Discrete Events and Narrative Lives (Part 4)
In part three of this series, I promised to return to the problem of personal identity “next week.” That was three weeks ago. The accidents of life get in the way of our plans; instead of writing about narrative the last two weeks, I added essays to The Last Walk. Only now do I return to my topic: narrative, personal identity, and morality.
Notice how this episode illustrates, in a minor way, the complexity of the questions we are considering. “I” announced my “intention” of accomplishing some “action” (publishing a blog post, in this case). Today I offer an explanation as to why I didn’t do what I announced.
Philosophers ponder mysteries in that sequence: What constitutes a person? What are intentional states (of anything, but especially of persons)? What distinguishes an action of a person from other events in the world? For which actions or failures to act should persons supply explanations or apologies?
There’s no way I’m going to sort out all these questions in a single essay. Philosophy of Mind is a jungle of interrelated questions. I just want to tame a little corner of the jungle.
The skeptical worry, remember, is the thought that we should regard our personal narratives as fictions. A number of undeniable facts motivate the skeptical worry. First, we know that discrete events (such as the outcome of particular at-bats) are largely unaffected by the stories we tell about them (e.g. Allen Average is having a good day batting). Second, we know that our memories of past events, including events in our personal lives, are often objectively inaccurate. Third, at best our memories of our lives comprise a tiny minority of the events that make up our past. Fourth, we know that events can greatly change persons’ character; we say with some measure of truth that so-and-so is not the same person she was at some prior time. Therefore, the skeptical worry says, we should not put much stock in our personal narratives; perhaps we should think of ourselves as “strong poets” (Richard Rorty’s suggestion) who regularly invent or reinvent ourselves by recasting our stories.
In spite of all this I will argue for a narrative understanding of personhood. I think the following claims are all true. First: a person’s life gains identity by means of narrative. It is by story that one event connects meaningfully with another; without narrative the events in our lives are just one damn thing after another. Second: only a narrative personal identity can ground and explain significant moral duties. Third: human beings are capable of deceiving themselves about almost everything, including their narrative based identity, so it is possible for persons to achieve better or worse understandings of themselves. Fourth: the true story of any person’s life can only be discerned against the backdrop of a true story of the world in which that person lives. Against those philosophers who proclaim the death of meta-narrative, I think we need meta-narrative. (Notice: the so-called death of meta-narrative is usually presented as a story.) If the great story of Christ is true, I can only rightly understand my story as part of his story.
As I said, there is no way I can defend all these assertions in one essay. I will offer a few remarks in support of the second claim, that only a narrative personal identity can ground and explain significant moral duties.
Consider two episodes from my life. In 1977 in a marriage ceremony, I promised Karen that I would be a loving and faithful husband for the rest of our lives together. In 1989, a judge explained to a little boy, Jamie Bolles, that because of the paper she was signing he would be James Keith Smith, and he would be a “forever” part of our family. At the time of the judge’s decree, Karen and I promised to James that we would love him and care for him no matter what. Considered dispassionately, these are not unusual events. Thousands of adoptions are finalized every year in this country, and marriages are even more frequent.
Promises are central to marriages and adoptions. Like me, in many cases the people who make such promises live for many years after making the promise. Life happens. People change. Surely there is some sense of the phrase in which it is true to say: I am not that person anymore. Yet I think—and I think most people would agree—that the promise made then has moral import now. There is a sense in which the promise commands me; it lays obligation on me. The promise limits my life, because I made it. I, a person living decades after the promise, am morally constrained by that promise because I am the person who made it.
I am not saying that marriage promises or adoption promises create iron laws with no exceptions. I know people who divorced. I know of disrupted adoptions. I have no interest in condemning such people or adding to their pain. There are situations of tragic moral choice. But I point out that one reason such tragedies are tragic is that persons think they must break promises. They feel they must, morally must, do one thing, and yet they feel they must not do that thing. Promises do not simply lose their moral force simply because time has passed and I am a new person.
My argument is simple. We have a pretty clear moral intuition that marriage promises and adoption promises create obligations for those who make them. The only way this intuition can be right is if there is such a thing as personal identity over time. That is: it is right to do this thing now, because I promised I would—even if the promise was made decades ago by a very different “me.” The best way to describe personal identity is through narrative. I make sense of my life by the story I live.