Home arrow Philo Talking arrow Does it Matter What We Are?

Does it Matter What We Are? PDF Print E-mail

8 September  Does it Matter What We Are? - Mary Walker

Derek Parfit argues against considering ourselves to be entities that exist separately from the brain, body, and series of mental and physical events. He takes this to imply that we should be less concerned about our future selves than we usually are, and should alter many of our practices and values. But does this necessarily follow?

Personal identity: some background

Questions of personal identity centrally concern how it is that a person can be considered to be the same person over the whole course of their lives. Myself-at-two-weeks old will be vastly different to myself-at-80-years, and even myself-at-15 is very different to myself-at-30. Yet there's a sense in which we want to say that the 15 year old me is the same person as the 30 year old. Why we say this, and what it is that remains the same through time and change, is the central problem of personal identity.

One way to answer these questions is to say that a person's body is the same over time. Even if a person's body does not retain all the same matter, it only changes its matter gradually, and its matter stays structurally similar over time (or changes according to the rules of its structure). So perhaps a person's identity resides in their having the same body over time.

But many find this answer unsatisfactory. The main reason it might not be satisfactory is that being a person seems, at least to many of us, to mean something more than being a body. Persons are also something conscious and self-aware, with a psychological life over time. There may be a difference, for instance, between a dead or inanimate human body, and a person. And further, the ways in which we usually think about personal identity are connected to our ethical practices, in many ways. For instance, we hold persons responsible for actions they committed in the past. But the reasons I'm responsible for something I did last week does not just seem to be that I have the same body as the person who did the action. So, being the same person over time involves ethical thought, and the ethical dimensions of being persons often seem to have more to do with our conscious psychological lives, than they do with our bodies. So, the thought goes, if being a person essentially involves consciousness or psychological life, then to be the same person over time, there must be something about one's consciousness or psychology that remains the same.

But it is difficult to make sense of how a person, considered as a conscious psychological being, could be the same through time. Our psychological lives involve constant change, and conscious awareness differs from one moment to the next. One way of understanding how it is that persons might be essentially conscious beings, but still remain the same over time, is to say that there's a soul, or some other unchanging entity, which underlies psychological change, so that all the different conscious elements are parts of one thing. On this kind of view, there's something unchanging behind all the changes in consciousness and psychology--some unchanging self. The person is the same as long as, and because, this self is the same.

Parfit on what we are

But others find this "unchanging-entity" solution unsatisfactory, and I will focus on one such philosopher, Derek Parfit (I will be describing his extremely complex arguments in very broad brushstrokes). He agrees that people are fundamentally something psychological, but argues that nothing remains entirely identical about a person's psychological life over time. On his view, we consider persons to be the same at different times because our psychological lives have continuity. Even though, psychologically, we change through time, we usually do so gradually, and there are relations between the elements of our psychological lives of causation and similarity through time, so that they form a continuum. Continuity might be enough to justify saying that someone is identical through time, even if there's nothing that stays completely, strictly, 'identical'.

In developing this view, Parfit argues against thinking that persons are souls or unchanging entities. There's no unchanging entity within a person, just a continuous process. He gives a few arguments for this. First, we just have no evidence for there being any such entity. We cannot sense them, so there's no empirical evidence (1984: 227). But a second reason is that the whole idea of postulating an unchanging entity behind change may not really explain change. If our psychological lives involve constant change, yet the entity that is meant to explain them is unchanging, then it is not clear how are the two things connected to each other. And if we only postulate an unchanging entity to make sense of change, but it does not achieve this, then unchanging entities are simply irrelevant (1984: 236-243; 266).

For these reasons then, Parfit denies that there is any unchanging-entity-self (as he calls them, 'further fact' view of personal identity). There is just a series of psychological states--beliefs, desires, perceptions, thoughts, and so on--and physical states, which are interrelated. On his view, we are no more than this series of interconnected physical and psychological states (or events, as he puts it). There is nothing more to a person than this, and nothing separate to this (Parfit 1984: 216).

Parfit is by no means the first to argue along these lines: there are similarities here to arguments found in Theravada Buddhism, as well as in Western various philosophers throughout history. But while on the Buddhist view there is no self, Parfit states that there is a self--but it is something less than we thought it was. This is Parfit's view of what we are.

Parfit on why what we are matters

So far, this may seem rather speculative, but Parfit adds a further step. He says that the ways in which we usually care about ourselves, make plans for our futures, and anticipate what will happen to us, depend on the unchanging-entity view of persons. Similarly, the ways in which we hold other people responsible for their pasts, expect them to keep their promises, and many other practical arrangements, depend on considering them to be the same person over time in a strict sense. But he has just argued that the notion that we stay, strictly speaking, identical over time is false. Therefore, he argues, many of our practices and cares actually depend on a false view of what we are (1984: 281-2).

Therefore, once we realise the truth about what people really are, we should change these practices and cares. The implications of this on Parfit's view are quite thoroughgoing. On a personal level, we should think of ourselves in the future as though they were other people. Myself-in-5-years-time will not be identical to myself-now, so I should think about that person as if they were someone else. I might still want to be concerned about myself-in-5-years-time, but this would be more like the way I care about someone else's welfare than it would be like self-interest. If there is no strict identity through time, no unchanging self, there is just nothing about me-in-the-future that justifies paying any more attention to them, than to anyone else. We should therefore try to see our future selves as less 'our own', stop caring about them any more than anyone else, and treat them as though they were other people (Parfit 1984: 318-320).

Parfit also argues for a number of other alterations to our practices, and to our ethical beliefs, which he thinks result from his view of what people are. For instance, he argues that early-term abortions are permissible, since a foetus does not have a psychological life yet; that persons in permanent vegetative states are not really people; that paternalism is justifiable, since a person has no more authority to make decisions for their own future selves than anyone else does; that people may not be held responsible for their past actions if they have altered psychologically; and that we might not be obliged to keep our promises, if we have changed psychologically since we made them. He also thinks that his view supports utilitarianism (Parfit 1984: 321-347).

The argumentative move, then, is to argue from statements about what we are, to statements about what should do and care about. The part of his argument that I want to focus on today is the idea that if there is nothing more than psychological continuity to being the same person over time, we should care about our future selves less, or in a different way. Part of what Parfit wants to do here is follow up on the kind of psychological response we may have to the idea that there is no unchanging-entity-self. He describes his own psychological response as follows:

Is the truth depressing? Some may find it so. But I find it liberating, and consoling. When I believed that my existence was such a further fact, I seemed imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, at the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others. (Parfit 1984: 281)

Parfit also says the view makes him less anxious about his own death, and future pains and worries.

There are some similarities here, again, with some schools of Buddhism. Realising that there is no unchanging self will result in a person becoming completely selfless, developing ultimate compassion, and become completely altruistic. So removing our belief in unchanging entity-selves means we remove (or lessen) the division between the self and other people, so that we either start caring about ourselves in the same way we care about others--or we start caring about others in the same way we usually care about ourselves.

Other possible psychological responses

I want to outline three possible responses to this view, each of which is associated with a different psychological response to the idea that there's no unchanging-entity-self. The first response would be to feel that this discovery, that the self is less than we thought it was, is a kind of loss. We might think that if Parfit is right about what we are, this is very depressing, and perhaps frightening. Perhaps if it were true it would make everything matter less, rather than just making oneself matter less (or differently). Philosophers who have this kind of response have tended to argue that Parfit is wrong about what we are. This response tends to lead back to either the view that there are souls or unchanging entities, or the view that people are their bodies (Madell; Sidgwick in Parfit 1984: 307).

The second main kind of response to Parfit (speaking very broadly) has been to think that even if he is right about what people are, it does not necessarily matter. Philosophers who have this response tend to say that Parfit is probably right that there are no unchanging-entities-selves, but that the ethical and practical implications he draws just do not follow. So they agree with what Parfit says about what people are, but disagree about whether this should change anything about our cares, values, and so on. Part of this thought is the idea that the way we value ourselves and others may not depend on thinking that we are unchanging entities. Perhaps we value people because of what they can do, rather than because of what they are, in the sense Parfit is interested in. Or, perhaps the way we care about people is not based on anything--and perhaps it does not need to be based on anything, or require justification. This line of thought leads people to say that even if Parfit is right about 'what we really are', this does not have any implications for how we should live our lives, or how we should think about ourselves and others (for variations on this response see Whiting 1986; Wolf 1986; Johnston 1989; Korsgaard 1989). Instead of having a psychological response of the sort Parfit reports--the feelings of liberation, consolation, lessened anxiety and so on--perhaps we could instead, as it were, place his thought about what we really are 'in a box' (and perhaps label the box 'speculative philosophy') and then continue our lives the way we always have.

I want to suggest a third possible response which (to my knowledge) no one has considered. It may not ultimately work, but I would like to see if anyone has a response. It seems to me that Parfit is not quite right in what he says about what people are (I would not argue that there are unchanging-entity-selves, but do I think there is a little more to selves than Parfit allows). But the psychological response he describes, of liberation and consolation, and lessened anxiety, certainly sounds appealing. And the idea of becoming more compassionate and altruistic seems ethically good to me--whether or not it is not a consequence of any truth about the nature of persons. So rather than thinking that Parfit is right about what we are, but wrong about what we should therefore do, perhaps we could think that Parfit is wrong about what we are--but right about what we should do. And so, even if Parfit is wrong about what people are, it would be good if we tried to act as if he was.


Johnston, M. (1989). "Relativism and the Self". Relativism: Interpretation and Confrontation. M. Krausz (ed.). Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press: 441-472.
Korsgaard, C. M. (1989). "Personal Identity and the Unity of Agency: A Kantian Response to Parfit." Philosophy and Public Affairs 18(2): 101-132.
Parfit, D. (1984). Reasons and Persons. Oxford, Clarendon Press.
Whiting, J. (1986). "Friends and Future Selves." The Philosophical Review 95(4): 547-580.
Wolf, S. (1986). "Self-Interest and Interest in Selves." Ethics 96(4): 704-720.


< Prev   Next >