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Musing: Is Rule Utilitarianism Preferable to Act Utilitarianism?

Holly Morgan
University of Oxford


Utilitarianism is a normative ethical theory which states that the morally right action is the one that maximises the balance of happiness over suffering. However, ‘action’ can be interpreted in two different ways: (i) a unique action in a given circumstance; (ii) a type of action, such as ‘lying.’ (i) produces act utilitarianism and (ii) produces rule utilitarianism.

Much confusion could be generated if we did not also distinguish between two types of act utilitarianism and two corresponding types of rule utilitarianism. Normative act utilitarianism (hereinafter denoted by AU-N) is the doctrine that the right action is the one that produces the most happiness in that particular situation, while normative rule utilitarianism (hereinafter denoted by RU-N) holds that the right action is the one which conforms to a rule which, if followed generally, would maximise happiness. Practical act utilitarianism (hereinafter denoted by AU-P), on the other hand, is a decision procedure whereby the agent is required to weigh up the predicted consequences of each and every moral act that he performs and to perform the action that seems to produce the most happiness overall in that given situation. Practical rule utilitarianism (hereinafter denoted by RU-P) is a decision procedure whereby the agent is required to judge each possible act by virtue of the consequences that that type of act tends to produce; thus, the act of murder is always the wrong action by the standards of RU-P because murder usually produces more unhappiness than happiness. RU-P states that we should follow those rules (such as ‘do not murder’) that contribute the most to happiness in the long run – the consequence of the rule being in place should be more happiness than if the rule wasn’t in place. These rules are learnt through experience and established and developed by society throughout history and they must be followed even on an occasion where good consequences would best be promoted by breaking the rule. Blackburn (2008) compares RU-P to a referee enforcing rules and not worrying about the particular consequences in that case, because he knows that generally the rules are good.

But which is preferable, act utilitarianism or rule utilitarianism? Unsurprisingly, I shall argue that neither single-level act utilitarianism (AU-N plus AU-P) nor single-level rule utilitarianism (RU-N plus RU-P) is preferable, but that elements of both need to be combined in order to produce the best outcome. Moreover, a split-level approach (AU-N plus RU-P, or RU-N plus AU-P is not enough – a more complex, multi-level approach is needed.

RU-N seems to have arisen in response to criticisms against AU-N, such as that AU-N fails to recognise the intrinsic value of enforcing justice, protecting the innocent and minorities and keeping promises; the moral force of these actions, it is argued, is not wholly reducible to the happiness/unhappiness balance. Is RU-N, then, a sensible modification or an ad hoc defence mechanism? It seems the latter, since there appears to be no rational grounding for the modification other than our basic initial intuitions in particular circumstances and this leads to superstitious ‘rule-worship’. As Smart says (as referenced in Rachels 1995), so what if RU-N better maps our intuitions? It is also widely-known that the human brain is incapable of comprehending large numbers, and so we naturally underestimate the total positive effects of breaking a rule, when this is the sum of many small positive effects. For example, we intuitively think that an innocent man should not be hung in order to make the public feel safer, no matter how many people are made happier as a result, but this is because our minds cannot properly grasp the scale of the happiness produced in total. RU-N should not really even be called ‘utilitarianism’, since the fundamental criterion of maximisation subordinated to our intuitions.

So AU-N seems the correct position. However, AU-P is not an ideal decision procedure, since the calculations are themselves an action, and lengthy calculation can often waste precious time and thus decrease the utility of an agent’s response to a situation. RU-P, then, appears superior.

But we can go one step better. Hare suggests a ‘two-level’ system in reference to decision procedures, whereby we follow RU-P unless the situation is complicated and it is not clear which rule to abide by because, for example, there is more than one rule that is considered to maximise utility. In these situations, we should resort to AU-P. In reference to Williams’ ‘Jim and the Indians’ thought-experiment, Hare claims that this two-level system explains both why Jim should feel repugnance at shooting the Indian and why he ought, nevertheless, to do it.

Sidgwick proposes a similar system with regard to decision procedures, which he calls ‘government-house utilitarianism.’ Under this system, a collection of intelligent and educated people follow AU-P and they rule over the rest of the people, who follow RU-P.

Both Hare’s and Sidgwick’s systems are multi-level systems with the following format: AU-N plus RU-P, but sometimes AU-P; in other words, act utilitarianism is the correct normative description of ethics and in practice we should follow utilitarian ‘rules of thumb’ unless it seems worth calculating the consequences of our actions. Both systems seem plausible and either way, it is clear that neither rule utilitarianism nor act utilitarianism is preferable in itself, but that a combination of both is necessary.

Kant’s Account of Beauty: An Assessment

Alexander Gatherer
Cardiff University


Kant’s first two ‘Critiques,’ The Critique of Pure Reason (1981) and The Critique of Practical Reason (1988) helped secure his place as the cornerstone of modern Western philosophy. However, the two did face a serious issue. The former looks into the debate of epistemology, and gives birth to his renowned theory of the phenomenal world (that which appears to us) and the normative one (that which actually is), and he appears to us to believe the world to be causally determined. His second Critique, on the other hand, looks at ethics, and gives rise to his ideas of categorical imperatives and the Kingdom of Ends (how people should be treated as intrinsically valuable rather than as means to an individual end). It seems complex to bridge the gap between causal determinism and a firm ethical standpoint, for how can ethics be relevant in a causally determined world? It is this which Kant seeks to answer in The Critique of Judgement (1990), and what ultimately leads him to his discussion of art and the concept of beauty. It is in this discussion that he comes to the notion that ‘beauty is the form of finality in an object, so far as perceived in it apart from the representation of an end.’ In this essay I shall examine the meaning of the quote, as well as its relevance to bridging the gap between Kant’s scientific ideas and his ethical ideals. I will then go on to evaluate the quote’s adequacy as an account of beauty, concluding that while it is a robust concept of beauty and art, the questions that follow from it render it, at best incomplete.

Kant discusses how we tend to look at the world teleological way. When we look at something, such as a hammer, we look at how it is designed to fulfil a particular end, and judge it based on how efficient its design is. However, this is not always the situation when we consider items we deem to be beautiful. When, for example we look at a flower, whilst scientists may regard it from the point of view of its purpose of attracting insects and consequent pollination, many will simply appreciate its design simply because of the design itself, which we deem to be ‘beautiful’. The same can be said of a well-constructed painting. When the lines and colours are put together in a pleasing way we deem the painting ‘beautiful,’ even though we cannot pinpoint exactly why the painting is beautiful or why it has the value we place upon it. This leads Kant to suppose that art is ‘purposefulness without a purpose.’ It seems that we judge the art in a teleological way (based on its design), such as the science discussed in The Critique of Pure Reason, but not in a way that requires it to achieve any ends, which harks back to the Kingdom of Ends discussed in The Critique of Practical Reason, where Kant states we should respect other human beings for their intrinsic value, and ends within themselves, rather than means. We can therefore see how this conception of art can help bridge the gap between Kant’s first two critiques.

It is the notion of purposefulness without a purpose which stirs Kant to claim ‘beauty is the form of finality in an object, so far as perceived in it apart from the representation of an end.’ So, as discussed above, Kant is claiming that art should be respected for its intrinsic value, and has no purpose other than to be art. He is resolute in distinguishing art from craft, for when one crafts something for a specific purpose, one instantly judges it on its ability to serve that purpose, rather than its own beauty, and therefore, he believes, it cannot be classified as art. He is also eager to distinguish art from entertainment, claiming that the latter is merely agreeable, with the former providing pleasure simply from viewing it.

Several interesting questions arise from this concept of art. Many items, it could be claimed without too much controversy, could be viewed as both beautiful as well as practical, such as ornate china plates. One particularly interesting example is that of propaganda: art with the specific purpose of conveying political ideals and coercing others into adopting similar values. Such a specific purpose clearly implies that Kant would consider propaganda paintings, film etc. to be craft, rather than art. This perhaps seems peculiar, as many would be tempted to argue that paintings that show artistic skill are art. Indeed, Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, has been frequently cited by critics as one of the best films of all time, due to its innovative lighting and cinematography. Aside from propaganda, we can look at the paintings of Thomas Jones, which varied from the ‘mainstream’ landscapes that were painted to be commercial, and the paintings of more unusual scenes, such as those focusing on unremarkable brick buildings (‘Building in Naples’). Surely Kant would only deem the latter of these art, for they were painted just for the sake of being painted, whereas the former were painted for the purpose of profit, thus could not be considered to be art?

Kant attempts to circumvent this issue by bringing in the matter of ‘dependent beauty.’ This is distinguished from the kind of free beauty already considered, that with which the object has no easily identified, specific purpose, whereas dependent beauty ‘presuppose(s) such a concept [of what an object should be] and, with it, an answering perfection of the object.’ So under this conception, perhaps the propaganda as listed above could be considered to have dependent beauty, even if it lacks the free beauty that Kant holds in higher esteem. However I still consider this problematic. Kant fails to give us a defined rule as to what can or can’t have dependent beauty (for example, could an intricately carved hammer be considered art, even if its carving were designed for practicality?). Furthermore, Kant’s assertion that flowers have free beauty is confusing, as we have already seen that these do indeed have a specific purpose in nature, the colour and scent attract insects, and therefore beauty and purpose are inextricably related. Kant explains this by saying that only botanists would be interested in or observant of such a purpose. However, this, in my opinion, doesn’t align with Kant’s overall concept of beauty, in which he claims ‘that which, apart from a concept, pleases universally’. If beauty is universal, then why do most see the free beauty in a flower whereas a botanist would only be capable of admiring its dependent beauty, bound as it is by its need to be efficient at fulfilling the task it was designed for?  These notions call into question the adequacy of Kant’s account of beauty.

Closely related to Kant’s conception of purposefulness without purpose is his proposal that art must be ‘disinterested’ that is when examining art, we expect no additional desire or benefit from it other than that of the natural pleasure art provides. For example, one may look at a painting of a forest and think of how much money the various woods or land could make. Clearly, this is not a disinterested standpoint, and to see the art’s beauty, one must instead look at the painting in a ‘merely contemplative’ fashion. This notion, too, conjures several issues, as pointed out by Cooper. He refers to Bell’s concern that to have the kind of ‘pure aesthetic experience’ that Kant seems to reason as proper, we must examine a piece of artwork as though ‘it were not representative of anything’, as well as having ‘no concern for content and meaning’, as it can easily be argued that such values contradict the kind of disinterest that Kant is asking of us, even if our interest is only that of viewing a sensible landscape. This is quite clearly an issue with many paintings and novels, both of which generally strive to resemble reality in some way. Under Kant’s conception, it seems that such artwork cannot be considered beautiful, at least by the majority. Similarly, Cooper claims that, according to Kant’s conception, ‘art should not aim to be expressive of emotion.’ Again, this would require that the audience have a certain interest in the painting, or that the artist is seeking to convey such an emotion, both of which deviate from Kant’s conception of disinterest, a problem with many modern works of art which quite clearly convey and evoke emotions for many people.

It is possible to imagine certain arguments that Kant may have put across in response to these criticisms, such as, Cooper imagines, stating that ‘the feeling of the sublime – itself an aesthetic one – is an ‘outflow of vital powers’ and may be ‘regarded as emotion’. While I find this argument weak to being with (for it seems that much art raises specifically identifiable emotions in people, which don’t appear to be confused with the ‘outflow of vital powers’), Kant’s desired disinterest and ‘indifference to its objects’ actual existence’ is perhaps the more pressing flaw. This is because, while examining a cathedral, for example, one may admire its masterly crafted architecture, its inner peacefulness, or its age-old stone. Clearly, were one to find out that this is in fact a cardboard replica, the admiration for such things, and their perceived beauty, would vanish. It therefore seems that Kant’s idea of disinterestedness when examining art is, at best, incomplete, and must be adjusted if we are to continue to consider his conception of art.

Cooper suggests, and I believe somewhat effectively, that rather than ‘disinterestedly’, a more effective  way to consider art and its beauty would be through examining ‘an object ‘for its own sake.’ This would seemingly fall in line with Kant’s idea that we shouldn’t look for  material benefits from a piece of art, or what practical use we can gain from it, while at the same time permitting us to still consider representation and emotion as plausible, and arguably crucial, components of various works of art. I don’t believe this to be a complete explanation of how we should view art, for it still remains questionable as to where my interest in the object ‘for its own sake’ becomes a kind of interest that Kant would disapprove of such as in the case of propaganda – surely we can appreciate the art for its own sake while simultaneously appreciating its effectiveness in conveying certain political ideals. However, it does demonstrate how Kant’s theory can be edited to perhaps make a more robust conception of beauty.

To conclude, Kant’s conception that ‘beauty is the form of finality in an object’ conjures an interesting take on the value of art, and how it should be evaluated. Perhaps in times, when one could argue there was less pressure for art to be commercially successful or fulfil a given purpose such as in the case of propaganda, this would be an effective way to evaluate an objects beauty. However, in modern times, when art is so varied and with so many different purposes and forms, it seems as though we cannot conclusively claim that only objects with purposefulness without a purpose are the only beautiful things, and I believe that this is what causes Kant’s conception of beauty to be inadequate.

Does Aquinas or Scotus Succeed in Proving that the Soul is Immaterial?

Gill Prestidge
University of St Andrews


In this essay I am going to be arguing that Aquinas does not succeed in proving that the soul is immaterial, on the grounds that his argument results in two positions which cannot coexist, however both he and Scotus do give us a good reason to think that it might be, as several of their key premises are difficult to refute. Scholastic thought in the area of the philosophy of mind began with Aristotle and involves talk of souls rather than minds, but the soul encompasses an intellectual power (possessed only by humans), a sensitive and locomotive power (possessed by humans and animals) and a nutritive power (possessed by humans, animals and plants). Nowadays, we would probably say that these powers are the operations of the mind and brain, and scarcely mention the soul. However, our concern here is less the semantics, but the nature of the soul or mind and so I will use the term soul just as the scholastics and Aristotle do to avoid confusion.

Thomas Aquinas’ philosophy of mind is an attempt to reconcile the teaching of Aristotle with that of Christian doctrine, and therefore philosophy with theology; the primary concern being Aristotle’s non-reductive physicalism and the Christian teaching of the afterlife, for which St. Paul and Augustine are the authorities. Aristotle’s main point is that the soul is the form of the body; ‘form’ in the sense of the configuration of elements that something is composed of. He believed that the soul was this configuration and this left him with some form of non-reductive physicalism; non-reductive because, although the mind and body are not separable, they are not identical either, and physicalism because the soul is the brain’s and nervous system’s set of capacities and they are therefore inseparable. As all this is physical, there is no problem with assigning these capacities to organs in the body, but Aristotle decides that he cannot do this with the thinking aspect of the soul; there is no organ which it links to. He holds onto this belief due to a commitment to the idea that the configuration (the concept) of an object is in the mind, but the object itself is not.

However, this presents him with a tension and results in a form of dualism, whereby the intellect is formless and therefore not blended with the body, making it only a potentiality. He attempts to solve this problem by pertaining to the possibility of two different intellects: an active and a passive. The passive is where forms reside and is inseparable from the body, whereas the active (that by which we do our thinking) is separable; the active intellect depends upon the passive and so some of the intellect is immaterial and some is not.

It is from here that Aquinas begins his work. Christian doctrine teaches us that there is an afterlife and a resurrection of the body and Aristotle argues that the agent intellect is a part of the soul which survives death, for it is separable from the body. The problem is that Christian doctrine does not give us a reason to believe in substance dualism. We see this in St Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi:

But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Saviour. He will take these weak mortal bodies of ours and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same mighty power that he will use to conquer everything, everywhere.

The problem for Aquinas is that his Christian beliefs lead him towards favouring physicalism, but he also supports Aristotle who takes something of a substance dualist line; he then has to find a way of linking Christian doctrine to dualism if he is to hold onto both. As it is personal immortality that Aquinas wishes to account for, it makes sense for him to argue that the agent intellect (which we saw in Aristotle) does survive death. This agent intellect is not the human person though, for it is incorporeal and immortal, so he has not yet established personal immortality, but has cleared the way for some kind of dualism.

In Summa Theologiae, 75 ad 2, Aquinas sets out to prove that the human soul is incorporeal and subsistent, amongst other things. This is our concern as it brings out his conclusion that the soul is immaterial also. The argument is in seven key parts, but this is not where the greatest problem is, as we shall see. Aquinas writes:

answer that, it must necessarily be allowed that the principle of intellectual operation, which we call the soul of man, is a principle both incorporeal and subsistent. For it is clear that by means of the intellect man can know all corporeal things. 

This final sentence demonstrates the first of the key points; that we understand that which our senses perceive through the intellect. That which receives this information cannot itself have anything it receives information about as part of its nature and, as all bodies have their own nature, it cannot be a body either. This covers points one to three. Four states that because of two and three, it cannot be supported by an organ and therefore, five – it has an operation which the body does not. This operation is in the intellectual principle (to use Aquinas’ language) and so it must subsist; that is, be dependent on nothing and stand alone. Aquinas now concludes seven, that the intellectual principle is both incorporeal (as shown by three) and subsistent (which we see in five and six). Subsistence for Aristotle is essentially the same as being a substance. This is not in the scientific sense of the word, but much more generally – a thing, an entity. What this means for Aquinas is that his argument is becoming dualist in nature with reference to the soul. This view of subsistence applies to a notion of strong subsistence, but Aquinas also speaks of a weak one, whereby something is a part of a substance which is itself subsistent in the stronger sense of the word. An example of a weakly subsisting thing could be a hand or foot; whilst it is a thing in and of itself, its existence is dependent on the body.

So what is the dilemma? For the soul to have its own operation, it must have a particular mode of existence; that is, as an individual or as part of an individual one. This seems to make sense as it would be nonsense to say that a property, such as colour or shape, is an object’s operation; an operation can only be an action. Aquinas now makes the leap from the soul’s having its own operation to its existing independently – this is strong subsistence. However, Aquinas then says:

Since the human soul is a part of human nature, it can be called this particular thing in the first sense, as being something subsistent; but not in the second, for in this sense the composite of the body and soul is said to be this particular thing.

We now see that he is introducing weak subsistence and attempting to argue that the soul is both weakly and strongly subsistent simultaneously. Before proceeding to the problems this presents, it is important to see why Aquinas would want to argue this. We have seen that for the soul to have its own operation it must be subsistent and this subsistence must be in the stronger sense because it alone is ‘this particular thing’. Aquinas now writes that in the second sense, that is, where things that are parts of a subsisting thing are excluded, it is not the soul that is ‘this particular thing’, but the composition of body and soul. It is this composition that he wishes to hold onto which results in the need for a weakly subsisting soul. As soon as the soul is given the label of ‘this particular thing’ – the ‘substance’ for Aristotle, the human body becomes superfluous and the unity of the human being – the encompassment of spiritual and corporeal substances – is lost. Both Aquinas and Aristotle stand for the belief that one can think of and understand an object because the object’s form resides in the intellect, but preserving the unity of the human being is inconsistent with the soul having an operation which the body does not share and this threatens the original idea that the soul is incorporeal. Aquinas endeavours to give an account of the soul as a strongly and weakly subsisting thing at the same time, which is impossible, but a loss of either would undermine his whole thesis and Aristotle’s too.

It is clear that this attempt will not work unless something is given up, but Aquinas does not offer us such a solution. John Duns Scotus, on the other hand, is not convinced by Aquinas’ argument, but does seem inclined to reach a similar conclusion. Scotus, as a fellow scholastic, is determined to prove the existence of an immaterial soul, but without making any claims devoid of reason. In chapter six of Opus Oxoniense, he states that three propositions would have to be established before we could reach the conclusion that the soul is immaterial through reason. These are (I) the intellective soul is the specific form of man, (II) the intellective soul is incorruptible and (III) the specific form of man will not remain forever outside the composite. It is the first of these propositions that concerns us here, but the third I wish to come back to, as its discussion shows Scotus’ own feelings on the matter, and Scotus himself suggests that the second cannot be proven even though there might be good reasons for it. It seems that we do know the first proposition by natural reason, but this would not fit with Aquinas’ beliefs about subsistence and the incorporeal nature of the soul. Scotus is not concerned about this, in fact he aims to show the difficulties in Aquinas’ argument and rework it at the same time.

There are several sections to Scotus’ main argument for the first proposition and it presents him with two conclusions. The first premise is that all sense knowledge is sense experience of particular things and not concepts. He then adds that human beings possess knowledge that is beyond knowledge of particulars; we have knowledge of concepts, deductions and inferences also. From here Scotus takes two paths: one to reach the conclusion that this knowledge we have over and above that of particulars is our specific form, on the grounds that this knowledge is understanding and it is what distinguishes us from the animals, and the other to show that the part of the soul which understands must be immaterial. It the second proof which we are interested in and from here, Scotus demonstrates that the knowledge we call understanding is something immaterial, but no organic knowledge can be immaterial because it is only sensed if it is received. This means that no bodily organ can be responsible for said knowledge and the part of the soul which does the receiving of this knowledge must itself be immaterial.

Scotus’ conclusion seems to follow on from his premises and create a coherent and valid argument, but how are we to take ‘immaterial’ in this sense? Scotus writes:

This word “immaterial” is frequently used by the Philosopher in this connexion, but it appears to be ambiguous. There are three relevant ways in which it can be understood. 

These three ways he goes onto explain are: (I) not linked to a bodily organ, (II) not extended and (III) abstract. He explains that the argument only works with the use of the first or second sense of immaterial, but the only one we can have surety over is the third. We need to get from this abstract notion of the immateriality of the soul to an incorporeal one. One way to do this would be to question Aristotle’s mind/world identity thesis and distinguish between the concept and its content. Both Aristotle and Aquinas assume that a concept can be inferred from its content, but it could be the case that the concept (or the intellect using it) is an accident of the brain and therefore material, but with abstract content.

However, even if this move does work there is still the difficulty mentioned above with the third of Scotus’ propositions; that is, that the specific form of man will not remain forever outside the composite. This problem is in fact one of Scotus’ own. Although he considers his conclusion to be likely, he does not think that they were absolutely conclusive; it is possible that the soul cannot exist apart from the unity of spirit and body. Scotus concludes the section on a priori proof with: ‘the conclusion, then, which follows from these three propositions is not sufficiently known a priori by natural reason.’

In conclusion, Aquinas does not succeed in proving that the soul is immaterial on the grounds that he requires the soul to have both strong and weak subsistence and the two cannot coexist. It seems too that Scotus’ criticism of Aquinas is fair as it is his almost unwavering acceptance of Aristotle which leads him to such a difficult position to maintain as Aristotle’s conclusions are just as problematic. Scotus shows us that progress can be made when the original mind/world identity thesis is abandoned, but that there is still a long way to go if pure reason is to secure such conclusions. We can see that a proof of this argument has not been achieved, but that both Aquinas and Scotus have given us reasons to think that an argument for the soul or mind as an immaterial entity should not be abandoned, but constructed differently with reference to the location of concepts.


Works Cited

Aquinas, T. (1265-1274), Summa Theologica. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province (1947) [online] retrieved 25th May from: http://www.ccel.org/a/aquinas/summa/FP/FP075.html#FPQ75OUTP1

Aristotle (ca. 350 BC), De Anima. Translated by Smith, J. [online] retrieved 23rd May from: http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Aristotle/De-anima/de-anima2.htm

Holy Bible, New Living Translation, (Published in 1996), United States: Tyndale House Publishers

Scotus, J., Philosophical Writings. Translated by Wolter, A. (1987), Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company

A Question of Hume’s Theory of Personal Identity

Katja A. Behrens
Oxford Brookes University



The following essay examines a subject debated in early modern philosophy, namely the question of what constitutes persistence over time with a special focus on human nature, personhood, and the self. The main problem is centred on the concept of personal identity and how we come to identify with it. A crucial detail hereby is the definition and perspective on this concept of identity. Different approaches are significantly shaping the outlines of this debate, offering diverse solution-statements to its puzzles.  One approach suggests that a separate, mental substance is the key to personal persistence; where  the other introduces memory as being the persisting connection between spatio-temporal states of person. A third account – and core theory focussed in the essay on hand – assumes that identity as it is used in common terms is a misleading conceptualisation of what is in reality a succession of individual perceptions.

This work will particularly deal with the latter theory initiated by English philosopher David Hume. It will analyse the question of whether or not Hume’s account is plausible, whilst using the alternative approaches to present and support the essay’s central thesis: Hume’s account on personal identity is plausible. But this does not mean the thesis on hand necessarily considers Hume’s suggestion to be justifiable, infallible, or philosophically borne out; but rather that it is embracing Hume’s outlook and search for natural underlying patterns of subscribing identity to extremely changing objects; persons respectively. Hume’s thoughts about personal identity try to first trace and consecutively explain psychological processes (such as beliefs, sentiments, etc.) which are causes for people to ascribe sameness to a person based on an alleged uninterrupted and unchanging entity: the self. Hume rejects the concept of the self as a substantial entity on the basis of metaphysical factors of the concept of identity, but does not try to reduce the confusion to a merely linguistic problem either. In contrast to memory as a key factor of personal identity, Hume’s attempt at explanation introduces the ‘bundle theory of the self,’ reconciling characteristics of metaphysical identity with qualities of mental processes.

Methodologically, the paper will begin by defining key terms such as ‘plausible’ and ‘identity’ as these are crucial parts of answering the essay question. Further, it will briefly introduce opponent views on personal identity and their limitations, before outlining differences between Hume’s account and other analysed approaches. It will deal with Hume’s self-made and externally-claimed criticisms before summarising these arguments in favour of the stated thesis.


To answer the question of whether Hume’s account on personal identity is plausible it is necessary to define of what the concept of ‘plausibility’ comprises. A claim is plausible if subjectively believing in it is intelligible regardless of objective reasoning. Plausibility is mainly contrasted by probability insofar as the latter includes existence and consideration of alternatives. This in turn entails that a plausible thought could – after investigation – turn out to be false. Consequently, the concept of plausibility allows acceptance of an intelligible and intuitive claim until the opposite is proven.

Avoiding ambiguities concerning the definition of ‘identity,’ this essay will predominantly deal with numerical identity rather than qualitative identity. Hence, the view that sameness equals numerical identity, which is in turn characterised by unchanging and uninterrupted stableness. Views on Hume being confused by qualitative and quantitative meanings of identity will therefore be neglected whilst accounts taking Hume’s theory to be centred on numerical identity as a starting point.


The main questions in the debate regarding personal identity are those facing what constitutes persistence of personhood over time, i. e. what does it mean to identify someone to be ‘the same’ person as he used to be as a child, or as the person we met who was wearing different clothes? Participants in this debate discuss also which criterion of evidence we can plausibly employ in this consideration. But the debate is a matter to various variables shifting attention from one characteristic to the other. Unlike other approaches this paper will not deal with narratives or personhood, but centre persistence in greater detail and incidentally engage with epistemic concerns investigating criterions of identity. It will also approach the subject in examining motif origins of participating theories, as this perspective makes the most obvious distinctions.

Descartes’ philosophical account gives a solution according to his dualistic view on human nature in which mind and body are distinct from one another – mental and physical substances respectively. According to him, the personal identity or ‘self’ is a mental substance added to a physical or bodily substance constituting the so-called ‘entire self.’ Descartes’ view embraces changes as long as the non-physical substance remains the same. Hence his account of a persisting self does not involve any problems with change going hand-in-hand with sameness. Hume criticises this view in presenting the self as a fiction created by philosophers in attempt to bridge the gaps such theories leave behind. Descartes’ process of finding a resolution to the problem of personal identity is classified as being a rationalist’s approach, as he is convinced that knowledge about the external world can be gained through rational reasoning.

John Locke, in contrast, offers an empiricist point of view. Observation and experience reconciled in consciousness and self-consciousness are the foundations for knowledge in his philosophy. He introduces memory as being the key criterion to manifest persistence of a person over time. Locke’s theory is therefore summarised in an analogy of a flux ‘stream of consciousness,’ uniting experiences and memory in a continuous self-awareness. Various criticisms have been contrasted to this view. The simplest, but most striking counter-argument is how human dispositions of forgetfulness are combinable with such an approach. What impact would a lack of memory have, even if it is only a certain period of time one cannot remember? Would this inevitably lead to a loss of personal identity? Such questions reduce the plausibility of Locke’s account and expose inconsistencies in his ideas.

It seems as if what fundamentally distinguishes the abovementioned approaches to personal identity is the philosophical stance from which they emerge: their mutual belief in personal identity and its persistence over time. Problematic of each account is their undeniable refutability.


Hume and Locke, in contrast to Descartes, investigate human nature from an ant’s or empiricist’s point of view – and both of them reject the self as being a distinct substance persisting over time. But Hume’s account of personal identity seems to approach the subject in a more naïve, or ‘observing’ manner than does Locke’s. In contrast to Locke, Hume tries to follow and understand psychological habits of human beings before trying to resolve them. In this connection he is predominantly interested in analysing what he calls ‘the vulgar,’ meaning the ‘non-philosophical’ people. Hume claims linguistic consent to be flawed in calling persons ‘the same’ who are inevitably subject to essential changes in body and mind over time. He therefore does not take ascription of identity to persons for granted, but rather suspects a ‘metaphysical-cum-semantic’ issue in doing so.  He nevertheless acknowledges that non-philosophical people seem to be aware of the fact that those habits are not accurate (viz. not justifiable) in relation to the concept of numerical identity. Hence, even in the common view, the concept of numerical identity or sameness excluded changes and is constituted by unchanging, uninterrupted, and stable characteristics. Hume argues, regardless to how complex a possible solution to the notion of a persisting identity might be, that this distinct substance of the ‘self’ is a gap-filling fiction.

Hume suggests the self is ‘nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.’ Hume compares the mind to a theatre upon whose stage we are observing perceptions and experiences like scenery and actors. Our imagination, nevertheless, fools us into conceiving  a single entity, despite having no perception from which we might draw onto the mind or the self. Explicitly stressed in this notion of a ‘succession of related objects’ is the significance of sentiments as being the cause for calling things identical. Hume attends to this matter because he finds that sensations towards an imagination of identity are similar to those perceived towards a succession of objects. He considers memories to take over an essential part in creating personal identity, but avoids the problem of forgetfulness in declaring causality to be the connection allowing us to ‘extend identity beyond memory.’

Similar to the other presented theories, Hume’s account on personal identity is subject to criticism. What is special about his argument is that he himself feels the need to acknowledge a contradiction for which he can provide no answer: the origin of his idea that each perception is a distinct entity. One response to this issue is that Hume cannot help but espouse the common belief that there are connections between distinct experiences which are neither traceable nor tangible through introspection. This would explain his usage of words describing instances beyond mere perceptions such as ‘mind’, ‘self’, and ‘soul’. It seems as though concepts of these entities serve to construct an idea of connections between perceptions regarding identity where, according to Hume’s original notion, there are none.  Pike offers an apology to this criticism in claiming Hume’s theory is an analysis of the mind. Despite opponent interpretations of Hume entirely denying the notion of mind, Pike argues that Hume bundle of perceptions constitutes a conceptual mind. On this notion, what Hume denies is the philosophical idea of the mind as a mental substance; and this in turn would be in accordance with his use of such terms as ‘mind’ and ‘self’.

So far provided insight in the debate about personal identity exposes the problem of reconciling variables in the criterion for existence, psychological fundaments, and continuity of personal identity. What distinguishes Hume’s account is his high level of naivety with which he begins his inquiry. The subject of personal identity (as well as his other investigations into human nature) changes Hume’s stance noticeably from a naturalist origin to a rather sceptical outlook. Though starting his exploration with a tendency to argue in favour of accepting and trusting one’s natural intuitions, Hume finishes in acknowledging that he does not feel that he should trust his own senses. Although these doubts may have been cornerstones in presenting personal identity over time as irresolvable, Hume changes sway towards the end of his inquiry in establishing ‘a system or set of opinions, which if not true (for that, perhaps, is too much to be hoped for), might at least be satisfactory to the human mind, and might stand the test of the most critical examination.’ In other words – returning to the original question – he is appealing to a consistent and plausible account for what constitutes persistence in personal identity over time, based in ‘vulgar’ or ‘common’ notions. This essay forwards the thesis that he succeeds in observing and plausibly describing underlying patterns of attributing identity to individual persons. Doubts concerning his account could be seen as capitulations to the belief in personal persistence regardless of rational commitments elsewhere. Finally, he allows common intuitions and linguistic practices to suffice as justification in the belief in personal identity over time, when saying that he allows himself to follow his natural inclination even in philosophical investigation.


To summarise, then, the essay on hand presents an argumentation in favour of the plausibility of Hume’s account on personal identity. Plausibility appeals to the degree of intelligibility of a claim rather than its infallibility and unfailing justification. Hume approaches the preliminary human phenomenon of personal identity on what he considers to be the very basis of its appearance: common linguistic habits and notions. His account establishes itself in contrast to views that proffer the self as a mental substance, or those which place memory as a key factor in persistence, in not giving a definite answer. On the basis of his inspection he describes his findings and subsequently reconciles them with other facts regarding individuals. This results in his argument considering only the metaphysical criterion of identity, though this is nevertheless plausible if not justified in being commonly accepted. His self-criticism is accounted here to emphasise the authenticity of his theory, as it confronts natural human inclination with philosophical accuracy. The essay on hand has dealt with perniciousness and probable ambiguities of the subject, as well as contemporary views on Descartes and Locke and their respective limitations. Restrictions to Hume’s theory are sustainably annihilated and moreover reverted to strengthen the goal of his mission. Hume’s theory is intuitive and intelligible, and restricted only in his natural identification with human nature.


Works Cited

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Pike, N. (1967, April). Hume’s Bundle Theory of the Self: a limited defense. American Philosophy Quarterly , Vol. 4 (No. 2), pp. 159-165.

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Musing: The Feasibility Spyglass

Kjetil K. Haugen
Molde University College

Let us imagine the following experiment. All modern computers, phones and tablets are equipped with a graphics card and a screen. Such a screen consists of thousands of pixels, each of which assumes one of the millions of colors in the color spectrum to create an image. If, as most are, the device is equipped also with an operating system (OS), a programmer may control the screen’s color output. Given this setup, assume we write the following simple computer program: For each pixel the screen, loop through all possible color combinations of all available colors for all pixels. In other words, Produce every possible combination of pixels.

This should be a relatively easy program to write. Even with my programming skills having long left me, I am sure that I would be able to achieve it. I have not done it, however. Why? Because I have not the time; such a program would have to present trillions upon trillions of combinations before it was finished. Thinking on the output and consequences, however, is more feasible. Even for a lazy old professor like myself.

What would happen as a result of this program’s execution is simple to foresee. Suppose a further program has enhanced the human mind to sort through all the possible pixel combinations in a blink of an eye, allowing us to eliminate the issue of time. As we performed a full enumeration, we would soon come to the realisation that the program has produced every possible, imaginable image conceivable to the human eye. Somewhere among the program’s immeasurable combinations you would catch images of your own birth, of Hitler using the bathroom, and even those of Jesus and Abraham, though you would of course have problems identifying them.

If we were to take the experiment one step further and add another out loop, collecting all possible sequences of still images and merging them to make movies, the reality runs as previously: with all possible moving images being generated. You could witness the Battle of Hastings in sparking 4K resolution.

Of course the problem with this is that the program would produce all possible images, not only images that have or have yet to occur. The program would generate every feasible occurrence, every slight nuance of reality, from the perspective of any simulated agent around the universe. Any images portraying true events would be a grain of truth buried beneath a world of falsehood. Or would they? This thought experiment raises the important question of what would make these images ‘truthful.’ Could the qualification be that they portray images of events that have actually happened, and if so how could we verify this? If we were to witness a scene of Marie Antoinette sipping at a glass of wine, could we claim any sort of truth about the image? It is unlikely that it would correspond with any visual data received by an agent alive at the time, but—even then—what if it did? Even if we were able to liken the present images to those experienced by real-life witnesses, the said agent’s memories would have long passed into nothing, into nonexistence. How could we regard these images with any notion of truth? It would be interesting to view images of familiar objects performing unfamiliar tasks, but what uses could such a gargantuan archive of visual date have?

These considerations are still somewhat obviated by the aforementioned time constraints. Even though modern computing devices are astonishingly fast and consistently getting faster, the time needed on a single computer would be entirely intractable. But if we were able to utilise all available computing power, that of all the billions of computers in existence, we must at very least be able to create a few images of interest. So, why not? I am sure some youngster out there could write the program and arrange some efficient distribution mechanism making us all a part of this great experiment. I leave it to you.