The Non-identity Problem and the Psychological Account of Personal Identity

Philosophia (2):1-12 (2021)
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According to the psychological account of personal identity, our identity is based on the continuity of psychological connections, and so we do not begin to exist until these are possible, some months after conception. This entails the psychological account faces a challenge from the non-identity problem—our intuition that someone cannot be harmed by actions that are responsible for their existence, even if these actions seem clearly to cause them harm. It is usually discussed with regard to preconception harms, but in the context of the psychological account, it is also applicable to prenatal harms. Inflicting prenatal injury is widely thought to be morally impermissible, but if the injury is identity-determining on the psychological account, then no-one seems to be harmed—rather, the injury is responsible for bringing them into existence. Here, I argue that identity-determining injuries can routinely occur on the psychological account, and that this undermines the account. I assess Nicola Williams’ proposal to salvage the account based on a trans-world account of personal identity, and show that it is unsuccessful. I then show that Jeff McMahan’s embodied mind account of personal identity is also susceptible. I conclude that identity-determining prenatal injuries pose a significant challenge for the psychological account and its variants, and provide a reason for supporting alternative accounts that fix personal identity at conception.
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