Responsibility and the Discontinuous Self The Bully after 30 Years

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Responsibility and the Discontinuous Self

  1. The Bully after 30 Years

Let’s say Johnny assaults Terence on the schoolyard when they are both 12. Following this, Johnny does not see Terence for 30 years, during which they both undergo the usual changes that occur between the ages of 12 and 42. Johnny42 would never bully someone, he thinks of physical violence as a last resort to be used only in cases of self-defense, he treats others with respect, etc. Further, let’s hold that the act of bullying was fairly anomalous, and while it had a strong effect on Terence, Johnny does not remember it (though he could be reminded of it.) Now, I would say that it's a deep psychological, moral, and metaphysical mistake to think that, when Terence encounter Johnny when they are both 42, that he is simply encountering the same person who assaulted him. There are interesting connections between Johnny42 and Johnny12, but for many relevant purposes, Johnny42 is a very different person from Johnny12 (and I mean that quite literally: Johnny42 and Johnny12 share no material parts except accidentally, and they share very little psychological content—on any reductionist view of the self they have at best limited continuity.) Further, if Terence42 attempted revenge on the person who he believes assaulted him by assaulting Johnny42, I would hold that he cannot succeed: revenge, by its nature, needs to perpetrated on the person who wronged you, and Johnny42 is (I will argue) certainly not simply that person, and perhaps simply not that person. That is, while there is organic, “animalist” continuity, and an overlapping chain of psychological continuity, and some degree of legal continuity (but also some non-continuity, as, at least in the U.S., most crimes committed in childhood are not considered relevant to judgments upon an adult) the sort of continuity that is relevant for the context of revenge is missing. Johnny42 is not that person, the one upon whom one can exact revenge. However, this does not mean that Johnny42 has no responsibilities towards Terence with regard to the bullying.

  1. Responsibility

There is a kind of responsibility we take for actions that we ourselves did not commit. For example, a president may apologize on behalf of his country for actions taken prior to his term. A parent may be held responsible for the wrongdoing of a child. If your grandfather swindled a man, and you inherited money or goods from that grandfather, you might be responsible to repay.

This is what we see, for example, in arguments about reparations for the holocaust or slavery: someone who benefitted from the wrongdoing, or is in some way an heir to that wrongdoing, takes responsibility for it even if they in no way participated in the original wrongdoing. We can hold something similar should be the case in the instance of Johnny and Terence. It is a cultural custom, at least, for Johnny42 to apologize for Johnny12’s actions. The mere fact that this is done is not an argument that it should be done, but it is done for a reason, and this reason can provide premises for the argument: Johnny42’s apology is probably helpful in providing peace of mind to the person he assaulted; It shows that Johnny42 does not condone Johnny12’s actions, and, if Johnny42 is sincere, that he disavows those actions and actions like them. Thus, it’s helpful both to the victim, and in establishing that Johnny42 has changed enough that he would not support such actions, or at least would not claim to.

So we could claim that, though Johnny­12 and Johnny42 are at best only partially the same, the apology should be given merely because it is customary, and it has a salutary effect on the victim, and clarifies Johnny42­’s current moral stand regarding bullying. However, I think we can do better than to say that the apologize is merely customary and the reasons for it merely consequential (though these may still count as reasons for the apology).

We could hold that Johnny42 is the person responsible for apologizing for Johnny12’s actions in the same way the president of the current United States could see himself as uniquely in a position to apologize for the internment of Japanese citizens during WWII. In short, even if Johnny42 did not, in some sense, commit the act of bullying, he is in position to apologize. In fact, he is perhaps uniquely in that positioni. There are two reasons for this: first, Johnny42 is the heir to Johnny12, and the inheritor of his debts. That is, even if they are strongly distinct, Johnny42 bears a special legal connection to the goods, deeds, and misdeeds of Johnny12. Johnny42 is in a position to offer some resolution and he is in that position not by accident, but by a chain of at least physical and legal connectedness to Johnny12.

What is needed, then, is a metaphysics of the self that both allows for responsibility and accepts a degree of discontinuity of identity. The former for its social benefits, the latter because it accepts truths about the nature of existence of the things that undergo massive changes across time.

  1. The Commonwealth

One metaphor that Hume and Parfit use to put forward a reductionist notion of the self is that of the reductionist view of a commonwealth or republic. That is: a nation is merely composed of the people in it, and its territory, and laws, etc., and nothing elseii. There is no further fact to the existence of nations, they simply supervene on these things. Notably, the idea that the United States (or its proper representative) should apologize for the Japanese internment even though a very small percentage of United States citizens were alive when it happened is coherent with this metaphor for the self.

As Hume puts it:
I cannot compare the soul more properly to anything than to a republic or commonwealth, in which the several members are united by the reciprocal ties of government and subordination, and give rise to other persons, who propagate the same republic in the incessant changes of its parts. And as the same individual republic may not only change its members, but also its laws and constitutions; in like manner the same person may vary his character and disposition, as well as his impressions and ideas, without losing his identity.” iii
Parfit adds:
Most of us are Reductionists about nations. We would accept the following claims: Nations exist. Ruritania does not exist, but France does. Though nations exist, a nation is not an entity that exists separately, apart from its citizens and its territory. We would accept (6) A nation's existence just involves the existence of its citizens, living together in certain ways, on its territory. Some claim (7) A nation just is these citizens and this territory.”iv
When President Reagan signed legislation apologizing for the internment of Japanese citizensv it was not because he himself had authorized their internment; President Roosevelt had done that. But Reagan understood (I assume) that he was in a special position to apologize, and that he, as the heir to those actions and the representative of the nation that was the heir to those actions, and the representative of the people who were the heirs to those actions, should apologize for those actions, whether or not he would have authorized them himself. One might think here: Johnny42 would not authorize bullying of a 12-year-old; yet Johnny42 is the rightful heir to the person who did authorize such bullying. Of course, Reagan was not alone in the apology: the congress of the United States passed the legislation apologizing, and the legislation apologized on behalf of the United States. But Reagan, in signing it, signed on for that apology. While he was clearly not guilty of the internment, he nonetheless placed himself as in some sense responsible for it. Similarly, Johnny42 could not be tried for an assault that Johnny12 committedvi, but it would at least be honorable of him to take responsibility for it.

It’s important to note, though, that while a president should apologize for the actions of his or her country, and while the country can take responsibility, and even owe a debt, it wouldn’t make sense to punish the president for something that occurred before his term of office. This raises a question about the forms of responsibility that persist across long spans of time.

It may seem obvious that there is a strong difference between a president apologizing for the actions of his office when he is not biologically continuous with the person who held the office when the offence was committed, and a person apologizing for an action committed by a temporally prior but organically continuous time-slice even if he or she does not remember the action. But there are stark similarities as well: the relevant discontinuities in the latter case, for example, can be stronger than those in the former.

David Lewis discusses the case of “Methuselah” in “Survival and Identityvii.” He asks that we imagine a very long-lived individual who, after 137 years, bears no non-accidental physical or psychological sameness with his prior self. He notes that “Personal identity to a reduced degree…is found in Methuselah” (p32). That is, he neither simply is or is not personally identical to his prior self (Lewis distinguishes “personal identity” from “identity;” the latter does not admit of degrees, as Leibniz points out, but clearly personal identity is not the same as identity, or there would either be no personal identity across even fairly short spans of time, or identity would admit of difference.) This partial continuity is what’s relevant for many moral considerations, and certainly for revenge. The goal of justice, and vengeance, is to enact something upon an offender. If the offender has ceased to be, it’s unclear how justice can proceed. But offenders can partially cease to be. The President of the United States is both a person and an office; the individual person may have died, but the office continues. The office will still bear responsibilities for its prior incarnations. Similarly, a person’s memories, intentions, and personality may bear little relation to a prior self who committed an offense, but some responsibilities persist regardless, just as they would if the person inherited stolen property.

Another way to think of this is as holding an office or position: Johnny42 holds the position that bears responsibility. He is the only person in a position to apologize. But his position might not include the culpability needed for punishment. Imagine a Jewish family in the 1930s entrusts valuables to a German man. That man dies and passes the valuables to his daughter, who dies and passes them to her son. The son may have no idea where the goods came from, but still bears responsibility for returning them when the Jewish family, or their descendants, return.

The important point is this: we can accept that Johnny42 is not (or at least not simply) Johnny12, but if we adopt something like Parfit’s idea that the identity of a person is like that of a nation (or Hume’s idea that a person is like a commonwealth) we can easily see a way to still assign responsibility by understanding that successors have duties based on the actions of their predecessors. This is true for a new CEO taking over a failing company, the new leader of a nation that has committed wrongs, the people of such a nation, and a person who bears a distant but direct relation to a past person. This latter calls for an understanding of the ways that survival across time is not all-or-nothing, but can be partial or even indeterminate.

  1. Stanley “Tookie” Williams, Norwegian Prisons, and Persistence of Personality

In 1979, when he was 25 years old, Stanley “Tookie” Williams was convicted of four counts of murder and was sentenced to death. On December 13th of 2005, two weeks shy of his 52nd birthday, Williams was finally executed by the state of California. During the early years of his incarceration, Williams, a leader of the Crips gang in Los Angeles, assaulted guards and inmates and carried on gang activities. However, in 1996 Williams began working as an anti-gang advocate, writing a series of anti-gang books aimed at childrenviii. He followed this by writing an apology for his role in creating the Crips and writing a memoir which, he said, was aimed at warning people away from the gang lifestyle. Williams also claimed to have undergone a religious conversion while in prison.

Tremendous disagreement exists as to the sincerity of Williams’ claims of redemption, but if we accept that he did, indeed, alter his moral outlook so thoroughly as to reject the violence and criminality of his youth, we’re presented with an interesting moral and metaphysical question. To what extent is our identity tied to our animality or physicality on the one hand, and to our psychological make-up, on the other. If punishment simply aims at enacting retribution upon some human animal, then we have no concerns about how long it takes to punish someone. If Joe commits a burglary, and we don’t catch him for five years, we don’t count the intervening years as part of his sentence. If a sentence is death (bracketing for a moment the question of whether that is ever a just punishment) then it should be applied whenever it becomes possible to do so.

But if the punishment is aimed not at the body of the person, but rather something essential to who that person is in relation to others, morality, ideas, goals, beliefs, etc., it may be the case that we cannot justly carry out punishments after certain changes have occurred. We may, though, still hold people responsible, just as we don’t punish the citizens of a country for actions of past citizens, but may make them pay reparations.

This goes against some basic intuitions that we may have concerning justice and persons. If we are not Buddhists or Parfit/Hume style reductionists about selves, we might hold that there is some essence that remains unchanged across time in any given human organism, and that counts as the continuer. This is the Christian doctrine that our sins accrue debts across our lives, for example. Something holds that debt. We might hold that a self isn’t even important for this, that the mere continuity of a body is enough. In that case, we’d probably be opposed to the laws that make it illegal to execute someone who has, after the crime, gone insane to such a degree that he or she doesn’t know what’s happening to him/her. We also need to explain at what point the organic continuer begins to accrue responsibilities; probably, we will here appeal to psychological criteria: when she is old enough to understand right from wrong, and when she can learn moral lessons, etc. So I’m not sure we can be consistent with regard to responsibility on the purely animalist view without smuggling in some psychological characteristics. We would not, I imagine, execute a comatose person for a crime committed prior to the coma (nor during the coma, if that were somehow possible.)

I’ll make the following proposal based on the above: if a person continues to hold the same values, beliefs, and goals that were important in motivating a crime, then, for the purpose of punishment, we should probably consider this the same person. If Terrence42 knew that Johnny42 continued to be a bully, even if Johnny42 didn’t remember Terrence, Terrence could still get revenge because that’s the person he wants to get revenge on. But if Johnny42 has become a Buddhist pacifist who works to stop bullying and donates his time to helping bullied children, it seems like Terrence can’t actually get revenge anymore; the bully is gone. This doesn’t mean he can’t, say, attack Johnny and feel good about it. It means that he is mistaken in thinking his revenge struck its true target. It would be just as effective psychologically if Terrence accidentally attacked a man he thought was Johnny and never learned the truth, but the truth of the matter would be that in both the mistaken identity case and the Johnny-as-Buddhist case, Terrence failed in his goal. What he wanted to was to attack that person, the very one who attacked him. But what he succeeded at was attacking a very different person, though one who, in both cases, resembled his attacker. Indeed, there is little that is psychologically or physically the same between Johnny12 and Johnny42, and as a matter of accident it may well be that in both physical material and thoughts, beliefs and desires, the person Terrence attacks in the mistaken identity case has more in common with Johnny12 than Johnny42 does.

Parfit says that he discovered that there was no enduring essence to the self, only the shifting psychological landscape, and that after enough time, it’s as though a new self appears. “Is the truth depressing? Some may find it so. But I find it liberating, and consoling. When I believed that my existence was a further fact, I seemed imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view the glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air.”ix

He then adds “There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer: I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.” (281). This is very close to the Buddhist view; the idea is that, as one becomes less connected to oneself, one may be more connected to others, because the self is less of a binding force, an all-encompassing locus for interest and concern. In the Pali canon, it is through cultivating compassion for others that the self is overcome. In the Kalama Sutta, it says, “The disciple of the Noble Ones, Kalamas, who in this way is devoid of coveting, devoid of ill will, undeluded, clearly comprehending and mindful, dwells, having pervaded, with the thought of amity, all corners of the universe; he dwells, having pervaded because of the existence in it of all living beings, everywhere, the entire world, with the great, exalted, boundless thought of amity that is free of hate or malice.” (Anguttara Nikaya 65.13) That is, by giving up self, the disciple gains identity with all living things. It “removes the glass wall between me and others.”

These are not arguments, per se, but Parfit is at least claiming that the experience of realizing that the self is reducible, which is essentially the Buddhist claim that what we think of as the self is merely the skandas, or bundles, leads him to greater connection to others. So this is a report of a subjective experience, but it coheres with the claims not only of the canonical Buddhist texts, but of the mainstreams of Buddhism generally on the benefits of overcoming self.

If we accept this view of the self, should we change our view of persons? It seems that for some purposes, we should. This may have no bearing on something like the continuity of ownership of property. Perhaps that is merely tied to animal identity. But it does seem relevant to responsibility, revenge, and blame. If we can understand ourselves as shifting, and understand others as doing so as well, it might not make sense to hold someone liable for punishment over long periods of time during which they changed drastically.

The United States penal system doesn’t have strong recognition of this. We accept that people change enough from adolescence to adulthood that we expunge criminal records of juveniles. This is in keeping with a great deal of research on personality change over time: virtually every researcher agrees that that period is one of great change.x

But these same researchers agree that there is still change after that time, and that occasional cases exist of drastic change. No set age has been agreed upon as the time when change ceases, and some large scale changes occur even in late adulthoodxi. In Norway, the longest prison sentence is limited to 21 years of “preventive detention.” If the prisoner is thought to have remained consistent in being a danger, at the end of 21 years another 5 years can be added to the sentence, and this can be continued indefinitely. So it is possible to be imprisoned for a very long life, but there is no “life imprisonment” penalty. Futher, only 20 people have received the 21 year sentence; shorter sentences, too, can be extended if the offender is determined to still be dangerous.xii

I would hold that it is impossible to get revenge after enough time has passed, (though we may need to define “enough time” in each case) because the logic of revenge demands that it be enacted upon the offender, and after 30 years, especially in a span from pre-adolescence to adulthood, so little remains of the offender’s basic elements that the person is barely, if at all, the same person. Similarly, if punishment is meant as retribution, it runs into the same problems as revenge, and punishing retributively (as opposed to punishment as, say, deterrence) for an action committed in the distant past, and after large-scale changes in the person’s psychological make-up, may make as much sense as punishing people born in Germany after 1950 for the actions their parents committed in the war, though they still may owe a debt due to the transfer of tainted goods.

i We might alternatively claim that Johnny’s mother could be in a position to apologize, if Terence knew that she bullied Johnny, or encouraged his bullying, and that this influenced Johnny12 to assault Terence12. Or we could hold that Freddy47, who bullied Johnny8, should apologize to Terence42 for turning Johnny into a bully. This opens up interesting questions about the nature of identity and responsibility that I won’t go into here.

ii Parfit, Reasons and Persons, pp 211

iii David Hume. A Treatise of Human Nature: Section VI: Of Personal Identity

iv Parfit, pp 211-212

v S. 1009, Document 00055, Page 002, retrieved from the Internment Archives at on April 2, 2013

vi At least under current law, and assuming the assault was non-fatal and resulted in no permanent impairment.

vii In Identities of Persons, ed. Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, 1976, University of California Press, Berkeley.

viii Timeline: Tookie’s Path to Death Row, NPR.Org, Dec. 13 2005, accessed 2/24/14.

ix P. 281

x See for example the review studies by Roberts and Walton (“Patterns of Mean-Level Change In Personality Traits across the Life Course: A Meta-Analysis of Longitudinal Studies”, Psych Bulletin vol 132, no1, pp1-24, 2006) and Roberts and DelVecchio (“The Rank-Order Consistency of Personality Traits from Childhood to Old Age: A Quantitative Review of Longitudinal Studies” Psych Bulletin vol 126, no. 1, pp. 3-25, 2000.)

xi Baltes, P.B. “On the incomplete architecture of human ontogeny,” American Psychologist, 52, pp266-380, 1997

xii Slate, May 7, 2013, “Why Does Norway Have a 21-Year Maximum Prison Sentence,”; Mark Lewis and Sarah Lyall, “Norway Mass Killer Gets Maximum: 21 Years”, New York Times, August 24, 2012, retrieved 02/24/14,

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