Reasons and Persons
Parfit (Derek)
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Amazon Book Description

  1. This book challenges, with several powerful arguments, some of our deepest beliefs about rationality, morality, and personal identity.
  2. The author claims
    • that we have a false view of our own nature;
    • that it is often rational to act against our own best interests;
    • that most of us have moral views that are directly self-defeating; and
    • that when we consider future generations the conclusions will often be disturbing.
  3. He concludes that non-religious moral philosophy is a young subject, with a promising but unpredictable future.

  • Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1987 ("Reprinted with further corrections").
  • Some ink + pencil annotations by me.
  • The book was originally published in 1984.

"Adams (Robert Merrihew) - Should Ethics be More Impersonal?"

Source: Dancy - Reading Parfit, 1997, Chapter 12
COMMENT: Originally a Critical Review of "Parfit (Derek) - Reasons and Persons" in The Philosophical Review, Vol. 98, No. 4 (Oct., 1989), pp. 439-484.

"Parfit (Derek) - Personal Identity and Rationality"

Source: Synthese, Vol. 53, No. 2, Matters of the Mind (Nov., 1982), pp. 227-241

Author’s Abstract
  1. There are two main views about the nature of personal identity. I shall briefly describe these views, say without argument which I believe to be true, and then discuss the implications of this view for one of the main conceptions of rationality.
  2. This conception I shall call "Classical Prudence". I shall argue that, on what I believe to be the true view about personal identity, Classical Prudence is indefensible.


"Parfit (Derek) - Reasons and Persons: Introduction"

Source: Parfit - Reasons and Persons, January 1986, pp. ix-x.

Author’s Abstract1
    This book has four loosely connected parts.
  1. Part One discusses some ways in which theories about morality and rationality can be self-defeating. Such theories give us certain aims, but also tell us to act in ways that frustrate these aims. If these theories are revised, these objections can be partly met.
  2. Part Two discusses the relations between what a single person can rationally want or do at different times, and what different people can rationally want or do. I also discuss the rationality of four attitudes to time: temporal neutrality, and the three kinds of bias towards the present, the near, and the future.
  3. Part Three discusses personal identity, or what is involved in our continuing to exist throughout our lives. Most of us, I argue, have certain beliefs about this subject that are false, but hard to give up. If we accept these claims, they may change some of our emotions or attitudes, and we should revise some of our beliefs about both rationality and morality.
  4. Part Four discusses our obligations to future generations, and some related questions about what would be better or worse futures for mankind. The most difficult question here, which I fail to answer, is about the relative importance of the number of people who will exist, and the quality of life of these people.

In-Page Footnotes ("Parfit (Derek) - Reasons and Persons: Introduction")

Footnote 1:
  • This is taken from Oxford Scholarship Online and is for the book as a whole.

"Shoemaker (Sydney) - Parfit on Identity"

Source: Dancy - Reading Parfit, 1997, Chapter 7
  • Originally a Critical Review of "Parfit (Derek) - Reasons and Persons" in Mind, New Series, Vol. 94, No. 375 (Jul., 1985), pp. 443-453.
  • The version in Dacy is somewhat abbreviated.

"Williams (Bernard) - Personal Identity"

Source: London Review of Books, Vol. 6, No. 10, 7 June 1984

Full Text
  1. Ten or fifteen years ago, the complaint against moral philosophy was that it did not address practical problems, but concentrated on meta-ethics: that is to say, on questions about the status, meaning, objectivity and so forth of ethical thought. That complaint is now out of date. For a decade, analytical philosophy has been conspicuously concerned to display its credentials for being of use in helping us to think about concrete problems.
  2. In doing that, it has escaped the charge of evasiveness, but has slipped back into the line of fire of other accusations. One is that it has disconnected itself from other speculative, critical or, indeed, philosophical thought. Philosophers have tended to turn to ethical theory, an enterprise that tries to resolve practical dilemmas by appealing to a structure of moral principles, a systematic framework which philosophical ingenuity can hope to apply to concrete issues. This raises the question why a set of ideas should be thought to have any special authority over our sentiments and our lives because it has the structure of a theory. Besides having this very basic problem of what might be called theoretical authority, ethical theory has sometimes been impoverished because it has cultivated too much the autonomy of ethics, and neglected other areas of philosophy, and (with the exception of some philosophers such as John Rawls) other disciplines.
  3. Derek Parfit has written a brilliantly clever and imaginative book which treats in a very original way a wide range of ethical questions. It spends virtually no time on meta-ethics (perhaps too little), but it avoids many of the deformations that sometimes afflict first-order ethical philosophy. It makes contact with other subjects, such as welfare economics. It is deeply involved with some other parts of philosophy, in particular with questions of personal identity and of what a person is. It also starts the subject, rightly, not within the sphere of morality but in the wider area of practical reason, setting out from the question ‘what have we most reason to do?’ rather than from any distinctively ‘moral’ question.
  4. Within ethical thought, Parfit does not start off with any ethical system. Nor does he hope to conjure one out of nothing at all. He concentrates on questions of consistency, asking us, over and over again, in different connections, what is implied by our ethical judgments, and whether what is implied hangs together with other implications to which, equally, we seem to be committed. That is not his only method. He uses many methods of ethical argument, more than moral philosophers often acknowledge. It is only when in his concluding chapter he quietly displays a few of them, that one realises how naturally they have been deployed. In these ways he goes some way to meet the problem of theoretical authority – though not, I believe, far enough.
  5. In starting with practical reason, and in some of his methods of argument, Parfit agrees with the Victorian moral philosopher Sidgwick, whom he greatly admires. Keynes thought that Sidgwick lacked intensity and was suffocated by respectability. Parfit would deny these charges against Sidgwick, but whether he is right in that or not, the charges certainly do not apply to this strange and excitingly intense book. It is in four parts. In the first, Parfit considers what it is for a theory of rational action to be, in any of various ways, self-defeating. He deals, very subtly, with such problems as this: if one believes that one’s aim should be to produce the best outcomes all round, it is very unlikely that the best way to do this is to consider, on each occasion, how one can bring about the best outcome. The best outcomes are more likely to be produced if each person acts from motives which do not involve thinking directly about the outcome. This has been thought to be a problem for consequentialist theories of this kind. Parfit insists that it is not, and that this result does nothing to refute the theory that we should produce the best outcomes all round. It merely tells us how to produce them, by cultivating in ourselves other dispositions. In other cases, however, theories can be damagingly self-defeating, by enjoining on each of us courses of action which, when we all pursue them, collectively defeat the objectives at which the theory was aiming in the first place (which is not so, Parfit claims, with the innocuously self-defeating consequentialist theories).
  6. In these connections, Parfit has a lot to say about problems that have concerned decision theorists, such as the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma, which makes it distressingly clear how courses of action that are individually rational can be jointly damaging, and also that when the parties know that fact, they may still have good reason to follow them. These issues, and many others of the same kind which he discusses, have a good deal to do with politics. Parfit makes it clear that they do, but he does not for the most part discuss them as though they did. The discussion is detailed, quite hard, and very revealing, but in social or political terms it is rather airless. He does not consider what institutions would be needed, for instance, or what forms of social understanding, in order to do what he, like Sidgwick, recommends us to do, which is to induce in ourselves dispositions of action which serve the ends of an underlying ethical theory while not revealing its content.
  7. It is perhaps a pity that this rather daunting section has to come before the winningly ingenious discussion of rationality and time that forms the second part. In this Parfit asks whether we should be more concerned with what will happen tomorrow than with what will happen years from now, and if so, why. That is only the most familiar of such questions. He also wants to ask, for instance, why we should be more concerned with what will (or rather, may still) happen than we are with what has happened. Why is it good news that the nasty operation has already happened? If one is disposed to think that this issue, at least, is perfectly obvious, Parfit, with a very light touch, can turn one round to see that it is not.
  8. In this section, too, he makes some important moves in a campaign which runs throughout the book and helps to unify it – the war against the Self-Interest Theory, which holds that the rational thing to do is to be concerned with one’s own aims and interests as viewed, so far as possible, over one’s whole life. This war Parfit conducts on two fronts, as he puts it. On one side, the theory is harassed by Morality, which says that we should be concerned with more than ourselves – for instance, with everybody. On the near side, it is undercut by the Present Aim Theory, which says that what it is rational for one to do now is what one wants now. For this view of things, or rather for a slightly more respectable version of it, Parfit makes a very good case against the Self-Interest Theory. One of his main objectives is to show that prudence does not have the special priority in rational behaviour that is often given to it. This is a good objective, but feckless readers who hoped to be liberated by it will find their enthusiasm dampened when they learn later that there is something wrong with imprudence after all: it is not irrational but immoral.
  9. The reason for this is that our later selves are properly to be seen as rather like other people. Parfit is trying to get us to see that in practical reasoning ‘when?’ is much the same sort of question as ‘who?’ We should get rid of the picture that dominates us, or most of us, that there is some special identity that one has, some underlying item which is really me. We should get rid of the very compelling idea that there must always be a fully determinate answer to such questions as: ‘Will that person who will be in pain in ten years’ time be me or not?’ On the true view of things, according to Parfit, there may be simply no answer to that question. We should realise that, as Hume believed, a person is no more than a collection of experiences held together by certain relations, such as those of memory and continuity of character. When we see that, we shall understand that it is misguided to draw a sharp ethical or prudential line between ourselves and others.
  10. These are the subjects of the third part of the book. In the final part, Parfit turns to problems raised by our concern for future generations, in particular by population policy and the question of how many people there should desirably be. As with personal identity, he has already published articles on this subject, and has made notable contributions to it – for instance, in discovering what he calls the Identity Problem. This lies in the fact that when we discuss whether future people will be better-off or not as a result of our policies, we cannot suppose that the same people will be there to be affected by one or another of our policies, since our actions will radically affect what individual people will come to exist. Parfit shows how arguments that may seem plausible in this area can lead to undesirable results, such as the Repugnant Conclusion, as he calls it, according to which an indefinitely large population of people whose lives were just worth living would be morally preferable to a smaller population of people who were a lot better-off. Parfit tries to find a theory that will avoid this result and at the same time certain other paradoxes. In the end, despite much ingenuity and refinement of argument, he confesses failure: but he can claim credit for identifying some remarkable problems along the way, which will undoubtedly generate discussion for a long time to come.
  11. The intensity displayed by the book is in good part argumentative. Short, sharply-defined sentences are loosed at one in compact formations; the effect, at times, is of one who will not let you go. But there is an imaginative intensity as well, displayed above all in the examples, often simple, carefully designed, each presented with a title – a device that could have been arch if used with less skill. Many of these examples are fanciful, particularly in the personal identity section, where teletransportation1, bodily fission and other fantasies are introduced to construct cases that challenge our everyday assurance that we know what would and what would not count as the same person. Such fanciful cases have often been used by the philosophers who over the past decades have helped to set the agenda of Parfit’s discussion. Others reject them, saying that our concepts have developed to deal with the actual, not with worlds extensively different from ours, and there is no reason to expect those concepts to be able to breathe that alien atmosphere. To this line, Parfit has several sophisticated replies. One is that this idea could explain why in certain unlikely cases we might not know what to say, but it can hardly explain why, with other equally unlikely cases, we do seem to know what we would say. In some matters, again, and personal identity is one of them, the whole idea of not being able to give an answer is something that our common notions seem to exclude, and is a basic part of the problem.
  12. They are good replies, it seems to me, when these are regarded simply as metaphysical issues. But it is less clear why they are adequate when we are concerned, as Parfit is, with supposed ethical consequences of metaphysical positions. To put it another way, it is not always clear why metaphysical positions, arrived at in this way, have ethical consequences at all. Parfit is encouraged by his metaphysics of the merely agglomerated self to accept an ethical outlook which abstracts from self-interest and sees other people, and stages of oneself, as more like one another than we normally suppose. He thinks that philosophy should move us to a more impersonal outlook. But the extent to which it should do that must surely depend on what the world is actually like. If the experiences which constitute one person are powerfully related to one another, and give their owner (as Parfit, rather riskily, allows us to call that person) a strong sense of his or her own identity and of difference from others, why should a metaphysical belief, that he or she is really a fuzzy set of experiences, provide a reason for feeling and acting in some altered way?
  13. Connections between metaphysical and ethical issues are central to this work, but it is not always made clear how they run. In at least one case, one which Parfit touches only very briefly, they do not run at all. He says that if, as some metaphysicians have claimed, the passage of time is an illusion, it cannot be irrational in practical thought to have no preference for one time over another, such as a preference for the near over the far. But this does not follow. If time’s passage is an illusion, so is the flow of time apparently involved in action and deliberation themselves; relative to the metaphysical truth of the matter, the whole enterprise of practical deliberation, and all the various principles that might be brought to it, would alike have to be bracketed. If time’s passage is an illusion, we live that illusion, and finding out that it was an illusion would not provide us with a reason for deliberating in one way rather than another within it.
  14. Parfit can convert the metaphysical into the practical so easily, I suspect, because the view that he takes of the practical, and of experience in general, is throughout the book so radically external. Philosophically speaking – it is not true of his literary allusions – he sees everything from the outside. In dealing with personal identity, this conceals from him one of the main reasons why people think that it must be a determinate question whether some future experience will be theirs or not: that if it will be theirs, they can, as well as expecting that it will happen, also expect it, in the sense of imaginatively anticipating having it; and there seems to be no room for the idea that it is simply indeterminate whether I can appropriately do that or not. If Parfit had discussed that particular point, it would not necessarily have harmed his case, and it might even have helped to reconcile us to it. But in other ways his neglect of the first-personal view, in the theory of personal identity as in his earlier discussion of one’s need to induce certain dispositions in oneself, leaves a gap. When we think how the argument is to be understood and applied, a dimension is missing.
  15. In one respect, Parfit leaves it unclear whether he has adequately applied his metaphysical conclusions to his own argument. In the last part of the book, where population policy is in question, the idea that people are only aggregates of experiences seems to have been left behind. The whole discussion rests on a notion which seems uneasily related to that idea, the notion of ‘a life worth living’. All Parfit’s paradoxes involve the question whether the people in various populations have lives which are, or are not, worth living. But the discussions of personal identity and of prudence have earlier led us to distrust the ethical importance of a life at all. Perhaps a life worth living need not be taken to mean a life which as a whole will have been worth living. Perhaps it just means some living which, at any given time, is worth living. But Parfit cannot, as things stand, simply contract it to that. Almost the only clue that he gives to what is meant by saying that a life is not worth living is that people who had a life very much not worth living would kill themselves if they could. But he cannot use that notion without reference to the identity of the life that such a person would be ending. On his own view, that involves the question of the lives which suicide would be preventing: meaning by that, not the children that the agent would not have, but the selves that he would not become. Parfit cannot use the willingness to commit suicide as a neutral test of how a person values his or her own life. If imprudence is, as Parfit says, immorality, then suicide is murder.
  16. There is another question raised by the section on population policy, besides those that come from the metaphysics of persons. That section tests more severely than any other part of the book the reliability of our ethical reactions when we are confronted with extreme and very abstractly presented possibilities. Correspondingly, it is the part that most calls in question Parfit’s refusal to raise questions of meta-ethics. Asked by him to say whether it would be better if there were two large populations, not connected with each other, each consisting of people whose life was just worth living, rather than one of those populations with a standard of life rather higher, or some yet more complex question of the same kind, I may wonder what I am being invited to do. What real substance can such judgments possess?
  17. The problem presses all the more when I have, for once, a belief on these questions that seems very solid, but it turns out that theoretical argument may lay it aside. Very many of us believe in what Parfit calls ‘The Asymmetry’. If any child that I had now would (very probably) have a miserable life, that in itself would be some reason against my having a child now. On the other hand, if any child I have is likely to have quite a happy life, that fact in itself is no reason for having a child rather than not. We do not think in terms of doing the child a good turn by bringing him or her into existence. Parfit argues that we should probably think in those terms. To me, I must confess, it seems that ‘The Asymmetry’ is as clearly valid as anything is in this area, and while we certainly need a philosophical account of that impression, I do not see how theory acquires the power to cancel it. If moral philosophy is to do as much as Parfit hopes, by his very abstract means, it badly needs an account of the authority of theory.
  18. However, here as elsewhere, the conflicts that Parfit has discovered are entirely real, and his imaginative and powerful arguments have uncovered deep questions which have in most cases never been explored so thoroughly, while, in other cases, they have barely been thought about at all. They are important questions, for practice as well as for philosophy, and in a moving last chapter, Parfit makes it clear how important he takes them to be. This ingenious, unusual, compelling book fully meets the importance of its questions.


"Parfit (Derek) - Theories That Are Indirectly Self-Defeating"

Source: Parfit - Reasons and Persons, January 1986, pp. 3-53(51).

Author’s Abstract
    According to the Self-interest Theory, or S, our own well-being is the supremely rational aim. According to Consequentialism, or C, the ultimate moral aim is that things go as well as possible. The chapter explains how these theories can be indirectly self-defeating, in the sense that our trying to achieve these aims may cause them to be worse; how it can be rational to cause ourselves to be irrational, and how it might be right to cause ourselves to be disposed to act wrongly; how these theories might be self-effacing by telling us to believe other theories; and how these theories do not fail in their own terms.

COMMENT: Part 1: Self-Defeating Theories: Chapter 1

"Parfit (Derek) - Practical Dilemmas"

Source: Parfit - Reasons and Persons, January 1986, pp. 53-67(15).

Author’s Abstract
    Explains why C cannot be directly self-defeating. Theories are agent-relative if they give different agents different aims. Two such theories are S and Common Sense Morality, or M. It is often true that, if each of several people does what would be best for themselves, that would be worse for all these people. In such cases, S is directly collectively self-defeating. In moral analogues of such cases, M is similarly self-defeating. The chapter describes how these problems can have political, psychological, or moral solutions.

COMMENT: Part 1: Self-Defeating Theories: Chapter 2

"Parfit (Derek) - Five Mistakes in Moral Mathematics"

Source: Parfit - Reasons and Persons, January 1986, pp. 67-87(21).

Author’s Abstract
    Examines how we should assess the effects of our acts, especially when we act together with other people, why we should reject the share-of-the-total view and accept the marginalist view, which appeals to the difference made by each act, why we should not ignore either small chances, or effects that are trivial or imperceptible. It also presents several cases in which effects are overdetermined. Rational altruism is also discussed.

COMMENT: Part 1: Self-Defeating Theories: Chapter 3

"Parfit (Derek) - Theories That Are Directly Self-Defeating"

Source: Parfit - Reasons and Persons, January 1986, pp. 87-111(25).

Author’s Abstract
    Examines whether it is an objection to S that, in some cases, S is directly collectively self-defeating; some bad defences of S and M - why it is an objection to M that this theory is directly collectively self-defeating; how and why we ought to solve this problem by revising M. The different parts of moral theories are also explored.

COMMENT: Part 1: Self-Defeating Theories: Chapter 4

"Parfit (Derek) - Conclusions (to Part 1: Self-Defeating Theories)"

Source: Parfit - Reasons and Persons, January 1986, pp. 111-115(5).
COMMENT: Part 1: Self-Defeating Theories: Chapter 5

"Parfit (Derek) - The Best Objections To the Self-Interest Theory"

Source: Parfit - Reasons and Persons, January 1986, pp. 117-137(21).

Author’s Abstract
    Examines the Present-aim Theory of rationality, or P; The Instrumental and Deliberative Theories, how desires can be intrinsically irrational, or rationally required; the Critical Present-aim Theory, or CP; the relations between P, S, CP and morality; and Psychological egoism; offers the best objection to S; and how temporal neutrality is not what distinguishes S from P, or CP.

COMMENT: Part 2: Rationality and Time: Chapter 6

"Parfit (Derek) - The Appeal to Full Relativity"

Source: Parfit - Reasons and Persons, January 1986, pp. 137-149(13).

Author’s Abstract
    Discusses Sidgwick's challenge to S; temporal and interpersonal neutrality; analogies between ‘I’ and ‘now’, or oneself and the present. It presents arguments that appeal to these analogies; how S is incompletely relative, making it vulnerable to attack from two directions. S can be challenged both by theories like CP, which are relative both to persons and to times, and by those moral theories that are both temporally and interpersonally neutral.

COMMENT: Part 2: Rationality and Time: Chapter 7

"Parfit (Derek) - Different Attitudes To Time"

Source: Parfit - Reasons and Persons, January 1986, pp. 149-187(39).

Author’s Abstract
    Discusses whether it is irrational to give no weight to past desires – desires that depend on value judgements or ideals; three attitudes to time: caring more about, or being biased towards, what is near, what is in the future and what is present – whether these attitudes are rational; the direction of causation1; how it would be better for us if we were temporally neutral; Time's passage; and the asymmetry in our attitudes to our own lives and the lives of others.

COMMENT: Part 2: Rationality and Time: Chapter 8

"Parfit (Derek) - Why We Should Reject S"

Source: Parfit - Reasons and Persons, January 1986, pp. 187-197(11).

Author’s Abstract
    An argument against the bias towards the near; how a defence of temporal neutrality is not a defence of S; an appeal to inconsistency; why we should reject S and accept CP.

COMMENT: Part 2: Rationality and Time: Chapter 9

"Parfit (Derek) - What We Believe Ourselves To Be"

Source: Parfit - Reasons and Persons, January 1986, pp. 199-219(21).
Write-up Note1 (Full Text reproduced below).

Author’s Abstract
  1. Discusses numerical identity2, or being one and the same, qualitative identity, or being exactly similar3, personal identity, or what is involved in our continued existence over time.
  2. According to the Physical Criterion, our identity over time consists in the continued existence of enough of our brain.
  3. According to the Psychological Criterion4, our identity consists in overlapping chains of psychological continuity5 and connectedness.
  4. The chapter discusses how we are inclined to believe that, even in purely imagined cases, our identity must be determinate. When we ask – Would I still exist? Would that future person be me?, it seems that it must always have an answer.

  1. Simple Teletransportation6 and the Branch-Line Case
  2. Qualitative and Numerical identity7
  3. The Physical Criterion of Personal Identity
  4. The Psychological Criterion8
  5. The Other Views

COMMENT: Part 3: Personal Identity: Chapter 10

Write-up9 (as at 29/12/2019 12:57:36): Parfit - What We Believe Ourselves To Be

This write-up is a review of "Parfit (Derek) - What We Believe Ourselves To Be".

Abstract: Discusses numerical identity10, or being one and the same, qualitative identity, or being exactly similar, personal identity, or what is involved in our continued existence over time. According to the Physical Criterion, our identity over time consists in the continued existence of enough of our brain. According to the Psychological Criterion, our identity consists in overlapping chains of psychological continuity and connectedness. The chapter discusses how we are inclined to believe that, even in purely imagined cases, our identity must be determinate. When we ask – Would I still exist? Would that future person be me? it seems that it must always have an answer.

  • 75. Simple Teletransportation and the Branch-Line Case
  • 76. Qualitative and Numerical identity11
  • 77. The Physical Criterion of Personal Identity
  • 78. The Psychological Criterion
  • 79. The Other Views

75. Simple Teletransportation and the Branch-Line Case

76. Qualitative and Numerical identity12

77. The Physical Criterion of Personal Identity

78. The Psychological Criterion

79. The Other Views

… Further details to be supplied13

In-Page Footnotes ("Parfit (Derek) - What We Believe Ourselves To Be")

Footnote 9:
  • This is the write-up as it was when this Abstract was last output, with text as at the timestamp indicated (29/12/2019 12:57:36).
  • Link to Latest Write-Up Note.

"Parfit (Derek) - How We Are Not What We Believe"

Source: Parfit - Reasons and Persons, January 1986, pp. 219-245(27).

Author’s Abstract
  1. Examines how the Psychological Criterion1 of identity is not circular, since psychological continuity2 can be described in a way that does not presuppose identity.
  2. It explores the subject of experiences; souls or Cartesian egos;
  3. how a non-reductionist, Cartesian view might have been true.
  4. It offers spectrum arguments against both the Physical and Psychological Criteria3;
  5. how we think about ourselves in a way that would be justified only if a Cartesian view were true.

COMMENT: Part 3: Personal Identity: Chapter 11

"Parfit (Derek) - Why Our Identity is Not What Matters"

Source: Parfit - Reasons and Persons, January 1986, pp. 245-281(37).

Author’s Abstract
    Presents actual cases of brain bisection; how we might be able to divide and reunite our minds; what explains the unity of consciousness at any time; the imagined case of full division, in which each half of our brain would be successfully transplanted1 into the empty skull of another body; why neither of the resulting people would be us; why this would not matter, since our relation to each of these people contains what matters2 in the prudential sense, giving us reasons to care about these people, which are like our reasons to care about our own future; and how it is hard to believe that personal identity, or our own continued existence, is not what matters3.

COMMENT: Part 3: Personal Identity: Chapter 12

"Parfit (Derek) - What Does Matter"

Source: Parfit - Reasons and Persons, January 1986, pp. 281-307(27).

Author’s Abstract
    Discusses how our death can seem to disappear; whether and why the continuity of the body matters; why it does not matter whether psychological continuity1 has its normal cause: the continued existence of enough of the same brain. The chapter examines the Branch-Line Case, series-persons, different tokens of a type of person, beings whose identities differ from ours because they reproduce in other ways, partial survival, and successive selves.

COMMENT: Part 3: Personal Identity: Chapter 13

"Parfit (Derek) - Personal Identity and Rationality"

Source: Parfit - Reasons and Persons, January 1986, pp. 307-321(15).

Author’s Abstract
  1. Examines whether, if a reductionist1 view is true, we have any reason for special concern about our own future and gives extreme and moderate answers.
  2. It offers an argument against the Classical Self-interest Theory, defending a discount rate, not with respect to time itself, but with respect to the degree of psychological connectedness between ourselves now and ourselves at different future times.
  3. It also presents the immorality of imprudence.


"Parfit (Derek) - Personal Identity and Morality"

Source: Parfit - Reasons and Persons, January 1986, pp. 321-349(29).

Author’s Abstract
  1. Discusses Autonomy and Paternalism; becoming and ceasing to be a person, or human being; whether reductionism1 about persons undermines desert.
  2. It examines personal identity and commitments; the separateness of persons and principles of distributive justice – whether we should extend the scope of these principles, and give them less weight, whether the units for distributive principles should be lives, successive selves, or people at times, and how a reductionist2 view gives some support to the utilitarian rejection of distributive principles.

COMMENT: Part 3: Personal Identity: Chapter 15

"Parfit (Derek) - The Non-Identity Problem"

Source: Parfit - Reasons and Persons, January 1986, pp. 351-381(31).

Author’s Abstract
    Examines how our identity depends on when we were conceived. It discusses cases that involve all and only the same people, same numbers but different people, and different numbers of people; what weight we should give to the interests of future people. It examines the case of a young girl's child; how lowering the quality of life might be worse for no one; and whether this fact makes any moral difference.

COMMENT: Part 4: Future Generations: Chapter 16

"Parfit (Derek) - The Repugnant Conclusion"

Source: Parfit - Reasons and Persons, January 1986, pp. 381-391(11).

Author’s Abstract
    Is it better if more people live? This chapter examines the effects of population growth on existing people, overpopulation, whether a decline in the quality of life could always be made up for by a sufficient increase in the number of people living. It discusses a repugnant conclusion and the level at which lives cease to be worth living.

COMMENT: Part 4: Future Generations: Chapter 17

"Parfit (Derek) - The Absurd Conclusion"

Source: Parfit - Reasons and Persons, January 1986, pp. 391-419(29).

Author’s Abstract
    Examines cases of conceiving a happy or a wretched child; how contractualism cannot solve questions about our obligations to future generations; whether outcomes can be worse if they are worse for no one. It examines person-affecting principles; the sum of suffering; the valueless level; and lexical views.

COMMENT: Part 4: Future Generations: Chapter 18

"Parfit (Derek) - The Mere Addition Paradox"

Source: Parfit - Reasons and Persons, January 1986, pp. 419-543(125).

Author’s Abstract
    Argues whether an outcome could be made worse by the mere addition of extra people who have lives worth living; why we should reject the view that it is best if the average quality of life is as high as possible. It discusses a paradox involving mere addition and the attempted solutions. It also explores new versions of this paradox.

COMMENT: Part 4: Future Generations: Chapter 19

"Parfit (Derek) - Concluding Chapter (to Reasons and Persons)"

Source: Parfit - Reasons and Persons
COMMENT: Part 4: Future Generations: Chapter 20

"Parfit (Derek) - Nagel's Brain"

Source: Parfit - Reasons and Persons, Appendix D

Full Text
  1. Nagel believes that what he is, essentially, is his brain. He gives three arguments for his belief. These are contained in an unpublished rough draft, which he may revise; but, even in this rough form, they demand attention. I shall quote from this draft.
  2. Two of Nagel's arguments appeal to a view about meaning, reference, and necessity. The objects we refer to have some essential properties: properties that these objects must have, since, if they lacked them, they could not exist. Some properties are essential because of the meanings of our words. Thus, because of what 'triangle' means, it is an essential property of triangles that they have three sides. But on the view that I shall now discuss, there is a different way in which objects can have essential properties. These properties are not essential because of the meanings of our words. We discover these essential properties when we discover facts about what it is that we are referring to. On this view, for example, we have discovered that an essential property of gold is having the atomic number 79. Every substance with this number must be gold, and no substance without this number could be gold. This was not part of the meaning of the word 'gold'.
  3. What are we referring to when we use the word 'person' and the word 'I'? Nagel writes: 'What I am is whatever in fact makes it possible for the person TN to identify and re-identify himself and his mental states'. What I am1 is whatever explains the psychological continuity2 of my mental life. And Nagel similarly claims that this leaves open what the explanation is. If the carrier of continuity is a Cartesian Ego, that is what I really am. He continues: “If on the other hand certain states and activities of my brain underlie the mental capacity, then that brain in those states ... is what I am3, and my survival of the destruction of my brain is not conceivable. However, I may not know that it is not conceivable, because I may not know the conditions of my own identity.' As he later writes, 'in trying to conceive of my survival after the destruction of my brain, I will not succeed in referring to myself in such a situation. I am in fact my brain'.
  4. Nagel is a Reductionist4. He agrees that personal identity does not involve the 'further fact', which in every conceivable case either holds completely or not at all. Personal identity just involves physical and psychological continuity5. But, though he is a Reductionist6, Nagel's view differs in two ways from the view that I and some others defend. On my view what fundamentally matters is Relation R: psychological continuity7 and connectedness. On Nagel’s view, personal identity is what matters8. And, because he believes that he is his brain, he believes that what fundamentally matters is the continued existence of this brain
  5. This may seem to be a disagreement only about imaginary cases. There are no actual cases where there is psychological continuity9 without the continued existence of the same brain. If the disagreement was only about imaginary cases, it would be hardly worth discussing. But this disagreement also covers actual cases, and our own lives. On my view, one of the two relations which matter, psychological connectedness, holds over time to reduced degrees. This is an essential premise of my argument, in Chapter 14, against the Self-interest Theory. This argument would be undermined if Nagel's view is true. The continued existence of the same brain, in our actual lives, is not a matter of degree.
  6. This claim needs one qualification. Nagel leaves an important question open. Reconsider Williams's Example, where the surgeon tampers with my brain so as to remove all psychological continuity10. Would the resulting person be me? Though my brain has been tampered with, it is clearly the very same brain. If I am my brain, I shall still exist. But in one of the remarks quoted above, Nagel suggests that what I am11 is not just my brain, but my brain in certain states. Perhaps these are the states which provide psychological continuity12. On this version of his view, I would not exist at the end of Williams’s Example.
  7. The two versions of Nagel's view might be re-expressed as follows. On the simple version, what I am13 is what normally causes my psychological continuity14. But I would be this thing even when it does not cause psychological continuity15. We have discovered that what I am16 is my brain. At the end of Williams's Example the surgeon has removed all psychological continuity17. But since my brain will still exist, I shall still exist.
  8. On the less simple version of Nagel's view, what I am18 is what causes my Psychological continuity19, in the particular states which make it be this cause. On this version of the view, my identity does not just involve the continued existence of my brain. It also involves psychological continuity20. This version coincides with a view discussed above: the Narrow Psychological Criterion21, which appeals to psychological continuity22 with its normal cause.
  9. Only the first version of Nagel's view disagrees in actual cases with the view that I defend. Should we accept this version of the view? This partly depends on whether Nagel correctly describes the meaning of the words 'Person' and 'I'. There is another complication. Nagel makes two claims about what he and others mean by the word 'I'. One is that he uses 'I' intending to refer to whatever explains his psychological continuity23. The other is that he uses ‘I’ intending to refer to 'the unobserved subject' of his experiences.
  10. I start with the second claim. This is hard to deny. I am not a series of thoughts, acts, and experiences. I am the thinker of my thoughts, and the doer of my deeds. I am the subject of all of my experiences, or the person who has these experiences.
  11. Nagel claims that, when I use the word ‘I’, intending to refer to myself, the subject of my experiences, I am in fact referring to my brain. Should we accept this claim?
  12. We should first note that an attempted reference may fail. Call what we are trying to refer to our intended referent. There may be some object which fits one of our beliefs about our intended referent. But this may not be enough to make this the object that we are referring to. We may have too many other beliefs about our intended referent, which would be false when applied to this object. We would then not be referring to this object. And we may be referring to nothing24.
  13. One example would be this. The ancient Greeks believed that the God Zeus was the cause of lightning and thunder. Zeus did not exist, and the Greek word 'Zeus' referred to nothing. We should not claim that, since the Greeks believed that Zeus was the cause of lightning and thunder, and this cause is an electrical condition in the clouds, Zeus is such a cloud-condition, and this is what the Greek word 'Zeus' referred to. A cloud-condition is too unlike a God to be the referent of the Greek word 'Zeus.'
  14. In using the word ‘I’, I intend to refer to myself, the subject of my experiences. Nagel believes that, when using ‘I’, most of us have false beliefs about our intended referent. Even if we are not aware of this, most of believe that our identity must be determinate. We believe that we are entities whose continued existence must be all-or-nothing. This belief would have been true if each of us had been a Cartesian Ego. But Nagel believes that there are no such entities. There are no entities with the special properties that we believe to be had by the subject of our experiences. In this respect, the case is like that of the Greek word 'Zeus.' But Nagel claims that, in using ‘I’, we do not fail to refer. What ‘I’ in fact refers to is my brain. Nagel admits that our brains do not have the special properties which we believe to be had by what ‘I’ refers to. But, while a cloud-condition is too unlike what the Greeks believed that 'Zeus' referred to, Nagel claims that our brains are not too unlike what we believe that ‘I’ refers to. As he writes, this is 'one of those cases where some of our most important beliefs about the referent of one of our concepts may be false, without its following that there is no such thing.
  15. Should we accept this view? Nagel believes that we are not separately existing entities, distinct from our brains and bodies, and our experiences. And he seems to believe that, if the word ‘I’ does not refer to my brain, there is nothing else that it could refer to. My brain must be the subject of my experiences, since, in the absence of Cartesian Egos, there is nothing else that could be the subject of my experiences. Thus, after denying that we are separately existing entities, he asks (1) 'why not go all the way with Parfit25 and abandon the identification of the self with the subject of the mental. . .?' And he answers (2) 'that the actual subject is what matters26', even if it is not the kind of entity in which we are inclined to believe. (1) assumes that, on the Reductionist View27 that I defend, we cease to believe that there are subjects of experiences. (2) assumes that the subject of experiences is the brain.
  16. I deny both these assumptions. On the Reductionist View28 that I defend, persons are not separately existing entities. The existence of a person just involves the existence of his brain and body, and the doing of his deeds, and the occurrence of his mental states and events. But though they are not separately existing entities, persons exist. And a person is an entity that is distinct from his brain or body and his various experiences. A person is an entity that has a brain and body, and has different experiences. My use of the word ‘I’ refers to myself, a particular person, or subject of experiences. And I am not my brain.
  17. It may help to return to Hume’s analogy. We can be Reductionists29 about nations, but still believe that nations exist, and can be referred to. A nation is not a separately existing entity, something other than its citizens, and the land they inhabit. A nation's existence just consists in the existence of its citizens, acting together in various ways on its territory. Though this is all there is to the existence of a nation, we can refer to nations, and claim that they exist. Thus we can truly claim that France exists, and that France declared war on Germany in 1939. In contrast, there is no nation called Ruritania. We can make the same claims about people. Some people exist, and can be referred to, while others never exist, and cannot be referred to. I and Thomas Nagel are two of the people who ever exist, and can be referred to. But we cannot refer to my non-existent Roman ancestor, Theodoricus Perfectus.
  18. My next claim has, in this discussion, special importance. When we use the word 'France' to refer to a nation, we are not referring to something other than a nation. We are not referring to this nation's government, or to its citizens, or to its territory. This can be shown as follows. If 'France' referred to the French government, France would cease to exist if the government resigned and there was a period of anarchy. But this is false. Nations continue to exist during periods when they have no government. Similarly, if 'France' referred in 1939 to those who were then French citizens, France would cease to exist when these citizens cease to exist. This is also false. And if 'France' referred to these citizens, it must have been these citizens that declared war on Germany. This is also false. There is a use of the word 'France' which refers, not to the nation but to the country, or this nation's territory. When we claim that France is beautiful, we are referring to its land and its buildings. But, on the other use, 'France' refers to the nation, not to its territory. If 'France' referred to French territory, France could not cease to exist unless that territory ceased to exist. This is also false. What was once the territory of the nation Prussia still exists. But Prussia has ceased to exist.
  19. As the case of nations shows, we can refer to something though it is not a separately existing entity. And in referring to such a thing we are not referring to the various other entities that are involved in its existence. If we are Reductionists30 about persons, we can make similar claims about our use of the word ‘I’. This can refer to a person, or subject of experiences, even though a person is not a separately existing entity. And when we decide that a person is not a separately existing entity, we are not forced to conclude that a person must be either his brain, or his whole body. Though nations are not separately existing entities, we are not forced to conclude that a nation must be either its government, or its citizens, or its territory, or all three. A nation is none of these three. And we can refer to nations. Similarly we are not forced to conclude that a person is his brain, or his whole body. And we can refer to persons.
  20. I agree with Nagel that most of us have false beliefs about the intended referent of the word ‘I’. Most of us believe that we are entities whose continued existence must be all-or-nothing. It may be objected that, since there are no such entities, we ought to conclude that, as used by most of us, the word ‘I’ fails to refer, just as 'Zeus' fails to refer. Like Nagel, I can reject this claim. 'Zeus' does not refer because a cloud-condition is too unlike a God. Persons on the Reductionist View31 are unlike persons on the Non-Reductionist View32. But they are much more similar than Gods and cloud-conditions. I can therefore claim that persons exist. And since persons exist, though in a different way from that in which we are inclined to believe, our attempts to refer to persons can be claimed to succeed. Like Nagel, we can claim that this is one of the cases where we have false beliefs about our intended referent, without its following that we are not referring to this this thing.
  21. Since ‘I’ am a person, who exists, I seem to be the best candidate33 for what my use of ‘I’ refers to. Nagel might reply as follows. It is true of most of us that we believe that we are separately existing entities. On the Reductionist View, this belief is false. But this belief would be true when applied to a person’s brain. This may be claimed to make a person's brain a better candidate for what his use of ‘I’ refers to.
  22. There is something in this claim, but not, I think, enough. If I use the word 'X' trying to refer to the object called X, and X exists, the natural assumption is that I do refer to X. This assumption might not be justified if it was both true that X lacks most of the properties that I believe it has, and true that some other object Y has most of these properties. This might justify the claim that, though I am trying to refer to X I am in fact referring to Y. When someone uses the word ‘I’, his intended referent — what he is trying to refer to — is himself. This person may believe that he is a separately existing entity, distinct from his brain and body. It would then be true, as Nagel claims, that this person's intended referent lacks some of the properties that he believes it has, while another entity, his brain, has this property — being a separately existing entity (though not, of course, distinct from itself). But a person's brain does not have most of the properties that most of us believe we have. It does not, for example, have a continued existence that must be all-or-nothing; nor is it indivisible. When most of us use the word ‘I’, our brains are not very similar to what we believe to be our intended referents. This counts against the claim that, when we use ‘I’, we are in fact referring to our brains. What counts in favour of this claim that is that our brains have one of the properties that we mistakenly believe we have: that of being separately existing entities. But I believe that this is not enough to justify Nagel’s claim. It is not enough to falsify the natural answer that we are referring to our intended referent. When we use ‘I’ we are trying to refer, not to our brains, but to ourselves. Our brains have one property that we mistakenly believe ourselves to have; but this is not enough to show that, when we try to refer to ourselves, we fall. We can retain our natural belief that we can refer to ourselves.
  23. Nagel's second argument appeals to his other claim about the meaning of the word ‘I’. This is the claim that, in using ‘I’, we intend to refer to whatever explains our psychological continuity34. I believe that we can reject this claim. There is a contrast here between Nagel's arguments. Each involves one claim about meaning, and one claim about the facts. I accept the claim that I use ‘I’ intending to refer to the subject of my experiences. But I have denied the claim that the subject of my experiences is my brain. In considering this argument for Nagel's View, I accept his claim about meaning but deny his claim about the facts. In considering his other argument I accept his claim about the facts. What explains my psychological continuity35 is the continued existence of my brain. But I deny his claim about meaning. I deny the claim that I use ‘I’ intending to refer to whatever explains my psychological continuity36.
  24. Nagel's third argument appeals to an imaginary case, in which what seems to him to matter is the survival of his brain. He describes a case like that of Teletransportation37. In this case, many people would accept Nagel's claim. They would believe that what matters38 is the survival of their brains.
  25. I shall now describe two cases where this is harder to believe. Remember first that an object may continue to exist even if all of its components are replaced. The standard example is that of a ship, which has a piece of wood replaced after every journey. We might believe the same about a brain. We have learnt that the cells in the rest of our bodies are all gradually replaced. Even though this is not true of our brains, it might have been true. Our brains might have continued to exist even if, like the rest of our bodies, they had all of their components naturally and gradually replaced. And we may believe that our brains would continue to exist if we ourselves caused such a gradual replacement. I shall here assume that this is true. Since we believe that the rest of a person's body does continue to exist, though its components are gradually replaced, why should we take a different view about our brains?
  26. Suppose next that I need surgery. All of my brain cells have a defect which, in time, would be fatal. But a surgeon can replace all these cells. He can insert new cells that are exact replicas of the existing cells except that they have no defect. We can distinguish two cases.
    1. In Case One, the surgeon performs a hundred operations. In each of these, he removes a hundredth part of my brain, and inserts a replica of this part.
    2. In Case Two, the surgeon follows a different procedure. He first removes al of the parts of my brain, and then inserts all of their replicas.
  27. There is a real difference between these cases.
    1. In Case One, each of the new parts of my brain is for a time joined to the rest of my brain. This enables each new part to become part of my brain. When the first new part is inserted, and joined to the rest of my brain, it wins the title to be as much part of my brain as the old parts. When the second new part is inserted, it too becomes a part of my brain. This is true of every new part, because there is a time when this part is joined to what then counts as the rest of my brain.
    2. In Case Two, things are different. There are no times when each new part is joined to the rest of my brain. Because of this, the new parts do not count as parts of my brain. My brain ceases to exist.
  28. Something similar might be true about the existence of a club. Consider a club that is limited to fifty members. All of the existing members want to resign. Fifty other people want to join this club. There is a rule that a new member cannot be admitted except in the presence of forty nine existing members. Because of this rule, this club continues to exist only if what happens is like Case One. What happens must be this. One member resigns and a new member is admitted. Another member resigns and a new member is admitted. A third member resigns and a new member is admitted. At the end of this series, this club would still exist, with entirely new members. Suppose instead that what happens is like Case Two. All of the old members resign. Because of the rule, the new members cannot now be admitted. The club ceases to exist.
  29. Return to Cases One and Two. I am assuming that a brain might through a process of gradual replacement become composed of new components. On this assumption, it is clear that, in Case One, my brain continues to exist, and that, in Case Two, it does not. Nagel suggests that identity is what matters39, and that I am my brain. On this view. Case One gives me life, and Case Two death.
  30. Is this plausible? Though there is a real difference between these two cases, it is less than the difference Nagel had in mind. He considered a case in which his brain would be destroyed, and a Replica created. And he compared this case with ordinary survival, where his brain continues to have all of the same existing cells.
  31. In my pair of cases, the difference is smaller. In both of my cases there will later be a person whose brain will be exactly like my present brain, except for the defects. As a result, this person will be fully psychologically continuous with me. And, in both cases, this person's brain will be composed of the very same new components, each of which is a replica of some part of my brain. The difference between the cases is merely the way in which these new parts are inserted. It is a difference in the ordering of removals and insertions. In Case One, the surgeon alternates between removing and inserting. In Case Two, he does all the removing before all the inserting.
  32. Can this be the difference between life and death? Can my fate depend on this difference in the ordering of removals and insertions? Can it be so important, for my survival, whether the new parts are, for a time, joined to the old parts? This could make all the difference if it produced some further fact. This would be so if my survival was like some sacred power, which one priest j could give to another only by a ritual involving touch. But there is no such » further fact. There is merely the fact that, if the new parts are for a time joined to the old parts, we describe the resulting brain as the same brain. If the new parts are not so joined, we describe the resulting brain as a different brain.
  33. Nagel does not believe that the grounds for his view are decisive. And he admits that 'it is hard to internalize a conception of myself as identical with my brain'. He adopts his view partly because, in the pair of cases that he considered, his survival seemed to him to depend on whether his brain continued to exist, in my pair of cases, the difference in what happens is much less. If he considered these cases, Nagel might change his view. He suggests both (1) that identity is what matters40, and (2) that he is his brain. But he admits that (2) is hard to accept. It is hard to think of oneself as being one's brain. When I consider Cases One and Two, I find it impossible to believe both (1) and (2). I cannot believe that what would matter for my survival is whether, over some period, the replicas of parts of my brain would be inserted in one of these two ways. I cannot believe that, if the surgeon alternates removing and inserting, this will be just as good as ordinary survival, while if he does all the removing before all the inserting, this will be nearly as bad as ordinary death. If this difference between the two cases is not what really matters, there are two alternatives. Either identity is not what matter, or I am not my brain.
  34. The first alternative is supported by the imagined case where I divide. In this case, two resulting people each have half my brain. And there is no replication41. These halves will be composed of my existing brain cells. As I have argued, it is very hard to believe that I should regard division as equivalent to death. My relation to each of the resulting people contains everything that would be needed for ordinary survival. And this remains true even if what I am42 is my brain. Each half of my brain will continue to exist, and to support conscious life. Each of the people with half my brain will seem to remember my whole life, and be in every other way psychologically continuous with me. If I am my brain, this is not a case in which I die because my brain ceases to exist. My brain continues to exist, and, because it is divided, it supports life more abundantly. It supports not just one but two lives.
  35. Suppose that Nagel agrees that my relation to each resulting person contains what matters43. Could he then defend his assumption that identity is what matters44? We have seen that he could, by making grotesque distortions in our concept of a person. I assume that Nagel would reject these distortions. He would agree that, after I divide, there will be no one living who is me. If he also agrees that my relation to each resulting person is as good as survival, he must drop the assumption that identity is what matters45. Without this assumption, I am not forced to conclude that replication46 would be as bad as death. I can agree that my Replica is not me, but claim that my relation to him contains what fundamentally matters. I can claim that what matters47 is psychological connectedness and/or continuity, with any cause.
  36. Nagel might reply as follows. He might agree that there is one special case where identity is not what matters48. This is the case where two future people each have half my brain. But what matters49 here is simply the continued existence of my divided brain. In every other case, personal identity is what
  37. This reply may have some force. But if we believe that identity is what matters50, it is natural to believe that identity is always what matters51. If we admit one exception, it may be hard to justify rejecting others. Given the small difference between my Cases One and Two, we can claim that, here too, identity is not what matters52. If this claim is justified in the case where I divide, why can it not be justified here? It is hard to believe that my fate depends on the difference between these cases. Unlike the pair of cases that Nagel considered, this pair suggests that I am not my brain.
  38. I have tried to answer Nagel's arguments. My answers do not show that his view is false. But I believe that they show that we can, defensibly, take a different view. The question remains open. This is why, in Section 98, I offer a quite different response to Nagel's view.

COMMENT: Printout filed in "Various - Papers on Identity Boxes: Vol 14 (P)".

In-Page Footnotes ("Parfit (Derek) - Nagel's Brain")

Footnote 24:
  • What we are referring to often depends on the causal history of some part of our language. But this is not always so; and causal considerations of this kind seem not to be relevant to the particular view that Nagel advances.

"Parfit (Derek) - The Closest Continuer Schema"

Source: Parfit - Reasons and Persons, Appendix E

Full Text
  1. Nozick advances a general view about all judgements of identity over time. To be the same thing as some past thing is to be that thing's closest continuer1. Nozick's view is Reductionist2. He claims that there can be various kinds of continuity between some past person and various present persons. The present person whom we judge to be this past person is the present person who has the greatest continuity with this past person. On this view, the fact of personal identity over time just consists in the holding of such continuities. It does not involve any Further Fact. And Nozick explicitly compares personal identity with the identity over time of a certain group of philosophers, the Vienna Circle. This is like my comparison with the history of a club.
  2. Though Nozick's view is in these ways Reductionist3, he rejects the version of Reductionism4 that I defend. He writes:
      One philosophical approach to a tangled area of complicated relationships of varying degree, rather than trying to force these into somewhat arbitrary pigeonholes, rests content with recognizing and delineating the underlying complicated relations. Concerning personal identity, it might say that future selves will have varying degrees of closeness to us-now in virtue of diverse underlying relations and events, such as bodily continuity5, psychological similarity, splitting or fusion; and that the real and whole truth to be told is of the existence and contours of these underlying phenomena. Why impose any categorization — the closest continuer6 schema being one — over this complexity?
  3. He then explicitly rejects my view, continuing:
      The underlying level itself, however, also will raise similar problems. For example, in what way is something the same body when all of its cells other than neurons, as well as the particular molecules composing the neurons, are replaced over time? Should we speak again only of the complicated relations that underlie this level? We cannot avoid the closest continuer7 schema, or some other categorization, by restricting ourselves to the full complexity of the underlying relations. . . . Eventually we are pushed to a closest continuer8 schema or something similar at some level or other … If it becomes legitimate, because necessary, to use the schema at some level, then why not simply begin with it?
  4. This disagreement is unnecessary. I do not deny that we make judgements about the identity over time of many different kinds of thing. And I accept Nozick's Closest Continuer9 Schema as an account of how we make many such judgements. My claims are these. Since personal identity over time just consists in the holding of certain other relations, what matters10 is not identity but some of these other relations. And the logic of identity does not always coincide with what matters11. When what matters12 takes a branching form, or holds to intermediate degrees, judgements of identity cannot plausibly be made to correspond with what matters13. In these cases we should not apply the Closest Continuer14 Schema in an attempt to achieve such correspondence. As Nozick writes, we would then be forcing what matters15 'into somewhat arbitrary pigeonholes'. In these cases we should simply describe the ways in which, and the degrees to which, these other relations hold. We should then try to decide how much, in different ways, these relations matter. Nozick's objection to this view, quoted above, seems to be that we cannot avoid making some judgements about identity. But this is an objection only if we add the claim that, if we describe some cases by making or denying judgements about identity, we must describe all cases in this way. I can see no reason to accept this claim.
  5. In his claim about what matters16, Nozick again seems to reject Reductionism17. He writes that, on his view, 'I will care equally about my closest continuer18, whatever its degree of closeness happens to be (provided it is close enough)'. If he considered my Combined Spectrum, Nozick would probably withdraw this claim. In the cases in the middle of this Spectrum, there would be a resulting person who would have some proportion of the cells in my brain and body, and who would be in some ways psychologically continuous with me as I am now. But this resulting person would also have many new and dissimilar cells, and he or she would also be in many ways psychologically continuous with Greta Garbo. At the far end of this Spectrum, this future person would be in no way related to me. If I accept Nozick's view, I care equally about such a future person, provided that he or she is closely enough related to me. I regard all of the cases in the first part of this Spectrum as being just as good as ordinary survival. As we move along this Spectrum, the future person would be less and less closely related to me. But I am equally concerned about this person, provided that the degree of closeness is close enough.
  6. On this view, I must decide just what degree of closeness counts as close enough. I am must again draw a sharp line on this Spectrum. If my relation to some future person is just on the near side of this line, this relation is as good as ordinary survival. If my relation to some future person is just beyond this line, I should be less concerned. But the future person in the second of these cases would differ hardly at all from the person in the first case. The differences would be only that a few more cells would be replaced, and there would be some small psychological change, such as a new desire to be alone. Though these are the only differences, I should care less about what happens to this second person.
  7. This pattern of concern seems to me irrational. How can it have such importance whether just a few more cells would be replaced, or whether there would be one more small psychological change? Nozick's view treats this Spectrum as if it involves, at some point, a discontinuity. But this is false. Since the Spectrum is smooth, involving all of the degrees of continuity, why care equally in all the cases in the first part of the Spectrum, and then suddenly care less? This would be rational only if identity is some further fact which holds completely in the first part of this spectrum, and then suddenly fails to hold. But Nozick does not believe that there is any such further fact.
  8. Nozick suggests another way in which his pattern of concern might be defended. He thinks it can be rational to adopt what he calls the Platonic mode of caring about something. In this mode, 'we see the world in its aspect of realizing what is beyond it, we see and can respond to its glimmerings of something finer which shine through'. Even though it is not true that we are beings whose continued existence must be all-or-nothing, it can be rational to care about our identity as if this was true. As Nozick admits, this involves 'an unrealistic overestimate of actuality, a seeing of it through Platonic glasses'. The alternative is to make 'a more realistic assessment of things, seeing things as they are in themselves'. Nozick objects to this alternative that it 'makes one a prisoner or a victim of the actual world, limited by the ways in which it falls short, by how it happens to be…’
  9. Is this a sufficient defence of Nozick's pattern of concern? Can it be rational for his concern to correspond, not to the actual truth about his life, but to what he would have liked the truth to have been? Given the distinction between theoretical and practical rationality, Nozick's pattern of concern is defensible. I therefore withdraw my objection stated above. There is again no disagreement. If Nozick reacts to reality, not as it is, but as he would like it to be, this is theoretically irrational. But if this kind of wishful thinking is more deeply satisfying, it can be practically rational for him to try to make himself, in this way, theoretically irrational.

"Parfit (Derek) - Appendix (to Reasons and Persons) - Non-Identity Appendices"

Source: Parfit - Reasons and Persons, Appendices A-C, F-J

  • A: A World Without Deception
  • B: How My Weaker Conclusion Would in Practice Defeat S
  • C: Rationality and the Different Theories About Self-Interest
  • F: The Social Discount Rate
  • G: Whether Causing Someone to Exist can Benefit this Person
  • H: Rawlsian Principles
  • I: What Makes Someone’s Life Go Best
  • J: Buddha’s View

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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