Could we have been born couple years off? Dan-Cohen and the constructive view on personal identity

In the first part of the study I asked to imagine ourselves being born years later/earlier than we already did and assess our identity. Then I described negative positions denying the feasibility of such imaginary scenarios on different grounds.

In the second part of the study I have introduced the positive answer suggesting that our DOB is more like a loosely defined POB (period of birth) including a whole range of identity-preserving possible worlds with the actual world in the centre.

This third instalment will focus on the so called constructive view of personal identity.

In the argument for the permissive, positive, POB answer to our question I have used the concepts constitutive decision, defining project, constructive view. 

These concepts are part of the so called constructive view on personal identity and this view has been briefly, but accurately formulated in the essay Luck and Identity by Meir Dan-Cohen [1]. The context of that exposition is moral luck and agent-regret which was famously introduced into ethics and philosophy by Bernard Williams using the example of Gauguin’s becoming a full-blown artist by moving to Tahiti and leaving his previous personal (and family) life behind. Interestingly the exposition of the constructive view is only part of the argument sustained by Dan-Cohen concerning constitutive moral luck, so it is used as a premise in the argument explaining William’s view. Just like it is used as a premise in our thought experiment to argue for the POB permissive view. We are not going to discuss the moral luck/agent regret context here, as it is not relevant when it comes about considering ourselves being born earlier or later. Our contingent DOB belongs to the realm of circumstances, not to the realm of choices. We cannot formally regret being born at a particular date, or earlier, or later. We can feel sorry about not being born at the right time, but is has nothing to do with regret, but more to do with imagining being someone else (this might sounds trivial to some ears). Our retrospective identity stays fixed while moving our DOB back and forth, but our prospective identity gets transformed and maybe left behind (as some argue in the literature) when imagining being someone else.  

But now, the constructive view. Dan-Cohen introduces the concept as one of the broad conceptions between personal identity and a person’s life. In one case, (let’s call this the fixed view) ‘personal identity is fixed antecedently to or independently of the course of one’s life’ (p7), while the nature of the fixer can be as diverse as a ‘spatiotemporal career of a particular biological organism’ or a ‘noumenal self’ or a ‘pure ego’. So identity is fixed by these diverse entities, fixers and provide necessary and sufficient conditions for identifying as person X. But the other view, the constructive view is the view that ‘“man has no essence” and must create their own’ (p7) and this construction can happen either as self-constitution and/or as social construction. The ‘and/or’ is important here and at first it can be interpreted as an inclusive logical or operator. Dan-Cohen actually says that the human subject is formed ‘most likely through some combination of both’ and I would tend to say that indeed, this is not just an inclusive ‘or’ but a strict ‘and’, assuming both mechanisms at work, to an extent.

But here, our DOB-sliding thought experiment can actually help further elaborate the constructive view. For it actually serves as a good tool to separate the 2 subcomponents, the self and the social, of the constructive view from each other, and establish their range of effect on personal identity. Once X has a defining project, constitutive of their identity, X can evaluate the role, self and social construction played in picking out the project. And here, there are projects where apparently the self-constructive part plays a bigger role, or the social part becomes dominant. For the earlier, think of somebody who becomes an artist, for the latter think of somebody who becomes a climate activist for life. And here, under the social component I would tend to include the historical, cultural, zeitgeist component too. There’s no better time to become a climate activist than today.

Under there constructive view it’s the content, the story, the dynamics of one’s life that does matter, under the fixed view, things stay static pointing back to the fixer indifferently of the content, the human trajectory (not the spatio-temporal career of a biological organism, whatever that means) of the person’s life. Under the fixed view it’s the form of the fixer that matters in its formal, and hence quite empty, relation to a particular life. 

Another way to frame the difference between the 2 views according to Dan-Cohen is the type of counterfactuals they make possible. Here the fixed view’s formality and neutrality makes it super-flexible in terms of imagining the life course and experiences taken. But the constructive view is more restricted as it imposes a threshold, however loosely that threshold is defined, that excludes so called identity-disrupting counterfactuals, where the variation on X’s life becomes intolerable so we (best to restrict this to the actual person being the subject/object of the though experiment) cannot imagine the same person. The example Dan-Cohen mentions is the incoherent tenseless interpretation of the counterfactual of ‘I could have been a sailor’.

Let’s finish this post again by investigating and perhaps illuminating further the problem/objection of the last post: is the set of the people who can evaluate the DOB thought experiment as a POB under a permissive view is too limited as the majority of people did not yet find their calling? 

Dan-Cohen’s answers to this objection, in the context of agent-regret, seems to be suggesting that everybody has smaller defining projects, that they are running, so all life stories develop and unfold according to subplots containing elements of choice. There is always somethings providing guidance in all life periods and at all life stages [2][3].

To this view I would add a chemical analogy, that of crystallisation. During the cooling down of a solution, the solvent cannot hold the solute molecules any longer and solid little crystal starts to grow. Some of them grow bigger than others and they might turn into defining projects, providing a view, a perspective from which the life can be understood most completely and as a whole. But the smaller crystals are still there and can organise the subplots.


[1] I learned about Dan-Cohen’s paper via reading the 6th chapter (Not, Never, or Forever Being Me) of Christopher Prendergast‘s Counterfactuals. This book is an exciting attempt to combine philosophy and literature together, and also an attempt to combine a core topic in analytic philosophy (counterfactuals) with the continental tradition.

[2] Kripke, when discussing the properties of genuine proper names, is using the example of Aristotle and different definite descriptions of him, ‘the philosopher who taught Alexander the Great’ or ‘was born in Stagira’, in Naming and Necessity. And genuinely proper names, like Aristotle, are rigid designators according to Kripke, meaning in all possible worlds, where Aristotle exist, they pick out the same object, Aristotle. And an essential property would be such, that it’s true of the object in all the possible worlds, it exists. But Aristotle could have been born in elsewhere and could have not thought Alexander. And concerning DOB, it seems essential that he does have a DOB, but the actual date, time point seems arbitrary, calling for the POB view. When we try to evaluate the properties of objects, like persons, and think of descriptions and how definite they are, the point of view is that of external identification. The big difference in case of the sliding DOB thought experiment is that it concerns self-identification, internal  identification. I am not sure yet whether there are common overlapping features of these two type of identifications and the counterfactual scenarios they allow, but I think it’s worth investigating. One idea would be to think of the case of re-identification and arguing that external identification is usually re-identification, while internal identification cannot literally be re-identification. I’ll investigate this further in the next note. Thanks for suggesting this example and context, Márton Miklós.

[3] Another linguistic approach here, similarly to the Kripkean note above, is that of thinking on the analyticity of the statements involving self/internal identification and looking at the thought experiment from that angle. So thinking about de dicto and de re statements like ‘(Necessarily) me must have been me‘ and ‘Me must have been (necessarily) me’ and evaluating their truth conditions and differences. This leads far away (and for me, a bit of muddy waters) but I might have a lead here to articulate quickly, that is of re-identification. Also this might unite the 2 linguistic (ie. coming from linguistic, philosophy of language context) questions here, the other being rigid designators. Can we say that re-identification is always external and third person while internal identification is always first-person and hence never re-identification? For external identification typically (but not always, think of first encounters) takes the form of re-identification at a later time, trying to match up our knowledge of the object. On the other hand internal identification is not a re-identification as internal identification is (normally) a continuous process, a sustained impression, a natural state of being. I something is continuous then there’s no need to a re-entry point in the identification process, so no need to do re-identification. Even in the case of the sliding DOB thought experiment, I either imagine myself born at a different time and realise it’s perfectly contingent and possible (‘doable’) for me or I have other reasons (described in the first part fo the study) to think it’s not possible. But it is not the case that first I move myself into a different possible world, where I have been born years off and then ask myself about this person with a new initial condition emerging, whether this person is me, so trying to do a re-identification? And what connects re-identification to analyticity of self-statements (at least to me right now) is that if ‘Me must have been (=is necessarily) me’ then a temporal, at all times interpretation of ‘necessarily’ exulted re-identification as it expresses continuous identification. Lot think on this one, but it’s not crucial for the thought experiment. Thanks for suggesting ‘almost analyticity’, András Simonyi.