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«Being identical by being (treated as) responsible Michael Quante Preprints of the Centre for Advanced Study in Bioethics Münster 2010/9 Preprints of ...»

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Being identical by being

(treated as) responsible

Michael Quante

Preprints of the

Centre for Advanced

Study in Bioethics

Münster 2010/9

Preprints of the Centre for Advanced Study in Bioethics Münster 2010/9

Being identical by being

(treated as) responsible

Michael Quante

September 2010

Was interessiert mich

mein Geschwätz von gestern?

Konrad Adenauer

I. Introduction

Responsibility and personal autonomy are central features of our ethical self-understanding.

The practice of ascribing responsibility, of being ascribed responsibility, taking responsibility and being held responsible is ubiquitous and takes multiple forms. In addition, respect for autonomy thoroughly shapes our ethical practice. The capacity to make autonomous decisions and to live autonomously is, as it were, the admission ticket for many of the rights and claims that shape life in our society. We – or at least the majority of us – value the right to live a selfdetermined life as a central accomplishment of democratic and free societies.1 Currently, the respect for individual decisions that satisfy a minimum standard of autonomy is expanding.

This is evidenced by, for instance, developments in the field of biomedical ethics over the last decades, which are not just characterized by the fact that the principle of respect for autonomy has replaced the principle of beneficence. The scope of self-determination that is recognized in society is also widening in terms of content. Here, one could, for example, think of the new possibilities in the fields of reproductive medicine and human genetics or the context of humane and self-determined dying. In philosophical contexts, the concepts of autonomy and responsibility, to whose connection the title of this contribution alludes, are of special relevance in ethics; why and in what sense the term personal autonomy is (or should be) used in those contexts shall be explained in more detail in the following.

There are manifold philosophical proposals for conceptually capturing responsibility and autonomy.2 The contexts as well as the ways in which we ascribe or demand responsibility and 1 For a good overview see the contributions in Taylor (2005) and Christman & Anderson (2005).

2 Cf. Fischer (2006), Fischer & Ravizza (1998) and the contributions in Fischer (1986) and Fischer & Ravizza (1993).

autonomy are just as manifold. Thus, in thinking about the connection between responsibility and autonomy, we can assume an implicit everyday preconception. But we can expect this preconception to be multifaceted, vague and not necessarily structured in ways that are sufficient for the purpose of philosophical reflection. This is why the attempt to determine the connection between responsibility and personal autonomy by way of analyzing the given everyday preconceptions of these two concepts does not seem very promising. Another possible strategy, which would first philosophically determine responsibility and personal autonomy and then, in a second step, analyze the connection between them, is also problematic for a number of reasons, since there is presently no philosophical theory of responsibility or personal autonomy that one could take as a point of departure without complex justification.

Moreover, the strategy of first clarifying the concepts of responsibility and personal autonomy in order to then bring to light their interconnection invites the following two systematic objections: Firstly, the concepts of responsibility and autonomy can ultimately only be understood and determined in terms of their interconnection. To use a Hegelian expression, they are concepts of reflection, i.e. concepts that can only be explicated in terms of their mutual connection and whose content refers respectively to the other. Secondly, the content and use of these concepts cannot be strictly separated in our ethical practice. The concept and the matter, i.e. our ethical practice itself, can – to allude to Hegel again – be cautiously distinguished (since otherwise a philosophical critique of our practice would be impossible), but they can not be detached from one another in such a way that one could first determine the concepts and then ‘apply’ the results of this ‘conceptual analysis’ to our practice.3 In view of this starting situation, the first aim of this paper is to explicate the connection between responsibility and personal autonomy (Part III). In order to approach this connection we have to presuppose an implicit understanding of both concepts. The hope invested in this strategy is that by determining their connection we can contribute at least partially to a better understanding of the two concepts. Parallel to this, the analysis of the connection between our practices of ascribing responsibility and ascribing personal autonomy should shed light on these two core elements of our ethical practice.

The second aim of this paper concerns a difficulty that arises when, following Peter Strawson, one thinks of responsibility and personal autonomy in terms of our practice of ascription.4 If being treated as responsible is constitutive of being responsible, then it seems ultimately impossible to criticize our practice of ascribing responsibility (whereby the same applies to our practice of ascribing personal autonomy). But from our own experience we all know of cases of an erroneous or inadequate ascription of responsibility (or at least we can easily imagine such cases). It shall be shown in the following that this unwelcome and counterintuitive consequence of immunisation against critique does not necessarily have to appear within an ascriptivist conception of responsibility and personal autonomy (Part IV).





For reasons that should become clear in due course, we must first introduce certain conceptual distinctions concerning the problematic issue of personal identity. Since I have taken and defended a stance on this issue elsewhere, I will confine myself to presenting only the central claims of my conception, which will figure as premises of the ensuing discussion (Part II).5 3 Cf. Quante & Vieth (2002) and Vieth & Quante (2010).

4 Cf. the contributions in McKenna & Russell (2008).

5 For a more elaborate exposition see Quante (2007a).

II. Persistence, Personhood, and Personality In this paper, I am talking not simply about autonomy, but rather about personal autonomy, through which a relation to the concept of a person is established. This involves a third philosophical concept that is just as central to our ethical practice as the concepts of responsibility and autonomy are. The title of this paper expresses the claim that on closer inspection the connection between responsibility and autonomy, turns out to be a triangular constellation involving autonomy, responsibility, and identity of persons. Thus we are dealing here with another variable that is anything but unproblematic: personal identity.

Ever since John Locke, the issue of the identity of a person has been part of the philosophical agenda. In the second half of the last century, through the work of David Wiggins, Bernard Williams, Derek Parfit, and Sydney Shoemaker, the discussion about the identity of a person has evolved into a distinct sub-discipline of analytic philosophy. Paving a way through the thicket of the different argumentative lines in this debate would fill at least one book. In the present context I can only sketch my take on this problem as it forms the basis and premise of this contribution: I regard the question about the personal identity as misconceived, for it encompasses not just one, but at least four issues. It is of crucial importance to distinguish between the questions about (A) the conditions of personhood, (B) the synchronic unity of persons, (C) the transtemporal persistence of persons, and (D) the specific structure of personal

life. Since I cannot deal with these issues in detail here, the following sketch must suffice:

(A) Conditions of Personhood (CP): What properties or capacities must an entity have in order to belong to the class of persons?

The answer to CP amounts to providing a list of those characteristics that constitute a person – a list of so-called person-making characteristics. It will not be possible to master such an undertaking in this contribution, but I do want to emphasise that the characteristics in this list have to be understood as constitutive and not just as epistemic criteria.

(B) The problem of the unity of a person (PUP): Which conditions have to be fulfilled in order for an entity A to be one person at one particular point in time?

It can be a matter of dispute whether at a particular point in time a single human being constitutes several persons or whether several human beings constitute a group person. In the literature devoted to questions of personal identity, this problem is only rarely discussed.6 When we ask ourselves what the case must be for an entity A to count as exactly one person at one particular point in time, then we are trying to determine the truth conditions for utterances of

the following type: A is at t one and only one person. After that we have to deal with the question as to what kind of entity A is:

(C) The problem of the persistence of a person (PPP): Which conditions must be fulfilled so that it is true that A at t1 is the same person as B at t2?7 This question points to persistence, survival, and diachronic identity. Here, too, we are looking 6 In philosophy of mind, the unity of consciousness is treated as an independent topic. In the literature on personal identity this problem comes up when we dismiss the rule “one human being – one person” (e.g. in discussing group persons or personality disorders).

7 Phrasing the problem this way presupposes that persistence is sortal dependent; cf. Wiggins (2001).

for relations that (non-trivially) have to be in place if the the identity claim is to be true. Our question about persistence – ‘Is A at t1 the same person as B at t2?’ – presupposes that both A at t1 and B at t2 are persons. All we want to know is whether they are the same person or not.

The first question we thereby face is whether ‘being a person’ implies criteria that determine which relation must hold between A at t1 and B at t2 so that A at t1 and B at t2 are in effect one and the same person. This yields the question as to what sort of characterisation of A at t1 and B at t2 provides criteria of persistence. Which sortal concept X can – and in virtue of which semantic properties – contribute to a solution to the persistence problem regarding entity A?

(D) The problem of the structure of personhood (PSP): Which structure is fundamental for living the life of a person?

Persons are entities capable of standing in different sorts of relationships to themselves. Among these are relationships of self-assessment, self-identification, and self-critique. Persons can – in a certain sense that needs to be specified in due course – develop conceptions of what they are and what they want to be. In the tradition of Erik Erikson, this form of self-reference has been named ‘identity;’ this is how we talk, for instance, about a person’s crisis of identity when she loses faith in the values towards which she has hitherto oriented herself. In the following I will refer to this complex structure as the personality of a person (whereby I mean to cover what a number of philosophers have called narrative or biographical identity).

My strategy of setting PSP apart from CP and PUP does not commit me to the claim that an answer to the first problem can be given entirely independently of the other two problem areas. However, it should not be assumed that answers to CP and PUP at the same time imply answers to PSP; instead, we should discard the idea that we can solve the four mentioned problem areas with a single account. A fortiori, it is not helpful to try to solve CP and PUP by analyzing the personality structure of a human being. While there are – at least in the case of human beings – numerous interrelations between personhood, unity, persistence, and personality, these are essentially more indirect and complex that most accounts I know of suggest.

The question concerning the specific constitution of personal life aims at the fact that persons not only have a life, but lead their lives in the light of beliefs, evaluative ideals, as well as plans and self-conceptions. In this context, identity means neither numeric identity nor persistence, but stands for the evaluative self-image through which a person determines who she is and wants to be. For this self-image I use the term personality. A personality is the respective individual form an individual gives to her personhood. Being conscious of one’s own diachronic unity and relating in an evaluative way to one’s own past and future belongs to the crucial features of persons. On this basis we constitute our own personality that can be conceived as the expression of our active and evaluative self-relationship. In my view, this does not occur through monological acts, but is constitutively dependent on social processes of mediation.

These again belong to our ethical practice, so the first central claim of this paper thus reads: the ascription of responsibility is one such constitutive practice.

III. Responsibility and personal autonomy The first aim of this paper is to justify the claim that our practice of ascribing responsibility is constitutive for the development of the evaluative self-relationship that is characteristic of persons. In order to achieve this aim we must first clarify the difference between the autonomy to make decisions and personal autonomy.

1. Autonomy to make decisions and personal autonomy Autonomy to make decisions prevails if a subject is in a concrete situation and decides on the basis of sufficient information, which I take to include sufficient understanding of this information, and given adequate knowledge of its preferences (thus without self-deception).



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