Personites, Maximality and Ontological Trash
Johnston (Mark)
Source: Philosophical Perspectives, 30, 2016, 198–228
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Abstract

  1. I take it that Taylor Swift’s plea1, however sweetly intended (and presumably directed to her baby brother or sister, in fact or fantasy), is deeply repellent in its literal content. We should not resist psychological change, even significant and painful psychological change, if that change is crucial to the development of our characters, to the acquisition of significant knowledge, to the deepening of our friendships, to the carrying out of our duties, or to following one or another of our true vocations.
  2. Even if things could “stay this simple” they should not.
  3. In what follows, however, it will emerge that on certain dominant philosophical views of personal identity — roughly those that ground personal identity in the holding of relations of psychological continuity — Swift’s plea acquires an uncanny moral force. On these views, allowing oneself to undergo significant psychological change can be seen to be a grave wrong, akin to homicide! At least that is so if we accept very plausible principles concerning just what settles the question of whether some being has a moral status.
  4. Following John Locke, let us construe persons as defined as such by their self-conscious awareness of being there, and of having a past and anticipating a future. A person is “a thinking intelligent thing that can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, at various times and places”. As a consequence, a person typically will have what Locke called a “concernment” i.e. a rational interest in just how his or her future goes.
  5. As well as persons, are there also “personites”2, i.e. shorter-lived very personlike things that extend across part, but not the whole, of a person’s life? And if so, do personites3, like persons, have a moral status? That is, do they generate moral claims, claims which give others
    1. certain non-negotiable ends, such as reasonable benevolence directed toward that being and its legitimate interests, along with
    2. certain non-negotiable side-constraints on other beings’ own pursuit of goods, constraints which rule out such things as imposing significant harms on such beings absent compensation or consent?
  6. Here I argue that there will be personites4 and they will have a moral status on any theory on which the persistence of a person consists in the holding of patterns of psychological and / or bodily continuity5 over time. That has surprising, repellent and perhaps even disastrous, implications for our ordinary moral outlook, and also for consequentialist refigurings of that outlook.
  7. I go on to consider and respond to two objections.
    1. The first attempts to blunt some of the consequences of granting personites6 a moral status, by moving to a continuity-based variant of our ordinary moral outlook.
    2. The second attempts to deny personites7 a moral status on the principled ground that they are not maximal in the respect constitutive of their persistence as personites8. The thought is that because the personites9 leave out some stages united to their stages by psychological and / or bodily continuity10, the personites11, unlike persons, do not have a moral status.


Downloaded from Whiley Online Library, 12th May 2019

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: In her poem “Never Grow Up”.

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