Remembering Derek Parfit: Philosophy and identity

Image credit: Anna Riedl

You are in a hospital, unconscious. Your body has suffered irretrievable damage in an accident, but your brain has remained intact. The doctors are working to transplant it to the body of a patient with severe damage. You wake up, look at your body, and find that it is not the one you had before. Is your identity tied with that of your mind, or your body? Are you still the same self?

We each have a sense of self, and regard it as a serious consideration in looking for an explanation of identity - if a theory cannot explain our sense of self, it must be missing something. Yet we are still in the midst of an irresolvable conflict between having a sense of self, but not an explanation for it. The problem goes deeper still: we also don’t know whether we persist as the same self in time due solely to psychological or bodily continuity. Locke, for example, believed that identity lies in memories - all we are is all that we can remember., and that therefore our identity refers to our mind, or psychological continuity. He refers to a scenario like the one above, and points to the fact that we identify with our mind. Philosophers have attacked the theory, wielding a series of thought experiments. One, in particular, goes: imagine that a brain is split into two; one is put in a person A’s body, the other in person B. Are they the same person, and share the same identity?  How can two people be the same person? Consequently, others argue that identity refers to bodily continuity, as it is the biological processes like breathing and metabolism that give us life, and hence are uniquely ours. This isn’t quite right either, because when we refer to the same situation, we do intuitively associate with our mind over our body. 

For Parfit, the question of what constitutes our self is a mistake - he didn’t believe there is an adequate criterion for identity. Our identity is found in our entirety, and the relations between our components, in the same way that nations or states exist. He found abandoning the idea of a substantive self liberating. This was not an esoteric revelation; once he adopted the view, its implications for his ethical theory were explosive. He was most concerned with how we make ethical decisions based on moral responsibilities towards people of the future - for example, we believe it is right to combat climate change to protect our descendants. Yet he abandons the notion of people of the future, and argues for ethical decision-making that is focused on the present.

Picture two copies of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix smushed together into one. Now, imagine three separate volumes of this, and you have Derek Parfit’s beast of a book, On What Matters. Parfit was a philosopher of today’s age, and his views on personal identity and ethics remain one of the most tantalisingly counter-intuitive, yet personal. He asked a question which, in most discussions of personal identity, we forget, yet which precedes all others: do we have one? For all of his academic career, Parfit worked at All Souls College at Oxford, where he was an Emeritus Senior Research Fellow. Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile of him in the New Yorker described him: “In the way that he moves and carries himself, Parfit gives the impression of one who is unaware of being looked at, perhaps because he spends so much time alone. He clutches his computer bag. He fidgets. His hair is white and fluffy and has settled into a pageboy of the kind that was fashionable for men in the fifteenth century. He wears the same outfit every day: white shirt, black trousers.” At a time when moral subjectivity, the belief that our morals are mere extensions of our desires, was the norm, he refused to believe it. He thought, we care too much about ethics, and give it such precedence, for it just to be about desires.

For me, Parfit embodies the untiring drive for answers, and a fearlessness to face what evidence tells us, no matter how counter-intuitive or uncomfortable it is. He passed away on 1 January of this year, but his theories, which have been described as the most original in moral philosophy in the English-speaking world, will live on. 

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