The Relational Identity of Persons and the Importance of Personal Projects

What follows are some first steps in thinking through an aspect of the possible relational identity of persons. I imagine there is a great deal of confusion herein. But so it goes with many beginnings. The question “What is it to be an…..?” is often, if not always, difficult to answer. Pick any object around the house, a chair, for example, and ask what is it that makes it a chair, and you can discover the difficulty. But when we ask, “What is it to be a person?” we face a more difficult than usual version of the question. I take it that this question is different, though related, to, “What is it to be a human being?”—a question that is most easily interpreted as, “What is it to be a Homo sapiens?” They are different because it is quite conceivable to imagine a creature that is not Homo sapiens that deserves to be called a person and we can easily imagine a particular Homo sapiens that doesn’t deserve to be called, at least not fully, a person. Some kind of intelligent alien might fit the former description, and some kind of human who is less than fully engaged with life might fit the latter (I’ll return to the latter example below).

My concern with personal identity is primarily due to its implications for death. In the west it is usual to either identify oneself as a soul that will go to heaven or hell, or with one’s body, in which case death means the cessation of existence. Things are, of course, more complicated than this. Leaving aside the possibility, much less the nature, of a soul, philosophers are less than agreed as to what constitutes personal identity, what makes person A at time t1 the same person as B at time t2.

Describing the difference between his view and that of Judith Jarvis Thompson, Derek Parfit writes:

We are asking when it is true that some future person will be me. On Thompson’s view, that person will be me if and only if we have the same body. On my view, that person will be me if we have the same brain, and are uniquely psychologically continuous. If we have different brains, and are not psychologically continuous, that person will not be me. In other cases, on my view, there is indeterminacy, or no answer to the question whether that person will be me. (180)

See Eric T. Olson for an important complication and confusion that arises from my and Parfit’s way of characterizing the question of personal identity.

Olson distinguishes, rightly, the persistence question regarding personal identity—what makes it true that “some future person will be me”?—from the ontological question of “What am I?” Regarding this latter question, he writes:

What sort of things, metaphysically speaking, are you and I and other human people? What is our basic metaphysical nature? For instance, what are we made of? Are we made up entirely of matter, as stones are, or partly or wholly of something else? If we are made of matter, what matter is it? (Just the matter that makes up our bodies, or might we be larger or smaller than our bodies?) Where, in other words, do our spatial boundaries lie? More fundamentally, what fixes those boundaries? Are we substances—metaphysically independent beings—or is each of us a state or an aspect of something else, or perhaps some sort of process or event?

However, these two questions are clearly related. If the answer to the ontological question is that I am essentially a soul, then the answer to the personal identity over time question is that what makes it true that a future person is me is that he have the soul that I presently have.

The debate that Thompson and Parfit are engaged in is important, but I think that in large part it misses an important point about personal identity, about why you might be concerned about the question of what makes you the person you are. In past essays I have made a case for the claim that personal identity is relational. In particular, who I am is in some significant way constituted by certain relations in which I stand to other people. If this is right, it has implications for the persistence question regarding identity over time. I want now to give different reasons for thinking that persons are partially constituted by certain relations.

Part of the reason that the debate that Thompson and Parfit are engaged in misses the point is because deciding whether the same person persists from t1 to t5 due to the continuity of body or because of the continuity of psychology ignores the aspects of our lives as persons engaged in projects.

In my philosophy classes, I have regular opportunity to emphasize the importance of our projects, e.g., a person’s writing a book, working on a PhD, raising a child, etc. And I emphasize that one of the central projects that they have as students in college is to work out what projects they will engage in, e.g., who they want to be. A project, then, is some long-term goal in which we invest much time, effort, concern, and, so to speak, heart. I am not giving the necessary and sufficient conditions for what a project is. Rather, the above is a rough and ready characterization that should serve our purposes sufficiently.

With the concept of a project in hand, let us ask: What is the source of our concern with our continued survival? Is it the value we place on consciousness/experience? Or is it the value of our (unfinished) projects? Does death matter because it would be the cessation of experience or because it would end our engagement with our projects? (The two options are not meant to be exhaustive, nor are they meant to be exclusive.)

Our consciousness is vital to our experiences and we easily identify ourselves with our consciousness (together with memory). But what about our projects, the things we set up our life around, put our hearts, time, and effort into? Where is the line between our projects and our selves?

Our projects are a mix of process and product. Some are finished and still in play, e.g., a piece of artwork or a book; others are both product and process, e.g., an organization, son/daughter, or a relationship between lovers/partners/friends. Some of these projects can be taken over by others and survive our absence (a company that researches greener energy), some not (becoming a doctor).

An important point is that insofar as our projects can endure the loss of our physical presence (including our consciousness and will), and insofar as our projects are partially constitutive of what we are, a vital part of us can survive bodily death. (And we might further ask: What is the value of the initially all-important consciousness/experience in the absence of all projects?)

But why should we believe that our projects are partially constitutive of what/who we are? I can only gesture at an answer to this question here. An initial reason, at least, is that in the absence of projects an instance of Homo sapiens is not truly a person: A central aspect of what it is to be a person is to engage earnestly in projects. A possible objection to this is that it confuses the engagement with a project with the project. That is, we can admit that engaging in projects is necessary to be a person without that implying that the projects engaged in are literally a part of the person. In response, I think this artificially divides the project from the engagement. That is, the engagement is not separable from the project. One way to see this is to notice that our projects not only make us persons but also kinds of persons, and that the two are not separable, as one might suppose. We naturally describe a person whose project is to be an influential scholar as a scholar—that is who they are (And I know Sartre would have a field day with this claim). While having projects is a necessary condition for personhood, I am claiming, the project itself determines the kind of person. This is all very loose and too general. At this point, I want to offer a promissory note for a better defense of these claims in the future. For now, I want to draw out some of the implications of the idea that our projects are partially constitutive of what/who we are.

Given the uncertainty of our (bodily) life spans and the certainty of our bodily deaths (and the likely lack of a immortal soul), it is imperative to engage in meaningful projects, particularly since at least some of them are likely to “outlive us.” This conclusion is not new or surprising. We “know” already that we ought to make something of ourselves in order to make our lives meaningful. The aspect that I am emphasizing is that a meaningful life through meaningful projects is partially constitutive of our identities and that an important aspect of these identities can continue to exist and thrive after bodily death and the end of consciousness.

An implication of all of this is that an important act of love toward another is the concern for their projects before and after their “death.” Regarding the time after death, as we take great care to respect the bodies of the dead, we should do the same with their projects as they are a part of the person.

An even greater implication of the view so far outlined is that insofar as others are among our projects, they are a part of our selves. Having another person as a project seems, at first, to be best suited for a parent-child relationship. Lovers/partners/friends might not be thought of as so readily taking each other as projects, perhaps the relationship but not the person. But insofar as a person’s projects are partially constitutive of her, and insofar as we take as a project the projects of another, then we take the other person into ourselves.

An important question at this point is: What is it to take another person’s project as our own? Clearly it is not literally a matter of making it our own, for that would be theft or mere copycatting. A part of doing it must, then, be concern to further another’s project. In this way, we make another person our project in a way that is not limited to the parent-child relationship.

So, if it turns out to be correct that our projects are partially constitutive of what/who we are, then we have further reason for thinking that what an “individual” is is not, paraphrasing Whitman, contained between his hat and boots. If a project of mine is you (and the success of your projects), then an essential part of me is you. And if “you” die, then I can continue to support, at least some of, your projects, and “you” and “I” before and after death are not separate entities.

3 thoughts on “The Relational Identity of Persons and the Importance of Personal Projects

  1. Some basic issues:

    1. You’re on the right track to distinguish the “identity” question and the “personhood” question: to be self-same over time assumes that we know what it is to be a self. Your discussion of projects seems like a major transition to personhood over the earlier question of identity. Indeed, we do share projects, but that needn’t mean we share selves. We needn’t be a part of each other in order to work on each others projects.

    2. This raises the is/ought question: MUST friends or lovers share projects? Why? I tend to agree, but why couldn’t we say that we can love one another without sharing any projects but that loving itself? Is it impossible to love someone with whom you have nothing in common?

    3. I do think you’re now describing relational autonomy and not relational identity. Check out:
    Relational Autonomy: Feminist Perspectives on Autonomy, Agency, and the Social Self
    Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature
    The Reasons of Love

  2. Joshua, thanks for the comments. Regarding your first point, I don’t want to say that by taking on another person’s project as our own we are necessarily sharing the project in the sense that you are working on a giant picture puzzle and I sit down and help you put it together. The sense that I meant it was that we take on the other person’s project by having that person AND her project be ours, for example, by giving support emotionally, verbally, physically, by giving of our time, etc. The other person is the focus of our project more than her project per se. Whether this is a coherent distinction in the end, I’m not sure. But it’s taking the other person, not her projects, as our project that involves taking her into our selves, assuming our projects are partially constitutive of us.

    Regarding your second point, insofar as love is some sort of psychological disposition primarily characterized by feelings toward someone, I take it that a person could love anything, whether there are commonalities or not, whether there are projects involved or not. Just think of some people’s love for Japanese pillows (or whatever they’re called). But I’d argue that love is more than a mere psychological disposition characterized by feelings. Presumably a part of that “more” is the actual lived life of love. And that is something that goes beyond feeling. Whether taking the other as a project is a necessary condition for it, I’m not so sure, though I’m tempted to think that it is.

    Thanks for the links. I look forward to reading them!

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