Imagine an individual who has agency, that is this individual â€œengages in actions and thus has (or at least attempts to have) an impact in the worldâ€ (Moshman, 2005, 91). This individual shows â€œa sufficient degree of behavioral consistency across contextsâ€ (92) such that one might say he possesses singularity. This individual believes he existed in the past, exists now, and that in all probability he will continue to exist in the future; this individual possess â€œcontinuity.â€ This individual is rational, possesses metacognition, and as such knows to not distract himself while working on some particular difficult task. Further, imagine this individual regularly engages in fantastically risky, pointless, or destructive behavior, and when questioned about it cannot form any semblance of a coherent motive.
In other words, imagine this individual is four.
Can we say only this individual is a person? Certainly only those who support abortion in the 19th trimester would say no. Can we say this individual is a rational agent? Only those of infinite patience and charity would say yes. Thus, I fervently agree with Moshman (2005, 93) that there are at least four aspects of personhood: â€œagency, rationality, singularity, and continuity.â€ And yet I fully disagree with him when, in the very next sentence, he writes â€œAt the very least, persons are rational agents extending across time, acting in diverse contexts on the basis of their own reasons, and responsible for their actions [emphasis mine].â€
In the same way I earlier cleaved rationality from rational agency, I now separate personhood from identity. I accept Moshman’s definition of identity as a â€œtheory of oneselfâ€ … that is â€œcoherentâ€ or â€œorganized to generate an integrated conceptionâ€ and â€œexplanatoryâ€ or â€œstructured in such a way as to enhance self-understandingâ€ and further is â€œexplicitâ€ and therefore â€œknown to the individualâ€ (90-91).
To have an identity in the manner that Moshman uses the term requires rational agency. Certainly there are other views on this (see Maalouf, 2001, for a particularly readable exposition), but it is a fair explanation that the requirements for identity outlined above more than fulfill the requirements for rational agency held previously. To steal Moshman’s style, I say at the very least, persons with identity are rational agents.
In an earlier essay, I left it open whether rationality agency was rational. However, if rational agency is viewed as merely a means of achieving identity, then perhaps a better question can be ask: is it rational to achieve an identity? Of course, it would be irrational to view identity as an end in itself. So what other ends does identity co-vary with? Does it bring about objective benefits or at least benefits that can be agreed upon, by the means symmetrical social interaction, as valuable?
Certainly there are intersubjective and circular benefits toward identity. For instance, ethnic identity leads to higher reported feelings towards one’s ethnic group (Phinney, Cantu, & Kurtz., 1997), which is another way of saying that self-congratulatory explicit attitudes lead to self-congratulatory explicit attitudes. Note though that, at least among blacks, these benefits exist in the absence of cultural or material well-being (Taylor & Walsch, 1979) or even implicitly favorable views of their own ethnicity (Ashburn-Nardo, Knowles, & Monteith, 2003). Rather, what is needed is evidence extending the benefits of identity to something concrete: for instance, general intelligence, life-expectancy, wealth, income, (im)probability of dying a violent death, etc.
Further, even if these are shown, it must also be demonstrated that the â€œbenefitâ€ is caused by, and not a cause of, the identity. As late as 2005, for instance, Moshman could write that â€œno one believes that political or religious commitments are genetically determinedâ€ when it now it appears that just that is partially the case (Alford, Funk, & Hibbing, 2005; Hatemi, et al., 2007). Identity can no more assumed to be (completely) environmentally determined than politics is.
It may well be wise to define personhood such that all members of the species homo sapiens qualify. Even a more restrictive definition surely include preschool tots. Identity though is more narrowly defined, and this narrow definition allows an open debate on whether fostering it is a worthwhile goal. At least for now, the jury is out.