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Personal Identity, Direction of Change, and Neuroethics

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Abstract

The personal identity relation is of great interest to philosophers, who often consider fictional scenarios to test what features seem to make persons persist through time. But often real examples of neuroscientific interest also provide important tests of personal identity. One such example is the case of Phineas Gage – or at least the story often told about Phineas Gage. Many cite Gage’s story as example of severed personal identity; Phineas underwent such a tremendous change that Gage “survived as a different man.” I discuss a recent empirical finding about judgments about this hypothetical. It is not just the magnitude of the change that affects identity judgment; it is also the negative direction of the change. I present an experiment suggesting that direction of change (improvement or deterioration) also affects neuroethical judgments. I conclude we should consider carefully the way in which improvements and deteriorations affect attributions of personal identity. This is particularly important since a number of the most crucial neuroethical decisions involve varieties of cognitive enhancements (improvements) or deteriorations.

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Notes

  1. Note that in the Phineas Gage case there is clearly some sense in which the pre- and post- accident persons are the same person. If the two were in no sense the same, locations like “not still the same” or “Gage survived as a different man” are nonsensical. The specific notion (or notions) of identity in which I am most interested is the Lockean notion of forensic identity; the sense (or senses) of identity used for attributions of moral responsibility, desert, blame, praise and so on. It is in this kind of sense, I take it, that some intuit that pre- and post- accident Phineas are not the same.

  2. The full question read as follows (in deterioration or [improvement] condition): “Art and Bart disagree over what happened in this story. Art thinks that John before the accident and the man after the surgery are different in some respects but are still the same person. To Art, it seems like one person (John) experienced some changes. As such, Art thinks the man after the surgery should be allowed to request that the data about kind, helpful [cruel, harmful] John is destroyed, since the man after the surgery is still John. Bart disagrees. He thinks that after the surgery, the original man named John does not exist anymore; the man after the surgery is a different person. To Bart, it seems like one person died (John), and it is really a different person entirely that exists after the surgery. As such, Bart thinks that the man after the surgery should not be allowed to destroy the data about kind, helpful [cruel, harmful] John; only John has that right and the man after the surgery is not the sameman. Do you agree more with Art or Bart?”

  3. One way to expand this suggestion is through the language of Bostrom and Ord’s [42] reversal test: “When a proposal to change a certain parameter is thought to have bad overall consequences, consider a change to the same parameter in the opposite direction. If this is also thought to have bad overall consequences, then the onus is on those who reach these conclusions to explain why our position cannot be improved through changes to this parameter. If they are unable to quo bias.” Here the test is not to discover the appropriateness of status quo bias, but rather the appropriateness of improvement/deterioration effects in asymmetric attributions of personal identity (particularly when such attributions have (neuro)ethical implications): (If direction of change is not relevant to personal identity, then) when a change to a certain parameter is thought to lead to persistence/non-persistence, consider a change to the same parameter in the opposite direction; if this is not also thought to lead to persistence/nonpersistence, then the onus is on those who reach these conclusions to explain why such changes lead to persistence/non-persistence.

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Tobia, K.P. Personal Identity, Direction of Change, and Neuroethics. Neuroethics 9, 37–43 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12152-016-9248-9

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