Personal Identity (Fall 1999) / Paper topics

Paper topics

About the final paper and the topics

The following are topics that I am suggesting. They cover most of the important points that we've discussed and, in the case of the last three, some views that we haven't discussed yet. You should be able to use the knowledge and skills that you've developed already in order to answer one of those. If you have any ideas of your own that you would like to write about instead, talk with me about them soon. Formulating a topic is much harder than you think and I should definitely be involved in doing so.

Here's a reminder about the course requirements. Your paper should be between ten and twelve pages long. A draft is due on Monday, 15 November before noon. I will respond to this draft in writing over the subsequent week. The final paper will be due on Monday, 6 December by noon. You should make the draft as good as you can: given the amount of time and attention we're devoting to this paper, my expectations will be high. Feel free to speak with me about it before it is due. If finding me in person is inconvenient, there's always email (\&\#109;\&\#105;\&\#99;\&\#104;\&\#97;\&\#101;\&\#108;\&\#103;\&\#114;\&\#101;\&\#101;\&\#110;\&\#64;\&\#117;\&\#99;\&\#104;\&\#105;\&\#99;\&\#97;\&\#103;\&\#111;\&\#46;\&\#101;\&\#100;\&\#117;). Above all, have fun with it.

The topics

1. According to Locke, "person stands for ... a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places" (§9). Locke's opponents believe that this definition committed Locke to admitting that a person is a substance, such as an immaterial soul or material body. What do they mean and why do they believe this? Locke himself denied that: what is the best rationale for his doing so? What is the truth, in your opinion: is one who accepts Locke's definition committed to thinking that persons are substances?

2. Can it ever be the case that the question "is person A the same as person B?" has an indeterminate answer? Explain what this means: what would be the case if the answer to this question were indeterminate? What is the best reason for thinking that this could be the case? What is the best reason for thinking that it could not be the case? What is the truth, in your opinion?

3.The cancer diagnosis was a death sentence: only one year to live. I started listing the things I could do in a year. It wasn't a bad list: I could live my last year to its fullest. Still, the thought of dying terrified me: I had always thought of my death as occurring off in the indefinite future, at least forty or fifty years away.

I asked Dr. Chiles whether there was any hope at all. He said that there was no hope of eradicating the disease: the cancer had certainly established itself in my body and had started invading the left hemisphere of my brain as well.

"But", he added, "it might be possible for you to survive anyway. We have a brain hemisphere transplantation program that has achieved remarkable success. Since the two hemispheres of your brain are unusually similar in their functional capacities most of your memories, skills, and character traits would survive if your right hemisphere were transplanted into a new, cancer-free body.

"There's another advantage of this procedure. For your kind of cancer, once the right hemisphere is out of the way, we'll be able to cure the left hemisphere and transplant it into a separate body, should one be available. While we couldn't reunite the two hemispheres, we can still keep them both alive in perfectly healthy bodies. Your left hemisphere will, once it's cleaned up, be just as good as your right hemisphere. Of course, you don't have to decide to do that: we could just toss the left hemisphere. But it would be a shame to do that, after all, with this procedure, it's possible for you to beat the cancer twice!

"All we need is a suitable body donor - someone who has suffered terminal brain damage but whose body is otherwise healthy - and, as it turns out, we have two excellent bodies for you in the hospital right now. You don't have to decide right away. You have until tomorrow to decide what to do."

What should I decide? Consider the best arguments for each side.

4. Dad knew he'd never leave the hospital. He was depressed by the place, but he knew that he had to be there if he wanted to stay alive and see his grandkids. But he was always clear about one thing: he didn't want to waste away in a hospital without his wits about him. "I don't want to go on like that," he'd say, "I'd rather die peacefully than live after my mind has gone." So, he signed the forms and gave us the legal authority to withhold care should he become grossly incompetent. He made us promise that we would order the doctors to let him die, if he should be in that position, and not just keep him alive for our own sakes.

Time passed and Dad slipped away. His body was there but his mind just wasn't. He didn't recognize us or the kids, he lost interest in his favorite TV shows, and he shocked us all by making lewd remarks to the nurses. We were embarrassed for him because he had been such a dignified man, but he didn't seem to notice or even care about what we thought. This kind of life was Dad's worst nightmare; but he didn't even recognize that any more.

Last night, we got a call from the hospital: his condition had become serious. Without treatment, he would die in his sleep; with treatment, he would live on indefinitely as he had been. Would we authorize the treatment?

We drove in to be with him. When we arrived, there was a candy striper sitting next to his bed. She took me aside and said this:

"I know that your father asked you to withhold treatment in a case like this. I also know that the law gives you the authority to decide whether this man will receive the care that he needs to live. But what I'm going to say is about morality, not about the law. You should authorize the treatment. You were given the power to withhold treatment by your father, and, if this man were your father, that's what you should do. But your father can only give you permission to withhold treatment from him, not from anyone else and this man is not your father; he's an entirely different person. I've overheard you say just that many times. But he's still a person and he has just as much right to live as anyone. You're no more morally permitted to withhold treatment from him than you would be permitted to withhold the treatment from any eccentric person."

Should I decide to withhold treatment or not? What is the best reason for thinking the candy striper is right about who this man is? What is the best reason for thinking she's wrong? What's the correct decision, in your opinion?

5. Parfit's argument for the Reductionist position goes like this: if we abandon the idea that persons are indivisible, immaterial souls, we are forced to the reductionist conclusions. Does that provide a good reason for reconsidering the soul criterion of personal identity? What is the best objection to saying that personal identity over time consists in having the same indivisible, immaterial soul over time? Which is the better position, in your opinion? (Note: I haven't planned to discuss this particular strategy in the lectures. If you're interested in it, I can direct you to the relevant reading).

6. Garrett believes that personal identity consists in a combination of physical and psychological relations. Garrett also holds that when more than one person at a time has the relevant kind of connections to a previous person the question of which is identical to the previous person should be settled by seeing which comes closest or is the best candidate. Explain Garrett's position and why he takes the positions that he does. What strikes you as the best objection to Garrett's view? How might he defend himself? What is your verdict?

7. According to Lewis, an apparently deep conflict among our beliefs about personal identity can actually be resolved by the supposition of multiple occupancy. What does that mean and why does he believe that? What is the strongest objection to this view? How might Lewis defend himself? What is your verdict?

8. Korsgaard proposes a novel view of personal identity: instead of looking at persons as subjects of experiences and seeking to show what unites all of a person's experiences she proposes that we consider at persons as agents. She argues that if we looked at persons in this way, we would see that it's possible to grant Parfit's arguments in favor of Reductionism and still hold that personal identity matters. Explain Korsgaard's position. What strikes you as the best objection to her view? How might she defend herself? What is your verdict?

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This page was originally posted on 10/29/99; 11:44:58 AM and was last built on 11/5/99; 12:32:26 PM.

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