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Importance of Personal Identity Essay

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Updated: May 24th, 2021

Introduction

The question of personal identity has been discussed for centuries and will likely never receive a completely comprehensive answer. However, the discussion itself can prove to be beneficial by creating new perspectives of what describes the continuity of personality between the present person and their future self. This paper will outline the ideas of John Locke and Thomas Reid on the matter and provide an argument that they are still relevant, despite some questionable aspects of their philosophies.

John Locke’s Account of Personal Identity

Before John Locke, the continuity of personality was seen through only two opposing viewpoints. The first stated that the continuity of personality is reliant on the sameness of the body, while the opposing view proclaimed that only the sameness of the soul could signify the sameness of a person. John Locke’s approach was revolutionary at the time, and I believe that it is still valid for the most part, especially with the technological advances that may be developed in the following years. Locke’s account of personal identity stated that only the sameness of consciousness could truly ensure the sameness of personality. Consciousness consists of the person’s memories, thought process, and other cognitive functions. The person can be considered the same if they have the same memories as they did before (Strawson 25). Similarly, if the consciousness of a person could be swapped with the consciousness of another person, they would still be themselves, despite having a different body.

Before the nature of constantly changing organic matter was understood by scientists, John Locke was able to find a solution to the fact that human bodies technically consist of constantly changing organic material while not changing as people. This is the primary argument that I have for his theory being valid even in the modern era. Moreover, theoretically, consciousness can be transferred to a new vessel if people achieve a complete understanding of brain function. Currently, neuroscience is not capable of this, but it is only a matter of time when this becomes a possibility.

Another important aspect of John Locke’s account of personality is how he saw crime as being committed by a person whose memory is unreliable. John Locke believed that since memory is an essential part of consciousness, when the memory of the event is absent from the person who committed the crime, they stop being responsible for the crime itself. While this is an extreme position that would not be seriously considered in the court of law, lawmakers eventually came to a similar conclusion. People with a mental illness that affects their decision-making are not treated the same way in court as those that are mentally healthy. Often the action caused by the disease is punished by different means, including forced hospitalization with the purpose of therapy. I believe that this is a fair position to take in such cases, and it shows the relevance of John Locke’s position.

Brave Officer Problem and Possible Responses From Locke

John Locke’s ideas have been examined over the years, and a variety of issues have been brought up. One of the most famous arguments against his account of personal identity was provided by Thomas Reid. Reid did not share Locke’s view that consciousness is the sole signifier of personal identity, and instead, it can be attributed to objects with continued existence. Reid did not agree that personal identity should be defined by such fleeting things as consciousness because people are prone to forget and misremember (Strawson 53). It is impossible to say whether Locke would respond to this in the same fashion that he responded to the breakfast problem. However, a similar counter-argument could be made to this statement. The breakfast problem questioned Locke’s account by saying that if a person does not remember what they ate for breakfast, then why are they still the same person later. Locke responded that while their personal identity may be different, they are still the same person as the majority of their memories are still the same. I will expand this thought after the brave officer problem is discussed.

To illustrate his argument, Reid created a scenario that showcases an issue with Locke’s account. A young boy steals apples from a neighbor’s garden and gets flogged for it. Then years later, he becomes a heroic army officer that steals the enemy flag. Decades later, he is a retired General. The General remembers stealing the enemy flag but cannot remember stealing apples from the garden. The officer still remembers stealing the apples, however. According to the transitive property of identity, the boy and the officer are the same because they hold the same memories. Therefore, the General and the officer are the same because they also have the same memories. John Locke’s idea contradicts the transitive property of identity, however, because it states that the boy and the General cannot be the same person because they do not hold the same memories.

This is a major issue for John Locke’s account, and despite my personal belief in his views, I have to admit that if his account is taken as is, it does not allow for the boy and the General to be the same person. There are multiple solutions to this issue, however. They can be achieved by thinking about the way that Locke addressed the breakfast problem.

The first solution is similar to his original response. While the boy and the General do not have the same identity, they are still the same man. By examining this statement further, it is possible to understand its reasoning. The personal identity of the General is much different from that of the boy. He has lived for decades, made millions of decisions, and changed his mind on his personal beliefs many times. His thought process, motivations, and preferences are not the same as those of the boy who stole apples from the garden. Despite having the same DNA as the boy, the way he sees himself is different. The following question may be asked during this explanation: why are the officer and the boy still the same? They share the same personal identity for the same reason that General does not. The consciousness of the officer is still informed by his experiences as a child. In a certain way, he is still the boy who stole apples because he still thinks as that boy did. Arguably, even his actions are motivated by the experiences of his boyhood. As a child, he stole apples, and as a young man, he stole a flag.

This is not the only way that this question can be answered, however. It is possible to have a slightly different interpretation of John Locke’s account. While he states that consciousness is the criterion that defines personal identity, the question of what defines consciousness is sometimes omitted. I believe that John Locke could address this issue by discussing how a person’s consciousness forms. It is often shaped by people’s environment and experiences. This is why memory is such an important aspect of it. People may choose to forget certain things because they see them as unimportant to their personal identity. As the previous example of the breakfast problem, the memory of breakfast would not have any effect on the identity of the person, so we choose to forget it, perhaps unconsciously. The same could be said of the memory of stealing apples and the General. While for the officer, the memory of stealing apples as a boy might have had great importance, the General replaced it with the memory of his officer days. Consciousness is often created by the person and changes over time. This is why an older person may not act the same as they did as a child. In this scenario, personal identity is not just continuous but evolving and self-defining.

Conclusion

The continuity of personal identity is not an easy question to answer. Discussion of it, however, often leads to new ways to understand humanity. John Locke was far ahead of his time in this respect, as his ideas are proving to be relevant today and perhaps will be used to solve complex ethical questions of consciousness transfer in the future. There are sound arguments against his account, which also need to be addressed in order to have a relatively cohesive theory. However, an examination of his beliefs can bring possible answers to light.

Work Cited

Strawson, Galen. Locke on Personal Identity: Consciousness and Concernment. Princeton University Press, 2014.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Importance of Personal Identity." May 24, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/importance-of-personal-identity/.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Importance of Personal Identity'. 24 May.

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