Personal identity

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V024-3
Version: v3,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved October 16, 2018, from

10. Objections to animalism

A variety of objections have been raised against animalism. One is that it fails to capture the strong intuition that serves as the impetus for the psychological approach. As we have seen, the sense that were psychological and biological continuity to come apart, the person would follow the psychological rather than the biological continuity is very strong. The biological approach has the implication that in Locke’s case of the prince and the cobbler the person with the prince’s consciousness and the cobbler’s body would be identical to the cobbler and not the prince, which seems wrong to most people.

Animalists can respond to this objection by simply insisting that in Locke’s case the person with the prince’s consciousness and the cobbler’s body would indeed be identical to the cobbler even though our intuition suggests otherwise. The sense that the person follows the psychological life depends upon our sense that it is psychological rather than biological continuity that underwrites the practical relations associated with personal identity, as Locke himself points out. Animalists can allow that in the prince and cobbler case the individual with the cobbler’s body and prince’s psychology would be rightly held responsible for the prince’s actions or that it would be appropriate for the prince to have egoistic concern for that person. But, the animalist argues, these observations imply that that this individual is identical to the prince only if we assume that the practical judgments that are usually associated with personal identity are necessarily associated with it, and there are no independent grounds given for this claim. A world in which consciousness can change bodies might be a world in which a person could become morally responsible for someone else’s actions or come to have reason to care egoistically about someone else’s wellbeing. Olson (1997: 65-70) allows that we could say that in this case, the individual with the cobbler’s body and prince’s consciousness is the ‘same person’ as the prince, so long as we realize that we are not talking about the numerical identity of an entity but only about something analogous to the continuity of an office. Snowdon (2014) has also offered a meticulous defusing of the intuitions behind the psychological approach, arguing that on careful inspection they are not as compelling as they at first appear.

A second objection raised against animalism suggests that the view faces metaphysical awkwardness similar to that of which it accuses psychological continuity theories. If psychological accounts must deny that I was ever a fetus, animalism must deny that I was a zygote, since zygotes are not yet human organisms. And if the psychological continuity theory cannot allow that I could someday be a vegetative human, animalism cannot allow that I will someday be a corpse (since a corpse is not an organism). Finally, if the psychological account implies two thinkers of each thought, a human organism and a person, animalism potentially allows a much larger number of thinkers. If a whole organism can think, then it seems that an organism minus its pinky finger can also do so; so can an organism minus its left hand; as can the part of an organism from the waist up, as can a brain, and so on. Since all of these entities are simultaneously present when a whole organism thinks, all of them must be thinkers of each thought.

Available responses to these worries depend upon the particular version of animalism the responder endorses, and replies can get extremely technical. The ‘zygote’ problem can be addressed by giving biological or metaphysical reasons to think that it is reasonable to say that something new comes into existence when a zygote becomes a fetus but not when an infant gains the cognitive capacities connected with Lockean personhood. In response to the ‘corpse problem’ some animalists, e.g. Mackie (1999b), allow that an organism can persist for a period after death so long as it remains relatively intact, while others, e.g. Olson (1997: 150-153), insist that organisms end at death and that it is in this sense accurate to say that none of us could ever become a corpse. Addressing the problem of multiple thinkers requires providing a metaphysical theory which rules out proper parts of an organism as distinct entities in their own right, (see, e.g. Olson (2007: 215-219)). Animalist responses to these concerns have had varying degrees of success, but they typically involve metaphysical commitments which potentially diminish some of the initial commonsense appeal of the view.

A third objection to animalism argues that dicephalic conjoined twins provide a real-life counterexample to the view (e.g. McMahan 2002: 35). In dicephalus a zygote divides only partially before implanting, resulting in twins that share a torso but have two heads with distinct brains. Since each head can have its own private thoughts, experience its own desires, and speak independently, it seems reasonable to view this as a case that involves two beings of our general type. It also seems, however, that these twins, sharing all organs besides the brain, should be seen as a single human organism. Since one thing cannot be identical to two distinct things, the argument continues, it therefore cannot be the case that each of us is identical to a single human organism. Again, there are different responses animalists can offer to this objection depending upon the details of the particular version of animalism they support, and responses to this worry are only now being developed. Any straightforward response will either have to deny that such twins are a single organism or argue that in cases of dicephalus there is only one being like us with a deeply divided mind. Responses to this case thus also potentially somewhat diminish the animalist’s claim to present the commonsense view of what we are.

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