Review of a book that may be of interest to the list.

Brent Meeker

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Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

2009-02-26 : View this Review Online
<> : View Other NDPR Reviews

David Shoemaker, /Personal Identity and Ethics: A Brief Introduction/,
Broadview Press, 2009, 296pp., $26.95 (pbk), ISBN 9781551118826.

*Reviewed by Amy Kind, Claremont McKenna College*


Although there are many excellent texts dealing with the metaphysics of
personal identity, Shoemaker's /Personal Identity and Ethics/ is the
first book I know to tackle in such an extended way the question of the
relationship between personal identity and our practical concerns. It is
a very welcome addition to the philosophical literature. While even
experts on the subject of personal identity will undoubtedly learn
something new from this rich discussion, I expect the book's primary use
will be in undergraduate (and perhaps graduate) classes, and its
exceptionally clear presentation of some very thorny issues makes it an
excellent choice for this purpose.

Shoemaker has divided his discussion of the relationship between
personal identity and our practical concerns into two broad parts. The
first half of the book focuses on our self-regarding practical concerns.
Which theories of personal identity make it rational for us to
anticipate an afterlife? More generally, when is it rational for someone
to anticipate, or have self-regarding concern about, a future
experience? The second half of the book focuses on other-regarding
practical concerns. What light can theories of personal identity shed on
ethical issues at the beginning of life, such as abortion, genetic
intervention, and the creation of life through cloning? What light can
they shed on ethical issues at the end of life, such as the legitimacy
of advance directives? What can they tell us about the proper treatment
(or "cure") in cases of multiple personalities? What role should
theories of personal identity play in our assessment of moral
responsibility? What is the relationship between personal identity and
ethical theory, and in particular, do certain theories of personal
identity make certain ethical theories more plausible?

Shoemaker's first chapter focuses on the question of whether an
individual can survive the death of her body, and he frames his
discussion around John Perry's /Dialogues Concerning Personal Identity
and Immortality/. (Those adopting Shoemaker's book for classroom use
would likely want to assign these /Dialogues /along with it.) He also
introduces four different theories of personal identity -- the Soul
Criterion, the Body Criterion, the Memory Criterion, and the Brain-Based
Memory Criterion -- each of which is ultimately dismissed as inadequate.
Though Shoemaker argues that the last three views suffer from serious
problems that prevent them from being plausible accounts of our identity
over time, he offers a different sort of argument against the Soul
Criterion: There are good practical reasons to "insist on a tight
connection between the nature of personal identity and our practical
concerns, and thus reject any theory of personal identity -- like the
Soul Criterion -- that denies this connection." (33) Even if souls
exist, we lack any kind of epistemic access to them; rather, we
reidentify individuals in terms of their bodies and/or their
psychologies. Thus, souls are irrelevant to the practical issues under
consideration, and this irrelevance is taken to justify the rejection of
the Soul Criterion. Whether we're right to insist on such a tight
connection between the nature of personal identity and our practical
concerns is a question that recurs throughout the book, but which
Shoemaker addresses in the concluding chapter. I'll return to this issue

In the second chapter, which deals primarily with the problem of when we
can rationally have self-regarding concern about a future experience,
Shoemaker discusses what he takes to be the "two most sophisticated
theories of personal identity on offer" (112): the Psychological
Criterion and the Biological Criterion, often called /Animalism/. Like
the book as a whole, this chapter is admirably clear as it rehearses the
standard considerations for and against each of the two views. Having
argued that proponents of these criteria end up in a kind of stand-off
-- each view faces a set of problems that are overall roughly equal in
seriousness -- Shoemaker uses the third chapter to introduce two
alternative approaches: the Narrative Identity Criterion and the
Identity Doesn't Matter view (IDM).

Unlike the previous theories considered, the Narrative Identity
Criterion proposed by Marya Schechtman aims to explain what makes an
individual who she is rather than to offer a theory of her numerical
identity over time. On this view, an experience or action can be
properly attributed to an individual only if it is correctly
incorporated into the self-told story of her life. This criterion seems
tailor-made to account for our rational anticipation and self-concern;
as Shoemaker puts it, "rational anticipation requires the kind of
personhood and psychological unity that only narrative identity
delivers." (95) However, Shoemaker suggests that the Narrative Identity
Criterion fails to account for other practical concerns, such as our
ability to reidentify other individuals, and sometimes has trouble even
accounting adequately for rational anticipation and self-concern. When I
am concerned about whether I will survive a medical procedure, for
example, I may want to know whether whoever wakes up from that procedure
will be /me/, a question that seems to depend on numerical identity.
Finally, Shoemaker also suggests that the Narrative Identity Criterion
suffers from some fundamental unclarities, for example, whether it is
meant to be a prescriptive or descriptive theory. So, while he deems
this alternative to traditional theories of personal identity worthy of
our continued consideration, the view appears to face its own set of
problems which are as serious as those of the Psychological Criterion or
the Biological Criterion.

Shoemaker reaches a similar conclusion about IDM, Derek Parfit's view
that what matters for survival is not identity but rather psychological
continuity. Unlike identity, psychological continuity is not a 1:1
relation; an individual at time t1 may be psychologically continuous
with two individuals at time t2. But, as Shoemaker explains, the IDM
view claims that it can be rational for the first individual to
anticipate both of the two later individuals' experiences, even though
the first individual will be identical to neither of them:

What matters in ordinary survival -- what I look forward to in
day-to-day survival -- is that the person who wakes up in my bed, say,
will remember my life, act on my intentions, see and approach the world
as I would have, love and take care of the things I love and take care
of, and so forth. And whether or not there is one person or there are
two people who will do this is -- at least to some extent --
unimportant. (107-8)

Furthermore, because psychological continuity comes in degrees, the IDM
view implies that our practical concerns themselves may be matters of
degree. For example, a teenager likely has considerably more
psychological continuity with her middle-aged self than with her
retirement-age self, so according to the IDM view, she should care more
about her middle-aged self. Following Mark Johnston, Shoemaker
criticizes the IDM view for this radical implication. The IDM view is
motivated in large part by consideration of fission cases, which we
never confront in real life. Thus, though there might be possible
situations in which identity doesn't matter, given the actual situation
in which we find ourselves, it seems reasonable for us to ground our
practical concerns in facts about numerical identity.

The subsequent chapters on other-regarding concerns in the second half
of the book suggest, however, that Shoemaker does not find this
objection compelling. More generally, although Shoemaker aims to remain
neutral throughout the book about which of the four contending theories
(the Psychological Criterion, the Biological Criterion, the Narrative
Criterion, and the IDM view) we should adopt, his discussion at times
seems to betray a sympathy for the IDM view. In Chapters Four and Five,
for example, after surveying various ethical issues concerning the
beginning of life, Shoemaker reaches the tentative conclusion that
whichever metaphysical theory turns out to be correct, there are no
identity-based objections to the morality of practices such as abortion,
stem cell research, genetic intervention, or cloning. This finding
relates to a general strategic approach he cautiously recommends for
dealing with ethical issues: "we might get more traction in applying
metaphysics to morality if we perhaps focused less on identity per se
and more on the direct psychological and physical relations in which
identity might consist." (173) This strategy seems directly to favor the
IDM view.

Consider also his rebuttal of Don Marquis' influential anti-abortion
argument. On Marquis' view, the wrongness of killing an individual can
be explained in terms of the value that her future has to her; he then
argues that abortion is morally impermissible because a fetus has a
valuable future just as we do. Against this, Shoemaker suggests we can
best understand the value of an individual's future in terms of facts
about her psychological continuity with her future self. In looking
ahead to the future, I want someone to exist who is psychologically
continuous with me -- who remembers my experiences, who will care about
and carry out my current plans, and so on. Whether or not I am identical
to that person is less important than whether she bears the right
psychological relations to me. But if what matters for having a valuable
future is psychological continuity, then fetuses cannot have valuable
futures like ours; since they lack basic psychological capacities, they
cannot have any psychological continuers. Thus, according to Shoemaker,
Marquis' argument fails. Importantly, however, Shoemaker's discussion
relies on intuitions about various hypothetical fission cases to
motivate his claim about what makes our futures valuable, and someone
disinclined to accept the IDM view might not share his intuitions about
the fission cases -- or might, like Johnston, worry that these
intuitions do not generalize. Though I myself am inclined to agree with
Shoemaker's general line of response to Marquis, I do not always share
his intuitions about the cases he uses to motivate this response, and I
thus wish the discussion did not rely so heavily on those cases.

Chapter Six, which takes up questions about the legitimacy of advance
directives and about the proper way to treat Dissociative Identity
Disorder (DID), is to my mind one of the richest in the book. As
Shoemaker himself notes, when DID is invoked in discussions of personal
identity, it is usually in the context of the "one body/one person"
principle. The distinct personalities of someone with DID, which may
seem to correspond to distinct persons, pose a challenge to this
principle. Shoemaker takes up a related but different issue, namely,
that if these multiple personalities are distinct persons, then certain
kinds of psychiatric treatments seem to be morally questionable.
Attempts to eliminate some of the personalities, or even to integrate
them, might be akin to murder. In Shoemaker's discussion of this issue,
he manages to navigate through some difficult philosophical terrain
without getting unnecessarily bogged down, and also without
oversimplifying. I can easily see the material on DID stimulating lively
conversation in an undergraduate class, perhaps in conjunction with the
material on the Christine Beauchamp case in Kathleen Wilkes' /Real
Persons/ (which Shoemaker cites). I expect the discussion of advance
directives would likewise make for compelling classroom dialogue. Though
most of us share the strong intuition that an individual has the moral
authority to dictate the terms of her future medical treatment, it turns
out to be enormously difficult to find the grounds for that moral
authority. Shoemaker's treatment of the issue does an excellent job of
making this difficulty vivid.

This chapter also raises an intriguing methodological question --
namely, what role our moral intuitions should play in our evaluation of
theories of personal identity. If a theory of personal identity cannot
account for our intuition about the moral permissibility of advance
directives, for example, then does this count against the theory? Or, if
we have a theory that otherwise does quite well in accounting for
personal identity, should we re-evaluate our intuition about advance
directives? This general methodological question about the role of
intuitions (which arises again in Chapter Eight, "Personal Identity and
Ethical Theory") relates to another intriguing methodological question
that recurs throughout the book, arising most prominently in Shoemaker's
discussion of moral responsibility in Chapter Seven: "should we simply
try to account for our practices as they are, or should we insist that
our practices must depend on the metaphysical truth, whatever that turns
out to be?" (238) These methodological questions, having been explicitly
set aside for most of the book, are finally taken up in the concluding
chapter, "Notes on Method." To my mind, however, this chapter falls a
bit short of expectations. Given the importance of these methodological
questions to the enterprise in which Shoemaker is involved, I had hoped
that he would be able to provide more of a defense of his own
methodological assumptions -- why, for example, certain intuitions that
we have about practical concerns are treated as virtually untouchable.

It turns out that when we try to clarify our intuitions, as Shoemaker
himself recognizes, they may turn out to be inconsistent -- or, even if
they can be made consistent, it is still hard to see how they could all
be compatible with a single theory of personal identity, or indeed, with
a single theory of the relation between personal identity and ethics. I
would have thought that this is a reason to reevaluate these intuitions,
i.e., that we have compelling grounds to give some of them up, even if
they are deeply held. But Shoemaker draws a different, and to my mind,
surprising conclusion. In his view, we should adopt pluralism about the
relation between identity and ethics, that is, we should accept "that
there is no single relation between identity and ethics, but instead
there are multiple relations, each depending on the methodological
approach one takes to the relation." (283) If I understand what he means
by this, however, it implies that there is no single correct criterion
of personal identity. Rather, the question of numerical identity -- "is
X at time t1 identical to Y at time t2?" -- is ambiguous; sometimes we
mean X and Y qua agents, sometimes X and Y qua human animals, etc.
Different practical concerns require us to read the question in
different ways.

In his brief defense of pluralism, Shoemaker acknowledges that the view
"is all fairly complicated, messy, and disunified." But, as he says, "it
could well be that the truth about the relation between personal
identity and ethics, like persons themselves, is complicated, messy, and
disunified." (284) Though I recognize that we cannot always clean up the
philosophical messes in which we find ourselves, I think we must be sure
not to give up too easily. Particularly in light of the many instances
throughout the book where the messy issues were explicitly put on hold
until the final chapter, I had high expectations for the methodological
discussion -- expectations that unfortunately were not met. I should be
clear, however, that my disappointment with the concluding chapter does
not alter my opinion that the book as a whole is an excellent treatment
of the relationship between personal identity and ethics, and one that I
would highly recommend to any professor looking for a textbook for a
class addressing these issues.

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