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Arguments against Animalism
Comments on L. R. Baker Persons & Bodies

by Harold W. Noonan  e-mail

Department of Philosophy
University of Birmingham
Birmingham - UK

          In her book Lynne Rudder Baker defends the Constitutive View of persons, the most important component of which is that persons form a distinct ontological kind, a kind distinct, that is, from that of animals, and that the relation between human persons and those animals we call ‘human beings’ is not identity but the relation of constitution.  The most prominent position in the recent literature which she opposes is that known as Animalism, or the Biological View, championed particularly by Eric Olson and Paul Snowdon, according to which human persons simply are human beings who are persons; ‘person’ is a phase-sortal denoting a creature with a particular set of capacities, and there is no distinctive problem of personal identity (anymore than there is a distinctive problem of prophet identity or genius identity)
          In what follows I wish to consider what arguments Lynne Rudder Baker has against the Animalistic position, how convincing they are, and how defensible her own position is against criticism.  I shall also comment on Baker’s attempt to distinguish her own position for that of the most well-known opponent of Animalism, Sydney Shoemaker, whose psychological continuity approach, she suggests faces difficulties that do not confront her own.
          There are two types of argument Baker brings forward in defence of her thesis that persons form a distinct ontological kind: one type appeals to the distinctiveness of human persons and the discontinuity between the psychological capacities of human persons and those of ‘mere’ animals (dogs, cats, chimpanzees etc.).  The other type of argument appeals specifically to considerations relating to the identity conditions of human persons and their distinctness from the identity conditions of ‘mere’ animals and human beings.
          The first type of argument is expressed in passages like this one:

      Those who take us to be essentially like non-human animals want to describe and explain our traits in terms of general biological traits shared by other species.  But the first person-perspective [definitive of persons], whether selected for or not, is a biological surd in this respect.  As I shall argue, it is utterly distinctive and simply cannot be assimilated to traits of animals that do not constitute persons. It is impossible for even the most lovable dog, having no first person perspective, to be dissatisfied with his personality, or to wonder how he will die, or to cogitate about what kind of thing he is….So, if one takes a person to be identical to an animal then one must posit a break in the animal kingdom, between animals with first person perspectives (only us) and animals without them (all others).  On the other hand, if one takes a human person to be constituted by an animal, as I advocate, one can regard the animal kingdom as unified. (2000:16)

Again Baker writes:

      The first person perspective, or the abilities that it brings in its wake, may well be a product or a by-product of evolution by natural selection.  My claim is this: However the first-person perspective came about, it is unique and unlike anything else in nature, and it makes possible much of what matters to us.  It even makes possible our conceiving of things as mattering to us.  The first-person perspective – without which there would be no inner lives, no moral agency, no rational agency – is so unlike anything else in nature that it sets apart the beings that have it from all other beings.  The appearance of a first-person perspective makes an ontological difference in the universe. (2000:163)

          It is hard to see that there is much of an argument here.  The capacity for the self-ascription of first-personal thoughts, which is what Baker means by the first-person perspective, can surely be agreed by everyone to have the fundamental significance in our view of ourselves and our perception of the gap between ourselves and non-human animals on which Baker insists, but the move to the claim that it has ontological significance is not compelling.  In a sense, as Baker says, Animalists do not take persons seriously; they think that, however important to us it is that we are persons, we are not essentially persons, and personhood could cease to be a feature of the world without any entity ceasing to exist.  But Animalists will agree that they do not take persons seriously in this stipulated sense and deny that it shows a lack of appreciation of the significance of personhood.
          In fact Baker seems to be aware that this first line of defence of her position will not persuade.  She writes:

      Here we have a bedrock clash of intuition.  On the Animalist View, I am essentially an animal; my continued existence is nothing other than the continued existence of an animal.  On the Constitution View…I am not essentially an animal…with the entrance of the first-person perspective in the world comes a new kind of thing….It is obvious to me, although not to everyone, that a first-person perspective makes an ontological difference in the world.  However, I do not know how to adjudicate intuitions at this level.

          Let is then pass on to the second type of argument Baker gives against Animalism and in favour of the Constitution View, that human persons and human animals differ in their identity conditions.  The appeal here is to the familiar type of thought experiment illustrated by Locke’s Prince and Cobbler, or the updated versions put forward by Shoemaker and other writers involving brain transplants or information-state transfers.  Baker writes:

      ‘If sameness of person consists in sameness of living organism, then all of these stories would be not only fictional, but incoherent…. Anyone who takes hundreds of years of thought experiments as attempting to depict what is metaphysically incoherent should show how so many have gone so badly wrong…no such account is forthcoming from those who take personal identity to consist in bodily identity’ (2000:123-4).

          This is a powerful argument: Animalists have to explain away intuitions, in particular the ‘Transplant Intuition’, that a human person goes where his brain goes, which have considerable hold on us.  Until they do so we have no reason to reject them. The situation is really no different from other cases where Baker sees a constitution relation as obtaining.  We distinguish between artefacts and the masses of matter that makes them up, and what makes it compelling to do so is our conviction that artefacts can undergo change of matter and that the matter constituting an artefact at one time might constitute a different artefact (of the same or different type) of another.  The fact that in the case of personal identity divergences from bodily identity are, so far as we know, merely possible, does not lessen one whit our conviction that if such cases were to occur persons would have to be regarded as distinct from organisms and hence does not in any way reduce the strength of the case for the conceptual distinction between personal identity and identity of organisms.
          The argument that our response to such cases provides for the distinction between personal identity and identity of organisms, does not, however, take us quite as far as Baker wants to go.  The analogous case of the relation between an artefact and its constituting matter illustrates the point.  An artefact, say a dishpan can be repaired and patched up and the matter constituting it at one time used to make a quite different artefact.  An artefact which has such a history must be distinguished from the matter which constitutes it at any time.  It does not follow that every artefact of the kind must be distinguished from its constituting matter: a dishpan created simultaneously with the piece of plastic which constitutes it, which is annihilated along with that piece of plastic, and differs in no actual respect from the plastic can consistently be identified with the plastic despite the modal difference between them (this, of course, is Lewis’s example and Lewis’s position).  Similarly, it is one thing to accept that if it is possible for personal identity and identity of organism to diverge and another thing to accept that no actual person is identical with any actual organism, and in particular, that no actual human person is identical with any actual human being.  The argument for this claim cannot just appeal to possible differences, but must appeal to actual differences.  But here it is relevant to appeal to the fact that actual human foetuses (and infants up to a certain age) lack the first-person perspective and so are not persons in Baker’s (wholly traditional) sense.  There are, then, actual human organisms that are not human persons.  Is it also the case that there are actual human persons that are not human organisms, or is the case merely like that of teenagers and people (there are people who are not teenagers, but there are no teenagers who are not people – though parents may sometimes wonder).  The argument that the two cases are unlike, i.e. that ‘human person’ is not merely a phase sortal, is precisely that we can conceive personal identity in distinction from identity of human organism in the way illustrated in the familiar Lockean and neo-Lockean cases.
          I think, then, that Baker presents a strong case against animalism.  Although human persons need not be distinct from human organisms (science-fiction examples of co-existence analogous to Lewis’s example of the dishpan and the piece of plastic are conceivable), in fact they are – or such is the conclusion to be drawn if our intuitions about cases of bodily transference cannot be explained away.
          The main difficulty for this position, which recent discussion has brought to the fore, is, in one version or another, the ‘Many Minds Objection’.  If I am a thinking intelligent thing, so is the human animal with whom I presently coincide (we have the same brain and have had and will have for quite a while); so, if I am thinking that it is raining, for example, in virtue of the state of my brain and present and past external circumstances how could the human animal fail to be thinking and thinking exactly the same thought.  But are there really two thinking things here, and if so when I say ‘I want my dinner’, is there one thought being thought by two thinkers, or two thoughts, and, in either case what is the reference of the first-person pronoun contained in the utterance?
           Baker is vividly aware of the need to respond to the ‘Many Minds Objection’ but I think that she would have made her position more plausible if she had pointed out that this objection needs to be confronted by a variety of well-known positions.  The position of the historical Locke is one such: for Locke operates with a tripartite analogy of persons, thinking things and men.  He distinguishes the identity conditions of persons and thinking things but is adamant that whenever a person thinks there is a thinking thing (non-identical with the person) thinking ‘in’ the person; so when a person thinks an ‘I’-thought, so does the thinking substance then thinking ‘in’ it.  Is the thinking substance then thinking about itself, or the person it is thinking ‘in’?  Another position that needs to confront the Many Minds Objection is any that accepts that persons are summations of temporal parts and accepts with David Lewis that person-stages, like persons, are thinking intelligent things with beliefs and desires.  For on this view, as I sit here, so do many other (shorter-lived) thinking things.  It is important to appreciate that the conception of person as four-dimensional summations of parts is part of a general conception of all constituents as four-dimensional, so insofar as there are good arguments for it, Animalism itself needs to confront the Many Minds Objection.  Baker herself does not accept the four-dimensional viewpoint, but it needs to be recognised that Animalists cannot wield the Many Minds Objection as a weapon against their opponent in good faith unless they feel able to refute the arguments for four-dimensionalism.
          But how can the Many Minds Objection be replied to?
          I think the neatest response for anyone who needs one (including the Animalist if he adopts four-dimensionalism) is to reject Locke’s original definition of a person, substitute for it the notion of the object of self-reference and distinguish between the ‘I’-user and the reference of ‘I’.  Then Locke can say that in the problematic situation in which a person and thinking substance coincide, the thinking substance can indeed think ‘I’-thoughts, but is not thereby constituted a person, for the reference of its ‘I’-thought is not itself, but the person with whom it is sharing these thoughts.  The four-dimensionalist can say the same, mutatis mutandis,  about the relation between a person and its current person-stages, and Baker can say the same mutatis mutandis,  about the relation between a person and a temporarily coincident human animal.
          I think, then, that Baker’s rejection of Animalism is well-founded and her own point is defensible against the most popular Animalistic objection.  But is there any reason to accept Baker’s position rather than, say, the psychological continuity account defended by Sydney Shoemaker?  Baker thinks that there is, since her account (a) does not face the reduplication objection and so does not have to take a ‘closest continuer’ form and (b) does not allow for indeterminacy of personal identity.  The reason for this, she thinks, is because her account is given in terms of sameness of first-person perspective over time.
          I found this unconvincing.  As Baker explains the notion of ‘the first-person perspective’ it primarily denotes a capacity – the capacity to self-ascribe first-person thoughts.  This is a property possessed by many distinct things.  To give an account of personal identity over time in terms of the first-person perspective  Baker needs to refer to token instances of this property, which are individuated by their possessors.  But then the account is empty.  It is as if one first explained the notion of a ‘genius’ by saying that a genius is anyone with a certain level of intellectual ability (‘genius-level’) and then gave an account of the identity of geniuses over time by saying that genius G1 at time t1, is the same genius as genius G2 at time t2 iff G1 has at t1 the same genius-level ability as genius G2 at t2.
          Anyway, it is far from clear that the advantages Baker claims for her account are indeed advantages.  It is, in particular, utterly unclear to me why the possibility of indeterminacy in personal identity is not exactly what we should expect given that the term ‘person’, like every other empirically applicable term in our vocabulary is fashioned for use in the situations in which we actually find ourselves, and not the science-fictional cases in which our intuitions begin to flounder.  No one would think that any future situation must be one in which determinately either their car (or their cat) survives or it does not.  Why should I think that any future situation must be one in which determinately either I survive or I do not?
          I am also unpersuaded that the reduplication problem is as great a problem for a psychological continuity account as Baker suggests.  There is nothing logically incoherent about ‘best candidate’ accounts of identity over time, for persons and other things.  Our concepts could be ones that conformed to such accounts.  A great many philosophers (who are competent users of these concepts, after all) think that they are.  On the other hand, one can defend a psychological  continuity account of personal identity without accepting that the concept of personal identity has a ‘best candidate’ structure by adopting the multiple occupancy view, advocated by David Lewis.  Again, there is nothing logically incoherent about this position.  Our concepts could conform to the account it gives.  Perhaps they do.  Or perhaps it is indeterminate whether our concepts are correctly described by this account or by a ‘best candidate’ account.  Given that it is only in hypothetical situations that the differences come out, that would hardly be surprising.

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