Personal identity

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

9. Replies to animalist arguments

Defenders of the psychological approach have endeavored to reply to the central arguments concerning the metaphysical awkwardness of accepting person as a substance concept. One of the main strategies for doing so is via a ‘constitution’ view of persons. 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 (see Identity of indiscernibles). Perhaps the most thoroughly developed application of the constitution theory to this debate is found in the work 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 respond 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 fetus. 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. 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.

Baker’s 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. 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. Other versions of the constitution view which differ from Baker’s in interesting ways can be found in Lizza (2006) and Shoemaker (2007).

Another form of response that has developed to the animalist arguments maintains that a person is a proper part of a human being, usually the brain or some fraction of the brain, and so that the person and the human animal are not materially coincident. Versions of this approach have been offered by McMahan (2002), Hudson (2001) and Parfit (2012) among others.

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