Why I’m not giving up on my ego

This spring, I finally got round to reading Derek Parfit’s famous work, Reasons and Persons. Published in 1984, the book is often cited as a key inspiration for subsequent developments in moral philosophy, notably the field of population ethics and the Effective Altruism movement. (Both of which, incidentally, are closely associated with Oxford University, the institution where Parfit himself worked until his death in 2017). I found Reasons and Persons every bit the masterpiece many have made it out to be – a work not just of rich insight, but also of persuasive humility and charm. For this reason, and because some themes of the book resonate with certain cultural trends today, I thought it would be worth saying something about why Parfit did not win me over to his way of seeing the world.

In Reasons and Persons, Parfit takes on three main issues:

  1. He makes numerous arguments against the self-interest theory of rationality, which holds that what is most rational for any individual to do is whatever will benefit him or her the most;
  1. He argues for a Reductionist theory of identity, according to which there is no “deep further fact” or metaphysical essence underpinning our existence as individual persons, only the partial continuity of psychological experiences across time;
  1. He argues for the moral significance of future generations, and searches (unsuccessfully, by his own admission) for the best way to recognise that significance in our own decisions.

I want to consider (2), Parfit’s Reductionist view of identity. On my reading, this was really the lynchpin of the whole book. According to Parfit, we are inclined to believe there is a “deep further fact” involved in personal identity – that our particular bodies and conscious minds constitute an identity which is somehow more than the sum of these parts. If your conscious mind (your patterns of thought, memories and intentions) managed somehow to survive the destruction of your body (including your brain), and to find itself in a replica body, you may suspect that this new entity would not be you. Likewise if your body continued with some other mind. In either case some fundamental aspect of your personhood, perhaps a metaphysical essence or soul or self, would surely have perished along the way.

Parfit says these intuitions are wrong: there simply is no further fact involved in personal identity. In fact, as regards both a true understanding of reality and what we should value (or “what really matters,” as he puts it), Parfit thinks the notion of persons as bearers of distinct identities can be dispensed with altogether.

What really matters about identity, he argues, is nothing more than the psychological continuity that characterises our conscious minds; and this can be understood without reference to the idea of a person at all. If your body were destroyed and your mind transferred to a replica body, this would merely be “about as bad as ordinary survival.” Your mind could even find itself combined with someone else’s mind, in someone else’s body, which would no doubt present some challenges. In both cases, though, whether the new entity would “really be you” is an empty question. We could describe what had taken place, and that would be enough.

Finally, once we dispense with the idea of a person as bearer of a distinct identity, we notice how unpersonlike our conscious minds really are. Psychological continuity is, over the course of a life, highly discontinuous. Thought patterns, memories and intentions form overlapping “chains” of experience, and each of these ultimately expires or evolves in such a way that, although there is never a total rupture, our future selves might as well be different people.

As I say, I found these claims about identity to be the lynchpin of Reasons and Persons. Parfit doesn’t refer to them in the other sections of his book, where he argues against self-interest and for the moral significance of future generations. But you can hardly avoid noticing its relevance for both. Parfit’s agenda, ultimately, is to show that ethics is about the quality of human experiences, and that all experiences across time and space should have the same moral significance. Denying the sanctity of personal identity provides crucial support for that agenda. Once you accept that the notion of an experience being your experience is much less important than it seems, it is easier to care more about experiences happening on the other side of the planet, or a thousand years in the future.

But there is another reason I was especially interested in Parfit’s treatment of identity.  In recent years, some friends and acquaintances of mine have become fascinated by the idea of escaping from the self or ego, whether through neo-Buddhist meditation (I know people who really like Sam Harris) or the spiritualism of Eckhart Tolle. I’m also aware that various subcultures, notably in Silicon Valley, have become interested in the very Parfitian idea of transhumanism, whereby the transferal of human minds to enhanced bodies or machines raises the prospect of superseding humanity altogether. Add to these the new conceptions of identity emerging from the domain of cultural politics – in particular, the notion of gender fluidity and the resurgence of racial essentialism – and it seems to me we are living at a time when the metaphysics of selfhood and personhood have become an area of pressing uncertainty.

I don’t think it would be very productive to make Reasons and Persons speak to these contemporary trends, but they did inform my own reading of the book. In particular, they led me to notice something about Parfit’s presentation of the Reductionist view.

In the other sections of the Reasons and Persons, Parfit makes some striking historical observations. He argues for a rational, consequentialist approach to ethics by pointing out that in the modern world, our actions affect a far larger number of people than they did in the small communities where our traditional moral systems evolved. He reassures us of the possibility of moral progress by claiming that ethics is still in its infancy, since it has only recently broken free from a religious framework. In other words, he encourages us to situate his ideas in a concrete social and historical context, where they can be evaluated in relation to the goal of maximising human flourishing.

But this kind of contextualisation is entirely absent from Parfit’s treatment of identity. What he offers us instead is, ironically, a very personal reason for accepting the Reductionist view:

Is the truth depressing? Some may find it so. But I find it liberating, and consoling. When I believed that my existence was such a further fact, I seemed imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.

Parfit goes on to explain how accepting the Reductionist view helps him to reimagine his relationship to those who will be living after he has died. Rather than thinking “[a]fter my death, there will be no one living who will be me,” he can now think:

Though there will later be many experiences, none of these experiences will be connected to my present experiences by chains of such direct connections as those involved in experience-memory, or in the carrying out of an earlier intention.

There is certainly a suggestion here that, as I said earlier, the devaluation of personal identity supports a moral outlook which grants equal importance to all experiences across time and space. But there is no consideration of what it might be like if a significant number of people in our societies did abandon the idea of persons as substantive, continuous entities with real and distinct identities.

So what would that be like? Well, I don’t think the proposition makes much sense. As soon as we introduce the social angle, we see that Parfit’s treatment of identity is lacking an entire dimension. His arguments make us think about our personal identity in isolation, to show that in certain specific scenarios we imagine a further fact where there is none. But in social terms, our existence does involve a further fact – or rather, a multitude of further facts: facts describing our relations with others and the institutions that structure them. We are sons and daughters, parents, spouses, friends, citizens, strangers, worshippers, students, teachers, customers, employees, and so on. These are not necessarily well-defined categories, but they suggest the extent to which social life is dependent on individuals apprehending one another not in purely empirical terms, but in terms of roles with associated expectations, allowances and responsibilities.

And that, crucially, is also how we tend to understand ourselves – how we interpret our desires and formulate our motivations. The things we value, aim for, think worth doing, and want to become, inevitably take their shape from our impressions of the social world we inhabit, with its distinctive roles and practices.

We emulate people we admire, which does not mean we want to be exactly like them, but that they perform a certain role in a way that we identify with. There is some aspect of their identity, as we understand it, that we want to incorporate into our own. Likewise, when we care about something, we are typically situating ourselves in a social milieu whose values and norms become part of our identity. Such is the case with raising a family, being successful in some profession, or finding a community of interest like sport or art or playing with train sets. It is also the case, I might add, with learning meditation or studying philosophy in order to write a masterpiece about ethics.

There is, of course, a whole other tradition in philosophy that emphasises this interdependence of the personal and the social, from Aristotle and Hegel to Hannah Arendt and Alasdair MacIntyre. This tradition is sometimes called communitarian, by which is meant, in part, that it views the roles provided by institutions as integral to human flourishing. But the objection to Parfit I am trying to make here is not necessarily ethical.

My objection is that we can’t, in any meaningful sense, be Reductionists, framing our experiences and decisions as though they belong merely to transient nodes of psychological connectivity. Even if we consider personhood an illusion, it is an illusion we cannot help but participate in as soon as we begin to interact with others and to pursue ends in the social world. Identity happens, whether we like it or not: other people regard us in a certain way, we become aware of how they regard us, and in our ensuing negotiation with ourselves about how to behave, a person is born.

This is, of course, one reason that people find escaping the self so appealing: the problem of how to present ourselves in the world, and of deciding which values to consider authentically our own, can be a source of immense neurosis and anxiety. But the psychological dynamics from which all of this springs are a real and inescapable part of being human (there is a reason Buddhist sages have often lived in isolation – something I notice few of their contemporary western descendants do). You can go around suppressing these thoughts by continuously telling yourself they do not amount to a person or self, but then you would just be repeating the fallacy identified by Parfit – putting the emphasis on personhood rather than on experiences. Meanwhile, if you actually want to find purpose and fulfilment in the world, you will find yourself behaving like a person in all but name.

To truly step outside our identities by denying any further fact in our existence (or, for that matter, by experiencing the dissolution of the ego through meditation, or fantasising about being uploaded to a machine) is at most a private, intermittent exercise. And even then, our desire to undertake this exercise, our reasons for thinking it worthwhile, and the things we hope to achieve in the process, are firmly rooted in our histories as social beings. You must be a person before you can stop being a person.

Perhaps these complications explain why Parfit is so tentative in his report of what it is like to be a Reductionist: “There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less.” I interpret his claim that we should be Reductionists as the echo of an age-old wisdom: don’t get so caught up in your own personal dramas that you overlook your relative insignificance and the fact that others are, fundamentally, not so different to you. But this moral stance does not follow inevitably from a theoretical commitment to Reductionism (and like I say, I don’t think that commitment could be anything more than theoretical). In fact, it’s possible to imagine some horrific beliefs being just as compatible with the principle that persons do not really exist. Parfit’s claim that Reductionism makes him care more about humanity in general seems to betray his own place in the tradition of universalist moral thought – a tradition in which the sanctity of persons (and indeed of souls) has long been central.

As for my friends who like to step away from the self through meditation, if this helps them stay happy and grounded, more power to them. But I don’t think this could ever obviate the importance of engaging in another kind of reflection: one that recognises life as a journey we must all undertake as real persons living in a world with others, and which requires us to struggle to define who we are and want to be. This is not easy today, because the social frameworks that have always been necessary for persons, like so many climbing flowers, to grow, are now in a state of flux (but that is a subject for another time). Still, difficult as it may be, the road awaits.