Personal identity

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V024-3
Version: v3,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved October 17, 2018, from

8. Arguments for animalism

Animalists point out that the idea that each of us is a human organism that begins when the organism begins and ends when the organism ends is a completely commonsensical view, and represents the way we do tend to think about and talk about our nature and persistence. The bulk of the formal arguments for animalism aim at showing that it is extremely problematic to take person as our substance concept. If I am most fundamentally a person, it means that I could not have been a fetus since fetuses are not persons. It also means that I could not become a dementia patient, or fall into a vegetative state, since those with severe dementia or without consciousness are not persons, at least not as psychological theorists define them. Not only are these implications counterintuitive, animalists argue, but they raise extremely awkward questions about the relation between the person and the animal. When a human organism develops the capacity for reason and reflection, on this account, a new entity, a person, comes into existence. But then what happens to the organism that was there? Does it cease to exist by gaining new capacities? And suppose this person later suffers an accident and falls into a permanent vegetative state. Now the person ceases to exist but we have a vegetative human organism. Did this organism just pop into existence as a brand new thing that happens to have all of the same matter in the same configuration as the entity that just ceased to exist? What is its relation to the earlier fetus? Is it the same organism? Where was it in between times?

The above questions, together with the fact that it is hard to deny that human organism is a substance concept, suggest that psychological theorists must allow that where there is a human person there are two distinct entities which are entirely materially coincident with one another and differ only with respect to their persistence conditions. This raises a new puzzle, sometimes called the ‘too many thinkers problem’. If these two entities are entirely materially coincident and if, as psychological theorists overwhelmingly allow, psychological activity supervenes in some way on neurological activity, it would seem that any thought had or expressed by a person would also be thought or expressed by the human organism which is coincident with it. Each thought, then, would have two thinkers; an animal and a person. Similarly, an utterance like ‘I am a person, not an organism’ would be made by two different speakers, one saying something true and one saying something false.

These claims, animalists argue, strain credulity and are unnecessarily complex. To avoid them we need only accept that there is one entity, an animal, that starts as a non-person and then gains and loses the attribute of personhood. During the time the animal is a person it is able to speak and think. There is, however, only one entity, an animal, which can think and speak because at this point in its career it happens to be a person.

A new and promising additional argument for animalism has been developed by Blatti (2012). He argues that if human persons are not fundamentally animals then their ancestors could not have been animals. The suggestion is thus that a rejection of animalism requires a rejection of evolutionary theory, and this is too high a price to pay. This line of argument is still under development.

Citing this article:
Schechtman, Marya. Arguments for animalism. Personal identity, 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V024-3. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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