We Don’t Have Identities

1 Introduction

I will argue that We Don’t Have Identities. I will do this by suggesting that the type of identity philosophers are investigating when they consider `personal identity’ does not apply to persons. They seek instead an identity which I will term “set identity.” Set identity applies only to abstract items such as sets, numbers and the like.

Types Of Identity

That type of identity bears the usual defining characteristics of reflexivity, transitivity and symmetry. What they find, however, is something I will term `legal identity’. A legal identity is exemplified by the appropriate beneficiary of a bequest. It can be determined by legal procedures. Since the methodologies applied are legalistic, they can only find legal identity; moreover, they suffer from Sorites and other problems. In Sorites problems, a major binary change — the identity of persons — changes based on apparently insignificant analog changes in underlying quantities. That type of difficulty will drive one sort of problem for people denying that We Don’t Have Identities.

It has been argued before1 that there are different types of identity for items such as numbers. Number have strict identity, and persons could have identity only in a loose sense.

The general argument is that set identity for numbers or sets or any abstract entity is clear and trivial. However, identity of persons is unclear and important, suggesting that there is a distinction between the two types of identity.

That type of distinction would be consistent with the line I am proposing in this essay. But a better terminology is to allow identity to abstract items only, because what concrete objects have is something much more approximate. Their identity fails to have the key criteria for identity of symmetry, transitivity and reflexivity.


The mistake all the authors I consider here make is either to conflate the two types of identity, or as I would put it, to seek set identity where there is none. They find only what we may term “legal identity.” They finding the just recipient of an inheritance. That is just not the same matter as determining who I am.

Types Of Personal Identity

There have been three types of account of personal identity, as listed below.

  1. Psychological continuity accounts, relying on the importance of memory.

2. Bodily continuity accounts — the most well known of which is termed `animalism’ — relying on the importance of the body.

3. Combination accounts involving both of the above aspects.

Problems With The Accounts

Psychological continuity theories fail because they do not allow sufficient weight to the importance of bodily continuity. They also fail for Sorites reasons. So We Don’t Have Identities on that account.

Bodily continuity theories fail because they do not allow sufficient weight to the importance of psychological continuity. Again they also fail for Sorites reasons. So We Don’t Have Identities on that account.

Combination accounts fail because they attempt to weigh incommensurable quantities. Since this exhausts the list of possible accounts, no account can succeed. We must conclude that persons do not have identity. So We Don’t Have Identities on that account either.

We Don’t Have Identities: Brain Transplants

These problems arise from the brain transplant cases discussed by Williams.2 He describes a scenario in which we wish to agree that a brain transplant has taken place. A person has acquired a new body in what appears to be little more than a development of standard organ transplants.

This results from our tacit assent to the proposition that psychological continuity is a sufficient condition for personal identity. Williams is then able to reformulate the description of the scenario such that although it is the same scenario, we now agree that bodily continuity is the sufficient condition, and psychological continuity is not important.

He is able to obtain our agreement to inconsistent positions, and we are unable to decide which of the two conditions is the most important. So we should already be on notice that no resolution of the problem of personal identity will be available. I will discuss Williams’s account in more detail below as it relates to the different types of account.

Plan Of Work

The various problems with psychological continuity accounts are discussed in s2. I will look at bodily continuity accounts in s3. Combination accounts are covered in s4. I will then conclude in s5 that the reason that all of these accounts fail for one reason. It is that identity does not apply to any objects in the world subject to temporal change. Persons are just a special case of this.

2 We Don’t Have Identities: Psychological Continuity Accounts

Psychological continuity accounts allow body transfer. If the brain of a person were transferred to a different body, the brain now in that new body would have the memories of the person. They would think they were the person. However, supporters of a bodily continuity account must deny that the person in the new body is identical with the pre-transplant person.

Locke’s original psychological continuity account allowed that “person A is the same as person B if A can remember having an experience of B’s.”3 There is little space in psychological continuity accounts to allow any importance to the body. We then fall into the fatal problems that Williams describes in the first half of his paper. I will outline those next.

2.1 Transplant Problem

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In the scenario Williams describes, two persons A and B enter a machine. They subsequently leave it in states such that we would be inclined to say they had swapped memories. Williams adopts neutral terminology of the A-body person. That person now inhabits the A body whoever that is. This he does in order not to prejudge the issue. Likewise the B-body person is the person now inhabiting the B-body.

The A-body person has B’s memories and objectives, etc. The B-body person has A’s memories and objectives, etc. The question is now put. If it were known before the transplant that one of the bodies was to be tortured, to which body should one request that it be applied? This is assuming that one acts solely in self interest.

Under the description of the first half of the paper, and also under the influence of the psychological continuity account, one naturally agrees that A will say that the torture should be applied to the A body. He is about to `leave behind’ that body for his new life in the B-body. The problem now though is that Williams can reformulate the scenario in terms that make this decision appear irrational.

The Amnesiac Intuition

He does this by appealing to what is the central intuition behind bodily continuity accounts. It might be termed the “amnesiac intuition.” It is known that one’s memory is imperfect. Also there appear to be people who lose large parts of their memory altogether. If this process is too extensive, we may say that that person is no longer present. But generally we are happy to talk as though the same person is there even if they have forgotten some things. This intuition then leads us to think that the body is the key factor in deciding identity.

Williams does not describe the same scenario involving A and B as a memory swap. Neither does he describe it as an identity swap for adherents of a psychological continuity account. Instead, he uses a minor extension of the amnesiac intuition.

Wwe imagine that the torture is to be applied after deletion of all memories — i.e. externally imposed amnesia. This is to be followed by the insertion of someone else’s memories. But this does not improve matters. If anything, it makes them much worse. The situation is loss of all memories of personal attachments, projects etc followed by torture. Described thus, the pre-transplant A person would be irrational to select the torture for the A-body person because he would be that person.

2.2 Brave Officer Problem

There are other reasons why a psychological continuity criterion cannot work. The first point to note is that it must at least be improved from Locke’s version. That’s because of what is known as the brave officer paradox.

We can imagine that a General remembers leading a cavalry charge as a junior officer. The junior officer remembers school days even though the General can no longer remember school days. This scenario has the outcome that the General is identical to the officer. Also the officer is identical to the schoolboy. But the General is not identical to the schoolboy. That outcome is unacceptable since identity is transitive. Therefore, Locke’s simple criterion must be modified. If not, We Don’t Have Identities.

Perry4 gives an outline of Grice’s modified account, which he considers the most successful psychological continuity account.5

Total Temporary States

The concept of Total Temporary States — `TTS’ — is introduced to refer to the set of total experiences of a person. We are to find a sequence of TTS’s which are linked by common memory elements. A later TTS would, given certain conditions, contain a memory of an experience that was part of an earlier TTS. When we have found a complete set of TTS’s to which no further TTS’s can be added, we have a person.

We will immediately want to ask how a person can be identical to a set. Moreover — and we will see this problem again with Nozick’s account in 4.1 — this approach is an example of covertly introducing sets. Sets do have identity; but they are abstract. It is not possible to find an account of identity in the concrete world by considering identity criteria for abstract objects.

Perry6 gives an account of how we are to apply the Grice procedure. If Smith examines a green cube, and Jones is hypnotized into thinking he has, then both will have a later TTS which includes the belief that they examined a green cube. However, Grice will say that only Smith is identical to the earlier Smith and Jones is not. That’s because Smith is really remembering and Jones is not. We now have to bear in mind the `given certain conditions’ caveat mentioned above. These conditions will include necessary weakenings. Perhaps Smith has a weak memory. He can remember examining a cube, but not what color it is. Or weaker still, he can remember examining a solid object, but not its shape or its color.

A Sorites Problem

Here the Sorites problem emerges. We will examine various very similar counterfactuals in order to decide whether this is Smith. His identity will depend on how good his memory is of a particular event. This is a continuously variable parameter. This will inevitably lead to difficulties when used to determining binary questions. We will see this type of problem three times in this essay — with all accounts of personal identity. So again, So We Don’t Have Identities.

3 We Don’t Have Identities: Bodily Continuity Accounts

The animalist denies that a brain transplant could suffice for a transfer of identity. This of course is in direct opposition to the intuition behind psychological continuity theories. There can be no fully justified victory in a contest between intuitions. Only the current state of progress in medicine means that we are denied the sight of brain transplant cases wherein the new body walks, talks, remembers, feels very similarly to the way the person in the old body did. The vividness of that experience would go a long way towards dissolving the appeal of the idea that identity is a useful concept in relation to persons, because it would bring to life the difficulties I outline in this essay and the problems that Williams describes in the second half of his paper (see 2.1.)

Madden7 provides an animalist response to the brain transplant cases. He reformulates the question of identity8 in terms of reference. We are to establish to which person utterances of an `I’-token refer after the brain transplant. The idea is that there could be a gradual shift of reference of the `I’-token from the old animal to the new animal — this encapsulates Madden’s animalist approach whereby bodily continuity is decisive.

Reference Shift

The reference shift is of the type considered by Putnam.9 This allows little space for the importance of psychological continuity, and so all lines of this general type would fall victim to the challenges in the second half of the Williams paper. In addition, all accounts relying on analysis of physical parts will involve irresolvable Ship of Theseus-type problems.

The Ship Of Theseus

Ship of Theseus problems involve trying to establish the identity conditions for composite objects which may have some of all of their parts replaced over time. The problem becomes particularly acute if we imagine that all of the parts that have been removed from one ship as it is repaired over time are reassembled so that we have two ships. We have great difficulty in deciding which of the two ships is identical with the original ship.

The answer I would favor would be `neither’, because in fact even a single ship does not retain identity from one moment to the next. Persons are also composite objects. Crucially, it seems they can be split into brains and bodies in transplant cases. But also bodies have components. So the Ship of Theseus difficulties apply just as much to persons as to ships. So in fact we should not seek set identity for any real concrete composite objects. Once more, we see that So We Don’t Have Identities on that account.

The difficulties do not stop here however, as I shall now discuss.

3.1 Sorites Problem

A major difficulty with Madden’s account is that of Sorites problems. These arise when analogue changes drive binary distinctions. Imagine removing single pins from a heap of pins. We start with a heap. If we continue to remove pins, when we have none left, there are no pins so a fortiori, there is no longer a heap of pins. The difficulty lies in a line-drawing exercise. Did the removal of a single pin change the status of the group of pins from being a heap to no longer being a heap? That is a large change to hang on a single pin. Further, the difference between a heap of pins and a group of pins not quite large enough to constitute a heap is arbitrarily located.

Sorites problems are especially problematic in relation to personal identity. We find the pin examples confusing enough, but the consequences are more severe in questions of personal identity because those consequences are of such import. We cannot really allow changes in the answer to the question as to who we are to depend on unavoidably vague considerations of how many things we know.

A Principle Of Charity

Madden adapts a Davidsonian10 approach to assigning referents to terms. Davidson uses in radical interpretation a principle of charity whereby we compare assignments based on how many utterances they make true and prefer those which maximize the number of true utterances. Madden uses a variant principle of charity based on knowledge maximization rather than maximization of truth. In addition, we are to assign the referent of `I’-tokens based on finding which assignment maximizes the number of utterances that express knowledge.

There is a new objection to which the original principle of charity is not susceptible. In the original version, the test of whether an global assignment of referents is correct, or more correct than an alternative, is the extent to which it makes utterances true. This has a straightforward numerical measure: a simple count of true utterances constitutes the assignment’s figure of merit. On the new version, we need to count the number of utterances that express knowledge, and seek an assignment of personal identity that maximizes the number of utterances that express knowledge.


On Madden’s view, an utterance counts as an expression of knowledge if it is `safe’, viz. S has knowledge of p if S could not easily falsely believe p in the scenario where p is in fact false. So now we need to count not the number of true utterances, but the number of utterances where S believes p, p is true, but if p had been false in only a slightly altered scenario from the actual one, S would not have believed p.

Statement Counting

Counting statements that express knowledge is harder than counting true statements. We wish to determine a figure of merit for an assignment of personal identity by finding the ratio of utterances expressing knowledge to the total number of utterances. In assessing whether an utterance constitutes knowledge, we find whether it meets some specified level of safety. This means establishing the domain of possible worlds in which we require the utterance to remain true. So we need a specification of all the scenarios which qualify as only `slightly altered’ for each utterance under consideration. That is: which close possible worlds where the utterance must remain true to be knowledge.

We Don’t Have Identities: Knowledge Problems

Few deny that I have knowledge because there is a remote possible world in which I am a brain in a vat. However, many agree that I do not know that this is an elm tree even if it is because I cannot distinguish elm trees from oak trees; the world in which it was an oak and I said it was an elm is close.

Two different specifications might be very similar in that they differ only by excluding one additional scenario just for one utterance and are entirely identical in a myriad of other respects. They could differ only in relation to an utterance about trees on one particular day and remain unchanged for all other utterances and potential utterances on all other occasions. These two specifications differ in the most minor way if one measures difference by the number of differing scenarios divided by the total number of scenarios; yet this minor distinction would suffice to produce a quality distinction between two candidate assignments. This seems a fine level of subtlety; a great deal would turn on this very fine distinction.

Is That A Zebra?

Imagine you are a radical translator seeking to assign referents to the language I use, which happens to be English: you do not speak English. You see that there is a zebra in a field. I point at it and say `the zebra is in the field’. The original translator has few difficulties with this. An assignment of the term `zebra’ to the zebra produces an incremental mark for that assignment. My utterance has been made true by that appropriate assignment.

Do I have a safe belief that there is a zebra in the field? Answering this requires dealing with the usual questions such as whether it is a relevant possibility that someone placed carefully disguised donkeys in the field. Madden might respond that he is open only to the objections that he has imported along with the safety account of knowledge. It remains the case he has exacerbated that problem by multiplying it and he would have analogous problems with different accounts of knowledge.

The only real defence for Madden to adopt is the `dirty hands’ one, which is to observe that these problems apply to all other accounts also. That of course is the result for which I have argued here — since that defense is the only one available, no accounts of this type can succeed. So We Don’t Have Identities one more time.

4 We Don’t Have Identities: Combination Accounts

Nozick11 has observed the fatal flaws with both psychological continuity and bodily continuity approaches and this motivates him to try to combine the two. He also begins with Williams’s brain transplant cases, noting correctly that the problems therein derive from the fact that we do not know how to weigh up the competing significance of bodily and psychological continuity in determining questions of identity. He seeks a legal mechanism12 to do this. However, we cannot find such a mechanism, because a legal mechanism will find only legal identity. Moreover, the Sorites problem discussed in s3.113 still needs solving. All of this needs fixing or We Don’t Have Identities.

4.1 We Don’t Have Identities: Covert Introduction Of Set Identity

I will now argue that a major problem with Nozick’s account is that it covertly introduces notions of identity which are appropriate in the abstract world of numbers and sets but do not apply in the concrete world. I will once again conclude that We Don’t Have Identities.

The legal mechanism that Nozick chooses to determine identity — which he dubs the Closest Continuer theory { will basically involve looking at all the candidates for identity with something else and making a measured decision. This will mean that the identity criteria for an item will depend on other items that exist or potentially could, which is implausible. Why should it matter to who I am who you are, or what else exists? Would I not still be me in an otherwise empty universe? So much of Nozick’s effort will focus on attempting to make it plausible that external items can influence identity.

The Vienna Circle Story

Nozick introduces his proposed mechanism by way of a story that could have happened to the 20 members of the Vienna Circle, a group of philosophers who we are to imagine flee to separate locations where they are no longer in contact with each other or the outside world. Three members of this group escape to Istanbul where they believe wrongly that all the others are dead. As Nozick puts it:14 “[t]hey now are the Vienna Circle”. We may certainly agree that in these circumstances, were one to find a legal document naming the Vienna Circle, perhaps as the recipient of a bequest, these three would be entitled to claim it. That would be the case providing no better placed group could make out a stronger claim to the bequest, a caveat that will be important in Nozick’s development of the story, as we will see.

However, Nozick needs something more than this legal status, surely. We are discussing questions of identity. We should ask: which of the following claims is Nozick pressing?

The Potential Claims

1.The three members in Istanbul are identical to the same members in Vienna.

2.The three members in Istanbul are identical to the 20 members in Vienna.

3.The 20 members in Vienna are identical to the Vienna Circle.

4.The 3 members in Istanbul are identical to the Vienna Circle.

Of these claims, only 1). appears defensible. Claim 2). must be false because three persons cannot be identical with 20 persons. Claims 3). and 4). may appear prima facie implausible because it seems that a number of persons cannot be identical with a legal construct like that denoted by `the Vienna Circle’, which is presumably some kind of club or society with meeting rooms and a constitution. This question needs to be answered by anyone wanting to deny that We Don’t Have Identities.

We Don’t Have Identities: The Problem With The Story

However, to take this line would be unfair to Nozick; we must allow him to stipulate that `the Vienna Circle’ refers to nothing beyond the group of people who are its members. Yet this produces the real difficulty. We must now allow Nozick’s claim 3).; it is the case that the original group met, had meetings, comprised 20 members and those 20 members as a group were identical to the Vienna Circle because that term is just another way of referring to those 20 members.

We are only allowing that the term `Vienna Circle’ can be identical to its 20 members because we have allowed that that term can be another way of referring to those members. So in fact this is a case where the abstract realm in which identity does apply has been smuggled in — since we are talking about the identity which does indeed hold between a set and itself — under the appearance of making identity statements about items in the real world.

If the term `Vienna Circle’ changes over time — say one person dies and now the term refers to the 19 remaining members — the identity between the two uses of `Vienna Circle’ is not the set identity that obtains between the initial 20 members and the first use of `Vienna Circle’ because there is no identity between the 20 and the 19. There is only a legal identity between the two uses of `Vienna Circle’ because there is only a legal identity between the 20 and the 19.

We Don’t Have Identities: Argument Result

Nozick develops his story such that unbeknownst to the Istanbul three, there is also a California nine who have been conducting the same business as them. Both groups believed they spoke for the Vienna Circle. The outside world may decide that the nine are the Circle.15 However, this is merely to make a decision on legal status — it answers the question as to who can speak for the Vienna Circle. It achieves nothing connected to identity relations. Even if these legal questions could be definitively settled, none of these groups would be identical to the Vienna Circle in the required sense. So We Don’t Have Identities either.

5 We Don’t Have IdentitiesConclusion: Identity Is Abstract

A basic problem with all of the accounts considered here is that they seek the wrong type of identity. They have a legalistic approach which might be appropriate for determining who is entitled to what share of a legacy. They weigh up factors counting in various directions, and, in the case of Nozick’s account, allow also for factors not relating to the entity under discussion to affect that entity’s identity criteria. This cannot be the right way to decide who I am. A committee of lawyers cannot make the decision as to from which pair of eyes I regard the world. So We Don’t Have Identities on any account.

See Also:

Are We Allowed To Follow Our Personal Aims? Nagel says Maybe

Is Experience Time the same as Experienced Time?

The Importance Of Forgetfulness For Nietzsche

Merleau Ponty’s Phenomenology: What Is It And How Cogent Is It?


1Perry observes that JJC Smart takes this line at [2, p. 66].

2See [1].

3This is Perry’s formulation at [2, p. 84].

4See [2, Ch. 5].

5It might be objected that Grice is not making the error of seeking set identity when persons have only legal identity or no identity. This objection cannot succeed because Grice’s `logical construction’ approach: identities are sets (of experiences) for him. Thus if his account succeeds, it can only find set identity for sets rather than set identity for persons.

6See [2, p. 88].

7See [3, Ch. 9].

8It might be objected again that Madden is only seeking legal identity and not set identity. We can see this is false however. He describes the type of identity he is looking for as `numerical’ at [3, p. 287]. Further, he notes that in a transplant case “[t]he referent of these I tokens is a single thing” at [3, p. 293], confirming he is seeking set identity. No one thinks a legal heir is the same entity as a benefactor.

9See [4].

10Cf. [5, Ch. 9]. Davidson notes the difficulties inherent in attempting to make “finely discriminated distinctions amongst beliefs”.

Further Footnotes

11See [6, Ch. 1].

12It might be objected a third time that Nozick is only looking for legal and not set identity. However, we can see this is false by noting he observes that we are “not willing to think that whether something is us can be a matter of (somewhat arbitrary) decision or stipulation” at [6, p. 34]. He also admits that `nontransitivities’ are problematic at [6, p. 42] which is only the case because he seeks set identity.

13Nozick is aware of this; he writes: “But the interval can be varied gradually; it seems absurd that there should be some sharp temporal line which makes the difference to whether or not the person continues to live in the other body” at [6, p. 44]. He is discussing whether there could be a time period after which we allow that someone has moved to a new body but before which we do not. It will be apparent that this is the same objection as I raised in relation to Madden’s account in x3.1.

14See [6, p. 32].

15Even this is questionable though. We might imagine circumstances where the three are all of the major players making immense original contribution to philosophical debate while the nine are doing no work at all. This problem again highlights the con ation of the two issues of who legally may speak for an entity and what metaphysically is identical with it.


[1]B. Williams, “The self and the future,” The Philosophical Review, vol. 79, no. 2, pp. pp. 161{180, 1970.

[2]J. Perry, Identity, personal identity, and the self. Hackett Pub., 2002.

[3]K. Bennett and D. Zimmerman, Oxford Studies in Metaphysics. No. v. 6 in Oxford Studies in Metaphysics Series, Oxford University Press, 2011.

[4]A. Pessin, S. Goldberg, and H. Putnam, The Twin earth chronicles: twenty years of reflection on Hilary Putnam’s “The meaning of `meaning'”. M. E. Sharpe, 1996.

[5]D. Davidson, Inquiries into truth and interpretation. Philosophical essays, Clarendon Press, 2001.

[6]R. Nozick, Philosophical explanations. Harvard University Press, 1981.


Are Personal Aims Acceptable?

Nagel: Equality And Partiality

Chapter Nine

Generously, our personal aims are to be left free to have some `influence’ on how we live our lives. Any claims made by those with natural advantages that they should be free to use them are to be `neutralized’ such that they go no further than they would in the strongly egalitarian system Nagel favors.

It is agreed that there are more agent-relative reasons to want something than agent-neutral ones [ — but why is this not the wrong way round since there are so many more people we are not than ones we are — or is Nagel in fact wrong that the impersonal standpoint has meaning and efficacy? And what about the relative importance of both? Surely that cannot be quantified by counting.] The best solution would be for the system we all agree on to cope with the agent-neutral reasons, leaving us free [though disqualified from using any natural advantages] to look after our own agent-relative reasons.

It is questioned what would produce general acceptance that a social system is legitimate [ — could anything? What does `legitimate’ mean? Does it mean anything beyond `generally accepted’ — if not, then we have a vacuous entailment here.] The impersonal standpoint is to provide the acceptance of the system. [This could work, if it is understood to mean something akin to `I accept the costs imposed on me by the system in order to provide insurance should my position become much less advantaged’. Of course, the resource-rich, taking that term to be of wider application than simply financially strong, would still on that line have no interest in accepting the system.]

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Unfortunately this division of labor cannot work, as Nagel admits. The amount of legal interference in the economy needed to maintain socio-economic equality would also stifle efficiency and creativity and enough space for personal life. A constitutional approach would be too broad and also would fail to command allegiance by virtue of becoming inevitably mired in the controversies of the day. Nevertheless, the constitution could mandate medical care, housing and a slew of other benefits.

[It is interesting to note that something similar is causing immense problems in the US at present. It is necessary to cut spending or continue to borrow — i.e. spending the money of others being future taxpayers — at unsustainable rates. Since the great bulk of spending is on `entitlements’ such as Medicare, cuts fall at a disproportionate rate on the 12% of discretionary spending. The entitlements are politically untouchable even though are created merely by legislation; how much more severe would the problem be were they constitutionally enshrined. One error undergraduate philosophers are warned against is `changing your mind half way through the essay’; Nagel seems by the end of the paragraph to be advocating a system he described as impossible at the beginning.]

But this Utopia is merely one step towards a yet more comprehensive equality. And an inadequate one. To go further, legislation is needed. And in addition, the impersonal standpoint must play a much larger role. Nagel notes that democracy does not work in favor of the poor unless they are in a majority [ — that forgets the prudential reasons one might have for a safety net one never uses, but also the system that he advocates would share one feature with the status quo: the median person would be a net drain on public resources. Thus he could relax in the expectation that there will be a democratic majority of benefit claimants to back his system. But what happened to unanimity?]

Again, Nagel acknowledges that human nature just will not back such a system though, and that ethnic diversity is one of the reasons for that. The argument against such pessimism is held to be that the world has progressed away from social inequality. [Indeed it has. But why? Is it because governments have imposed frameworks or is it because the deference culture ended and people got ahead on their own? Would you rather be in the US or North Korea?] Examples of such progress are the abolition of slavery, enfranchisement of women and prohibition of child labor [ — none of which has actually occurred, with the possible exception of the middle item. But to what extent do women exercise political power in modern Saudi Arabia? Nevertheless, we may concede to Nagel that general conditions are much better today than in the middle ages while disputing his description of the cure.]

Perhaps progress towards apparently Utopian goals can be made only in steps, such that the Utopian impossibility gradually disappears. [How does someone become gradually less enslaved, or how do women become partly enfranchised?] Perhaps we can make apparently impossible progress in such steps, and maybe the dominance of the impersonal standpoint in politics over personal motives is one such piece of impossible progress. But even then, the operation of personal motives in the economy will frustrate egalitarianism. The private sector is essential to productivity, and the advantages are created by individuals acting in their own interests. [Thus we all benefit if everyone abandons the mythical impersonal standpoint.]

Competition is what drives efficiency, but this is against the grain of socialism because there are winners and losers. The efficiency of capitalism is `wonderful’ but the inequality created by the necessary incentives remains a concern for Nagel. [Though he understates to the largest possible extent the benefits of capitalist production by characterizing it as extra ice cream flavors or different shoe colors. It is of course much more to do with entirely new products and for example labor saving devices, not to mention the commercialized products of scientific endeavor such as the computer or the internet.]

Nagel makes the point that the desire for consumer goods is a result of advertising brainwashing but then dismisses it. [Is this perhaps a little quick? Why do people want things they don’t need? Are these the same people who are going to abandon the personal standpoint at about the same time they abandon their favorite brand of soap?]

The problem is more difficult here because economic equality is not an absolute requirement, `as it is with voting’. [This is not argued for. The logic of the situation is surely that we should dispense with both. Why should not some people have more votes than others? Would not literate people make better decision at the ballot box? Why are we trying to maintain the opposite fiction? Why is the UK government going to great lengths at present to attempt to maintain its ban on prisoners voting?]

Chapter Ten

This chapter will seek to progress beyond the impasse outlined by considering `transformations of motive’. Nagel wishes to do this because of the paradox between what he sees as the `inextinguishable appeal’ of egalitarianism [ — why is there this appeal and why is it not contradicted by the general lack of adoption of the impersonal standpoint?] and its failures. The institutions that will impose equality must reflect what `enough’ people feel [ — again, were we not looking for institutions that no-one could reasonably reject?]

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Progress in sex and race equality reflects not just assertiveness by the victims, but acknowledgment by the beneficiaries that any advantages so gained are illegitimate. Personal views have followed legal changes. Bad consciences preceded these changes. But this is not the case in respect of economics: the successful consider themselves lucky or deserving. The difference in income between the skilled and unskilled is not regarded as problematic. [Nagel might be able to make this point out more in the direction he wants in modern post credit crunch times, though that of course would only be because few people understand economics.] These attitudes would have to change in Nagel’s system [ — thus advantages could not be legitimate even when they flowed from superior skills.]

An egalitarian system would have to abandon claims that inequality is the result of exploitation, because it would sever the link between economic contribution and receipts entirely. Some people would receive much more than they contribute [ — are we still calling this egalitarian? What will the justification be for a differently slanted playing field?]

A further distinction to be dispensed with will be that between what the state does and what it permits: the state will be responsible for everything including income, health etc. and that must be clear to everyone. And thus they will be responsible for how things are. They will have to understand that the current position is that we have made a positive choice to allow rewards to flow to the most productive. [Interestingly, the current spate of `banker bashing’ does not say that rewards should not follow productivity — but that the bankers were not productive and now, in the recovery, they are not productive enough to justify their rewards.]

A laissez-faire system such as this should not be regarded as the natural position, because it results from the state enforcing only some subset of rights smaller than a maximal set. Contract rights are enforced; rights to equal income are not. [How do we know there are any rights? Does not this show that there are none? From that perspective, a smaller set of `rights’ would be more `natural’ than a larger one. But is not all of that simply the naturalistic fallacy in any case? And if we cannot avoid that trap, we should do nothing.] So the state is responsible for not imposing equality.

Nagel mentions that arrangements which favor the productive also favor their heirs, under the current system. [This does indeed seem questionable. While the genetic lottery problem can be mitigated by saying that I have to work to monetize my skills, this does not wash. I do nothing to receive my inheritance. But that would be an argument for, say, setting inheritance tax to 100% rather than for egalitarianism.]

The negative responsibilities of the state mean that any system must be justified; all distributions are questionable. [Again, does this not mean that in the absence of a justification for any system, we should do as little as possible? That means the Nozickian minimal state.] Nagel notes that his views contrast with those of Locke, for whom the state steps in only when individuals fail to work together.

There are three major sources of inequality: prejudice (e.g. racial), inherited advantage, variation in natural advantages. These are for short termed Discrimination, Class and Talent. To these may be added Effort. There are also random factors. Nagel believes people should to a large extent get on with their luck. [Why? Why is that factor allowed to win? Why does not the full egalitarian system eliminate the effects of luck as well? If you win the lottery, so should I.]

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The four factors can be independent, but often are correlated. Effort will always help [ — unless you are trying to construct a Utopian political ideal.] A social structure is to be evaluated by how it allows these four sources of inequality to operate. Only effort is really a responsibility of the individual. Egalitarianism as Nagel wishes to see it will only seek to eliminate advantages for which the individual is not responsible. [To which no-one can object, but we need to see how we can disentangle the four factors and how we can avoid being dramatically harmed by a system in which the talent of ourselves and everyone else is unrewarded. That means no better chances of playing for England for good football players — though this could be a blessing in disguise…]

[Are we sure that one is responsible even for effort made? Could not the lack of propensity to akrasia not be an inherited characteristic? Nagel cannot afford this to be the case of course, for then he would be committed to eliminating rewards for effort, thus preventing him from discriminating between the brain surgeon who performs three operations in a day and the one who stays home watching TV.]

Naturally healthy people are allowed to be so. [But why is this consistent with the negative duties of the state? Remember, it is responsible for everything and cannot rely on not taking any action as a justification of a staus quo. Thus, it must intervene to weaken the health of the robust. On average, people are relatively unhealthy since some of them are old and many are not young. So the young will suffer quite a lot. We must all limp because some cannot walk. This will apply across dozens of parameters and will require significant expenditure of resource and on an ongoing basis also. If I get a cold, they may have to cease making me short-sighted.]

Nagel’s most clear divorce from utilitarianism comes with his rejection of some Pareto-superior switches. Thus, he objects to a change which benefits the well off at no expense to the poor because it increases inequality.

[Is it not the case that we would have to be insulated from all the effects of our decisions for good or ill in order to maintain equality?]

Although only effort is the only parameter for which we are responsible, on Nagel’s view, there seems to be a hierarchy of unfairness with the others. Very few people are in favor of discrimination, people have less developed views on class in general, and they are happy about talented people making progress. [Why do we care what people think?]

Class differences result in the special favor people show their children, and `no sane person’ would wish to abolish this. [We must pause to note that Nagel has just committed Plato to the asylum. And we are about to see that the thrust of his position will demand just this insanity.] We can lean against it with, for example, anti-nepotism rules. But there is an interesting contrast in that giving your child a job is wrong whereas private education is fine.

Religious discrimination is on a par with sexual and racial discrimination for Nagel. [This is inconsistent with his views. People are responsible for their religious views as they are not for their sex or their race. Since there is no evidence for any religions, religious people can be seen to be cognitively deficient in ways relating to evidence assessment that would disqualify them for some careers involving just that, such as for example scientific ones. Thus failing to select them would be a reasonable choice rather than an example of discrimination.]

It would be a gross change but not unthinkable for people to no longer see a good reason for someone’s being rich that his parents were. But that would not be enough to eliminate class because the advantages of growing up in a wealthy household would be so significant. [Hence The Republic…This cannot be fixed without eliminating `natural’ family feeling. Again — it may be natural, but does it have to be right therefore? And if we are allowed to take that line, why not our natural resistance to egalitarianism?]

Talent drives income inequality, and we somehow, laments Nagel, fail to grasp that talent is undeserved and thus should not drive rewards. Nagel thinks this is because we could imagine being a different class more easily than we could imagine having different talents. [Why do we care about what we can imagine? How does that attain to any force in the actual world? What are we going to say about supermodels, who are born so beautiful that people pay them vast sums just to show up?] Nagel admits that solving this is impossible unless we abolish competition. In fact we should promote the gaining of advantage of talent just as we eliminate the gaining of advantage due to class.

Nagel notes that incentives that generate inequalities are essential to economies. [He does not observe that it could be the very fact that these inequalities are what people seek. After all — he was right when asked whether we needed 27 ice cream flavors. I only need that if you cannot afford it. There is plenty of research to show that absolute income is less important to self-esteem than relative income.]

The circle will be squared by trying to reconcile the two opposed positions that rewards for talent are simultaneously necessary and `tainted’. [This is the latest incarnation of the personality conflict to which we are invited. And what does tainted mean? Tainted by what? Inequality?]

The conclusion is that it will not be possible to limit inequality to that for which the individual is responsible.

Next Section: Can Individual Choices Produce Unacceptable Inequality?


Nozick’s Truth-tracking

1. Nozick’s Analysis of Knowledge

1.1. Introduction

Nozick is responding to Gettier’s claim that the traditional tripartite definition of knowledge as justified true belief is inadequate. Nozick’s analysis is specified by the following four conditions, which together are necessary and sufficient for knowledge:

1. p
2. Bap
3. ¬ (1) → ¬ (2)
4. (1) → (2).

The symbol → is non-standard: Nozick uses it for his relation of subjunctive conditionality. A → B means that if A were the case, then B would also B the case. This differs from logical implication ⊃. If it is true that A ⊃ B, then in all possible worlds in which A is true, so is B. Nozick uses A → B to mean the much more restricted case in which in the closest group of possible worlds in which A is the case, so is B. We are also using the following symbols: p is a proposition, a is a subject, B is the relation of belief so that Bap means that a believes p; ¬ is negation and → is Nozick’s subjunctive conditional.

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Dancy gives an illustration for which he cites Lewis of this crucial distinction. Lewis considers the conditional ‘if kangaroos had no tails, they would topple over’. This is a good illustration of A → B and not of A ⊃ B. In some possible worlds, the Australian tourist board gives the kangaroos crutches. This group of possible worlds is certainly more remote than the nearest possible world in which kangaroos have no tails and are unstable. So A → B is true but A ⊃ B is false because A does not entail B.

One of the terms for this analysis is ‘truth-tracking’ because the subject’s belief is co-variant with the truth of p; if it were the case that p then the subject would believe it and if it were not the case that p then a would not believe it. It has also been known as a counter-factual analysis because of the way in which it discusses near possible worlds distinct to the actual world in order to assess knowledge claims in the actual world.

1.2. Motivation

Nozick introduces his two new conditions (3) and (4) in order to handle cases which had not been soluble on the previous bases. Gettier cases involve erroneously scoped referencing in which the subject appears to have a justification for believing p and p is true and yet the situations appear to fall short of knowledge. For example: “Two other people are in my office and I am justified on the basis of much evidence in believing the first owns a Ford car; though he (now) does not, the second person (a stranger to me) owns one. I believe truly and justifiably that someone (or other) in my office owns a Ford car, but I do not know someone does.” Condition (3) eliminates this type of case as an instance of knowledge, which is a point in favor of Nozick’s analysis.

Nozick’s introduction of condition (4) occurs in the context of a skeptical scenario termed ‘Brain in a Vat’ (“BIV”) by Putnam. The subject is in fact a disembodied brain being stimulated by electrochemical means to have experiences; these being in the base case scenario all of the same experiences as in the current world. This skeptical hypothesis will produce important implications for Nozick’s analysis, to be discussed in the next section. The power of the hypothesis lies in the fact that while it is doxically identical to the actual world, almost everything believed in it is false.

As Nozick points out, his subjunctive analysis is related to but more restricted than the prior causal analysis. Under BIV, the subject can be brought to believe that BIV is true by being given appropriate stimulation. There is a good causal link between the event and the belief formation, but this cannot count as knowledge because it is fortuitous. Nozick can exclude this type of counterexample because it fails condition (4): in the close world to that of the BIV subject where he is not given the relevant stimulation, he no longer believes BIV although it is still true.

1.3. Skeptical Implications and Non-Closure

There is a major ‘heavyweight implication’ of Nozick’s analysis that is highly counter-intuitive. It will be instructive to see how he resolves it. The following principle, termed the closure principle, seems valid:

(CP): Kap & Ka(p -∃ q) → Kq.

The symbol -∃ is used to signify entailment, and so CP may be expressed as ‘if it were the case both that a knows that p and a knows that p entails q, then it would be the case that a knows q’; K is the two-place relation of belief used similar to B for belief previously.

This seems entirely plausible but Nozick uses BIV to argue that it is false. Let p be any everyday proposition such as ‘a is in London’. Let q be the negation of BIV. It is clear that p entails q, that a knows this entailment and that p is true and so under CP, a knows that BIV is false. Yet this is exactly the skeptical scenario that appears difficult to defeat.

Nozick’s dramatic response to this is to deny CP: “Knowledge is not closed under known logical implication”. He explains this by deriving it from the non-closure of (3): “That you were born in a certain city entails that you were born on earth. Yet contemplating what (actually) would be the situation if you were not born in that city is very different from contemplating what situation would hold if you weren’t born on earth.”

1.4. Methods

Nozick introduces a further refinement to handle what he terms the grandmother case. A grandmother comes to know that her grandson is healthy by seeing him. Were he not however, she would nevertheless be told that he was, in order to spare her distress. Nozick wishes to preserve this as a case of knowledge even though it fails condition (3).

This he does by adding the requirement ‘via method M’ to (2), (3) and (4). For a case to represent knowledge, M must not change in the relevant possible counter-factual situations. This means that the grandmother has knowledge in all the possible worlds in which she learns her grandson is healthy by seeing him, and does not in the possible worlds in which she relies on inaccurate testimony. This appears to be the correct result.

2. Objections to Nozick

2.1. Forbes

Forbes defends CP by putting pressure on Nozick’s line that the same method M must be used in (2), (3) and (4) in order to avoid incorrect knowledge ascriptions in the grandmother case. Forbes points out that M being reliable in the actual world where p is true does not entail that M is reliable in even the closest possible worlds where p is false.

The example given is of a reliable computer that can also check its own status. The proposition p is that the computer is functioning normally. The question is whether a subject can acquire knowledge that p by asking the computer to report its own status. If p, then this method M is reliable. However, if not p, then method M is by hypothesis no longer reliable. Thus there is no way to hold M constant while varying the truth value of p in order to assess whether the belief of the subject is co-variant with p.

Forbes allows that Nozick may have a response along lines similar to those used in an example that Nozick himself gives. This is of a vase in a box that is pressing a switch. The switch activates a holographic projector set to show a vase in the box. An observer passes all of (1) – (4) in respect of p, there is a vase in the box, and yet this is not a knowledge case. But Forbes holds that Nozick would then need to concede that the counter-factual analysis was inappropriate for all inferences and this would be arbitrary and severe for Nozick’s analysis. Perhaps Nozick here can instead adopt in some form Harman’s suggestion that all the lemmas be true.

2.2. Wright

Wright also attacks Nozick’s claim to have defeated the sceptical argument by introducing non-closure. He notes that using Nozick’s standard p and q (p = ‘I have a hand’; q = ¬ BIV) produces a problem for the ¬q scenario. Here, BIV is true and so p is false. We can assume that BIV is one of the relevant ¬p scenarios to be considered in assessing whether Kap. But if so, then subject a fails condition (3) because, even though p is false, Bap.

So Wright argues that Nozick must assume that BIV is not one of the relevant ¬p scenarios. And he further uses Nozick’s own argumentation against him with the following line, in which (I) represents ‘had it not been the case that I have a hand, then it would still not have been the case that BIV’.

(I): ¬p → q
(II): ¬q → ¬p
(III): ¬q → q

(II) is simply the statement that in BIV, I do not have a hand and then the reductio (III) follows by modus ponens from (I) and (II). As Wright points out, this could be seen as a refutation of the skeptic, but that line is not open to Nozick who wishes to agree that BIV is logically possible.

Wright allows Nozick the response of denying that transitivity holds for counter-factual conditionals. This would break the step to (III).

2.3. Garrett

Garrett defends Nozick against a purported counterexample given by Martin. Martin’s example considers a subject a placing a bet that pays if either of two horses wins. Subject a uses the unreliable method of finding out whether his horse won in the first race of simply cashing in his slip after the second race while avoiding any information about the first race. If his slip pays, he assumes that the first horse won whereas in fact it could have been the horse in the second race.

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Assume that the first horse did in fact win, and this is proposition p. The horse in the second race did not win. Condition (3) seems satisfied because ¬p → ¬Bap. Also, (4) seems satisfied. And yet this surely cannot be a case of knowledge because of the good fortune of a that the second horse did not win; a has failed to consider a relevant alternative.

Nozick’s response will be that in fact the possible worlds in which the first horse loses and the second wins are close enough that they have to be included in the assessment of whether Kap, whereas some possible worlds do not, such as one in which the betting machine has malfunctioned and is paying all slips. And then it is precisely the failure of Kap to track p in those close worlds that means (3) is not satisfied and this is not a knowledge case.

But Garrett has a refined version of this counterexample that he thinks is more dangerous to Nozick. Proposition q is that the father of person A is a philosopher; q is true. Proposition p is that the father of person B is a philosopher. Subject a uses the unreliable method M of forming Bap if a understands that q. It transpires unbeknownst to a that A and B are brothers, so in fact p. This fulfills conditions (1) – (4) but cannot be knowledge because it relied on the random unknown fact of A and B being brothers.

2.4. Gordon’s Response to Garrett

Gordon replies to Garrett’s objection by narrowing the scope of the problem of the father of A being a philosopher. Gordon notes that Nozick can appeal to his insistence that method M be held constant across the counter-factual scenarios. If method M means that a can legitimately infer facts about the father of A from knowing facts about the father of B and knowing that A and B are brothers, then M is reliable. It only becomes unreliable if extended to the general unrelated population. So can Nozick argue that this is in fact no longer M? For Garrett, the question becomes “why is it a requirement of knowledge that one have good grounds for thinking one’s method reliable?”

Gordon holds that Nozick has in fact replaced the tripartite analysis of knowledge as justified true belief (“JTB”) with his four conditions. Nozick is not therefore committed to JTB, and “even if Garrett can show a case in which one can meet Nozick’s conditions while using an unreliable method, he won’t have arrived at a clear counterexample to Nozick”.

2.5. Garrett’s Rejoinder to Gordon

Garrett responds by insisting “it is no presupposition of my counterexamples that it is necessary for knowledge that one have good grounds for thinking one’s method reliable if it is reliable”. Garrett agrees that if his counterexample shows unjustified true beliefs that meet all of Nozick’s conditions, and if JTB is required for knowledge, then he has found cases where Nozick ascribes knowledge incorrectly. However Garrett further claims that his counterexamples are valid against Nozick whether or not JTB is required. This seems strange however.

Garrett seeks to draw an analogy with the standard Gettier cases, saying that it is possible to explain why his father of A case is a counterexample to Nozick by showing the presence of unjustified true beliefs without insisting that justification is essential to knowledge. The idea seems to be that there is no entailment here. This seems true, but Garrett does not specify what alternate method he has to show that Nozick has falsely ascribed knowledge. Or alternatively Garrett may be thinking of a negative condition. Lack of justification is sufficient to disprove a knowledge claim, while the presence of justification is insufficient to prove a knowledge claim. This separation seems somewhat arbitrary though. In summary, Gordon’s defense of Nozick appears successful.

See Also:

Links Between Schopenhauer And Apocalypse Now

Ryle Contra Hidden Mental Processes

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”

‘Both A Black Raven And A Red Herring Confirm The Claim That All Ravens Are Black.’


  • R Nozick, Philosophical Explanations, Harvard University Press, 1981, (“PE”), p. 167 et seq.
  • J Dancy, Introduction to Contemporary Epistemology, Blackwell Publishing, 1985, p. 42
  • G Forbes, Nozick On Skepticism, The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 134 (Jan., 1984), pp. 43-52, Blackwell Publishing
  • C Wright, Keeping Track of Nozick, Analysis, Vol. 43, No. 3 (Jun., 1983), pp. 134-140
  • B Garrett, Nozick on Knowledge, Analysis, Vol. 43, No. 4 (Oct., 1983), pp. 181-184
  • R Martin, Tracking Nozick’s Skeptic: A Better Method, Analysis, (Jan., 1983), pp. 28-33
  • D Gordon, Knowledge, Reliable Methods, and Nozick, Analysis, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Jan., 1984), pp. 30-33
  • B Garrett, Nozick and Knowledge: A Rejoinder, Analysis, Vol. 44, No. 4 (Oct., 1984), pp. 194-196