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Locke on Personal Identity

(Text as at 18/12/2010 19:58:05)

(For earlier versions of this Note, see the table at the end)

What, if anything, is wrong with Locke’s account of personal identity?

Personal Identity
Substance and Personal Identity
Problems with Locke’s Account of Personal Identity
  1. Priority
    • I’m the same person today as I was yesterday because I remember the thoughts, experiences and deeds of my earlier self. However, don’t I also remember other people’s thoughts and deeds? Locke might respond by claiming that I remember my own experiences in a first-person way, but others’ only in a third-person way.
    • Initially, this response appears circular, since the reference to “first-person” memories mentions “person”, and it seems that I need to grasp what constitutes the difference between myself and another person in order to recognise first-person memories.
    • "Lowe (E.J.) - Locke: Identity" (p.110) suggests that the first / third person distinction needed here is no more than the distinction between remembering from the perspective of one involved and one not, without presuming that the one involved was myself. One can then deny that, even in principle, one could have first-person memories of the experiences of another person since, having been involved, I would identify myself with such a person.
    • "Lowe (E.J.) - Locke: Identity" (p.117) thinks a genuine circularity arises if Locke thinks of human persons as highly complex modes or properties of spiritual substances, these properties being complex patterns of successive and interrelated states of consciousness. This is because Locke specifies the identity conditions of persons in terms of relations between conscious mental states, but fails to appreciate that those conscious mental states depend for their identity on the identity of the persons whose states they are. This dooms Locke’s strategy to circularity. "Lowe (E.J.) - Locke: Identity" (p.117) concludes that conscious states are individuated by persons, and not vice versa.
  2. Memory
    • "Ayers (Michael R.) - Contemporary Reactions to Locke's Theory" (p.271) points out that Locke doesn’t suppose that there are a lot more persons than men at the resurrection, or that many crimes will go unpunished. So, people will have to have their memories restored. But, this presupposes a set of actions that are theirs whether or not they remember them, and, on Locke’s account, again leads to circularity.
    • "Winkler (Kenneth) - Locke on Personal Identity" (p.168) considers the problem of transference (cf. §13:338.17) whereby God at the resurrection transfers to my resurrected consciousness some acts that weren’t mine but which I’m now willing to own and be punished for, despite the fact that I didn’t perform them. Locke thinks God wouldn’t allow this situation, but to what can he appeal if Locke’s right about what constitutes a person? While no ancestor-self acknowledged these acts, my present self does. "Jolley (Nicholas) - Personal Identity" (p.117) suggests that God can sort things out at the resurrection by checking for inconsistencies. "Winkler (Kenneth) - Locke on Personal Identity" (p.171) and other writers suggest that Locke might escape by saying that while memory might be necessary for personal identity, it is not sufficient, and that personal identity consists in something underlying consciousness.
    • "Jolley (Nicholas) - Personal Identity" (p.113) also considers the problem of pseudo-remembering. Genuine remembering is causal, running though one and the same body. So, either Locke’s theory collapses into bodily identity or is wildly implausible, claiming that George IV was the same person as led the troops at Waterloo because he (falsely) remembered so doing. These considerations seem fatal to Locke’s account, with mounting suggestions that a substantial account of personhood is required.
  3. Amnesia
    • Isn’t one still responsible for actions one has committed but forgotten? While Locke admits that the same man is responsible, his forensic understanding of personhood means that punishment properly belongs to the person, not the man.
    • "Winkler (Kenneth) - Locke on Personal Identity" (p.153) argues that, for Locke, the self has to appropriate things to itself. Since the self is constituted by what it takes to be included in it, actions and thoughts forgotten beyond recall cannot be part of it. On Locke’s account one has only done what one is conscious of having done. "Ayers (Michael R.) - Contemporary Reactions to Locke's Theory" (p.266) wonders whether reward and punishment even make sense unless the recipient acknowledges the action in question as his own.
    • When we punish someone even though he cannot remember what he did, this, according to Locke, is like punishing the wrong twin (§19:342.19-20). We don’t punish the sane man for what he did when out of his mind (§20:342.35-343.4). Locke would not punish the sobered-up drunkard for his now-forgotten actions, but claims that human law has to operate as it does, since we cannot know whether a man is counterfeit or not in claiming amnesia. Locke’s reasoning is based on our necessary ignorance of other people’s mental states, but he hopes that any injustices will be put right on the day of judgement (§22:343.34-344.12).
    • Locke is right to allow that the genuinely insane man is a different person during the period of his insanity, but amnesia has nothing to do with it. We would still forgive the recovered insane man, and treat him as having been a different person, even were he to remember the period of his insanity.
    • We don't do this for amnesiac drunkards; not because of the greater likelihood of dissimulation, but because the drunkard knew what he would be likely to do when he got drunk. Drunkenness is a voluntarily contracted state, indeed a crime, and no crime can excuse another. So, the sobered-up drunkard deserves punishment whatever his memory of his actions might be. In contrast to the recovered madman, on being informed of his behaviour he ought to own these acts.
    • Hence, Locke’s theory of personal identity fails to explain or derive plausibility from moral and legal accountability.
  4. Transitivity
    • Identity is a transitive relation. So, if A is the same person as B and B is the same person as C, then A must be the same person as C. However, as Thomas Reid pointed out, this isn’t the case on Locke’s account. Imagine a small boy caught stealing apples, growing up into a young officer and declining into an old general. The old general remembers being a young officer and the young officer remembers being a mischievous boy, but the old general doesn't remember being the mischievous boy. According to Locke, the three cannot be the same person, though two pairs are.
    • We can rescue Locke by replacing the relation of first-person memory by the ancestral of that relation, which is always guaranteed to be transitive. For x to stand in the ancestral of the memory relation to y, it suffices for x to remember the deeds of a who remembers the deeds of b … who remembers the deeds of y. With this adjustment, Locke could justifiably claim that the old general is the same person as the boy.
    • "Lowe (E.J.) - Locke: Identity" (p.113) thinks that Locke wouldn’t be happy with this solution because he thinks of personhood as a forensic concept. A person should not be held responsible and punished for deeds he didn’t do which, for Locke, are those he can’t remember committing. However, "Winkler (Kenneth) - Locke on Personal Identity" (p.170) thinks that the young officer has appropriated the acts of the young boy, and because the old general has identified himself with the young officer, he has thereby appropriated all the acts he has appropriated. Because, on Lowe’s account, the self accumulates over time, rather than being constituted by instantaneous consciousness, identity of the self remains transitive.
  5. Substances
    • Locke thinks we have no clear idea of substance (I.4§18:95.29-33), so we certainly have no clear idea of when something is the same substance. Consequently, we need a nonsubstantial notion of a thing, and we do have a clear idea of the same self, considered as self.
    • As "Lowe (E.J.) - Locke: Identity" (p.107) points out, by Locke’s own definition, souls are themselves persons, since they are thinking, self-conscious beings. Yet, my soul isn’t the same person as me, because I could get a new one. There appear to be two kinds of person, things like my soul and things like me, with different criteria of identity. However, a sortal term, like “person”, can have associated with it only one criterion of identity, which enables us to count them.
    • The problem is compounded by Locke’s concerns for “sensible creatures”, to whom memories are transferred, which (as both "Ayers (Michael R.) - Contemporary Reactions to Locke's Theory" (p.264) and "Noonan (Harold) - Locke" (p.45) point out) are thinking substances, not persons (§13.338.14-18). Locke worries that a soul will be wrongly punished or rewarded at the resurrection by having some consciousness passed on to it for which it wasn’t originally responsible. The wrong thinking substance will suffer, even though the right person (consisting in more than one thinking substance) is punished. It was once thought fitting that the same matter be punished as performed the deed, so Locke may be being ironical, as though souls have their feelings too.
    • "Lowe (E.J.) - Locke: Identity" (p.117) thinks that to resolve such difficulties, we must equate persons with thinking substances. This doesn’t commit us to belief in “immaterial souls” if, contra Descartes, we allow matter to have attributes of thought as well as extension. However, given Locke’s explicit arguments against persons being souls, this suggestion is not to be preferred.
    • "Lowe (E.J.) - Locke: Identity" (p.73), "Bennett (Jonathan) - Locke's Philosophy of the Mind" (p.106) and "Noonan (Harold) - Locke" (p.30) are in agreement that Locke distinguishes between basic substances (atoms) and non-basic substances (trees), the latter being modes of the former. In this chapter, Locke doesn’t use “substance” for “thing”, but for fundamental constituents of reality.
    • This makes way for "Winkler (Kenneth) - Locke on Personal Identity"’s (p.164) interesting neo-Lockean proposal, for which we must consider substance-stages, temporal slices of Lockean non-basic substances, which persons supervene on (or are constructed out of). Successive stages are connected by two relations – that of psychological continuity, which connects them into persons, and physical continuity, which connects them into living things.
    • Ontologically, persons and living things are then on the same level, but may share only some of their stages. Locke’s insistence that identity of persons is not determined by identity of substance means only that the identity isn’t determined by either of two kinds of substances in particular – organised bodies or immaterial souls.

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Date Length Title
16/12/2009 14:39:50 17098 Locke on Personal Identity

Note last updated Reference for this Topic Parent Topic
18/12/2010 19:58:05 876 (Locke on Personal Identity) Locke

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Locke Quasi-Memory Theo Todman's BA Papers    

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Authors, Books & Papers Citing this Note

Author Title Medium Extra Links Read?
Locke (John) Of Identity and Diversity Paper High Quality Abstract   Yes
Olson (Eric) Psychology and Personal Identity Paper High Quality Abstract   Yes
Shoemaker (David) Personal Identity and Immortality Paper High Quality Abstract 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 Yes
Todman (Theo) Thesis - Locke Paper Medium Quality Abstract   Yes
Todman (Theo) Thesis - Quasi-Memory Paper Medium Quality Abstract   Yes

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