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

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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 identity1 (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:-
    1. The Psychological Criterion2 (PC)
    2. The Biological Criterion3 (BioC).
  2. The Psychological Criterion4
    • 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 connections5
    • Strong Connectedness: Shoemaker is worried that some psychological connections are too weak to count. He gives the dubious example of a memory-trace transplant6 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 Parfit7 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 air8.
    • Psychological Continuity9 : 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 stream10 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 continuous11?
    • Wide and Narrow Criteria: of psychological continuity12; 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 continuity13 is unique14.
  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 continuity15 is uniquely preserved.
    • Self-identification: is performed using psychological criteria16. 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 TEs17, the PC doesn’t depend just on TEs, but has other advantages18.
    • The Essence Problem: Shoemaker considers this – the most troublesome problem facing the PC. It starts from the question What are we19?. This leads on to kinds, in particular to …
    • Basic Kinds: we belong to lots of kinds … from parents to human animals20 to philosophers to persons to … but the question is what we are21 essentially, and this is our basic kind22, which defines our necessary identity conditions (Click here for Note on persistence criteria, a related term). Shoemaker rehearses the different persistence criteria23 of statues24 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/clay25 paper "Gibbard (Allan) - Contingent Identity").
    • So, what are we26? The answer given by supporters of the PC is that we are essentially persons and our persistence criteria27 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 Fetus28 Problem: Since (early term) fetuses don’t have the appropriate psychology, I couldn’t have been one if I’m essentially a person. But,
      1. doesn’t it make sense to say – looking at an old sonogram – “that’s me”?
      2. if you had fetal alcohol syndrome, wouldn’t it make sense to say that you had been damaged in utero?. So,
      3. “just as … I existed prior to being an adult, so … I existed prior to being a person29.”.
    • The PVS30 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 PVSs31, lacking any psychology, are not persons. But wouldn’t my hospital visitors be visiting me? The being in the PVS32 would seem to be the same human animal33 as me, at any rate.
    • The Person / Animal Problem: The human animal34 and the person are not temporally co-extensive, and this leads to two problems, effectively a dilemma:-
      1. 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).
      2. 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 odd35.
  5. The Biological Criterion36: We are essentially human animals37, 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 persons39.
    • Biological Continuity40: 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 advantages42 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 fetus43 and may be in a PVS44.
    • Provides a tight and direct connection between the metaphysical and epistemological criteria of identity: I can’t see psychologies45 or souls, but I can see the human animal46.
    • 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 “generated47”? Either way, isn’t the issue that it’s not phenomenal consciousness that’s definitive of the person, but self-consciousness48 – 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 Conjoined49 Twins50 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 organism51. 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 conjoined52 twins53 – eg. the original Siamese Twins54 (Eng and Chang Bunker – see Wikipedia: Chang and Eng Bunker) – where it is natural to think that we do have two human animals55 joined by a band of flesh. But, in the case of the dicephalus56, the twins57 have a single skin, various shared vital organs, and if one were to die, the death of the other would shortly follow58. Shoemaker takes this fact to imply that they are a single organism.
      Shoemaker presses this thought by considering (hypothetical) cases even more conjoined59 than the Hensel twins60, 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 animalist62 – claims this latter case (ii) is an analogue of MPD63 – 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 twins64 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 twins65 are two persons and two individuals (human animals66) he should have the same view in case (2) – but it is hard to argue that the extreme case of conjoint twins67 really does represent two almost overlapping animals (which is why DeGrazia tries to wriggle out of the problem by introducing the MPD68 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 incoherence69 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 animalism70 – 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 conditions71 of a human animal72 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 worried73 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 Transplant74 Intuition: Animalism75 seems to give the wrong76 answer – in that the recipient of the cerebrum transplant77 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 animalist78, for though I am identical to the unfortunate in the PVS79, there’s nothing to anticipate. The animalist80 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 permitted81 to anticipate the experiences of my senile old self, but not required82 to do so (says Shoemaker); but it’s not permitted for me to anticipate anything from a PVS83.
  9. Summary: PC vs BioC

    Criterion / 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:-
    → Person/Animal

    1. Dicephalus86
    2. Corpse87 Problem
    3. Transplant88 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 resolution any time soon89.
      2. See how the rival theories perform when stressed by various moral concerns, such as abortion90, 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 Tasks91:

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 5: Footnote 8: Footnote 10: Footnote 11: Footnote 14: Footnote 17: Footnote 18: Footnote 22: Footnote 28: Footnote 29: Footnote 35: Footnote 38: Footnote 39: Footnote 40: Footnote 41:
  1. The first attempt is an obvious non-starter, but I really don’t understand the second objection.
  2. I have a vague recollection that P.F. Strawson divided predicates up somewhat like this (in "Strawson (Peter) - Persons" from "Strawson (Peter) - Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics") – into p- (personal) and m- (material)? So, I can’t see why ascribing all my physical and spatio-temporal attributes to my body says anything about whether or not I am (identical to) my body.
  3. But there are better objections to the existence of bodies (as distinct from organisms), as their persistence conditions are much less clear. An organism has an organising principle whereby it metabolises food and carries on its vital functions. It has (it is said) clear – if vague – spatio-temporal boundaries. The same cannot be said of organic bodies (unless they are considered as organisms). I need to follow up Olson’s and others accounts of bodies, the issue of mereological essentialism, and such-like. But for these purposes, I’m happy to admit that organisms is a better bet for what we are than bodies.
Footnote 42: Footnote 45: Footnote 47: Footnote 51: Footnote 58: Footnote 61: Footnote 69: Footnote 73: Footnote 76: Footnote 81: Footnote 82: Footnote 89:

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