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Blog - Personal Identity and Moral Action

Hello Theo,

Greetings from Australia! Hope this email finds you well.

I'm researching the topic of personal identity as it relates to moral action and am hoping for some direction towards relevant books and papers.

I'm wrestling with the idea of when a person becomes "unethical", "criminal", a "liar", a "murderer" and whether these apparent aspects of identity persist. In conventional reasoning we generally regard someone that has murdered a "murderer", the act appears to become a feature of personal identity. However, when a person lies once we tend not to stick them with the identity "liar". On the face of it this seems inconsistent. Yet there are those such as swindlers that we have no problem with labelling "liar". Does this imply that there is some threshold to be exceeded? How many times would I have to lie to legitimately acquire the identity "liar". This again seems arbitrary. I know of no formulaic method for "identity assay" and I doubt such a thing exists.

Can you help clarify my confusions?


Peter (17th August 2007)

Theo’s Reply1

Note last updated: 19/08/2007 11:34:05

Footnote 1: (Personal Identity and Moral Action. T1)

Dear Peter,

Good to hear from you. Are your researches formal, or private interest? I'm just a beginning research student, so any comments I may have come with a big health-warning.

I can't think of any papers specifically on your topic. My database tells me that all I've found on the forensic aspects of personal identity are in the following link, not that I've read much in this area.

David Oderberg (Web Link ( might be able to help, as he has interests both in Personal Identity and Ethics. I don't know him personally, and disagree with most of what I've read by him, so don't treat this as a personal introduction!

For what they're worth, here are my own thoughts:

Firstly, I don't think this topic has much to do with personal identity. The thesis I'm going to defend is that human persons1 are phase sortals2 of human animals, and that a person persists as long as (the infrastructure for) that self-consciousness3 that is definitive of being a person persists in that animal (with a lot of loose ends to be tidied up!). My view is that any talk of "so-and-so" not being the same person as he once was is highly metaphorical - someone can act or seem "as if" they are a different person, but they are the same person for all that. All this psychological4,5 connectedness6 stuff is a complete muddle. People have a "first person perspective7" that remains definitive of them, and their qualities just evolve over time. Actually, I'm tempted by perdurantism8,9, which may complicate (or even simplify) matters.

Secondly, I think there are various linguistic conventions at work in the "-er" suffix in English (and with "-ist" and such-like). Vitali Kitschko is a boxer who (I believe) still boxes. Muhammad Ali is a boxer who doesn't. Klint the mad axeman is a murderer who is prone to murder. David the King is/was a murderer who sincerely repented of the indirect murder of Uriah the Hittite. I have no doubt under duress told many a porky pie, but don't think I thereby deserve the term "liar". So, I think we could use "liar" and "murderer" in either of many ways; one who is/was by profession an X, one who has ever X'd or one who is currently prone to X if not watched carefully. I think it's just that not all the slots in this n x 3 matrix are equally useful. Murdering is thankfully rare, but highly significant, so we have a term for someone who has ever murdered. Even George Washington told lies (Oh yes he did ...), so being told that someone is a liar in the "did it once" sense isn't very enlightening (in fact, the opposite is enlightening). Someone who repeatedly murders is so unusual that we have a special term (serial-killer) for it. And so on.

Finally, quite when we're right to label someone who is regularly prone to X "an X-er" may, as you say, be arbitrary. It probably depends on comparisons with social norms and peer groups. Elizabeth I, who had a bath every year whether she needed one or not, was probably a stinker by today's standards, but not by those of 16th century England. And she'd still be a stinker after her bath, by our standards, even though she didn't then stink, because when you passed by her next month, she'd be stinking again. Presumably Eric the Pillager would have been a really mean Viking.

So, your problem reduces to deciding just how prone someone is to X, how frequently they X, and whether they've repented of X-ing. The thresholds vary with X (how important or unusual is it) and with the standards of society. There will be grey areas, but this is just a ubiquitous problem with vagueness.

I hope these off-the-top-of-the-head jottings aren't too trivial (or wrong-headed). I'd be interested in your more detailed thoughts on the matter.

Best wishes,

Theo (17th August 2007)

Note last updated: 18/12/2010 19:58:05

Footnote 1.1: (Person)

I must first consider whether the debate on personal identity has been hijacked by a term (whose meaning has changed over time) that can now be dispensed with? Wiggins claims that the Greeks had no term for “person” (I need to re-read the paper by "Trendelenberg (Adolf) - A Contribution to the History of the Word Person" to double-check this). Have we always secretly been talking about human animal identity (probably referring to human beings rather than human animals) when we thought we were talking about something separate, namely persons?

I need to start with some conceptual analysis, though this may lead to somewhat arbitrary (ie. merely semantic or culture-relative) conclusions if PERSON isn’t a natural kind concept. I accept Locke’s conceptual distinction between Human Beings (“Men”), Persons and Substances. I accept Locke’s assertion that the rational parrot would be a person, but not a man – the latter essentially involving particular physical characteristics, the former specific mental characteristics.

Can any purely mentalistic definition of the concept PERSON, such as Locke’s definition of a person as …

  • “a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places” ("Locke (John) - Of Identity and Diversity" - Essay II.27.2),
… be correct? I suspect not, because of the corporeal aspects we take as being essential to our self-image. But, when we think of ourselves in this corporeal way, is this qua ANIMAL or qua PERSON. But then, this “qua-ing” can lead to relative identity, and shows how difficult it is for me, at least, to maintain the strict logic of identity in these discussions. Some further, fairly random, thoughts:-
  • We must not ignore potential differences between the Person, the Self and the Individual.
  • I doubt the truth of the contention that one’s Self is the sum of one’s projects, one’s individual “identity”.
  • We must also note the potential for degrees of personhood.
  • Are persons essentially sentient? Or rational? And is rationality, like the mental generally, overstated by philosophers whose favourite habitat it is?
  • What about temporal gaps in sentience & rationality in the life of an individual – does the person pop in and out of existence?
  • What about legal persons: not companies, but the comatose, who still have estates (but then so do the deceased)?
  • How important is “person”, as against “sentient being” in my research concerns? The Cartesians denied sentience to animals and until recently there has been a down-playing of the capacities of animals, particularly their emotional capacities. Consequently, the persistence criteria for sentient non-humans may not have been given the focus they ought. I suspect that many of the thought experiments work just as well if we drop some of the more onerous requirements of personhood in such contexts. Some of the thought experiments play on the thought of “being tortured tomorrow”. While animals may not have the concept TOMORROW, I presume the higher animals have some capacity for anticipating future ills about to befall them. I wonder whether my research concerns should be about all beings that care about the future, whether or not they have a clear concept of it as their future.
I will probably start with Dennett’s six criteria of personhood (see "Dennett (Daniel) - Conditions of Personhood") …
  • rationality,
  • intentionality – “predicated of”
  • intentionality – “adopted towards”
  • reciprocation of the personal stance,
  • verbal communication and
  • consciousness
… in investigating what persons are. See the following essay.

Note last updated: 16/06/2010 08:57:07

Footnote 1.2: (Phase Sortals)

See under Sortals for the introduction of the concept PHASE SORTAL. I seem to have misappropriated the term. In its standard usage (I am told), a phase sortal is a biologically-motivated term. The clearest examples are of individuals that metamorphose; for example the butterfly: egg to larva (caterpillar) to pupa (chrysalis) to adult (butterfly). The caterpillar is a phase sortal of the organism, with clear spatio-temporal boundaries. My standard example is of CHILD, which is a (vaguely-boundaried) biological phase of the substance sortal HUMAN BEING.

An example of a possible human phase sortal that is a non-person is INFANT. This example might be especially relevant to the topic, because “infant” is derived from the Latin in-fans “without speech”, and the capacity for speech is often claimed to be an essential prerequisite for being a person.

Any suggestion that the concept PERSON is “no more than” a phase sortal of an umbrella concept isn’t intended to imply unimportance. Rather, simply that persons might not belong to kinds (and in particular natural kinds), nor be substances, but that personhood might be a property of substances (of animals, for instance).

What about “periodic” phase sortals such as STUDENT? A human being can “pop in and out of” studenthood by registering or deregistering, but he can’t do this with childhood. Which model suits personhood? See the discussion of intermittent objects. However, if the above suggestion that the concept PHASE SORTAL is biologically motivated is correct, a purely social concept such as STUDENT is not a phase sortal in this sense, and PERSON might not be either. I could, of course, invent a new term of art.

All roads seem to lead to Wiggins (Snowdon refers to him a lot in the context of Animalism, though I seem to remember that Olson thinks Wiggins isn’t a true Animalist, but a supporter of the psychological view). I need to read "Wiggins (David) - Sameness and Substance" and "Wiggins (David) - Sameness and Substance Renewed" with some urgency; also, maybe, "Wiggins (David) - Metaphysics: Substance" in "Grayling (Anthony), Ed. - Philosophy 1 - A Guide Through the Subject".

This is mostly a place-holder. Currently, just see the categorised reading-list (if any).

Note last updated: 18/12/2010 19:58:05

Footnote 1.3: (Self-Consciousness)

This is more than just phenomenal consciousness (which may be a watershed in itself with moral consequences greater than generally accepted) but the consciousness of oneself as a self (as Locke noted). But we need also consider the view that this “watcher” is an illusion, a falsely assumed Cartesian Ego whose existence is undermined by neuroscience, the modularity of mind, and such-like.

This is mostly a place-holder. Currently, just see the categorised reading-list (if any).

Note last updated: 18/12/2010 19:58:05

Footnote 1.4: (Psychological Continuity)

Following on from discussions on survival, maybe the way to put things is that without psychological continuity I might survive, but not with what matters to me in survival. If PERSON is a phase sortal of HUMAN ANIMAL, can there be sequential but different persons within the same animal (as Lewis suggests, though not from the perspective of animalism, in his “Methuselah” case) or can there be different and encapsulated first-person perspectives (either synchronically or diachronically) within the same animal? “Person” may indeed come apart from “animal”, but even then, the person cannot “float free” of the animal, but supervenes upon it.

This is mostly a place-holder. Currently, just see the categorised reading-list (if any).

Note last updated: 18/12/2010 19:58:05

Footnote 1.5: (Psychological Continuity - Forward)

I think there’s a conceptual difference between forward psychological continuity and backward psychological continuity.

Imagine the case where (on an endurantist account of persistence), I’m put into a duplicating machine, but something goes wrong and my body is destroyed by the duplication process, though my duplicate wakes up perfectly happily. Then, it seems to me, I would never wake up, and would have no experience beyond entry to the duplicating machine. I have no forward psychological continuity. But my duplicate does have backward psychological continuity.

Any duplicate of me, looking backward, would consider himself to be “me”, having my memories, abilities, plans and so forth, and a body looking just like mine. But, would I ever wake up as the duplicate? My intuition on the endurantist account, as I have said, is that I would not, though I suspect that on the perdurantist account, this might be seen as a case of fission in which I might wake up twice, provided we consider that the right sort of causality is in place.

But, what gives forward continuity of consciousness in the normal case of sleep and temporary unconsciousness? I cannot know “from the inside” that when I awake I’m the same human being as went to sleep in my bed. The reason I believe this is for external reasons: duplication is not physically possible (or at least practical), and in any case I have no reason to believe it happened to me last night.

This seems a very important issue to me, and I need to make more of it. For example, in teletransportation thought-experiment, it seems to me that a new person wakes up, but I don’t, nor do I experience anything, though the new person claims to be me. Incidentally, it’s not just a new person, but a new human being.

This is the sort of question that the Logical Positivists would denounce as meaningless, as no empirical evidence can decide it.

Note last updated: 18/12/2010 19:58:05

Footnote 1.6: (Connectedness vs Continuity)

  • We need to distinguish between connectedness and continuity.
    1. Continuity is a transitive relation that relates adjacent stages.
    2. Connectedness is intransitive and requires enough of the properties of interest to be maintained over time.
  • Persons – like animals – develop and “grow3”. We can admit that we have the same animal from fetus to corpse (with some arguments about the termini). However, do we have the same person?
  • I’d contend that whatever physical and psychological discontinuities the human animal undergoes, we do have the same person where we have a person at all, provided a single first-person perspective is maintained.
  • If one’s character changes radically over time, do you remain the same person? Yes, if we want the child and the adult to be the same person (as we do), or the convert to be the same person as the unbeliever.
  • The relevance of this to the present debate is that it is continuity that is relevant to personal identity, and not connectedness.
  • At root, this is just the message of the Old Soldier, raised against Locke, and answered by Ancestrals of the “remembers” relation.
  • Indeed, "Johnston (Mark) - Human Beings" (Journal of Philosophy, p. 61) describes Continuity as the ancestral of Connectedness.

This is mostly a place-holder. Currently, mostly see the categorised reading-list below, which could do with enhancing!

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 3: Not necessarily physically – that would be begging the question as to what persons are.

Note last updated: 05/04/2016 23:19:41

Footnote 1.7: (First-Person Perspective)

This needs spelling out – what does Baker think this is, and why does she think it so ontologically important. She seems to be obsessed by the thought that beings that can contemplate their own deaths are ontologically different. Why is this, rather that simply a phenomenally conscious perspective, that counts as the ontological watershed? Also, can we really use this term to explain personal identity, as “person” appears in this term? If it’s supposed to be elucidatory of personal identity, we seem to have a circle. Really what’s important is that we have animals with these properties. We can’t reify the property and make it a stand-alone thing, like the Cheshire Cat’s smile.

An argument I’m fond of is that – despite whatever psychological differences there may be between me and my future self – I can both rationally anticipate his experiences and should display rational concern for his well-being. That is because we share the same “window on the world”. Try out the future great pain test and see if I'm worried! Now is this “window on the world” the same as a FPP? After all, it may be that my senile old self no longer qualifies as a “person”, though is phenomenally conscious.

This is mostly a place-holder. Currently, mostly see the categorised reading-list.

Note last updated: 18/12/2010 19:58:05

Footnote 1.8: (Perdurantism)

As developed by Quine, David Lewis, Ted Sider and others. Perdurance is to be contrasted with Endurance. Finally, Exdurance (of which I’m currently ignorant) – see "Sider (Ted) - Four-dimensionalism: An Ontology of Persistence and Time". "Kurtz (Roxanne) - Introduction to Persistence: What’s the Problem?", the introduction to "Haslanger (Sally) & Kurtz (Roxanne), Eds. - Persistence : Contemporary Readings" provides a good overview of these matters. The logical problems with 4-D need to be carefully considered and, for good or ill, the four-dimensional approach has the disadvantage of undermining the reduplication objection to identity being maintained in certain fission thought experiments. Does 4-D imply fatalism? A thing is a 4-D object, but not only do we not know the future, but the future may not even exist. How does this tie in with Lewis’s realism about possible worlds? Maybe if possible worlds are real, all possible futures are real as well.

Note that perdurantism is inimical to a high view of substance. A temporal worm cannot change, it just is. The purpose of positing substances is as the enduring things that change. Perdurance also impacts on Leibniz’s Law, where property exemplification is usually taken to be relative to a time. Look at the adverbial defence of endurantism. See "Haslanger (Sally) - Endurance and Temporary Intrinsics" (probably … this is the explicit response to Lewis, though there are also "Haslanger (Sally) - Persistence, Change, and Explanation", "Haslanger (Sally) - Persistence Through Time" and "Haslanger (Sally) - Humean Supervenience and Enduring Things"; and "Kurtz (Roxanne) - Introduction to Persistence: What’s the Problem?" in "Haslanger (Sally) & Kurtz (Roxanne), Eds. - Persistence : Contemporary Readings" seems to cover much the same ground). If perdurantism really is incompatible with a high view of substance, then I may not need a chapter on perdurance (though I would have thought that I would need to argue for the incompatibility), and I can thereby ignore perdurantist objections to the cogency of reduplication objections.

Note also that Olson sets perdurance to one side. He assumes that we are concrete substances that “endure through time by being wholly present at different times”. He also sets to one side two other issues, namely that there are no such things as persons (taken to be “rational conscious beings such as you and I”) and that the classical notion of strict numerical identity is correct, rejecting relative identity. See "Olson (Eric) - The Human Animal: Introduction", pp. 4-5 and "Olson (Eric) - The Human Animal: Alternatives", both in "Olson (Eric) - The Human Animal - Personal Identity Without Psychology". He claims that if any of these assumptions is false, then there are no substantive metaphysical questions of our identity over time, only semantic ones.

Note last updated: 18/12/2010 19:58:05

Footnote 1.9: (Persistence)

Plug Note1

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1:
  • A number of my philosophical Notes are “promissory notes” currently only listing the books and papers (if any) I possess on the topic concerned.
  • I’ve decided to add some text – whether by way of motivation, or something more substantive – for all these identified topics related to my Thesis.
  • As I want to do this fairly quickly, the text may be confused or show surprising ignorance.
  • The reader (if such exists) will have to bear with me, and display the principle of charity while this footnote exists.
Footnote 11: And the rest of Part 1 of "Hirsch (Eli) - The Concept of Identity".

Footnote 12: And other Chapters in "Lowe (E.J.) - The Possibility of Metaphysics: Substance, Identity and Time".

Footnote 13:
  • The Bibliography – and the Seminnar – cover much beyond Persistence as such.
  • I need to extract the relevant items to the various sub-topics.

Note last updated: 14/01/2017 20:18:14

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