QTWTAIN: Does the Problem of the Self Undermine Human Rights?

The view that there is no such thing as a personal identity or a self has become commonplace among philosophers. This view is of course counterintuitive, but may very well be correct. Why is it counterintuitive? Well, despite all the changes we go through over the course of our lives – changes that are sometimes “life changing” – we still have a sense of persistence and sameness of our selves over time. (At least, most of us do. There are some mental illnesses that disturb this sense of continuity). It’s “I” who changes, and although I change there is an unchanging entity – me – that goes through the changing process. I or my own self remains the same at a deeper level underneath the changes of some parts of me. I keep my distinct personal identity over time. I don’t have it at birth, but I develop it throughout my early life and keep it until my last second. (Again, conditional upon my mental health, in particular during old age).

At least that’s how I feel. I don’t feel like I’m a different person – at least not literally – compared to the one I was yesterday, even if important parts or aspects of me may have changed today, perhaps as a result of a life-changing experience. I may feel like I’m a different man – figuratively speaking – but it’s “I” who feels like a different man. The same “I” that felt different things yesterday. I’m still Filip, even if I’ve changed somehow, and the people who know me know that I am.

Of course, my sense of continuity does not only resist life changing experiences. Even without such experiences I continually oppose a barrage of more mundane changes throughout my life. Although apparently I look just like I did yesterday, my body is in fact changing every second. I gain and lose matter; my body cells are continually replaced. Over the span of several years, my body matter will be almost completely renewed. (A bit like the parts of the ship of Theseus which somehow remains the ship of Theseus even though every part is replaced one after the other). However, my brain cells typically last a lifetime, so this could be a refuge for the idea of personal continuity. Were it not for the fact that although brain cells don’t die we do make new ones and the combinations and interactions between them change all the time. We learn new things and forget other things. We have new experiences, memories and opinions and lose others. Compared to cellular replacement or life changing experiences, neurological changes such as these should be equally devastating to the notion of persistence of identity over time, a notion which is, apparently at least, a sine qua non for any theory of the self.

So, if it’s true that we can’t assume the same person to exist and persist over time, then what does that imply for that person’s human rights? Human rights typically attach to a human person. If the human person is a myth, then does it still make sense to talk about human rights? The obvious answer would be “no”. Something that doesn’t exist can’t have anything: no attributes, no character and certainly not any enforceable rights.

However, you may have noted the sleight of hand here. It’s not because a person can’t be said to exist over time that he or she does not exist at all. “Synchronic identity” is much more difficult to dispute than “diachronic identity” (although it’s not impossible). We are all persons during that infinitely small period of time that is now. (Even those of us who have multiple personalities or other personality disorders). And that synchronic identity is a sufficient basis of rights, because we need our rights now (we can be harmed, hurt, oppressed and killed now). It follows that if we have rights now, then we always have rights because there will always be a now. The fact that we may be different persons from one now to the next – if that is indeed a fact – is neither here nor there and doesn’t imply anything regarding the need for or justification of our rights. Just as it doesn’t imply anything regarding the need for our physical bodies, at least as long as mind uploading isn’t feasible. The day it becomes feasible we’ll return to the question: is there anything to upload?

Cultural Rights (1): Identity

In political discourse, we often see that individuals, as part of a nation, a culture, a political party or an ideological group (e.g. conservatives and liberals), are subject to a kind of homogenization. Individuals are no longer different personalities but rather parts of a group.

In the case of cultures: every culture has its typical personality, its way of life, its way of being human, its national character or “Volksgeist”. The personal identity is a collective identity. People are specimen rather than different individuals. This cultural identity – Chinese are hard working people, Scandinavians somewhat to themselves etc. – influences or even determines the ideas and behaviour of the individual members of the culture and is formed by the religion of the nation, its language, history etc. An individual is born in a culture and formed by it, from his earliest years on. He cannot choose another one and cannot reject his collective identity. His life follows certain patterns that are older than him and that will live on after him. Everything which may seem at odds with the collective identity is in fact comparable to the small movements on the surface of the sea that may go in different directions but that cannot escape the underlying current. Like the current, the culture may not always be visible but it does determine everything.

If individuals receive their personality from their environment and culture, then the members of one group share the most basic assumptions and convictions. And if that is true, it is a justification of ethnic cleansing, wars for national independence, separation etc. because a mono-cultural society will have fewer conflicts than a multicultural one, given the common identity and convictions of people of one culture. This discourse is common in nationalism.

The same, but less extreme, can be seen in political discourse like the “culture war” in the U.S. We reduce people to the groups to which they belong.

However, all this is based on psychological simplifications. Although it is undeniable that the environment we live in, the culture we belong to and the groups we are part of shape our identity, there is no reason to ignore the possibility of individuals to free themselves from their immediate environment and tradition. The whole world can influence us and we may choose to be extremely individualistic. Belonging and identifying with a group are important, but so are originality and individuality. Human rights are designed to give us the possibility of dissent, difference and individuality.