Personal identity

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

8. Responses to Animalism

There are two main strategies for responding to animalism. The first maintains that the biological approach does not itself escape the difficulties it raises against psychological views. Corresponding to the foetus problem is a ‘zygote’ problem. Zygotes are not yet human animals, so no human is identical to a zygote. But then, we might ask, what happens to the zygote when it develops into a foetus? Does it cease to exist by gaining complexity? Corresponding to the vegetable problem is a ‘corpse’ problem. When an animal dies it leaves a corpse that is materially coincident and spatiotemporally continuous with the animal that just died. Where does this corpse come from? Does it just pop into existence at the death of the animal? Finally, corresponding to the thinking animal problem is a ‘thinking parts’ problem. Every animal has many proper parts large and complex enough to think. So, when an animal thinks ‘I am an animal’ is there also another thinker, the brain, and yet another, the top half of the animal, simultaneously thinking that thought?

Another strategy for responding to animalism is to present an account of the relation between persons and animals which avoids the difficulties raised by Olson. The strongest form of this response is found in the constitution theory. According to the constitution theory, human persons are not identical to human animals, but are constituted by them. Constitution is the relation an entity bears to the material of which it is made up. A statue, for instance, may be constituted by a lump of clay, a flag by a bit of cloth, and persons by human animals. The most thorough and influential working out of the constitution theory of persons is found in the writings of Lynne Rudder Baker (2000). Baker defines persons in terms of the possession of a ‘strong first-person perspective’. This is a form of reflective self-consciousness that allows us, for instance, to articulate concerns about our own continued existence and about our relations to others and to the world.

According to Baker, when a human animal develops to the point where a strong first-person perspective emerges a new kind of entity, a person, comes into existence (just as when a sculptor moulds a piece of clay into a shape something new, a sculpture, comes into existence). The person is constituted by the human animal (just as the sculpture is constituted by the lump of clay), but there is only one thing present - a person constituted by an animal. This analysis can be used to provide an answer to the questions about the relation of persons to human beings raised by animalism. According to the constitution view, a human animal starts as a foetus. If that animal develops normally into a being with a strong first-person perspective a new entity, a person constituted by an animal, comes into existence. The animal does not cease to exist, but it no longer has an existence independent of the newly existing person. Should the person fall into a vegetative state, losing their first-person perspective permanently, the person would cease to exist and the animal would once again be an independently existing entity. In this way, the foetus and vegetable problems are avoided. The thinking animal problem is avoided because the animal and person are not two entities, but one - a person constituted by a human animal - and so there is only one thinker of each thought.

The constitution view is not without its own difficulties. One is that it is not obvious how we can tell when we have the same strong first-person perspective at two different times, and so as an account of personal identity this view seems vulnerable to some of the same problems as the view that places personal identity in sameness of soul. Animalists also argue that it is implausible to say that the addition of psychological capacities makes for a new entity, and worry that the constitution theory yields too chaotic an ontology.

Ultimately, the debate between animalists and constitution theorists comes down to differences in fundamental metaphysical presuppositions and a disagreement about whether value and relational properties can be part of what constitutes the metaphysical identity of an object. The debate between biological and psychological theorists is likely to continue. The emergence of the biological approach as a powerful competitor to psychological views has, however, added an important dimension to the current debate on personal identity, raising fruitful questions that have been largely neglected in recent years.

Citing this article:
Responses to Animalism. Personal identity, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V024-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2017 Routledge.

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