The term “Open Individualism” has a positive ring. If Daniel Kolak hadn’t adopted it, I might have used the word “open” for my own theory of what persons are. I haven’t yet hit upon a term ending in “ism” to represent the idea that persons are informational entities, or (to say the same thing differently) bundles of attributes, as opposed to substances. Like rivers whose constitutive substance (water) is always changing, persons constantly gain and lose attributes. And attributes are easily shared, readily copied from one individual to another. When you learn something from another person, you absorb part of himself. He is a collection of attributes, just as a book (the intellectual work, not the bound volume made of paper) is a sequence of sentences. To learn from another person is like incorporating a quotation from someone else’s book into one’s own composition. In learning from him, we take on part of what he is. The fact that attributes (or information, if you prefer) flow so freely between persons, makes the word “open” appropriate. We are open vessels, not closed ones.
Kolak intended his phrase “open individualism” to emphasize the difference between his theory that we are all one person and traditional views that persons are separate, substantial entities that do not overlap in space and time—a range of views that he classes under the rubric, “Closed Individualism.” What’s open about open individualism is the lack of separation between persons. If we all participate in a single omni-person, then the beginning of an individual human life is just the omni-person’s manifestation of a new “exclusively conjoined physiological-psychological bundle”, and an individual death is just the end of that manifestation. Using one of Kolak’s analogies, the omni-person is like the combined body of Earth’s oceans, and the borders between individuals are like the lines drawn by geographers between the oceans—mere conventional borders, not natural boundaries. The borders between oceans are not matters of geophysical fact.
Kolak’s theory is an impressive example of the diversity in theories of personhood that are espoused by rational, competent persons. This diversity is evidence that “person” is no ordinary concept. How the word “person” is correctly applied seems to be radically under-determined by empirical fact. Kolak himself recognizes this under-determination, insofar as he allows that Open Individualism is not the only tenable view about persons.
Although Open Individualism can, as I have tried to show, be reasonably believed to be the truth about us, it is not the only reasonable view. Traditional Closed Individualism, as espoused by common sense is, as I have argued, not a reasonably believable view. Empty Individualism, on the other hand, especially as espoused by Buddha, Hume and Parfit, is a reasonably believable view. [Kolak, 2004, p 559]
Kolak’s preference for Open Individualism does not stem from finding Empty Individualism unbelievable, but from something else. As he tells the reader in his introduction, Open Individualism is something he wants to believe. Part of its attraction lies in providing a new foundation for ethics—the subject of Kolak’s final chapter.
The Metaphysical Foundations for Global Ethics
It seems natural that to embrace Open Individualism would improve one’s moral character by weakening what is commonly viewed as ‘selfish’ motivation, and strengthening one’s sympathy and empathy for ‘others.’ Believing that you are me should make it easier for me to put myself in your shoes, even to love my neighbour as myself. While I read through Kolak’s book, this is the sort of thing I expected to find in the final chapter on ethics. The outward-directed concern that would naturally stem from identifying with everybody would be bound to result in an overall increase in kindness, I thought. But I was in for a surprise.
A foretaste of Kolak’s ideas on ethics came in his first quotation from Freeman Dyson’s memoir. If we are all the same person:
There is no problem of injustice because your sufferings are also mine. There will be no problem of war as soon as you understand that in killing me you are only killing yourself. [Dyson, 1979, p 17, quoted in Kolak, 2004, p xiii]
The first sentence deals a swift and fatal blow to the problem of inequality. Injustice in the form of unfair distribution of rewards and suffering is not a problem after all. If I am everyone, then the rewards and suffering are all mine. Despite appearances, distribution is not unequal, because there is only one recipient of all the joy and pain that is handed out.
The second sentence holds promise that when people realize we are all the same person, they will begin to behave better. If I think I am you, why would I hurt you to pursue an advantage to ‘myself’? Under Open Individualism, questions of interpersonal morality disappear and are replaced by calculations of personal advantage. Kolak claims that under Open Individualism, there is no opposition between morality and self-interest. “They are one and the same.” [Kolak, 2004, p 555]
Kolak thinks that a person’s deliberations with himself, when torn between alternatives, are a model for resolving moral dilemmas. Acknowledging that “our collective interests” are not “single-minded,” he points out that the same is true within each individual:
[E]ach one of us is already a conglomerate of conflicting interests, tendencies, urges, etc, all of which must if we are to act be tempered by some means of internal conflict resolution. [Kolak, 2004, p 558]
The moral problem in Open Individualism thus itself vanishes and is replaced by the problem of prudence and rationality regarding the proper management of our multiple and often conflicting self-interests. [Kolak, 2004, p 559]
Kolak develops these ideas by means of a case-study he calls, “The Case of the Needy Visitors.”
I own many things. Suppose I own many more things than you. I have a large house with many rooms, a garden, and you have no house at all. You ring my doorbell. “Hello, me,” you say. “I’m cold and hungry and my family and I have no place to live. Since I believe as you believe that we are all the same person, may we come live with you? We are on the verge of starvation. You have more food, more room and more money than you need. Won’t you please help us, that is, yourself?” [Kolak, 2004, p 561]
Kolak states that under Open Individualism, he has no obligation to share, because “Obligation is, I claim, a relation between self and other.” [Kolak, 2004, p 561] The point is not self-evident, and can be argued. In Reasons and Persons, when considering the case of a young boy who starts to smoke, “knowing and hardly caring that this may cause him to suffer greatly fifty years hence,” Derek Parfit criticizes the boy’s imprudence, which stems from a lack of concern for himself in the distant future, as a moral failing. Parfit thinks the relationship between the boy and the senior citizen he will one day become is similar enough to the relationship between different persons that moral considerations apply. While acknowledging Parfit’s position, Kolak argues that Open Individualism’s view of the matter is superior. Kolak’s criticism, if I understand it, is essentially that Parfit’s theory weakens the relationship between the different phases of an individual’s life, whereas Open Individualism strengthens the relationship between individuals.
Anyway, Kolak thinks that the question of whether or not to help the Needy Visitors should be settled on the grounds of prudence, or rational self-interest.
Let us…ask whether I should, on grounds of purely self-interested rationality, fulfill your request to allow you and your family to share some of our food and give you shelter, say for a time until you can start to fend for yourself. [Kolak, 2004, p 563]
In reading this, I was struck by the way Kolak qualified the question. If I thought as an Open Individualist, why would I consider helping you only “for a time until you can start to fend for yourself”? Why wouldn’t I want to help you out for the rest of your life? Kolak continues:
A Yes answer would not be a very difficult position to support, from an Open Individualist perspective. Indeed, we can easily imagine that under such a scenario we would all collectively try to see what if anything went wrong in our society that a family, let us suppose through no fault if its own, ended up in this way destitute. It would seem quite natural to me, believing that I know that I am each and every one of you, that I and you and everyone else whom we can involve should do something about this situation in which, unbeknownst to me before you came to my door, I was in pain and experiencing so much suffering about which you just informed me. It would be irrational for me, for instance, to let food, space and shelter go to waste under the pretext that I cannot be bothered to do something about the situation because what I want to do is, say, watch television. I am being bothered, even as I am relaxing and watching television, by hunger, cold, sadness, and pain—I am just not, from my situated position as the subject identified as this particular Self, aware of it. This does not necessarily mean I must give everything I have away by any means, not even most of it, not even a lot of it. All it means is that I cannot sit around and do nothing under the pretext that I cannot be bothered! For I am being bothered, extremely so, and if I am rational and self-interested and believe that I know that I am you then I should do something about it though it may not as yet be perfectly clear what, exactly, I should do and to what degree. [Kolak, 2004, pp 563-564]
The question Kolak originally posed was whether or not to share some of his food, and offer shelter for a time, to a suffering family, all of whose members Kolak believed to be himself. Yet after all this, it was still not “perfectly clear” what he “should do, and to what degree.” What would you do if you were tired, hungry, cold and broke, and arrived at the front door of your own home where there were comfy beds, plenty of food, central heating, and cash? I suggest you would let yourself in and get comfortable without thinking twice about it. But Kolak seems to have reservations.
Do his reservations have anything to do with which side of the door he, Kolak, is standing on? They should not, because, according to Kolak, he is standing on both sides of the door.
Although he thinks there is only one person, Kolak allows the existence of separate ‘physiological-psychological bundles,’ and separate ‘phenomenal body-minds,’ which he also calls ‘selves.’ (I find this usage grating, because I am accustomed to thinking of myself as a person; but Kolak drives a huge wedge between these terms. Other writers use “human being” in contrast to “person.” For clarity, I prefer the term “living human organism,” as being fairly unambiguous.) Different human organisms have different experiences and points of view, which give rise to different thoughts, which may yet lead to disagreements even if all parties are convinced they are the same person. So although it may be obvious to the family, whose points of view are outside the door, and who are experiencing cold and hunger, that they should walk right into their warm home and make a hearty soup, it may be less obvious to Kolak, whose point of view is inside the house looking out, who has the housekey in his pocket and whose signature is on the mortgage documents. Indeed, this appears to be the case, for Kolak is hesitant. Although he discusses the Needy Visitors example over many pages, he never reaches an unequivocal decision whether or not to help.
Although he doesn’t decide, Kolak seems to assume that he, and not the destitute visitors, has the right to decide whether or not they can come in. The whole discussion is framed around the question whether or not he should let them in, not whether the visitors, with superior numbers, should just barge in and help themselves.
Well then—even though more than one point of view appears in this scenario, and although the experience associated with the inside point of view may be significantly different than the experience of the outsiders, nevertheless, surely, Open Individualism provides a framework of principle which would allow the matter to be decided. And since, in the example, Kolak and the visitors share the view that Open Individualism is true, both parties should, after fully communicating and agreeing upon the relevant facts of the case, cheerfully acquiesce in the decision. If the facts are such that Open Individualism prescribes sharing, then Kolak should have no hesitation about inviting the visitors in. If, on the other hand, the facts, when considered in light of Open Individualism, indicate that Kolak should refuse his visitors entry, then they should go away happy—or if not happy, at least no more unhappy than Kolak is, in refusing them entry.
I suggest that Open Individualism can bring a straightforward Utilitarian principle to bear on the Case of the Needy Visitors. If the cost to Kolak’s happiness of opening his home to these strangers is outweighed by the resulting increase in their happiness, then Open Individualism should prescribe that he welcome them. That the balance of utility would in fact tip in this direction is strongly indicated by Kolak’s description of the case; he has surplus food, extra beds, and more space than he can use. The marginal utilility gained by the acutely suffering visitors will surely handily outweigh the inconvenience cost to Kolak.
I am left wondering why Kolak doesn’t quite get to this conclusion, which seems a no-brainer. He goes as far as admitting that, if he is rational, he should do something to alleviate the visitors’ suffering [Kolak, 2004, p 564], but he never says he would do more than, say, blow them off with a twenty-dollar bill to get them into a booth at McDonald’s. Instead, astonishingly, he launches into a ringing endorsement of “brutal competition” and a capitalist economic model of the “late twentieth century, post-IMF, variety.” [Kolak, 2004, p 574]
Open Metaphysical Capitalism
Kolak comes to free market capitalism by way of solitaire chess. The game of solitary chess, where the same person plays from both sides, would be pointless if the player didn’t maintain a strictly competitive attitude, sincerely trying to win when playing as White, and also when playing as Black. “Solitaire chess if it is to be played at all must be, to a certain degree, brutally self-competitive.” [Kolak, 2004, p 573] Kolak extends the lesson of solitary chess to ‘the Game of Life.’
The rational calculus of Open Individualism implies a world of brutal competition. Open capitalism, for instance, perhaps even a more radically open and more extreme [version] than the most radically open versions of capitalism in play in the world today, would be the Open Individualist economic order of the day. [Kolak, 2004, p. 573]
I was struck by Kolak’s boldness and confidence in this claim, so different from his hemming and hawing about how much help to extend to the worthy, needy family who knocked on his door. It seems a lot to build on the foundation of solitaire chess, a game which I have never felt any interest in playing. Solitaire chess is a discretionary pursuit, unlike the ‘Game of Life,’ which we all must ‘play’—but which is not really a game at all.
…Open Individualism is an open metaphysical capitalism. Its ultimate function is to create and sustain a viable concept of a global superperson not as an abstraction or collective but as one individual who is practically and actually everyone for the purpose of stimulating and enhancing the quality of the subjectivity, the conscious life of the subject identified as many Selves through the global capitalization and investment of shared knowledge—e.g., intelligence, wisdom—as enabled in an open marketplace of ideas conscripted under our Open Individualist manifesto. In other words, Open Individualism does for consciousness (subjectivity) what capitalism does for money. It does not distribute it evenly under some socialist market-controlled system but rather empowers an almost limitless accumulation of wealth by individuals based on the idea, in this case, of our common independence friendly personal identity, for the purpose of stimulating the growth, development and evolution of the whole multiperspectival person who is (identified as) everyone. [Kolak, 2004, p. 574]
As Freeman Dyson said, “There is no problem of injustice because your sufferings are also mine.” Under Open Individualism, it seems I needn’t feel guilty about enriching myself at your expense, because in doing so I am also enriching you at my expense. So it’s okay for each one of the “many Selves” to play all out to win.
Kolak offers as a model the sacrifices required within a single life to attain philosophical insight: many hours of diligent study are required. Extending this familiar model of present pain for future gain to inequalities between individuals, he says:
…although this will no doubt be viewed as the worst aspects of utilitarian thinking, we can see that if in fact we are all the same person nobody really ever dies and so it becomes rational even to sacrifice individual lives in the pursuit of, say, the advancement of the knowledge seeking enterprise, or art, or whatever. [Kolak, 2004, p. 580]
Shades of Dr. Mengele! This way of thinking could be used to justify the most horrific ‘research,’ as well as the kind of exploitation envisioned in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let Me Go, in which children are raised for the explicit purpose of being sacrificed as organ donors.
I can’t help but find this conclusion morally repugnant. Not only repugnant; I honestly don’t see how Kolak gets to this conclusion from the starting point of Open Individualism. It still seems to me that if I believed I were everyone, I would be motivated to share more and compete less.
I don’t see how “brutal” squares with the increased sympathetic awareness of the inner lives of others that Kolak suggests should flow from the embrace of Open Individualism. Brutal capitalist competition, as I experienced it in business, shows no sympathy whatever towards competitors, who are almost universally regarded as enemies. It also frequently shows willingness to cheat, lie and steal for advantage. That makes the capitalist model unattractive, in my opinion, as a new Foundation for Global Ethics.
I’m not even sure Kolak is right to say that Open Individualism has no place for distributive justice. He justifies placing no value on fair distribution, on the principle that there is no value in distributing benefits and burdens over time within his life as an individual.
Consider how I should divvy up the various moments of my own individual life as Daniel Kolak. Should I make sure that happiness is fairly evenly distributed across the days, weeks, months, years? Likewise, pleasure? And so on and so forth? Clearly not! [Kolak, 2004, p. 579]
That’s not really so clear. All my life, I have valued reserving time for fun, friends and family on weekends and vacations. That is what kept me going through the more gruelling days and months of work. If one neglects the distribution of happiness and sacrifice within one’s own life, one may find oneself, at some point, paralyzed by present misery, and unable to go on.
Evaluating Theories of Personhood
Kolak admits that his arguments support Open Individualism only weakly, and that an alternative view of the nature of persons, such as some form of reductionism, can also be “reasonably believed.” We only have reason to choose Open Individualism over competing theories if we want to believe it. Speaking for myself, after reading Kolak’s exposition of the consequences of Open Individualism for ethics—its recommendations for social behaviour—I don’t want to believe it. Consequently, I will continue to develop a different, more agreeable view of what we are.
My dissatisfaction with Kolak’s theory is not only with its ethical implications. Open Individualism, as explained by Kolak, also strikes me as profoundly unscientific. Kolak makes no attempt to reconcile his philosophical views with a scientific account of reality. You may ask, “Why should he?” All I can say in response is that Open Individualism strikes me as deeply mysterious in a way in which reductionist theories of personhood, such as Parfit’s and my own, are not.
A central tenet of Open Individualism is that each of us has a prudential reason to care about one another’s welfare. Kolak says this clearly when discussing the Needy Visitors:
It would be irrational for me, for instance, to let food, space and shelter go to waste under the pretext that I cannot be bothered to do something about the situation because what I want to do is, say, watch television. I am being bothered, even as I am relaxing and watching television, by hunger, cold, sadness, and pain…
What sort of connection exists between Kolak and his visitors, that gives him a prudential interest in their welfare? Open Individualism is committed to saying more than that both Kolak and his visitors are conscious; rather, it says they share the same consciousness. “Same consciousness,” here, is to be understood in the sense of numerical, not merely qualitative, identity. And that is mysterious, when considered from a scientific point of view.
Consider the question how and when did this collective consciousness come into existence? A naturalistic explanation of consciousness might hold that consciousness began to exist when the first brain that was sufficiently advanced to support consciousness was produced by evolution. Can Open Individualism make the same claim about the collective consciousness?
Perhaps it can. Open Individualism could say, “The (single) conscious being came into existence when the first sufficiently advanced brain evolved.”
One can also sensibly say, “Mankind (or the human species) began to exist when the first human being was conceived.” Although true, that is not very interesting. Similar statements can be made using any collective noun. I can use the term, “the automobile” to refer to all automobiles, and truthfully say, “The automobile came into existence in 1881, when it was invented by Gustave Trouve.” Open Individualism could be making the same sort of claim about persons: simply using the term, “the person,” to refer collectively to all persons, and then asserting that ‘the person’ began to exist when brains capable of supporting a human form of consciousness began to exist. But if that’s all there was to Open Individualism, it would not be interesting. Open Individualism says more: that consciousness is shared in a way which gives me a prudential reason to care what happens to you, and vice versa.
Open Individualism seems to entail that if (as may be the case) the first two conscious brains evolved independently, in different parts of Africa (or Gondwana), they shared consciousness in this way. But it does not offer any theory of what this connection between spatially separated individual organisms might consist in, in physical reality. That makes Open Individualism mysterious and unsatisfactory from a scientific point of view.
This raises the general question, “By what criteria should a theory of personhood be evaluated?”—a subject to be explored in the next post.
Kolak, Daniel (2004): I Am You: The Metaphysical Foundations for Global Ethics, Synthese Library, Springer