Think about yourself in 20 years time for a moment. Imagine the person you might become. How do you feel about this person? Do you feel some important, intimate connection with them? Do you think you have a right to prioritise the life of ‘future-you’ over and above that of other people that are alive today? Does the person who lives 20 yards across the street warrant as much concern as yourself in 20 years time?
Figuring out the answer to questions like this is central to the task of moral philosophy. Most people think that each individual is a separate person (i.e. you-in-20-years is very different from the stranger living 20 yards down the street) and that this ‘separateness of persons’ is an important moral fact. This was first explicitly mentioned by John Rawls in his classic work A Theory of Justice, though the concept has much deeper roots. In essence, the idea is this: the fact that I am a distinct person from you and you from me, coupled with the fact that I have a unique, asymmetrical relationship with future versions of myself (and you with future versions of yourself) means that each individual is a special, separate unit of moral concern. We must respect individuals as ends in themselves and not use them as means to more desirable ends. This counts against utilitarian/consequentialist moral philosophies and in favour of deontological theories.
There is, however, a dedicated opposition to this view. Derek Parfit, for example, has famously argued that the separateness of persons is a ‘shallow fact’ about human beings, not a ‘deep fact’. The distinction we draw between you-in-20-years and the stranger down the street is more an arbitrary matter of convention, than a deep truth about who you are. After all, you-in-20-years could have a very different personality and set of beliefs and values. He or she could be much more like the stranger down the street than you currently believe. Why give them more consideration than they deserve? Parfit’s view lends itself to a more utilitarian/consequentialist moral philosophy. Everyone’s life counts as equal in the great felicific calculus.
In his 2009 paper, ‘Natural Separateness’, Tim Christie offers an interesting critique of Parfit’s view. He argues that even if Parfit is right that the separateness of persons is a shallow fact, it does not follow that it does not warrant special weight in our moral theories. On the contrary, a fact can be shallow and still warrant great weight. Christie also goes further and argues that if anyone wants to construct a moral theory that is fit for human beings, then they better respect the separateness of persons. To do otherwise, would be to construct a moral theory that is only fit for hypothetical, non-human beings. In the course of making this argument, Christie makes a number of interesting claims about moral theories in hypothethical alien societies. I want to look at his arguments in the remainder of this post.
1. Parfit on the Shallow/Deep Distinction
Before we go any further, we need to have a clearer sense of what Parfit actually argues, starting with his distinction between ‘deep’ and ‘shallow’ facts. We can characterise that as follows:
Deep Facts: Facts that are part of the metaphysical/physical fundament, i.e. that are not human creations and do not depend on us for their existence.
Shallow Facts: Facts that are not part of the metaphysical/physical fundament, i.e. facts that arise from social convention and practice, and that do depend on us for their existence.
Take a simple example: the borders that exist between different countries. These are shallow facts. They really do exist and they have considerable practical and political importance, but they are the result of social convention and habit (albeit convention and habit that can have centuries of institutional inertia behind it). The borders are not deep facts about the world in which we live. In this sense they differ from geographical landmarks like rivers and mountains which, although subject to some human control and interference, and capable of changing over time, are pre-existent and not dependent on social convention.
One of Parfit’s motivating principles is that when we construct a moral theory, we should give deep facts pride of place. This gets interesting when he turns his attention to individual identity and the separateness of persons. As noted above, Parfit thinks that personal identity is a shallow fact, not a deep fact. The boundaries we draw between ourselves and others are more like the borders between different countries than geographical landmarks. There are two reasons for this. The first is that Parfit is a reductionist about personal identity. He does not believe in the existence of a separate metaphysical soul or person. He thinks that all claims about continuing personal identity are ultimately reducible to biological and psychological facts. In particular, he thinks that psychological facts are what matter to claims of continuing personal identity: if you-right-now share a sufficient number of overlapping psychological states (e.g. memories) with you-in-20-years-time, then you are the same person. If not, then you may really be different people. The fact that we still might think of you as the same person is purely conventional. This then brings us to Parfit’s second reason for favouring a ‘shallow’ view of personal identity. Through a series of ingenious and amusing thought experiments — many of them involving brain transplants and teleportation devices — Parfit thinks we can begin to see the arbitrariness of the conventional boundaries we draw between different selves. I won’t go through these thought experiments here, but you can easily find them online and they are worth reading. They suggest that, in at least some extreme cases, what we think of as a single continuing identity is anything but: it is possible for a single identity to ‘fission’ into two or more identities and for more than two identities to occupy the same body.
If the separateness of persons is not a deep fact, it follows for Parfit that it does not deserve pride of place in our moral theory (contra Kant and Rawls). But then what does? Parfit seems to think that subjective well-being and welfare are the important deep facts. We should focus on maximising or optimising those states of being, not on ensuring or protecting individual identity (except insofar as it contributes to well-being). This leads him to favour an impartial, consequentialist approach to morality. (I should add the obvious caveat that this is Parfit pre-On What Matters, which tries to reconcile consequentialism with other normative theories.)
2. So what if Identity is Shallow?
Tim Christie thinks that Parfit is wrong. He thinks that Parfit overstates the arbitrariness of identity and that even if the separateness of persons is not a deep metaphysical fact, it is still a fact that we ought to respect in our moral reasoning. In making this case, Christie draws inspiration from the work of Christine Korsgaard and Mark Johnston. Korsgaard accepts Parfit’s main point. She agrees that personal identity is not a deep fact. She thinks of it, instead, as practically necessary fact. As biological beings we are tied to the fate of one biological body (at least until we invent the fanciful mind-uploading and teleportation devices that Parfit imagines) and when occupying that body we have to adopt a deliberative standpoint, i.e. we must act as a single rational agent that reasons and acts over time, with the interests of this biological body in mind. So even if Parfit is right that the shallowness of identity emerges in certain extreme cases, there is no easy way to escape the practical necessity of viewing oneself as a single continuing identity. Johnston makes a similar point, highlighting the biological underpinning of the separateness of persons and pointing out that this underpinning is what supports many of our conventional ‘person practices’ (i.e. our practices of viewing and treating each other as separate persons). Johnston doesn’t think that this biological underpinning is our moral destiny, but it does provide a non-arbitrary underpinning to our day-to-day morality.
Christie runs with this critique. He challenges Parfit for his overreliance on fanciful thought experiments. While these thought experiments may provide some reason for us to revise our commitment to the separateness of persons in extreme cases, it does not follow that we ought to revise our commitment in non-extreme cases. Parfit commits the original sin of many analytic moral philosophers. He thinks that one logically consistent counterexample to a moral theory — no matter how distant from our current reality — is enough the undermine the entire moral theory. Sometimes counterexamples have that effect, but not always and not necessarily. The validity of a moral theory may be constrained by certain features of our present reality.
And this brings us to Christie’s main point. He thinks that if consequentialists like Parfit want to provide a theory that is compelling to creatures like us, then they ought to respect the separateness of persons, not dismiss it. It is a natural biological fact, that sets limits on what is credible when it comes to moral commitments and beliefs:
The separateness of human persons has a natural basis in the sense that humans have several natural features that constrain our person practices. First, all humans have a particular history. Access to the particulars of this history is a valuable resource for a human…Second, each human is an individual living organism: humans are physically separate from other things in ways similar to how all organisms are separate from other things. It is empirically false that humans are a ‘super organism’ like, e.g., a hive of bees or a colony of ants. Lastly, most humans are capable of rational prudence. The human ability to plan for the future allows humans not only to weather the tough times nature may throw our way, but also (possibly) to flourish. Planning for the future is one of the key evolutionary resources of our species. These natural features of humans place constraints on our person practices.
But what if things were different?
3. Could our morality be very different? Some thought experiments
The first few sections of Christie’s paper make some important points. But it’s really towards the end that the paper comes to life. After articulating his basic position, Christie tries to further justify it by imagining some very different realities to our own. His argumentative strategy seems to be as follows: if the natural separateness of persons is morally significant (as he believes), then if you could imagine a world in which the natural separateness is no longer true, you would have to radically revise many of the moral commitments we take for granted. The fact that this radical revision would be required bolsters the idea that separateness is currently of great moral significance. In other words, Christie seems to be endorsing the following principle (though, to be clear, he never spells it out in this form).
Christie’s Test for Moral Significance: If a fact X is morally significant, then a world in which not-X were true would require radical moral revision (i.e. significant change to our moral values, duties, practices etc.).
I have no idea whether this test is sound. It seems superficially plausible to me, but I do wonder whether it begs the question against someone like Parfit. He might argue that morally significant facts are, in some sense, absolute and unchanging across possible worlds. So the fact of radical revision would be viewed as support for the claim that X is not morally significant. Nevertheless, and setting that to the side, the thought experiments that Christie uses to carry out his test for moral significance are what really interest me. They ask us to imagine how our moral practices would change in a world in which the natural separateness of persons no longer held true.
Christie runs two such thought experiments. The first is the ‘Merger’ thought experiment:
Merger Thought Experiment: “Imagine a race of beings exactly like humans except that they spontaneously merge bodies (the ‘mergers’). Once every few years, a merger would find him or herself to be a ‘single’ (an unattached merger). The moment two singles come in close physical proximity, the two individuals would reflexively and uncontrollably shake hands, and then the two hands would spontaneously merge. Once fused, the two beings would remain fused for several years; the health and life of each single would be hopelessly entangled with the other. Both members of the pair would be aware of what occurred to the shared appendage: if the appendage is tickled, they both laugh; if the appendage is cut, they both feel pain. Nonetheless, we may suppose that each member of the pair of mergers would still have the same sets of desires, intentions and preferences that he or she had previous to the current merging. Furthermore, consent from both mergers is not necessary for one merger to try to initiate an action, move about, etc., and each merger could thwart or cooperate as he or she saw fit. In most cases, mutual cooperation would be essential for a merger to live his or her day-to-day life. After three or four years as a pair, the beings would spontaneously split and the process would start all over again. Compared to human morality, would these beings’ morality be systematically different? ”
The answer is ‘of course’. Many of our current moral practices fixate on the need for consent in cases of bodily interference, value and protect bodily integrity and privacy, and presume (or work to ensure) individual bodily autonomy. All of these commitments go out the window in the world of the mergers. You can no longer guarantee bodily integrity and privacy. You cannot always protect consent or presume autonomy. A much greater emphasis must be placed on cooperation, mutuality and compromise. When one half of a merger promises to do something for someone else, he or she must get the other half of the merger to go along with that promise. Promising is thus no longer an individual choice; it must be a social/cooperative bargain. Similarly, our practices of holding one another to account and punish wrongdoers would have to change. It would not be right to imprison or physically confine one half of a merger for former actions or deeds of the other half. All in all, in a world in which the biological separateness of persons breaks down, significant revision is indeed required to our moral code. That’s all that Christie needed to show to pass his test.
That said, the world of the mergers is not that alien or unusual. We have some documented cases of conjoined twins (who remain conjoined into adulthood) in which these issues have been raised and considered. These cases, though unusual, do stretch and revise our moral practices to some extent, but maybe they do not ‘radically’ revise our moral practices. That’s why the second thought experiment is more extreme:
Collective Thought Experiment: “Imagine a species of beings that have bodies just like ours but share a common mind: when one of the beings remembers something or imagines an image, the memory or image is common to all (the ‘collective’). When one member of the collective suggests to the common mind a course of action, all members of the collective know of the suggestion and a common intention is reached. All members of the collective are mentally transparent to each other. Benefits and burdens are experienced by all: one member’s pain is another’s. If one member of the collective wins the lottery, all of the members feel the elation of a large windfall. Similar science-fiction examples immediately come to mind (e.g., Star Trek: The Next Generation’s ‘Borg Collective’). For the collective, how would morality be different from ordinary human morality?”
Christie admits that he finds it difficult to imagine what morality would be like for such a species. Individual bodies would no longer be units of moral concern - they would be more like the cells that make up a single collective agent. The collective agent would be what matters; the cells would be just part of the support network. Also, any ideals of individual moral responsibility or accountability would seem to go out the window. It is the collective that is the moral agent and that bears responsibility. Our current practices around corporate agency and responsibility might provide some guidance as to what this would be like, but the collective is very different from a corporation. It’s not just that they share some common goal or plan, they also share phenomenological experiences of the world. Christie thinks this would require a significant revision of our moral practices, which once again suggests that our current phenomenological separateness is morally significant.
4. Some concluding thoughts
I like Christie’s thought experiments. I like pushing the boundaries of our moral imaginations to consider radical possibilities. I think it is valuable to see how depended our current moral beliefs and practices may be on our current biological and social reality. It makes me wonder whether there are possible ‘ways of life’ that are morally valuable but that I just can’t appreciate now because my biological form has set limits on my imagination. That’s not, of course, what Christie was hoping I would get out of it. He was hoping that by considering these radical alternatives, I would appreciate the moral significance of my current biological form. It’s not that I don’t appreciate that; it’s just that I enjoy the imaginative exercise more.
All that said, I do have some doubts about Christie’s arguments and assumptions. I noted some concerns about the ‘test’ he applies for moral significance above. Related to that, I wonder whether he might overstate the radicalness of the worlds he imagines, even the collective world. Authors like Christine Rovane, for example, have argued that the Enlightenment ideal of selfhood is consistent with corporate/collective agency: it’s not that our moral practices are radically changed, they are just targeted at a different level. Similarly, there are long-standing cultural beliefs and practices that advocate in favour of something like the collective (and against the separateness of persons). My understanding of the Buddhist No-Self doctrine, for example, is that it denies the reality of a single phenomenological agent (possibly also a rational, deliberative agent if you follow the work of Monima Chadha) and is often associated with beliefs about the unity of reality and consciousness. So it may not be that radical an ideal for creatures like us.
Furthermore, I do wonder whether the collective thought experiment is logically consistent in its current form. It seems like every presentation of it — including the presentation in science fictional cases like the Borg — involves some retention of individual identity (however slight). Without that retention it wouldn’t really make sense to talk about ‘collective’ thoughts or ‘shared’ experience — if there is just one single thinker or experiencer then there is no sharing. It’s this retention of individuality that makes the possibility so scary or unpleasant. If you actually abandoned it, maybe it would less scary.
I guess that’s just another way of saying that we should imagine these possibilities more fully.