a peculiar argument: Locke on personal identity

There’s a peculiar form of argumentation that emerges when ethics meets ontology – an encounter is that is comparable to mudwrestling in quicksand. We often derive, from a moral premise, an ontological conclusion. There are, for instance, multiple instances of the derivation, from normative ideas of responsibility and promise keeping, to an ontological fact about the continuity of the person. Locke, in the Personal Identity chapter of the Essay on Human Understanding (Book 2, chapter 27) – which is what I really want to write about - provides us with an instance:

“… if the same Socrates waking and sleeping do not partake of the same consciousness, Socrates waking and sleeping are not the same person. And to punish Socrates waking for what Socrates sleeping that, and waking Socrates was never conscious of, would be no more right, than to punish one twin for what his brother twin did, whereof he knew nothing, because their outsides were so like, that they could not be distinguished, for such twins have been seen.”

Locke implies here what is argued by other philosophers, which is that punishment is about what is right and what is right is about what a person does. Now, Locke was no doubt acquainted with feud and the regulation of kin responsibility which not only figured in early Anglo Saxon law, but in other codes as well. These codes were certainly found to be “right” by those who followed them. The attenuation of such transference of responsibility is even behind the king’s right to punish – he does so as the representative of the community that is wronged, even if the wrong is private. But even if one grants that a system of morality might be based on the responsibility of the person who committed the act, is the system of morality that founds responsibility on kin somehow getting something wrong about personal identity? Do we discover ontological facts about persons, and then reform our notion of right and wrong?

To argue that we do would require having some historical and anthropological evidence. But even before we begin to look for this evidence, we have to ask what type of discovery would make the difference, here.

One tradition in philosophy would reject the idea that the intrusion of ontological fact upon ethical custom changes our idea of right. Instead, just the opposite is the case: because we need persons for a particular ethical system, we find them. Thus, it is ethical custom that produces the ontological vision. We can tell this story as a genealogy of morals, taking it for granted that the play of moral developments takes place above some basic ontological level. However, we can also ask about this assumption. Why shouldn’t we be able to discover, by way of ethics, new and pertinent ontological facts? Or is the discovery of phenomena and its laws wholly the affair of the natural sciences? Of course, perhaps the sciences, too, have an ethical organization.
Another tradition in philosophy would insist that ethics is rooted in universally shared common sense, and that this common sense does deliver certain ontological facts for our edification and entertainment. Thus, for instance, when we show that an argument or conclusion is ridiculous, this is a proof: nature abhors the ridiculous. Nature is, after all, what is natural to men as well as facts about plants, molecules, and mosquitoes. And it is a natural to man to have a self.

A self, in this view, produces social affects – and so, as it is causal, so it is ontologically active.

If, then, we speak of persons as fictional – or, to use Locke’s term, as forensick – fiction should be taken to mean approximate, in the same way that one atom in a gas is handled approximately in the equations of chemistry. Of course, atoms can only be handled in the aggregate, whereas persons are, as it were, bigger. But the same sort of reasoning applies. In this sense, we can say that persons are ‘estimates’.