I’m Not a Person
June 11, 2010 — 13:50

Author: Michael Almeida  Category: Uncategorized  Comments: 17

*Updated 6.12.10*
I mean to say I’m not essentially a person. Let’s say someone is a person if and only if he possesses self-awareness, consciousness, rationality, the ability to communicate, and so on. Call that the standard view. The standard view is found in Singer, Glover, Tooley, Lowe, Williams, McMahan, and Parfit and goes at least as far back as Locke. According to the standard view, the property of being a person confers a special moral status on those who instantiate it. Only persons have the full profile of moral rights, so their lives have a moral protection that is not afforded to non-persons.
I deny the standard view, since we (we normal adult humans, if you insist) have rights and none of us are persons. Suppose for reductio that I am a person essentially. I have essentially the properties of consciousness, self-awareness, rationality, ability to communicate, etc. The predicates describing a person are, of course, vague. There are borderline cases of rationality, self-awareness, consciousness, and the ability to communicate. Alzheimer’s disease, among other debilitating diseases, might cause me to be indeterminately rational, conscious and self-aware. If I am indeterminately rational, conscious and self-aware, then I am indeterminately a person. It’s possible that there are indeterminate persons (given the standard view), but it’s *not possible that I indeterminately exist*. There exist things that are indeterminately persons, but there can exist nothing, persons or otherwise, that have the property of indeterminately existing. Since I am a person essentially, I determinately exist only if I am determinately a person. But I am an indeterminate person. Therefore, I indeterminately exist. That’s impossible. That concludes the reductio. I cannot be a person essentially.
Objection: You can be a person essentially without that entailing that you indeterminately exist. Instead, you should conclude that you cease to exist if the person-defining properties you instantiate become indeterminate.
Reply: True. But then being a person does not provide me with any moral protection. If you cause me to become borderline rational, you kill me. But you do not thereby violate my right to life.


Suppose I’m a person contingently. The psychological traits and capacities standardly attributed to persons are not traits and capacities essential to my continued existence. I am a person, so there is a person standing before you, but I might cease to exist without any person ceasing to exist. The persistence conditions for the person standing before you are not the persistence conditions for me. My persistence need not consist in any psychological continuity at all. Suppose my continuity conditions are purely somatic. I might be identical to my brain or a sufficiently large part of my brain. On the standard view, what matters morally is that the person standing before you not be killed. Suppose you place me in a device that replaces all of my brain cells with silicon-based cell-like replicas, but preserves all of the relevant psychological continuity including consciousness, self-awareness, rationality and so on. I would cease to exist but the person standing before you would not cease to exist. You would have killed me, but you would not have killed any person. The same person would be instantiated in another body. And since you did not take the life of any person, you would not have violated any person’s rights. If I am a person contingently, then I have no moral right against you that you not kill me. You may kill me just for fun, if you’d like, so long as you do not kill any persons.

Comments:
  • Tom

    Wouldn’t personhood be identified with the posession of the capacities for those things rather than possessions of the things themselves? Nothing (as far as I know) can cause us to lose the capacities for self-awareness, consciousness, etc.

    June 11, 2010 — 22:39
  • Jeremy Pierce

    There can exist nothing with the property of indeterminate existence. That’s a tautology.
    But isn’t it begging the question against those who accept indeterminate existence to take a tautology as evidence for a controversial philosophical claim, when they don’t actually hold that existent things have indeterminate existence? It’s indeterminately existing things (or, more precisely, things that are in the process of coming to exist or things with some intermediate mode of existence) that indeterminately exist.
    There does seem to be a process of coming to exist, and that is a huge difficulty for thinking of existence as all-or-nothing. I’m a big fan of determinate existence, and I’m not a big fan of modes of semi-existence and such, but I don’t have a good answer to how it can seem to be a process for me to have come to exist on the only-determinate existence view, unless epistemicism about vagueness is true, and that’s a minority position that I’m not wholly prepared to endorse.

    June 12, 2010 — 6:45
  • Mike Almeida

    It’s indeterminately existing things (or, more precisely, things that are in the process of coming to exist or things with some intermediate mode of existence) that indeterminately exist.
    I’m tempted to say “isn’t it begging the question against those who accept [determinate] existence to take a tautology as evidence for a controversial philosophical claim. 🙂 In any case, I’m prepared to rephrase my claim as nothing indetermnately exists. Things coming into existence do not indeterminately exist. There exist things that are borderline houses, for instance, but the thing that is the borderline house determinately exists. The vagueness is not in the world, its in the language. There exist things that are borderline butterflies, but the thing that has the property of being a borderline butterfly determinately exists. Being a borderline butterfly is result of semantic indecision, not the result of worldly vagueness. That’s the non-epistemicist answer to how it can seem to be a process for you to have come to exist on the only-determinate existence view.

    June 12, 2010 — 7:43
  • Mike Almeida

    Nothing (as far as I know) can cause us to lose the capacities for self-awareness, consciousness, etc.
    Lots of things can cause that. Car accidents, death, brain diseases, etc.

    June 12, 2010 — 7:46
  • Hi Mike,
    Very interesting stuff here. I’m actually working through a few of these issues in my Master’s Thesis right now.
    “There exist things that are indeterminately persons, but there can exist nothing, persons or otherwise, that have the property of indeterminately existing. ”
    I’m not quite convinced of this. Eli Hirsch argues, rather convincingly, that the vagueness is not a linguistic problem, but a real, metaphysical one in “Quantifier Variance and Realism.” In most of these cases of indeterminate existence it seems that we are not wondering what to call these odd things; I think we are wondering what is there and a perfectly plausible answer (depending on how comfortable one is with vagueness) could be “There’s something indeterminate there.” Of course, even if we think there is an indeterminate person there, the question remains whether or not indeterminate persons have the same moral standing as persons. My guess is the defenders of what you call the standard view would say, “It is best to err on the side of doubt. Where persons are vague, morality is vague. But that’s no good. It’s tough to live that way, so treat them more like persons than not.”
    “I am a person, so there is a person standing before you, but I might cease to exist without any person ceasing to exist.”
    This seems to depend on what you think “I” is referring to here. I tend to think it refers to the person or the self (whichever you prefer I’m not sure there is a meaningful distinction on some days). Parfit has a very interesting take on what we are referring too in the chapter he wrote for Contemporary Debates in Metaphysics. As always, reading Parfit is loads of fun. Anyway, If the “I” is referring to the person, then those psychological traits are essential to your continued existence. That is the standard view’s claim. So can you clarify what you think is existing if your person is extinguished?
    Also, I would be inclined to think that in the scenario you describe, you and your person would both cease to exist, though a person continuous with your person would come into existence. Q-memory and all that jazz. That person doesn’t seem to have the right sort of casual links between your person to meet the persistence conditions generally espoused by the standard view.
    Fun post!

    June 12, 2010 — 9:49
  • John Alexander

    Mike
    Very interesting argument, but I need some clarification. It seems that your argument rests on the following claim: “There are borderline cases of rationality, self-awareness, consciousness, and the ability to communicate. Alzheimer’s disease, among other debilitating diseases,might cause me to be indeterminately rational, conscious and self-aware. If I am indeterminately rational, conscious and self-aware, then I am indeterminately a person.” I am specially concerned with the ‘might’ conditional. There are tests that can be performed to determine competency that would enable us to determine another’s mental status so it might be the case that this conditional in never met if the tests are employed correctly. Also, is there not some ambiguity in what the ‘I’ refers to in the phrase “I indeterminately exist.” If the ‘I’ refers to the ‘person’ then if the person charcteristics ceases to exist then the I ceases to exist, but if the ‘I’ refers to the body that possesses the characteristics of personhood among other characteristics and these characteristics are eliminated the I still exists because the body still exists. The same problem of ambiguity exists in the use of ‘my’ in the contingency argument when you state “The psychological traits and capacities standardly attributed to persons are not traits and capacities essential to my continued existence.” What are you referencing when you use these terms?

    June 12, 2010 — 11:10
  • Mike Almeida

    In most of these cases of indeterminate existence it seems that we are not wondering what to call these odd things; I think we are wondering what is there and a perfectly plausible answer (depending on how comfortable one is with vagueness) could be “There’s something indeterminate there.”
    I don’t disagree with this. There are really two questions in play: (i) does anything indeterminately exist and (ii) is it true that certain kinds of things are such that it is indeterminate whether that kind of thing exists. These are different questions. The answer ot the latter is yes. The answer to the former is no. Some examples. It might be indeterminate whether a carpenter exists if the only remaining woodworker possesses limited skills. You and I can argue about the existence of a carpenter. That’s a metaphysical question, since it is a question of existence. And it’s not a metaphyscal question that can be resolved linguistically, as Hirsch seems to suggest. We’re arguing about whether there exists a carpenter or not, so we are arguing about whether this really is a borderline case. We are not both conceding that it is a borderline case.
    But now suppose we do concede that it’s a borderline case. Our metaphysical discussion will have ended, unless one of us is an epistemicist. Suppose we are not epistemicists. We will then say that it’s neither true nor false that there is a carpenter. This won’t commit us to the peculiar metaphysical position that there are N things that exist and one thing that indeterminately exists. It won’t get us saying things like there are indeterminately M things in existence. No, there is an exact and precise number of things in existence, and there is a disagreement with respect to some of those things that determinately exist whether they are determinately carpenters. This latter disagreement might well be a genuine metaphysical disagreement.

    June 12, 2010 — 12:01
  • Mike Almeida

    Also, is there not some ambiguity in what the ‘I’ refers to in the phrase “I indeterminately exist.” If the ‘I’ refers to the ‘person’ then if the person charcteristics ceases to exist then the I ceases to exist
    I don’t think so. I’m just following out a logical consequence of assuming that I am essentially a person (is the standard analysis of personhood). It leads me to the absurd conclusion that I indeterminately exist. I agree that that claim cannot be true, but that’s there problem, not mine.

    June 12, 2010 — 12:05
  • John Alexander

    Mike
    Let me be clearer (it may still not be a problem for you).
    “I have rights because I am a person” and “I have rights but I am not a person.” You are denying the 1st, but you believe the 2nd. I am wondering what the ‘I’ refers to in the 2nd statement that is different then what the ‘I’ refers to in the 1st statement. I take it that if the ‘I’ in “I am a person” refers to an entity that has the essential properties that a person has so, that if there is no entity that has the essential properties of a person then the ‘I’ has to referent such that “I am a person” is meaningless.

    June 12, 2010 — 16:38
  • Just to help back up Mike’s intuition. There is the standard argument that if one accepts indeterminate identity, one must deny Leibniz’s law or classical logic (I can’t remember who found this argument). The same argument works for my alleged past indeterminate existence. Basically, just consider the property P of being determinately identical with me. If at t, I don’t determinately exist, then nothing at t has P. But I have P. Hence nothing at t is me by Leibniz’s law.

    June 12, 2010 — 19:11
  • Mike Almeida

    “I have rights because I am a person” and “I have rights but I am not a person.” You are denying the 1st, but you believe the 2nd. I am wondering what the ‘I’ refers to in the 2nd statement that is different then what the ‘I’ refers to in the 1st statement
    John,
    The pronoun in the first sentence refers to something that is essentially a person. The pronoun in the second sentence refers to whatever it is that I am. I don’t take a stand on that, and I don’t think I have to for this argument.
    The same argument works for my alleged past indeterminate existence. Basically, just consider the property P of being determinately identical with me. If at t, I don’t determinately exist, then nothing at t has P. But I have P. Hence nothing at t is me by Leibniz’s law.
    Does this argument come up in Evan’s piece on identity and vagueness? I can’t remember. But it’s exactly right, and would probably move some to 4D. But I’m not sure that’ll help either. If I’m essentially a person, then presumably every stage of me is a person.

    June 12, 2010 — 19:41
  • Jeremy Pierce

    Mike, I’m not arguing for a thesis, so I can’t be begging the question. I’m just asking questions whether your argument begs the question against the other side. It may well be that their arguments also might beg the question against your view.
    I’m not a big fan of vague objects, and I don’t have much like for Hirsch’s view, either. Nevertheless, I’m not happy with semantic views. I’m especially worried about the view that there are all these objects, and it’s indeterminate which one is me. That makes the objects prior to whatever it is that makes me me, and I don’t think material existents are more fundamental than persisting human beings. That strikes me as too anti-realist about ourselves. I’d be a lot more sanguine about David Lewis’ metaphysics (at least about this world) if not for that.
    I’m not sure where that leaves me. Maybe I have to be driven to epistemicism. But I’ve got strong intuitions along these lines, and it’s going to take quite a lot of pull to move me from them.

    June 13, 2010 — 6:43
  • Mike Almeida

    Jeremy,
    Anyone who claims that something can indeterminately exist owes us an answer to the question “what is this thing that has the property of indeterminately existing?”. The thing that has the property of indeterminately existing cannot itself indeterminately exist. Why? Because there exists nothing that indeterminately exists. That’s where my claim comes into play. So, it is false that there’s something indeterminately exists.
    If the response is, there is nothing that has the property of indeterminately existing, but there indeterminately exists something that indeterminately exists, then it is again false that there’s something indeterminately exists. So, either way it is false that there’s something indeterminately exists.
    I’m especially worried about the view that there are all these objects, and it’s indeterminate which one is me.
    I don’t see offhand where the semantic view of vagueness alone has this implication. You get this implication if you also assume that you are essentially a person. But that’s a reason to deny that you’re essentially a person.
    That makes the objects prior to whatever it is that makes me me, and I don’t think material existents are more fundamental than persisting human beings.
    That there are objects before there are persons does not make material objects more fundamental than persisting human beings, or not that I can easily see. Suppose you take the view that you are a soul. And take he view that souls are simple. There is nothing more fundamental from which a soul is composed. Yet there may be objects arouond before they are ensouled. But I might not be following the worry here.

    June 13, 2010 — 9:10
  • John Alexander

    “Suppose you place me in a device that replaces all of my brain cells with silicon-based cell-like replicas, but preserves all of the relevant psychological continuity including consciousness, self-awareness, rationality and so on. I would cease to exist but the person standing before you would not cease to exist. You would have killed me, but you would not have killed any person.”
    I do not see that you would cease to exist, or that I would have killed you, unless you are claiming some essential identity to your natural brain cells. Let us call the replaced being MA2 If MA2 knows that MA’s natural brain cells had been replaced by the silicon-based cell-like replicas, and MA’s conceptual framework remains intact, who is it that knows? If it is MA2 that knows then is there a new emerging conceptual framework that will become MA2’s that will include the old MA’s? Does MA2 have the same obligations that the replaced MA has? If it is not MA that knows, is it a new entity that is not a person that knows who has the same rights, etc. that the rest of us have? If MA2 does not know that the switch has been made would MA2 not act as if the switch had not been made and believe that he is MA – teach your courses, maintain your interpersonal relationships, pay the bills that MA needs to pay, etc.? Would MA2 expect to be treated as MA? If so then would not MA2 be identical to MA?
    If you volunteered to have this done, would you claim that you committed suicide so you do not have any of the obligations and liabilities of MA? But that claim would seem ludicrous if made by MA2 in so far as MA2 is alive. What about if MA had it done to save his life – would MA2 status being any different?
    Playing the skeptic here, how do you know this change has not been made?

    June 14, 2010 — 10:04
  • Mike Almeida

    I do not see that you would cease to exist, or that I would have killed you, unless you are claiming some essential identity to your natural brain cells
    Right, John, I arbitrarily assumed that my continuity conditions were purely somatic (Williams believes somethign like this), but I could have picked something else. It doesn’t matter. The entire point is to make it no more than contingently true that I am a person. If it is contingently true that I am a person, I might be killed without any person being killed. All you have to do is preserve the properties of personhood by instantiating them in a new body. Since I am my body (or my brain or a part of my brain, or whatnot) then I cease to exist when my brain does. So suppose they take the brain cells of another person and replace my cells with his. I die. The person instantiated in me goes on.

    June 14, 2010 — 15:39
  • Jonathan Speke Laudly

    Hi, Jonathan Speke Laudly here,
    Exists indeterminately?
    Interesting.
    Separate the existence of a something from the existence of it as a particular thing. One could say that the something exists without reservation or degree.
    But supposing one is not sure whether it is a Y or a Z, possibly be one or the other, don’t know what to call it, in which category to place it, then it seems it could be valid to say that the character of existence as a particular, as a Y or a Z is indeed indeterminate.
    One could argue that existence is actual only in particulars (and that existence generally is only an abstraction from actual particular existences, and not a real entity at all—a kind of nominalist view–that existence never appears sans a particular) so all existences are particular and if what a particular thing is, is indeterminate then that existence is indeterminate. Since existence cannot be separated from what it is as a particular, and therefore existence is the same as-or at least cannot be separated from identity or character—then if the character is indeterminate the existence is indeterminate.
    So, from one view, existence is existence and what a something is appends to existence. From another view existence cannot be separated from a particular (as imilarly, the form cannot in actuality be separated from the color.)
    Who wins? Both views win. They are both valid because they are both points of view. One has problems that are avoided by the other–that is the nature of such stuff.
    It is fun to trot out the effects (and here my view is akin to Pierce): If I assume that existence is particular
    only then the following ……..
    Sure, lots of fun–it is sport, but there is no necessity to any of it. Define things as you will and see what follows.
    ” Can’t we all just get along?”
    Rodney King

    June 19, 2010 — 4:34
  • Tom

    Mike, you think that car accidents, brain damage, etc. cause us to lose the capacity for consciousness, self-awareness, etc. rather than just the actuality of them? Is your intuition on this backed up by the contingent truth that given the types of creatures we are we will never regain those actualities in this life after having lost them?
    My intuition is that having capacities and developing those capacities into actualities is different. And there is definitely a distinction between losing an actuality and a capacity. I think you’d have to argue that losing the actuality entails losing the capacity and I don’t know how I would argue for that.
    It seems that other capacities work that way. I have the actuality of being able to speak English, but in order for that actuality to have been actualized I needed the second-order capacity to learn English, which is further supported by the capacity to learn a language, etc. Say I don’t use English for the next 10 years and forget the entire language. Even in that situation it is clear that I may re-learn English, and if that is the case then I must have kept the capacity to learn English throughout my entire period of having lost the actuality of knowing English.
    So given that capacities just are the types of things that persist through loss of actualities there has to be an argument that in the case of consciousness, etc. the capacity is lost when the actuality is lost. I could see two of reasoning: 1) The above-mentioned idea concerning our contingent inability to regain the specific capacities of consciousness, etc. when lost, which is supported by the fact that being brain-dead is always (as far as I know) a permanent condition, 2) Consciousness, etc. are so high up on the order of capacities that there is something special about losing them that is dis analogous to losing the capacity to speak English.
    Is this your reasoning or something else?

    June 19, 2010 — 17:35