Me & Mine: Personal Identity and Property: A Tangled Web

    • Cover Photo
    • Presentation speakers
      • Simon Cushing, University of Michigan-Flint, USA


    Since John Locke, philosophers in the Western tradition have argued over the criteria of personal identity, specifically, what it is that makes me now one and the same person as the person I regard as having been me ten years ago, as well as the person I expect to be in ten years. Locke himself suggested that we should distinguish the person, whose criteria were psychological, from the human, whose criteria were biological, and the divide between which is more essentially constitutive of any individual persists to this day, with champions on either side. All theories of person identity through time, however, are challenged by the puzzle of potential fission. What if there are two entities (B and C), each of which would individually meet the criteria of being the same as a single individual (A) that predates them, but which coexist? Which of B and C can lay claim to being the same person as A? It is normally accepted that both cannot, because of the logic of identity (if A = B and A = C then B must equal C, but since B does not equal C, one of the two prior claims must fail). The philosopher who did most to advance the topic of personal identity over the past fifty years, Derek Parfit, has one of the most novel and powerful responses to the fission issue. Parfit argues that we should stop caring about identity and instead be happy that A “survives” in both B and C. I will defend a variant of Parfit’s view against critics but then raise and discuss further problems that it faces. First, one of the reasons why we care about personal identity is because it settles property issues. If it was me who painted a particular painting, then that appears to give me a claim to own it now if there is a dispute on this topic between me and my sister. But at the same time, what makes me the same person as the one who painted it is that the memory of painting it is rightfully mine. Thus sameness of self settles property but sameness of self presupposes a notion of property (whereby my body and my memories belong to me). Is this a vicious circle? Furthermore, the fission issue also raises thorny property issues: if both B and C equally lay claim to being A, then how do they settle which of them gets which of his items of property? I will argue that personal identity may actually be more of a legal/normative concept and less a subject to be settled by the metaphysicians than debate since Locke has suggested.