restricted access Multiple Personality and Moral Responsibility
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Multiple Personality and Moral Responsibility

The philosophical literature on multiple personality has focused primarily on problems about personal identity and psychological explanation. But multiple personality and other dissociative phenomena raise equally important and even more urgent questions about moral responsibility, in particular: In what respect(s) and to what extent should a multiple be held responsible for the actions of his/her alternate personalities? Cases of dreaming help illustrate why attributions of responsibility in cases of dissociation do not turn on putative changes in identity, as some have supposed. Instead, it is argued that traditional criteria of rationality and behavioral control apply also to cases of dissociation. It is noted, however, that one can distinguish different kinds of responsibility in cases of dissociation, and that one is responsible for one’s dreams in a different sense from that in which one is responsible for actions one can control and evaluate. It is also argued that in cases of multiple personality it is important to distinguish control over switching of personalities from an alter’s control over its own behavior. Moreover, the author considers reasons for thinking that amnesia is less relevant to attributions of responsibility than many have supposed.


dissociation, dreaming, rationality, amnesia


The philosophical literature on MPD/DID 1 has focused primarily on problems about personhood, personal identity, and the nature of psychological explanation. Presumably, that is because multiples appear to be (or to harbor) more than one person or more than one distinct moral or prudential agent. But philosophers have had almost nothing to say about problems of responsibility in these cases—in particular, the question: In what respect(s) and to what extent should a multiple be held responsible for the actions of his/her alternate personalities (or alters)?

Unlike questions about personhood and identity, this question is not simply an abstract matter that we may ponder at our leisure. Clinicians treating multiples must decide whether it is appropriate—or even just therapeutically beneficial—to hold their patients (or specific alters) responsible for behaviors which they seem unable to control or remember. Similarly, and with increasing frequency, our courts must decide whether a defendant claiming to be a multiple may be held guilty for the actions of one or more alters. In fact, the legal issues can be quite dramatic, and even bizarre. Consider: What sort of individual is standing trial? An alter or the multiple as a whole? Should courts accept the claim that the subject being questioned on the stand is not the same as the subject who committed the crime? If so, other questions come immediately to mind. For example, would it be appropriate for each alter of a criminal defendant to have separate legal council?

Undoubtedly, some will have trouble taking that last question seriously. But no matter how [End Page 37] clear its solution may appear to one’s moral or legal intuitions, those intuitions are seldom as straightforward as they seem. Indeed, one cannot explain or defend them without taking a stand, at least provisionally, on a wide range of thorny philosophical problems. Moreover, the aforementioned questions are merely the tip of the iceberg, and our answers to them have implications extending beyond the courtroom. For example, with regard to forensic contexts Slovenko (1991) asks,

Should a search or arrest warrant be issued for each personality? Must a Miranda warning be given to each personality of a suspect with MPD? May the other personalities exclude evidence on the ground that they were not properly read their rights at the time of the arrest? Would each one of the personalities have to waive his or her rights, or would one waiver be sufficient? Does the doctrine of double jeopardy bar the trial of a personality when another has been put to trial? Must each personality testifying at trial be sworn in and administered the oath?

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These questions have obvious analogues in clinical situations, and also in personal contexts, say, between friends or members of a family, one of whom is a multiple. For example, to what extent should a DID patient be held responsible for the sociopathic (or simply counter-therapeutic) behavior of...