Personal identity

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V024-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved February 23, 2017, from

5. Future-directed self-concern

Another important objection to the psychological approach (which Parfit calls the ‘extreme claim’) charges that psychological continuity theories cannot explain the nature of our future-directed self-concern. There is a certain kind of concern that one has for only one’s own future. Although one may care more about the well-being of those one loves than about one’s own well-being, the concern will be different in kind in the two cases. Taking on a small amount of pain to prevent someone else from experiencing a much larger amount is loving or altruistic; taking on a small amount of pain now so that one can prevent oneself from experiencing a much larger amount of pain later is simply rational egoism. The difference depends upon the fact that one is justified in anticipating one’s own experiences, but not those of others. Even if one cares more about the suffering of one’s children than one’s own, one will directly experience only one’s own suffering, and this makes the character of the concern different.

The objection connected with the extreme claim is based on the argument that the relation that constitutes personal identity according to psychological continuity theorists makes us psychologically like our future selves, but does not give us reason to anticipate their experiences. Since we do believe that personal identity provides a rational basis for future-directed self-concern, the argument goes on, psychological continuity theories do not adequately define the relation of personal identity. This means that one’s relation to one’s future self is not different in kind from one’s relation to others, the objection continues, and so that there is no rational basis for egoistic concern.

This is not the same as the argument that identity is not what matters in survival. The argument here is not about identity alone, but about psychological continuity more broadly, and stems from the fact that this continuity is defined in terms of psychological contents. The overlapping chain of direct connections in terms of which the psychological continuity theory defines identity ultimately provides only similarity of psychological make up between distinct person-stages, and this does not seem a sufficient basis for the anticipation of future experiences, and hence for egoistic concern. This means that even psychological continuity cannot provide ‘what matters’.

This objection to psychological continuity theories has been taken very seriously, and a wide variety of responses have been offered. One reply is to argue that our special concern for our own futures rests on our interest in seeing our plans and projects carried out rather than on anticipation. John Perry (1976) uses this strategy, arguing that on the psychological approach our future selves are more like us than anyone else, and so are most likely to carry out our plans. Other philosophers have used similar analysis to argue that identity should not be defined in terms of continuity of psychological subject, but rather in terms of the unity of a rational or moral agent. Agential unity, it is argued, automatically provides a reason to care about one’s future self because the unity of an agent depends upon having reasons that extend into the future. (See e.g. Korsgaard 1989; Rovane 1998.)

A final response to this challenge is the one offered by Parfit (1984), who again takes a radical approach. Rather than trying to overcome the fact that the psychological continuity theory cannot explain the rationality of egoistic concern, Parfit explores the possibility that we should embrace it. Since we know on independent metaphysical grounds that the psychological continuity theory is correct, he says, if we believe that it cannot justify egoistic concern we must conclude that this concern is unjustified; our relation to other parts of our own lives is not, as we thought, fundamentally different in kind from our relation to other people. While Parfit acknowledges that this result is deeply counterintuitive, he also believes that it is not entirely negative. Recognizing this fact can be both comforting and enlightening. Moreover, he believes that understanding the superficiality of the unity of persons has important ethical consequences. Once we recognize how loose the bonds within a life really are, he says, we will see that objections to consequentialist ethics based on considerations of distributive justice no longer apply. The difference between bearing a burden for someone else’s sake and bearing a burden for the sake of one’s own future well-being is no longer a significant difference, and this means that the most rational thing to do is to maximize well-being overall, without regard to whose well-being it is.

Citing this article:
Future-directed self-concern. Personal identity, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V024-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2017 Routledge.

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