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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 (Wikipedia: David S. Oderberg ( 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)

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  • 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") …
    1. rationality,
    2. intentionality – “predicated of”
    3. intentionality – “adopted towards”
    4. reciprocation of the personal stance,
    5. verbal communication and
    6. consciousness
    … in investigating what persons are. See the following essay on "Dennett (Daniel) - Conditions of Personhood"
  • Recently, it has come to my attention that a related term of art – PERSONITE – has been coined to refer to a temporal part of a person. See the Note for discussion.
  • For a Page of Links to this Note, Click here. This list is vastly too long for an updating run, so I will simply use it to cherry-pick items of relevance. Unfortunately, this means that very many items are irrelevant.
  • Works on this topic that I’ve actually read include the following:-
    1. "Cottingham (John) - Why we are not 'persons'", Cottingham
    2. "Nanay (Bence) - Catching Desires", Nanay
    3. TBA
  • A further reading list might start with:-
    1. "Noller (Jorg) - A Transformative Account of Personal Identity", Noller
    2. "Noller (Jorg) - Person", Noller
    3. TBA
  • This is mostly a place-holder.

Note last updated: 01/11/2020 14:09:36

Footnote 1.2: (Phase Sortals)

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Note last updated: 29/09/2020 19:24:58

Footnote 1.3: (Self-Consciousness)

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In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 6:
  • The quotation appeared in The Week, but it seems to be a popular one.
  • See Updike: Our Selves Die Every Day (
Footnote 7:
  • Which has little to do with self-consciousness other than the book’s title.
Footnote 15: Footnote 16:

Note last updated: 29/12/2019 12:57:36

Footnote 1.4: (Psychological Continuity)

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Note last updated: 30/09/2020 01:16:19

Footnote 1.5: (Psychological Continuity - Forward)

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  • I think there’s a conceptual difference between:-
    1. Forward psychological continuity, and
    2. Backward psychological continuity.
  • Imagine the case where (on an endurantist account of persistence; see later for the distinction – and it’s relevance to this case – between endurantism and perdurantism), I’m put into a duplicating machine5, 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 would have no forward psychological continuity.
  • However, 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 intended fission in which I was intended to wake up twice, provided we consider that the right sort of causality is in place.
  • The above considerations raise issues similar to those in closest continuer accounts of personal identity, and the Only 'X' and 'Y' Principle. How can what happens to someone else affect whether (so to speak) I am me? How could the “right sort of causality” have anything to do with how I experience things?
  • Fission is, in any case, hard to imagine happening to oneself. Just what does it mean to “wake up twice”? I dare say one could get one’s head(s) around it. The two selves would then be distinct individuals, with distinct consciousnesses, but with a shared past. On the perdurantist account, we were always distinct, but co-located with everything in common.
  • Let’s consider forward psychological continuity in everyday life. What ensures 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 the one that 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. Other people assure me that there was nothing out of the ordinary going on.
  • 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 me23 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 who wakes up.
  • This is the sort of question that the Logical Positivists would denounce as meaningless, as no empirical evidence can decide it.
  • Andy Clark, in "Clark (Andy) & Kuhn (Robert Lawrence) - Aeon: Video - Andy Clark - Virtual immortality", raises the question about what ensures psychological continuity – more or less than in the case of Teletransportation – in the case of dreamless sleep, or (hypothetically) being frozen and then thawed out. We might ask what it is in the normal waking case. Maybe the whole thing is related to the arrow of time or in the distinctions between forward-looking psychological properties – desires and intentions yet to be satisfied or acted upon, and memories of what has already taken place.
  • Producing a reading list on this topic is difficult as the distinction – to my knowledge – isn’t usually made. There’s a huge overlap with the general literature of psychological continuity and connectedness and that on Teletransportation. For these, see:-
    Psychological Continuity,
  • So, the above caveats aside, works on this topic that I’ve actually read, include the following:-
    1. "Blackburn (Simon) - Has Kant Refuted Parfit?", Blackburn
    2. "Clark (Andy) & Kuhn (Robert Lawrence) - Aeon: Video - Andy Clark - Virtual immortality", Clark & Kuhn
    3. "Dainton (Barry) - Self: Philosophy In Transit: Prologue", Dainton
    4. "Ehring (Douglas) - Personal Identity and Time Travel", Ehring
    5. "Lockwood (Michael) - When Does a Life Begin?", Lockwood
    6. "Olson (Eric) - Immanent Causation and Life After Death", Olson
    7. "Shoemaker (David) - Personal Identity and Immortality", Shoemaker
    8. "Shoemaker (David) - Personal Identity, Rational Anticipation, and Self-Concern", Shoemaker
    9. "Smith (Barry C.), Broks (Paul), Kennedy (A.L.) & Evans (Jules) - What Does It Mean to Be Me?", Smith
  • A further reading list might start with:-
    1. TBA: I’ll add items to the list as they arise.
  • This is mostly a place-holder.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 5: Footnote 23:

Note last updated: 15/06/2020 18:28:48

Footnote 1.6: (Connectedness vs Continuity)

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In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 5:
  • Not necessarily physically – that would be begging the question as to what persons are.
Footnote 19:
  • I became aware while compiling this list that it overlaps with papers by – and discussion of – Parfit’s work, which is covered under that Note and elsewhere.
  • Hence, I’ve omitted most works by Derek Parfit unless they discuss the difference between connectivity and connectedness.

Note last updated: 15/09/2020 21:33:07

Footnote 1.7: (First-Person Perspective)

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In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 8:
  • I suppose either both or neither might count ontologically.
  • Also, both might have enormous significance, yet not imply that an ontologically distinct entity had come on the scene.

Note last updated: 25/09/2020 11:08:10

Footnote 1.8: (Perdurantism)

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In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 17:
  • I’ve ignored those items where I have noted in my write-ups that perdurantism would solve some reduplication problem.

Note last updated: 18/03/2020 21:20:10

Footnote 1.9: (Persistence)

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In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 14: Footnote 15: Footnote 16:
  • 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: 30/11/2019 22:58:05

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