Can Views on Personal Identity Be Neutral about Ethics?


Eric Olson and David Shoemaker argue that our numerical identity over time is irrelevant to such practical issues as moral responsibility or self-concern. Being the same individual at different moments in time may, in our case, can be seen as the preservation of the relevant biological processes (e.g., according to Olson), while psychological continuity, independent of these processes, may be crucial for such issues. I will defend the view that, contrary to the above authors, any conception of our diachronic identity has ethical implications, at least with regard to the aforementioned issues. My argument has two basic assumptions. (1) The dispute over identity of persons is a dispute over the conditions of our persistence in time as the same individuals, whether we consider being a person as our essential property or not (e.g., Olson maintains the latter). The question is under what conditions I am the same as a particular earlier or later individual. (2) The pronoun “I,” on the other hand, is an essential component of practical reasoning, so also of ethical one. Thus, the debate on the persistence of persons concerns the identity conditions of the individuals to whom/which we refer when planning our future actions, formulating our intentions. My rational self-concern or my moral responsibility for past actions regards the individual to whom the pronoun refers. An additional result of my argument is to undermine the influential strategy of defending positions on our diachronic identity against the charge of controversial ethical implications. It cannot be argued in the case of every such controversy that a given ethical issue only apparently involves our identity, while in fact what is relevant to it is a different relation binding persons at different moments in time.

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Marek Gurba
Jagiellonian University


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