person think).

Footnote 26: Footnote 27: If neither X nor Y was a person, then the question of personal identity would not arise, though it is, of course (assuming the psychological requirements of personhood) possible that a human animal – with its admitted biological identity criteria – might never be a person.

Footnote 28: See "Wilson (Jack) - Biological Individuality - The identity and Persistence of Living Entities".

Footnote 29: Footnote 30: Another advantage not owned by Shoemaker is that it makes our PCs more in line with those of the higher mammals, and the great apes in particular (on the assumption that the latter aren’t quite persons).

Footnote 31: This seems to ignore the counter-examples such as “X isn’t the same person any more” (though this reflects only a change of personality the animalist will counter).

Footnote 33: In "Penrose (Roger) - The Emperor's New Mind" (Where is the seat of consciousness? – p. 492), Penrose claims that it’s the reticular formation at the top of the brain-stem that is the seat of consciousness. No doubt there are more authoritative sources. At least Wikipedia (Link) agrees that it’s “one of the phylogenetically oldest portions of the brain” (Penrose seems to think he’s being radical by supposing that animals might be conscious – though he has doubts about fish). It also states that “The reticular formation has projections to the thalamus and cerebral cortex that allow it to exert some control over which sensory signals reach the cerebrum and come to our conscious attention. It plays a central role in states of consciousness like alertness and sleep. Injury to the reticular formation can result in irreversible coma.” From this it’s unclear whether the RF is the seat of consciousness, or the gateway to it.

Footnote 34: See "Blatti (Stephan) - Animalism, Dicephalus, and Borderline Cases" for a thorough discussion of this issue. Blatti’s paper is a response to "McMahan (Jeff) - The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life" (eg. "McMahan (Jeff) - Identity", p. 35), and his view is that the dicephalus is a borderline case of human animal, where it is far from obvious either that there is one animal or two of us.

Footnote 36: Because of their linked circulatory systems, Eng died soon after Chang (though he could have undertaken emergency surgery and been separated and maybe survived, but refused).

Footnote 37: I still don’t see why the “overlapping” idea won’t work – especially if we’re attracted to Lewis’s idea of completely overlapping temporal stages belonging to future-fissioning or past-fused organisms. Also, it’s not certain that case (2) would have two centres of consciousness (and thereby be two persons) – though presumably this is an empirical matter.

Footnote 40: While there are good reasons to think that I am not my corpse, Shoemaker’s reasons are not they. Firstly, mourning takes place even amongst people who think the dead still exist – as disembodied spirits, say – though only the Carthusians sincerely rejoice at a funeral. And the issue is not presence or absence, but loss of interaction – corpses don’t interact much, and don’t even have the remote possibility of revival, as have those in a PVS.

Footnote 43: What’s the answer to this? Is it a pseudo-problem? And, just what is the impact on animalism?

Footnote 46: I need to consider this case under TEs, and Transplants, and in particular Brain Transplants. Currently, my view is that the intuition should be denied. It may be a similar situation to the “forward psychological continuity” problem – where it is the graft-recipient whose consciousness continues, though in a confused state. But it’s an empirical matter, though one that would be forever undecided (since even the first-person perspective cannot be trusted – and if the transplantor’s consciousness doesn’t persist, no-one can tell us).

Footnote 50: But if I deny the sufficiency condition, why should I be convinced by this analogy? The point seems to be that we’re looking for a criterion of personal identity that (amongst other things) allows for anticipation of future states, and animalism fails the latter test. Shoemaker is right that something “extra” of a psychological nature is required for anticipation – so we need both identity and an appropriate psychology. What’s wrong with that? I think the situation is muddled somewhat by calling animalism a theory of personal identity (in deference to the history of the philosophical problem) when in fact it’s a theory of our identity.

Footnote 51: In my view, I am (rationally) required to do so, because we share the same FPP. I dare say the limits of my rational concern will be for the physical well-being of that person, not for his particular likes and dislikes, which I may not be able to anticipate. Also, I may rationally discount – in the sense of give less weight to – my concern on the grounds that that person may not exist (ie. if I die young).

Footnote 53: But surely we might as well give up on philosophy if we adopt this attitude? This “digging deeper” approach is, in any case, the route I intend to take with my Thesis, in arbitrating between Olson and Baker.

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018

© Theo Todman, June 2007 - June 2018. Please address any comments on this page to File output:
Website Maintenance Dashboard
Return to Top of this Page Return to Theo Todman's Philosophy Page Return to Theo Todman's Home Page