Criteria of identity and the nonidentity problem

If you think the non-identity problem is tough for humans, thank your lucky stars you’re not a Time Lord. Art by Matt Ferguson

In a previous post, I addressed a particular challenge that the non-identity problem allegedly poses for T. M. Scanlon’s contractualist ethics. I argued that the non-identity problem only seems to threaten contractualism if one conflates the subject matter of contractualist ethics (i.e. what we owe to each other) with the hypothetical standpoints we take up in reasonable deliberation about moral principles. The identities of actual persons can depend on our actions, but the identities of these evaluative standpoints do not. These standpoints can therefore serve as fixed positions from which alternative principles for treating actual persons can be assessed.

I’m fairly comfortable with this strategy for avoiding the non-identity problem, but I’m increasingly troubled by the metaphysics of personhood implicit in the non-identity problem as it is usually formulated. This unease was recently triggered by reading a recent article by Dominic Wilkinson and Keyur Doolabh at Aeon, which features a number of statements like this:

If Kate had delayed her pregnancy until, say, age 20 [instead of age 14], her child would have been conceived from a different egg and sperm. Because of this, Kate would have a genetically different child, and Annabel would not have existed.

The issue here, according to the non-identity problem, is that Annabel is no worse off for having been born, but intuitively Kate has reason to delay having a baby until she is 20. But Kate’s reasons to delay pregnancy can’t possibly stem from concern for the welfare of her child if the identity of her child depends on the timing of her pregnancy. Assuming having a child at 14 or 20 will be no better or worse for Kate herself, her reasons must be essentially impersonal — concerned with the quality of some state of affairs, rather than the welfare of any particular person.

As an example of the non-identity problem, this is perfectly fine. But I was struck by the weakness of the key assumption that the identity of Kate’s child depends on the timing of her conception. The non-identity between Annabel and the unnamed future child (let’s give her a name: Bananabel) is explained as a function of their genetic differences. Certainly this explains the non-identity of Annabel and Bananabel considered as mere organisms. But in the non-identity problem, we’re not concerned with mere organisms as such, we’re concerned with persons. Personhood is a moral concept, not a biological concept. Showing that Annabel and Bananabel are not identical organisms, then, does not yet establish that they are not identical persons.

The claim that Annabel and Bananabel are different persons because they are genetically different organisms seems to depend on a biological view of personal identity. On this view, Annabel and Bananabel are the same person only if they are the same (numerically identical) organism, and they are the same organism only if they are genetically identical. We can leave the merits of this view aside for now; I will only note that this view of personal identity is extremely unpopular among philosophers working in ethics-related fields. That doesn’t mean biological views are wrong. But it does suggest that for the vast majority of philosophers (including the majority of philosophers working on the non-identity problem!), the non-identity problem should never arise.

Without the biological view, it’s not clear how we can assert the non-identity of Annabel and Bananabel. The most popular alternative is the psychological view, according to which Annabel and Bananabel are the same person only if they share certain psychological characteristics (e.g. dispositions, memories, plans and intentions), perhaps with the condition that these characteristics have sufficiently similar causal histories. But I think most people will want to say that Annabel and Bananabel would both begin to exist as persons before they have any psychological characteristics that could differentiate them. So I’m not sure the psychological view can shed much light on the identity of merely possible persons.

What kind of view of identity helps make sense of the scenarios discussed in non-identity problems, then? In the first paragraph, I distinguished between actual persons and evaluative standpoints. But it occurs to me now that in the cases like that of Annabel and Bananabel, a person just is an evaluative standpoint. Annabel and Bananabel, considered as persons, are identical by virtue of occupying the same evaluative standpoint, and lacking any characteristics that could otherwise distinguish them. From this standpoint, a principle permitting Kate not to delay her pregnancy could be reasonably rejected.


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