- I shall first sketch different views about the nature of personal identity, then suggest that the views support different moral claims.
- Most of us seem to have certain beliefs about our own identity. We seem for instance to believe that, whatever happens, any future person must be either us, or someone else.
- These beliefs are like those that some of us have about a simpler fact. Most of us now think that to be a person, as opposed to a mere animal, is just to have certain more specific properties, such as rationality. These are matters of degree. So we might say that the fact of personhood is just the fact of having certain other properties, which are had to different degrees.
- There is a different view. Some of us believe that personhood is a further, deep, fact, and cannot hold to different degrees.
- This second view may be confused with some trivial claims. Personhood is, in a sense, a further fact. And there is a sense in which all persons are equally persons.
- Let us first show how these claims may be trivial. We can use a different example. There is a sense in which all our relatives are equally our relatives. We can use the phrase 'related to' so that what it means has no degrees; on this use, parents and remote cousins are as much relatives. It is obvious, though, that kinship has degrees. This is shown in the phrase 'closely related to': remote cousins are, as relatives, less close. I shall summarize such remarks in the following, way. On the above use, the fact of being someone's relative has in its logic no degrees. But in its nature- n what it involves – it does have degrees. So the fact's logic hides its nature. Hence the triviality of the claim that all our relatives arc equally our relatives. (The last few sentences may be wrongly worded but I hope that the example suggests what I mean.)
- To return to the claims about personhood. These were: that it is a further fact, and that all persons are equally persons. As claims about the fact's logic, these are trivial. Certain people think the claims profound. They believe them to be true of the fact's nature.
- The difference here can be shown in many ways. Take the question, 'When precisely does an embryo become a person'. If we merely make the claims about the fact's logic, we shall not believe that this question must have a precise answer. Certain people do believe this. They believe that any embryo must either be, or not be, a complete person. Their view goes beyond the 'logical claims'. It concerns the nature of personhood.
- We can now return to the main argument. About the facts of both personhood and personal identity, there are two views. According to the first, these facts have a special nature. They are further facts, independent of certain more specific facts; and in every case they must either hold completely, or completely fail to hold. According to the second view, these facts are not of this nature. They consist in the holding of the more specific facts; and they are matters of degree.
- Let us name such opposing views. I shall call the first kind 'Simple' and the second 'Complex'.
- Such views may affect our moral principles, in the following way. If we change from a Simple to a Complex View, we acquire two beliefs: we decide that a certain fact is in its nature less deep, and that it sometimes holds to reduced degrees. These beliefs may have two effects; the first belief may weaken certain principles, and the second give the principles a new scope.
- Take the views about personhood. An ancient principle gives to the welfare of people absolute precedence over that of mere animals. If the difference between people and mere animals is in its nature less deep, this principle can be more plausibly denied. And if embryos are not people, and become them only by degrees, the principle forbidding murder can be more plausibly given less scope.
- I have not defended these claims. They are meant lo parallel what I shall defend in the case of the two views about personal identity.
For the full text, see Parfit - Later selves and moral principles.
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