Thursday, February 08, 2007

A personal identity argument for Altruism

Professor Segal ended his hand out on his talk on personal identity with the brilliant sentence: Which do you want to be?

This at once accords with my “no right answer” pragmatic approach to questions of personal identity whilst at the same time revealing the paradoxical and unstable nature of this solution. To show what I mean I want to talk about the Bernard William's preference ordering question. All A’s memories are erased from A’s brain and put into the brain of B. B’s memories are likewise moved into A’s brain. (I am using “memories” here trying to be as neutral as possible, you can flesh it out with whatever (non fleshy) stuff can be plausibly transferred in this way.). Either A body or B body gets a million pounds after the experiment, the other gets tortured. You are A to start with. Which body gets tortured. It is up to you.

What underlies this dilemma is an assumption of egoism. The personal identity questions can then be thought of as a reductio argument against egoism. Parfit himself took it to be so, although this is rarely spoken of. At the heart of most world religions there is a sense that egoism rests on an illusion, a lie. In Buddhism your real self is no self. In Hinduism there is only one soul, Atman, that is within all of us, the individual ego is an illusion. Jesus Christ tells us that we are all in God and God is in all of us, and we should love each other as ourselves.

In the William’s dilemma the utilitarian or the altruist will be indifferent whether A or B gets tortured, since it is irrelevant whether either is in some sense himself. The egoist is confused though since he does not want to get tortured, but does not know who “he” will be, or where his illusory “ego” or “soul” or “self” will reside. The dilemma can be seen as a reductio against egoism. Asking the egoist "who do you want to be", undermines his very criteria for making the decision.

Let us bring in some “irrelevant” details. Suppose young healthy but bad at business A is running an orphanage and has worked very hard to keep it running, she has dedicated her life to it. She is also humble and altruistic. She is kidnapped by scientists and has her memories swapped with B, a woman she knows to also be altruistic and humble, but to have better business acumen, greater intelligence and an old and cancer ridden body. The scientist offer her this choice: after the experiment, either A body or B body will get a million pounds and inherit the orphanage. The other body will be tortured and killed. The Altruistic A in this circumstance should certainly choose A body and B mind to run the orphanage, since that is the best result for the kids.

Now the question is “which do you want to be?” Let’s ask this of A before the op. Does she live on as the A body with the B mind? Her life’s work lives on. She chose this combination over the other to fulfil her life’s work. But it seems just as reasonable to say that she chose to die in order that B could live on in her place.

What this reveals to me is that the idea that values and desires are intrinsically subjective and not matters of fact seems to crumble in the face of these personal identity conundrums. Although it is true that people are generally more motivated by their own desires that those of complete strangers, this is better explained through ignorance than any intrinsic lack of objective value. I know this is too brief but in the absence of any fact of the matter about personal identity, it seems that value must be objective of necessity. Egoistic desires can then be seen to be irrational if they don’t stem from ignorance.


Anonymous RobS said...

However, Gabe's thinking was general. Not only questions about me and you and him lack clear answers in the thought experiments, but also questions about sofas made of balloons, ashtrays and so forth. These things do not have clear identity conditions, because e.g. a sofa-like appearance almost always goes together with being good to sit on in reality. We've never had to make a choice about which criteria is definitive of sofa-hood, and this openness of the term is in fact intrinsic to it, I think. If you insist that a balloon sofa either is or is not a sofa, then I think that counts towards us saying you haven't fully understood the term the rest of us are using.

How might this apply to your point about morality? Well, virtually any term is susceptible to the above kinds of thought experiments. Just as it's not clear (in the vexed cases) whether that body will be me, it's also not always going to be clear whether such and such is pain, virtue, beauty. So a code of ethics based on any of these should be just as troubled as egoism should be (i.e. according to me, not at all). Admittedly to get these results we'd have to tell some crazy stories in which our ordinary criteria dissociate, but philosophers are practiced at that kind of thing.

But maybe I've missed something particular to the personal identity cases?

1:43 PM  
Anonymous Jonny said...

Thanks for commenting Rob. The morality point I am making is a special case I think. I'm trying to think through it. It is only a reductio against egoism I say. You say nothing has infallible identity criteria so the same argument would work against all codes of ethics. But I think there is a categorical difference. The Williams dilemma requires a particular brand of egoism which involves identity of something important over time. Egoism is a prescription to act always so that I will benefit, where I refers to any future entity who is me. The extreme cases show that it is not always obvious and to a certain extent arbitrary who or what future entities are covered by "me" and what counts as benefiting me. The bizzare philosophy cases aside, there are very real cases, like alzeimers, drunkeness, hypnosis, insanity, addiction and even deception where one might be confused as to whether and in what way the interests and preferences of a particular future entity should have a special motivating force. Compare this with a prescription to always act to promote virtue. The same argument doesn't apply. Granted their maybe borderline cases where an act is neither virtuous nor not virtuous in a clear cut way. Granted also that my opinions about what is or is not virtuous may change over time. But virtue itself will not change, but always remain constant, so there is nothing incoherent or arbitrary about the prescription to always promoting virtue. To always promote my own interests on the other hand is incoherent since even on the most commonsensical views of personal identity, my interests will change over time to such an extent that they may become inconsistent. In the egoist case alone one cannot say that it is just my opinions about what my interests are that changes over time, while my real interests are always the same, since there doesn't seem to be a gap between what my opinions about my interests and my real interests are. If it is asserted that there is such a gap, then egoism is surely defeated anyway, since there has to be something beyond the ego by which to measure what is in a person's interests.

2:50 PM  
Anonymous RobS said...

I suppose I was thinking of egoism as needing huge amounts of hedging and detail before anyone would consider defending it. Once that is done, I think you can get a decent and reasonably stable analysis of what's best that falls under the slogan of being "best for me". You'd need to be clear about how you were choosing to narrow the personal pronoun's reference though, and make some decisions too about which aspects of personal identity matter (which may be held to bring in objective value unless you're asking which bits matter to you, which may be circular). Still, you'd have to similar work with ethics based on virtue or whatever, too.

I wouldn't dispute that simplistic egoism strictly based on a false Cartesian conception of personal identity is unfounded, but that conclusion should not be news. So I guess I'm saying a complicated form of egoism can survive the Williams example, and its being complicated is no disadvantage for it because the competing theories are complicated, too.

10:37 PM  
Anonymous Jonny Blamey said...

Simplistic egoism is unfounded and this should not be news. But my point is precisely that it is news. The assumption of egoism as a preference ordering norm is not explicit in Williams. He makes the assumption that the reader will be egoistic, otherwise the whole paper is unintelligible. If egoism is irrational and incoherent and this is not news, then how is it that a big wig philosopher like Williams can simply assume without argument that all his readers will be egoists?
In the kind of contemporary philosophy I'm reading at the moment, relativistic concepts like "here" "Now" "good" "bad" "possible" are explicated using subject centered worlds. The same assumption of a robust "Cartesian" subject is necessary to even begin to make sense of this.
Utility theories also require a concept of the subject. In order to get a utility scale for a single person, one must assume that her preferences will remain constant over time. One might as well assume that utility is objective, since the differences in preferences from one person to the next need not be any greater than the shift in preferences between a child and an old man bearing the same passport.
The lodestone of capitalism is that value is subjective. If subjective value is as incoherent and irrational as egoism, then this is big news indeed.

10:27 AM  

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