Friday, February 05, 2010

Korsgaard, Yawgmoth, and personal identity

In “Personal Identity and the Unity of Agency: A Kantian Response to Parfit,” Christine Korsgaard writes:
It is, I think, significant that writers on personal identity often tell stories about mad surgeons who make changes in our memories or characters. These writers usually emphasize the fact that after the surgical intervention we are altered, we have changed. But surely part of what creates the sense of lost identity is that the person is changed by intervention, from outside. The stories might affect us differently if we imagined the changes initiated by the person herself, as a result of her own choice. You are not a different person just because you are very different. Authorial psychological connectedness is consistent with drastic changes, provided those changes are the result of actions by the person herself or reactions for which she is responsible.
She then states the broader thesis that these reflections serve: “the sort of continuity needed for what matters to me in my own personal identity essentially involves my agency” (123).

However, drastic changes that are fully intended consequences of one's own agency can similarly disrupt one's personal identity. Consider the following story:
Yawgmoth was the cruelest of demons, and he liked tormenting the damned. But his greatest wish was to leave Hell and wreak horrible misery upon the happy people living above. He knew why no demon had ever done such a thing – the gates of Hell were enchanted so that only a creature of pure benevolence could exit. So he learned how to make a potion that would wipe all the malevolence from his mind and replace it with benevolence just for one minute, allowing him to leave and then become cruel again. He poured it into a goblet, strode to the gates, and drank.

But what happened then? Having become a creature of pure benevolence, he recoiled at the horrors that the living would endure if the cruelest demon of Hell was among them. Instead of passing through the gates, he ran back into Hell. And wishing to spare even the damned from the torments of a furious and frustrated Yawgmoth, he bravely pulled a cleaver from the hands of another demon, struck off his own head, and perished.
Intuitively, Yawgmoth becomes a different person after drinking the potion, no less than Dr. Jekyll or any victim of a mad surgeon. That he intends this change and is responsible for it does not make him the same person before and after.

This is not to reject Korsgaard's broader thesis that personal identity has some interesting esential relation to agency. Nor is it to say that intentionally causing the changes in oneself is wholly irrelevant to personal identity – just that it is one among many more or less significant sorts of psychological connectedness.


Michael Drake said...

I like the Yawgmoth story, and it seems to me to relate to a broader, real-world problem for the Korsgaardian account of identity: we do not have cognitive access to the daemons in our subconscious that truly move our "self" to initiate personal change. (Then again, since Korsgaardians don't share such skepticism about the causal efficacy of the conscious self, they won't likely find such devilish details worrisome.)

Stentor said...

I'm not sure how intuitive I find it to say that Yawgmoth became a different person (after all, we still call him "Yawgmoth"). I guess where I get hung up is the question of why it matters whether he's a different person. It seems to me that the purpose of identity-assignment is going to drive judgments of when you're dealing with different people or the same person, and different purposes may have different results. So "Is Yawgmoth the same person after he drinks the potion" is sort of a meaningless question. But it would be meaningful to ask, say, if the potion was stolen and Yawgmoth was captured by the Hell Police before he committed suicide, would it make sense to punish good-Yawgmoth for the actions of bad-Yawgmoth. And that answer may be different than the answer to, say, whether we should count good-Yawgmoth as still being married to bad-Yawgmoth's demon husband.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Hmm, that's a good point, Stentor. I'll see if I can come up with a clearer case.

Benjamin Yelle said...


I think you are right about intentional actions being just one sort of psychological connection among others. That being said, I believe that in PIUA Korsgaard does allow for this (specifically where she makes reference to Parfit's distinction between the "boring events" which constitute our identity (e.g. the beliefs, intentions, etc. which we have and which we haven't necessarily reflected upon) and those aspects of our identity which we have reflected upon and "authorially endorsed". In particular, she argues that those which we have endorsed we stand in a different relationship to (that of authorship) and that such events play a larger part in our identity that so-called "boring events".

That being said, this might not answer the question of whether Yawgmoth is the same person...Taking a Parfitian line one would have to argue that he is not (too much of a break of continuity). The answer from a Korsgaardian perspective is less clear...although I have a sneaking suspicion that it would relate to her kantian view of how responsible we are for the consequences of actions which we endorse and which we cannot know the outcome of.

Stentor: I think you are gesturing toward an important distinction which ought to be made in discussions of personal identity. Namely, that sometimes we are asking question of re-identification (metaphysical in nature) and other times we are asking questions of characterization (moral responsibility, compensation, etc) and that these two are often conflated. David Shoemaker has actually done some interesting work on this issue.