September 08, 2011

How to Be Good: A moral philosopher breaks down the self

Sam Mowe

You are in a terrible accident. Your body is fatally injured, as are the brains of your two identical-triplet brothers. Your brain is divided into two halves, and into each brother's body one half is successfully transplanted. After the surgery, each of the two resulting people believes himself to be you, seems to remember living your life, and has your character. (This is not as unlikely as it sounds: already, living brains have been surgically divided, resulting in two separate streams of consciousness.) What has happened? Have you died, or have you survived? And if you have survived who are you? Are you one of these people? Both? Or neither? What if one of the transplants fails, and only one person with half your brain survives? That seems quite different—but the death of one person could hardly make a difference to the identity of another.

From Annals of Ideas, "How to Be Good," (subscribers only) The New Yorker, September 5, 2011

This science-fictional thought experiment comes from a portrait of Derek Parfit, an Oxford philosopher, in last week's The New Yorker. The author of the piece, Larissa MacFarquhar, goes on to explain how Parfit uses thought experiments in order to encourage a shift toward a more selfless view of human life. "Most of us care about our future because it is ours—but this most fundamental human instinct is based on a mistake, Parfit believes. Personal identity is not what matters." While reading "How to Be Good" on the train this morning I thought, "This seems pretty Buddhist."

Sure enough, a few paragraphs later MacFarquhar tells us that Parfit was informed that his view was similar to the Buddhist view of the self a few years ago, by a professor of Oriental religions.


Parfit was delighted by this discovery. He is in the business of searching for universal truths, so to find out that a figure like the Buddha, vastly removed from him by time and space, came independently to a similar conclusion—well, that was extremely reassuring. (Sometime later, he learned that "Reasons and Persons" [Parfit's first book, published in 1984] was being memorized and chanted, along with sutras, by novice monks at a monastery in Tibet.)

That last parenthetical sentence is pretty impressive. I don't know enough about Parfit to comment on how similar his views on selfhood are to the Buddhist approach, but after reading "How to Be Good" I'm curious to learn more. 


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Dominic Gomez's picture

Imagine you're at a masquerade party with a multitude of characters in all manner of disguises. At midnight everyone removes their masks. You see that everyone

Luca Struble's picture

You could look in his older book _Reasons and Persons_. Don't try reading the whole thing if you're just interested in self-identity issues in particular. Go to Part Three, on Personal Identity. And there's an appendix on the Buddha's View (as Parfit understands it - with his caveat that he is not a Buddhist scholar). He just published a massive two volume work called _On What Matters_. I don't know what he says there about personal identity.

Zenji's picture

There are two errors here: one is that life is instinctive being (which we can not help because it is inborn). And two, artificial life, which is learned over a lifetime. Both are born of ignorance and cause a whole host of mental aflections which block the path towards enlightenment. The first we can not help and takes years of cleaning up. The latter can be washed away like the petals of a flower in the rain during autumn by continuing refuting the self as a self proclaimed object.