Posts tagged ‘personhood’

Derek Parfit, who died recently, in two videos from an old TV series…

Parfit was known for his attempts in Reasons and Persons to gently dilute our sense of self using thought experiments about Star Trek style transporters and turning himself gradually into Greta Garbo. I think that by assuming the brain could in principle be scanned and 3D printed in a fairly simple way, these generally underestimated the fantastic intricacy of the brain and begged questions about the importance of its functional organisation and history; this in turn led Parfit to give too little attention to the possibility that perhaps we really are just one-off physical entities. But Parfit’s arguments have been influential, perhaps partly because in Parfit’s outlook they grounded an attractively empathetic and unselfish moral outlook, making him less worried about himself and more worried about others. They also harmonised well with Buddhist thought, and continue to have a strong appeal to some.

Myself I lean the other way; I think virtue comes from proper pride, and that nothing much can be expected from someone who considers themselves more or less a nonentity to begin with. To me a weaker sense of self could be expected to lead to moral indifference; but the evidence is not at all in my favour so far as Parfit and his followers are concerned.

In fact Parfit went on to mount a strong defence of the idea of objective moral truth in another notable book, On What Matters, where he tried to reconcile a range of ethical theories, including an attempt to bring Kant and consequentialism into agreement. To me this is a congenial project which Parfit approached in a sensible way, but it seems to represent an evolution of his views. Here he wanted to be  a friend to Utilitarianism, brokering a statesmanlike peace with its oldest enemy; in his earlier work he had offered a telling criticism in his ‘Repugnant Conclusion’

The Repugnant Conclusion: For any possible population of at least ten billion people, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better, even though its members have lives that are barely worth living.

This is in effect a criticism of utilitarian arithmetic; trillions of just tolerable lives can produce a sum of happiness greater than a few much better ones, yet the idea we should prefer the former is repugnant. I’m not sure this conclusion is necessarily quite as repugnant as Parfit thought. Suppose we have a world where the trillions and the few are together, with the trillions living intolerable lives and just about to die; but the happy few could lift them to survival and a minimally acceptable life if they would descend to the same level; would the elite’s agreement to share really be repugnant?

Actually our feelings about all this are unavoidably contaminated by assumptions about the context. Utilitarianism is a highly abstract doctrine and we assume here that two one-off states of affairs can be compared; but in the real world our practical assessment of future consequences would dominate. We may, for example, feel that the bare survival option would in practice be unstable and eventually lead to everyone dying, while the ‘privileged few’ option has a better chance of building a long-term prosperous future.

Be that as it may, whichever way we read things this seems like a hit against consequentialism. The fact that Parfit still wanted that theory as part of his grand triple theory of ethical grand union probably tells us something about the mild and kindly nature of the man, something that no doubt has contributed to the popularity of his ideas.

disappearMy Aeon Ideas Viewpoint on ‘Is the Self an Illusion?’.

I do sort of get why people are so keen on the idea that the self is illusory, but what puzzles me slightly is the absence of any middling, commonsensical camp. When it comes to Free Will, we have the hard-nosed deniers on the one hand and the equally uncompromising people who think determinism debases human nature; but there are quite a lot of people in the middle offering various compatibilist arguments that seek to let us have more or less the traditional concept of freedom and rigorous scientific materialism at the same time. I’m one, really. There just doesn’t seem to be the same school of thought in respect of the self; people who recognise the problem but regard the mission as sorting it out rather than erasing the concept from our vocabulary.

Banca RuritaniaPersonhood Week, at National Geographic is a nice set of short pieces briefly touring the issues around the crucial but controversial issue of what constitutes a person.

You won’t be too surprised to hear that in my view personhood is really all about consciousness. The core concept for me is that a person is a source of intentions – intentions in the ordinary everyday sense rather than in the fancy philosophical sense of intentionality (though that too).  A person is an actual or potential agent, an entity that seeks to bring about deliberate outcomes. There seems to be a bit of a spectrum here; at the lower level it looks as if some animals have thoughtful and intentional behaviour of the kind that would qualify them for a kind of entry-level personhood. At its most explicit, personhood implies the ability to articulate complicated contracts and undertake sophisticated responsibilities: this is near enough the legal conception. The law, of course, extends the idea of a person beyond mere human beings, allowing a form of personhood to corporate entities, which are able to make binding agreements, own property, and even suffer criminal liability. Legal persons of this kind are obviously not ‘real’ ones in some sense, and I think the distinction corresponds with the philosophical distinction between original (or intrinsic, if we’re bold) and derived intentionality. The latter distinction comes into play mainly when dealing with meaning. Books and pictures are about things, they have meanings and therefore intentionality, but their meaningfulness is derived: it comes only from the intentions of the people who interpret them, whether their creators or their ‘audience’.  My thoughts, by contrast, really just mean things, all on their own and however anyone interprets them: their intentionality is original or intrinsic.

So, at least, most people would say (though others would energetically contest that description). In a similar way my personhood is real or intrinsic: I just am a person; whereas the First Central Bank of Ruritania has legal personhood only because we have all agreed to treat it that way. Nevertheless, the personhood of the Ruritanian Bank is real (hypothetically, anyway; I know Ruritania does not exist – work with me on this), unlike that of, say, the car Basil Fawlty thrashed with a stick, which is merely imaginary and not legally enforceable.

Some, I said, would contest that picture: they might argue that ;a source of intentions makes no sense because ‘people’ are not really sources of anything; that we are all part of the universal causal matrix and nothing comes of nothing. Really, they would say, our own intentions are just the same as those of Banca Prima Centrale Ruritaniae; it’s just that ours are more complex and reflexive – but the fact that we’re deeming ourselves to be people doesn’t make it any the less a matter of deeming.  I don’t think that’s quite right – just because intentions don’t feature in physics doesn’t mean they aren’t rational and definable entities – but in any case it surely isn’t a hit against my definition of personhood; it just means there aren’t really any people.

Wait a minute, though. Suppose Mr X suffers a terrible brain injury which leaves him incapable of forming any intentions (whether this is actually possible is an interesting question: there are some examples of people with problems that seem like this; but let’s just help ourselves to the hypothesis for the time being). He is otherwise fine: he does what he’s told and if supervised can lead a relatively normal-seeming life. He retains all his memories, he can feel normal sensations, he can report what he’s experienced, he just never plans or wants anything. Would such a man no longer be a person?

I think we are reluctant to say so because we feel that, contrary to what I suggested above, agency isn’t really necessary, only conscious experience. We might have to say that Mr X loses his legal personhood in some senses; we might no longer hold him responsible or accept his signature as binding, rather in the way that we would do for a young child: but he would surely retain the right to be treated decently, and to kill or injure him would be the same crime as if committed against anyone else.  Are we tempted to say that there are really two grades of personhood that happen to coincide in human beings,  a kind of ‘Easy Problem’ agent personhood on the one hand and a ‘Hard Problem’ patient personhood?  I’m tempted, but the consequences look severely unattractive. Two different criteria for personhood would imply that I’m a person in two different ways simultaneously, but if personhood is anything, it ought to be single, shouldn’t it? Intuitively and introspectively it seems that way. I’d feel a lot happier if I could convince myself that the two criteria cannot be separated, that Mr X is not really possible.

What about Robot X? Robot X has no intentions of his own and he also has no feelings. He can take in data, but his sensory system is pretty simple and we can be pretty sure that we haven’t accidentally created a qualia-experiencing machine. He has no desires of his own, not even a wish to serve, or avoid harming human beings, or anything like that. Left to himself he remains stationary indefinitely, but given instructions he does what he’s told: and if spoken to, he passes the Turing Test with flying colours. In fact, if we ask him to sit down and talk to us, he is more than capable of debating his own personhood, showing intelligence, insight, and understanding at approximately human levels. Is he a person? Would we hesitate over switching him off or sending him to the junk yard?

Perhaps I’m cheating. Robot X can talk to us intelligently, which implies that he can deal with meanings. If he can deal with meanings, he must have intentionality, and if he has that perhaps he must, contrary to what I said, be able to form intentions after all – so perhaps the conditions I stipulated aren’t possible after all? And then, how does he generate intentions, as a matter of fact? I don’t know, but on one theory intentionality is rooted in desires or biological drives. The experience of hunger is just primally about food, and from that kind of primitive aboutness all the fancier kinds are built up. Notice that it’s the experience of hunger, so arguably if you had no feelings you couldn’t get started on intentionality either! If all that is right, neither Robot X nor Mr X is really as feasible as they might seem: but it still seems a bit worrying to me.

metemsolipMy daughter Sarah (who is planning to study theology) has insisted that I should explain here the idea of metempsychotic solipsism, something that came up when we were talking about something or other recently.

Basically, this is an improved version of reincarnation. There are various problems with the theory of reincarnation. Obviously people do not die and get born in perfect synchronisation, so it seems there has to be some kind of cosmic waiting room where unborn people wait for their next turn. Since the population of the world has radically increased over the last few centuries, there must have been a considerable number of people waiting – or some new people must come into existence to fill the gaps. If the population were to go down again, there would be millions of souls left waiting around, possibly for ever – unless souls can suddenly and silently vanish away from the cosmic waiting room. Perhaps you only get so many lives, or perhaps we’re all on some deeply depressing kind of promotion ladder, being incentivised, or possibly punished, by being given another life. It’s all a bit unsatisfactory.

Second, how does identity get preserved across reincarnations? You palpably don’t get the same body and by definition there’s no physical continuity. Although stories of reincarnation often focus on retained memories it would seem that for most people they are lost (after all you have to pass through the fetal stage again, which ought to serve as a pretty good mind wipe) and it’s not clear in any case that having a few memories makes you the same person who had them first. A lot of people point out that ongoing physical change and growth mean it’s arguable whether we are in the fullest sense the same person we were ten years ago.

Now, we can solve the waiting room problem if we simply allow reincarnating people to hop back and forth over time. If you can be reincarnated to a time before your death, then we can easily chain dozens of lives together without any kind of waiting room at all. There’s no problem about increasing or reducing the population: if we need a million people you can just go round a million times. In fact, we can run the whole system with a handful of people or… with only one person! Everybody who ever lived is just different incarnations of the same person! Me, in fact (also you).

What about the identity problem? Well, arguably, what we need to realise is that just as the body is not essential to identity (we can easily conceive of ourselves inhabiting a different body), neither are memories, or knowledge, or tastes, or intelligence, or any of these contingent properties. Instead, identity must reside in some simple ultimate id with no distinguishing characteristics. Since all instances of the id have exactly the same properties (none) it follows by a swoosh of Leibniz’s Law (don’t watch my hands too closely) that they are all the same id. So by a different route, we have arrived at the same conclusion – we’re all the same person! There’s only one of us after all.

The moral qualities of this theory are obvious: if we’re all the same person then we should all love and help each other out of pure selfishness. Of course we have to take on the chin the fact that at some time in the past, or worse, perhaps in the future, we have been or will be some pretty nasty people. We can take comfort from the fact that we’ve also been, or will be, all the best people who ever lived.

If you don’t like the idea, send your complaints to my daughter. After all, she wrote this – or she will.