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  • Personal Identity, Minimalism, and Madhyamaka
  • Roy W. Perrett


The diachronic problem of personal identity is the problem of specifying what it is that makes a person the same person over time. Contemporary Western philosophical theories of diachronic personal identity have tended to be constructed in terms of a quest for the unity relation for persons.1 To specify the unity relation for persons is to specify the relation between person-stages occurring at different times in virtue of which they are all stages of one and the same person. We may think of person-stages as temporal slices of persons, or, alternatively, as temporal slices of the biographies of persons. Either way, there are quite a number of theories on offer as to what the unity relation for persons consists in. These theories can all be classified, however, as being instances of two general types. The first, and currently most popular, type of theory of personal identity holds that the unity relation between person-stages can be specified in terms of a relation that does not itself presuppose identity. This is what Parfit calls "Reductionism":

Reductionism: Personal identity just consists in the holding of certain facts that can be described without making reference to personal identity.2

The alternative type of theory is Non-Reductionism, which denies this claim. Non-Reductionists hold that the unity relation for persons is just identity; that is, what makes a set of person-stages occurring at different times all stages of the same person is simply that they all are stages of the same person. Personal identity is simple and unanalyzable: there is no nontrivial and noncircular analysis of the identity conditions for persons, nothing that personal identity "consists in." Currently this is very much the less popular type of theory of personal identity, but it nevertheless has able contemporary defenders.3

Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons not only defends a Reductionist theory of persons and their identity over time (specifically, a variety of psychological continuity theory) but also seeks to derive normative implications from it. In one sense this is not surprising: Parfit's theory revives and extends various Lockean themes, and Locke had already insisted that personal identity was a "forensic" notion "appropriating actions and their merits." Hence, there is a natural temptation to suppose that a theory of personal identity ought to capture the link between identity and what Marya Schechtman calls "the four features": survival, moral responsibility, self-interested concern, and compensation.4 Parfit's metaphysical and moral revisionism, however, goes much further than this. First, he argues that personal identity (and [End Page 373] hence survival) is a matter of degree because the psychological relation that constitutes identity (Relation R) itself admits of degrees. Moreover the same relation that imperfectly unifies the self over time also connects us with other people. Second, he infers from the imaginary branching cases that "what matters" in survival is not identity, but the holding of the right sort of psychological relation with some future person who may not be identical with you. The central normative implication of all this, so far as Parfit is concerned, is a drift toward impartiality and impersonality, a lessening of the gap between persons since my relation to others is not so significantly different from my relation to my own past and future.

Parfit claims that if Reductionism is true, then the Self-interest Theory (according to which, as rational agents, we each ought to be supremely concerned about our own futures) is false. However, there remain two other possibilities about what it is rational for an agent to seek:

The Extreme Claim: If Reductionism is true, then we have no reason to be specially concerned about our own futures.

The Moderate Claim: If Reductionism is true, then the holding of Relation R gives us some reason to be specially concerned about our futures.5

In Reasons and Persons Parfit held both of these claims to be rationally defensible, although he personally favored the Moderate Claim.6 More recently he seems to have moved a little bit closer to the Extreme Claim, at least insofar as he is now skeptical about the possibility of justifying our...