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Constructing Persons: The Psychopathology of Identity

From: Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology
Volume 10, Number 2, June 2003
pp. 157-159 | 10.1353/ppp.2003.0091

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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 10.2 (2003) 157-159

identity, legal fictions, materialism, psychopathology.

Steve Matthews argues that the criteria proposed by Stephen Behnke and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong for establishing personal identity in cases of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) are flawed. Neither brain identity nor memory convergence are adequate grounds for ascribing identity, even in the absence of DID. Someone suffering from DID is no less responsible than a drunkard for the crimes she commits when not in her right—or at least her usual—mind, and perhaps no more responsible than someone suffering from some other mental disorder. We may decide to punish someone suffering from DID for her crimes only when she and her presumed alter both share a brain (as obviously they do) and might—at least after therapy—have memories in common, and only when the alternate personality that led to the crime is herself sane. But we should not pretend to ourselves that this judgment rests upon a clear and uncontentious notion of identity.

It may be that Matthews still shares too much of his opponents' attitude: namely, that there is some matter of fact about identity, or at least some fact about the central principles by which we ascribe or recognize identity. This, at first sight, is the force of his counterexamples: that the Behnke/Sinnott-Armstrong criteria give counterintuitive results and so cannot exactly map the notion that we have in mind. Just so Socrates was able to prove that Justice did not consist in Paying One's Debts, because we would all at once acknowledge that it was not Just (or Right) to restore his sword to a homicidal maniac (or at least that there were real doubts about who it was that really owned the sword). But neither Socrates' nor Matthews' conclusion need be referred to any simple fact. It would not be sensible to say that the maniac had a right to have his sword, or that its keeper had a duty to return it, because we recognize implicitly that the very point of Justice is to do Good. Correspondingly, maybe the real effect of Matthews's counterexamples is to remind us what the point of Judgment is. Is there any matter of fact about identity, or is identity simply a way of saying who it is that should now be held responsible? Joe is not to be held responsible because he is the same person as the one who committed the crime: he is reckoned the same person because he is the one who is here now to be held responsible. That is what it is to be the same person: to be held responsible for what is personally done.

Someone who is not a person at all is not the same person as anyone (although they may be the same creature). And a person is a creature who holds herself responsible, or can do so: who has memories and anticipations to which she lays claim, appropriates as her own. This in turn is possible because (or so it seems) she has acquired the necessary words and customs: because she sees people being held responsible she can also hold herself responsible—or sometimes disclaim all responsibility. She will not always be allowed to escape all blame or credit, merely because her memories are of a self that no longer makes much sense to her, nor even because she has no memories at all of what was done. But this need not be because she is objectively the very same person as the sometime agent; rather, the person she is taken to be is constructed by the legal and moral attitudes of those who judge her. Those attitudes are not necessarily determinate: how exactly the ordinary rules apply in novel cases may be a matter of decision rather than discovery. The connections that ordinarily ground or specify identity are not robust enough to rely upon in DID patients (that, after all, is the trouble). We have to make a decision as to how many connections, of what sort, will count. Similarly, the crew of Enterprise do not discover that the transported Captain is the same person that stepped into the...

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