Personal Identity by Derek Parfit

1917 Words8 Pages
In his 1971 paper “Personal Identity”, Derek Parfit posits that it is possible and indeed desirable to free important questions from presuppositions about personal identity without losing all that matters. In working out how to do so, Parfit comes to the conclusion that “the question about identity has no importance” (Parfit, 1971, p. 4.2:3). In this essay, I will attempt to show that Parfit’s thesis is a valid one, with positive implications for human behaviour. The first section of the essay will examine the thesis in further detail and the second will assess how Parfit’s claims fare in the face of criticism.

Problems of identity' class='brand-secondary'>personal identity generally involve questions about what makes one the person one is and what it takes for the same person to exist at separate times (Olson, 2010). Parfit aims to defend the following two claims about personal identity:

1. That sometimes questions about personal identity have no clear answer; and
2. That we can still answer important questions about, for example, responsibility, memory and survival even though we cannot answer questions of identity.

Although he admits that some of these important questions do presuppose personal identity, Parfit believes that we can overcome this problem by prizing these questions apart from the notion of personal identity.

Parfit uses a famous case of division (or fission), as imagined by Wiggins (1967), to illustrate his claim that identity is not what matters in survival. When A’s brain is split into two parts, each housed within two separate, brainless bodies (B and C) it seems that we have three options. We either believe that:

1. A has ceased to exist;
2. A survives as B or C; or
3. A survives as both B and C.

Parfit objects to the firs...

... middle of paper ...

...ion is not an easy one to refute, though I believe that rather than disallowing all exotic thought experiments we should perhaps judge the suitability of each individual scenario on its own merits. This appears to be a more achievable task.

Parfit readily admits that the idea that we can retain all that matters without identity is a counter-intuitive one. However, I believe that it stands up well to criticism and that it appears to have significant positive implications for morality and responsibility. In undermining the importance of identity, Parfit also attacks self-interested principles:

“Egoism, the fear or not near but of distant death… are not, I think, wholly natural or instinctive. They are all strengthened by the beliefs about personal identity which I have been attacking. If we give up these beliefs, they should be weakened” (Parfit, 1971, p. 4.2:14).
Open Document