The question of personal identity at the intersection of ethics and metaphysics

Ce texte reprend mon intervention au colloque "Objet et personne", organisé par Jean-Maurice Monnoyer, Aix-en-Provence, A.M.U., I.H.P.

The metaethical level will be mainly questionned here, for it is a general problem about the so called meta-level which is increasingly predominant in every domain of the philosophical enquiry : and surprisingly, even if meta-questions are nowadays predominant, it is nevertheless still often asked whether the meta-level does exist or does not exist, in meta-ethics, or meta-aesthetics, or meta-metaphysics, for example. By my own opinion, the meta-level, and especially the meta-ethical level I will discuss here depends mainly on our ability to connect metaphysics and ethics. I assume that philosophers should not focus mainly on the ethical level, that is to say they should not focus on norms and values being elaborated, nor should they try to elaborate such norms and values by themselves. For I would assume that there are no experts in ethics, ethics being everyone’s concern. So that ethics intended as a philosophical concern, if it is a philosophical concern of course, should be questionned an other way I will try to examine here, at the intersection of ethics and metaphysics.

One should say, for example, that there are too many norms and values that may conflict about the so called "conflicts of duties", so that, to put it a few words, one might suppose practical philosophy does produce by itself the conflicts of duties it works hard in order to resolve. Of course, I have in mind for instance the well-known trolley dilemma and the incredible litterature that has increased about it : if philosophers had not built this dilemma as a scenography in order to make deontologism and utilitarianism compete with one another, this case would not be a conflict of duties at all. For I assume that the trolley dilemma is not a hard case, neither from a deontological point of view, nor from an utilitarianist point of view. Actually, both of these ethical theories can provide a solution to the trolley dilemna which explicits one’s own intuition in this case : must we intervene in order to avoid several deaths, but by doing so, must we kill a man ? Or must we avoid to kill a man even if doing so would save many lives ?). This scenography has provided us a conflict of duties one may not explicit this way if, suppose, she were in such a surprising and hazardous situation. I would assume that acrasia may also be examined this way, but first I shall link these questions with the ontological question of the person.
The metaethical level could develop a philosohical discourse about ethics avoiding this particuliar difficulty. Avoiding such difficulties which I assume to be artificial ones is a side effect of the metaethical level. The question here is the following one : should philosophy provide norms and values, or should it try to explicit not only the norms and values, but the way we conceive of action, causality, or person that are embodied in the way we act and the norms and values our actions are instanciating in the actual world ?

To put it in a few words, philosophers should focus on the conditions of possibility under which an ethical claim can be assumed, whatever claim it is, unless having good reason to consider it not to be a moral claim. They should follow the way meta-aesthetics does not focus anymore on the so called works of arts but on the way the objects have aesthetical properties. Just as its task is not to identify works of arts, the task of practical philosophy is not to identify the morally good action an agent must perform in some given case. On my own opinion, the task of practical philosophy is to explicit the conditions under which her claim according to which the action she performs actually has moral properties can be justified or not. The task of philosophical systems is to explicit our intuitions, especially in the ethical field where the task of practical philosophy is to explicit our moral intuitions and not to change them, if we intend to develop an internalist point of view about ethics. What is, for an action, to have moral properties, whatever those moral properties could be ? For practical philosophy should explicit and develop one’s moral intuition, rather than establishing norms and values, and in order to explicit one’s moral intuition, it has to make clear the conception of person or the conception of causality, for example, it relies on.
So the conception of the person has to be examined, in order to complete Lewis’ list of the questions a practical philosophy has to deal with, according "Dispositionnal theories of value". But of course, the conception of the person is not the only one an ethical theory has to answer : I would add here the conception of time too an ethical conception embodies. Instead of choosing one ethical claim, practical philosophy should develop all possible intuitions about ethics by grounding them on the metaphysical claims they rely on. For the properly ehtical task (I mean : providing us norms and values we should respect or adopt) is incompatible with an other claim I do not intend to abandon, and which is dominant nowadays, that is ti say the position according to which ethics should be internalist. It is much more difficult to assume on one hand an internalist conception of ethics while on the other hand edicting norms and values we should respect. It is easier to assume an internalist conception of ethics and to develop a metaethical conception of practical philosophy.

So, this is my main focus : If one does not intend practical philosophy to establish norms and values, maybe in order to be a coherent ethical internalist, one has to connect metaphysics and ethics in order to explicit our ethical intuitions. I will follow here Lewis’ conception of ethics. David Lewis has proposed a short list, which he assumes not to be exhaustive, of the criteria that identify an ethical claim. Those criteria explicit the questions every practical philosophy has to answer to. For instance, a practical philosophy has to decide whether it will be internalist or externalist, cognitivist or emotivist, and so on (David Lewis, "Dispositional theories of value"). It can not be explicit without answering those questions. The meta-ethical level will underline such choices and combine them, some of them being easier to combine with one than another, just as I have underlined it is easier to be internalist by assuming a meta-ethical point of view than by assuming an ethical point of of view. For instance, it is easier, according Lewis, to be rationalist and universalist, emotivist and particularist, but it remains also possible to be emotivist and universalist even if combining those claims — that is to say, emotivism and universalism — has to be explained furthermore. These are the problems meta-ethics has to solve, by solving metaphysical questions embodied there and by making them explicit.
My hypothesis here will be the following one : some conception of the person is more convenient with one ethical theory than another and is metaphysically embodied in the ethical claims it can sustain. The way ethics and metaphysics do converge with one another might not be contraignant here, for there may be more than one conception of the person coherent with an ethical position. Nevertheless, even if not contraignant, it might be more or less difficult to developp such an ethical solution on such conception of person. I will adopt Lewis’ cominatory point of view in order to link the metaphysical conception of the personn and the ethical claims one’s intend to assume. So I intend here to continue, anyway not to achieve, the choices Lewis has begun to list, with the conception of the agent an ethical theory is assuming.

I will examine three possible conceptions of the person and I will link them with the ethical claim they are coherent with. While the definition of the person is changing, an other ethical theory will be easier to chooose. Let us begin with the substantialist definition of the person Stephane Chauvier has developped : "Soit Socrate. Socrate est assis. Socrate est homme. Socrate est-il assis comme il est homme ? Non. Socrate est accidentellement assis, mais essentiellement homme. Or, à nouveau, la position assise de Socrate, de même que les traits de son humanité, sont des choses très localisées. Un peu trop grosses pour être ponctuelles, mais localisées ou circonscrites quand même. Cependant, s’il y a vraiment une différence entre la position assise de Socrate et son humanité, cette différence n’est pas elle-même localisée. Ce qui est essentiel à Socrate, c’est ce qui ne le quitte pas, où qu’il aille, où qu’il soit. Et c’est aussi bien ce qui ne quitte pas tous ceux qui, comme Socrate, sont des hommes" Stéphane Chauvier, "Le déversoir modal", Klesis – Revue philosophique – 2012 : 24 – La philosophie de David Lewis, p. 70.
If it was possible to draw a sharp distinction between essential and inessential properties of the person, as asked by Stéphane Chauvier, we could establish the forensic conception of the person in the metaphysical conception of the person. This is exactly the conception the law needs. For the forensic conception of actions needs an agent who is clearly responsible. This clearly identified agent is needed for, as being liable and responsible, she will be asked compensation for damage, even if actually she is not the agent who has performed the action. For, under such a conception, the agent will be said responsible untill she has lost an essential property such as "being rational". While she is rational, she is responsible, for her rationality is the supervenience basis for her responsability : in this case, the metaphysical properties are the supervenience basis for moral or legal properties. And actually those properties are covariant so the forensic level is established the metaphysical level.
Well, this solution would be quite powerful and coherent, and I would like to adopt it, if only it were true. But it is not, for, in order to make a sharp distinction between essential and inessential properties of the person, we have to be able to identify the time when the person is no more herself by having lost her essential property. Lynne Rudder Baker defines essential properties this way : "If F is an essential property of x, then x cannot exist without having F" (Lynne Rudder Baker, Persons and Bodies. A Constitution View, p. 37). I can not resolve here the problem of essential properties, of course, but I might adopt this definition but slightly revise it this way : "If F is an essential property of x, then x cannot be x without having F", for, having lost it, x might exist but not be x. Precisely, the logical implication has to go in one direction : it has to go from the essential property the person has lost to the fact that she is no more herself, according to the definition of an essential property. If the angles of the triangle are no more equal to two right angles, the triangle is no more a triangle. But this implication can not be the case about persons.
For a person can loose a property that seemed to be essential to her (for example, her rationality) and nevertheless she can continue to be herself. Suppose for example Socrates has gone mad : he has lost the property of rationality that seemed essential to him while philosophizing. From a philosophical point of view, which is unfortunately too abstract here (I do regret to have to say so), Socrates loosing his property of being rationnal is no more himself. But suppose Socrates is a person we know quite well, a friend of us : we would not draw such a distinction between a rational Socrates and an irrational Socrates, and Socrates, even mad, is Socrates. The question is : is it meaningful to assert that someone is no more herself, even if being quite changed by time ?
I do not think so, just as Pascal puts it (Pensées, Br 323) : "Celui qui aime quelqu’un à cause de sa beauté, l’aime-t-il ? Non : car la petite vérole, qui tuera la beauté sans tuer la personne, fera qu’il ne l’aimera plus. Et si on m’aime pour mon jugement, pour ma mémoire, m’aime-t-on moi ? Non, car je puis perdre ces qualités sans me perdre moi-même." I underline the main point here : one can loose her memory and nevertheless one can still be herself. In the case of the person, it would be because one is no more herself (so to speak) that it would be possible, as a consequence, to assume that she has lost her essential property we know being her essential property only because she is no more herself after having lost it.

An hypothesis here could be, by instance, the following one. If it were meaningful to declare someone to be no more herself, it might a case of backward causation. The relation of causality between "loosing her essential property" and "being no more herself" should be from "loosing her essential property" as a cause to "being no more herself" as an effect, but is in the other way, from "being no more herself" to "having lost her essential property". Nevertheless the so called essential properties of the person do not play the expected role of essential properties. Obviously, the reason why this solution does not work if the fact that the person is always changing, she is always loosing her properties and having properties she had not before, such as Hume put it in The Treatise of Human Nature. The forensic imputation of liability has to hide this fact, in order to stabilize the imputation of responsability which can not be conceived as mere ; for instance, even if the person was not present when the event took place, she might be responsible. But suppose we change our metaphysical point of view upon the person, and let us examine the consequences upon our practical philosophy.

"When I say the successful general is the same person as the small boy who stole the apples I mean only that the successful general I see before me is a timeslice of the same four-dimensional object of which the small boy stealing apples is an earliertime-slice" J.C. Smart, "Sensations and Brain Processes", Philosophical Review, LXVIII, x (April 1959) : 141-156 ; reprinted with some revisions in John O’Connor, ed., Modern Materialism (New York : Harcourt, 1969).

The quadri-dimensional conception of the person resolve a point that might have seen contradictory : the person, even if changing, is always the same person, but she is actually changing :

"If we pick a temporal perspective and stick to it, not ignoring tenses, there is no difficulty. If we choose a timeless perspective, we must build dates into the properties we ascribe. We shall find that both the general and the small boy have the property of (say) being small in 1920. Only if we ignore both tenses and dates do we get into trouble".

I have assumed that ethical theories have to conceive both of the person and of the time ; actually, the decision the agent has taken might not be conceived of only as an isolated point in time, although this is often the point of view adopted. The agent may not only take a decision but he may include it in a course of actions in which this particular action takes place, for, as John Perry puts it (« Can the Self Divide ? », The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 69, No. 16 (Sep. 7, 1972), pp. 463-488), "persons are lifetime" (p. 484). And if so, if persons are lifetime, they can loose properties and still continue to be themselves during this lifetime.
And in this course of action, either this action does contribute to such a course of action, or it makes an exception to such a course of action. I assume that, if an ethical theory conceive of time and decision such a way, it can avoid, not to say, resolve, the problem of acrasia. For the so called acratic actions, in which an agent acts against her own will, are dramatically irrational if conceived as isolated. But this irrationality — the agent sees the best and acts the worst — can be diluted in a course of actions that retains the general rationality of the actions.
An isolated action might seem to be a dramatically irrational and nevertheless the course of actions in which it occurs might be rational, that is to say it might have been decided according to the best. For, once I have decided to stop smoking, my smoking a cigarette does not entail I have renounce to stop smoking. Davidson’s point of view upon acratic actions entails an isolated point of view upon the action, in which time is not taken into account. I assume that an other point of view, that is to say a tensed point of view, is also possible. And from such a point of view in which actions are included in a course of actions, the acratic action (I smoke) is nevertheless part of my main course of actions (I have decided to stop smoking but, of course, such a decision is a hard decision and I do not manage to respect exactly this course of action). In a tensed conception of action, which is coherent with a tensed conception of the person, acrasia is not as dramatic as Davidson put it in a tenseless conception. But obviously such a tensed conception of the person can not be taken into account by the forensic conception, for the responsability of a temporal slice of the person is the responsability of the whole person, even if she has changed a lot. For example, even if the person regrets a lot what she has done, she is nevertheless responsible for what she has done, and the changes that are hers can not be taken into account. Because the legal judgement evaluates actions, not people, its point of view can not be a tense point of view but isolates actions. So that I may conclude that there are tensed ethical theories and tenseless normative theories whose agent is either tensed or tenseless.

Well, I have reviewed the substantialist conception of the person and the tensed conception of the person, underlining how deeply they are connected with moral theories and moral questions. My main point is that the conception of the person is part of the list David Lewis has begun in "Dispositionnal theories of value", but he has not completed. Last, I would like to examine a third theory of the person, I intend the so called "consitution view" of the person. Lynne Rudder Baker’s conception of the person should be questionned and taken into account by moral philosophers. For her conception of the person enables us to take the body into account, and this point, I believe, could be quite important in order to find an alternate answer to the ethics of care, which is predominant here, and which confuses the moral questions upon which my point of view is a rational one Lynne Rudder Baker , What Am I ?, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 59, No. 1 (Mar., 1999), pp. 151-159.
According to Lynne Rudder Baker, "Constitution is a contingent relation between individual things. First, constitution is a relation between individual things. The relata of the constitution relation are not properties (e.g. the property of having an atomic number if 79) ; so, constitution must be disintguished sharpie from supervenience. (…) As I am using the term ’constitution’, David is constituted by a piece of marble." Lynne Rudder Baker, Persons and Bodies, A Constitution View, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 32-3. The consitution relation is a contingent relation, for the body might have failed to constitute a person if she were not able to speak in the first person. Being able to speak in the first person, according to Lynne Rudder Baker, identifies the person. I will focus here on the relationship to the body she underlines, for the person’s body is not taken into account in rational ethical theories. I believe, even if I am a rationalist, this is a mistake. According to Lynne Rudder Baker, answering to Eric T. Olson (Eric T. Olson, "Was I Ever a Fetus ?", Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 57 (1997)), and according to the constitution view, "I am not identical to my body" (p. 204). So, "the persistence conditions for persons are different from the persistence conditions of human organisms" (204). The relation of constitution that exists between a person and her body should be a point of view most often considered in rational ethical theories. For this could help us to answer the so called theory of care, by taking the body into account but although distinguishing the person and her body. So Lynne Rudder Baker is upholding a dualism of the person and her body, assuming that : "When a human organism develops to the point that it can support a first-person perspective, a new entity - a person - comes into existence. The human organism then constitutes the person. When the organism can no longer support a first-person perspective, then it no longer constitutes a person. And if something ceases to be a person, it ceases to be - even if the human organism that constituted the person continues to exist. So, on the Constitution View, what I am most fundamentally is a human person ; and a human person is a being with a first-person perspective constituted (at least initially) by a human organism", Lynne Rudder Baker, op. cit., p. 158.
This dualism of the person and her body, with which she is in a relation of constitution, might uphold a dualism of the event and the action I think to be the case, even if I will not proove it here. For, if according to Aristotle, or precisely, Anthony Kenny in Aristotle’s Theory of the will, there is a distinction between the movements of the body and the intentional action done by an agent, obviously, such a distinction could be grounded in the distinction between the person and her body. In my point of view, this point does not proove Lyne Ruder Bakker’s theory. It only makes clear that, if one intends to distinguish between movements and actions, it is easier to adopt a conception of the person according to which there is a difference between the person and her body. So a metaphysical claim about the person can make easier to assume a practical claim about action, for example the movements done by an agent have to be distinguished carefully from her intentional action they constitute. So there might be a relation of constitution between 1) the person and her body, 2) her action and movement.

My main concern, obviously, was not to choose one or another conception of the person, even if I have some intuition on this problem. My main concern was to underline how deeply such a conception is connected with the possibility to uphold an ethical theory that solves some difficulty, but encounters another. Such a choice is a choice upon which every ethical theory has to make it explicit. Doing so, it will avoid only to explicit another value or another norm we do not need, but it will consitute a metaethical level I assume to be the only practical philosophy.

Isabelle Pariente-Butterlin _ Licence Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
1ère mise en ligne et dernière modification le 18 octobre 2014.

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