The Anatomy of Self-Concern


Published in 1998, Raymond Martin’s Self-Concern set a new direction for the philosophical discussion of personal identity by shifting the focus from “the normative question of whether this or that should matter in survival to the largely descriptive question of what…actually does…matter.”  Martin questions the philosophical goal of trying to show that we all should (rationally) respond in the same way to the puzzle cases – a goal shared by Parfit and his opponents – calling the attempt “survival-value imperialism.”  In examining how people actually value their own survival, his book goes a long way towards characterizing the conditions that make it difficult or easy for people to self-identify across time.  It is largely about the psychology of self-concern.

But Self-Concern is philosophy, not science.  Its argument is based on introspective thought-experiments rather than objective studies of statistically significant populations.  If social scientists were to conduct such studies, it would be interesting to see how closely their findings matched Martin’s.  I suspect he is not far off from characterizing how a population of well-educated contemporary Westerners would allocate self-concern over a range of cases.  I am less confident that what he says is true of other cultures and other times.  How people allocate self-concern is likely to change over time, especially as technological developments force us to confront in reality what are now just science-fiction ‘puzzle cases’.

Martin takes “an experiential approach to what matters in survival,” constantly redirecting our attention from the conceptual analysis that has been the mainstay of recent personal identity philosophy to the phenomenology of human experience in matters of personal survival.  His emphasis is future-oriented – on anticipated experience and action.  How, he asks, must someone understand his relationship to a person in the future, for him to ‘identify’ with that person – to anticipate having that person’s experiences and performing his actions?

Martin thinks that relationship need not include identity.  He accepts the view of Parfit and others that personal identity is lost in fission cases where a single person has more than one ‘survivor’, and also in cases where there is no fission, but the relation between the original person and his successor is one which would permit fission or replication to occur, as would information-based teleportation.  In other posts, I have argued for a opposing view – that the concept of a person should be reformed in such a way that personal identity is preserved in fission cases.  But that debate is not central to Martin’s topic.  Regarding the idea that identity does not “or will not on reflection” matter primarily, he says, “it is not crucial to what I mainly want to say that I be right about this.”  He explains:

…in additional to this theoretical level of belief…there is also an experiential level at which beliefs or things that function as if they were beliefs make their presence felt; and in my view, those experiential beliefs, or quasi-beliefs, throw into doubt virtually all of the conclusions about what matters in survival that have been advanced based on a consideration of theoretical beliefs. (x)

Martin’s main agenda is to “provide a rationale and a model for a new kind of investigation of our deepest egoistic survival values, the ultimate purpose of which is not merely to discover what our values actually are, but to do that in a way that facilitates their transformation.”

Anticipation of Experience and Action

According to Martin, philosophers have “overlooked” or “seriously underrated” anticipation of experience as a source of self-concern.  He invites you, his reader, to imagine being offered a trip by information-based teleportation.  In order to decide whether or not to accept the offer, you must consider whether teleportation would preserve what matters primarily, to you, in survival.  Some philosophers have suggested that the number of psychological and/or physical characteristics preserved in any such transformation is the key consideration.  Martin argues that a numbers criterion is inadequate, because one does not value all one’s characteristics equally.  A more important concern is “whether your most valued psychological and bodily characteristics would be preserved in the person (or people) who will emerge from the transformation.”

And it would be still another thing to know whether you could look forward rationally to having the experiences (and performing the actions) of the person (or people) who would emerge from the transformation. (p 34)

(Martin uses the word “rationally” in a weak sense meaning “rationally permissible”.  I think it would not make much difference to the import of Martin’s statement if “rationally” were omitted.  I will return to this topic below.)

Of these two matters of concern, connectedness and anticipation, Martin argues that the latter trumps the former:

…that if you are like me in this respect, then if you could not rationally anticipate having the experiences that…your transformational descendants would have, then from the perspective of your self-interested concern to survive, something crucial would be missing, regardless of how else you and your descendants might be connected; and if you could rationally anticipate having the experiences…something of extraordinary and perhaps overriding importance would obtain, regardless of whatever other connections might be missing.(p 34)

In other words, if you are asked to decide whether a given transformation preserves what matters in your survival, you will place more weight on your ability to anticipate future experience than on other psychological and physical connections.

Martin’s claim must be represented carefully so as to avoid confusion with a similar-sounding claim which begs the question.  When Martin describes anticipating having an experience, that should not be taken to imply that he believes he is identical to the person who will have the experience.  He takes pains to describe the notion of quasi-anticipation of future experience, which is just like ordinary anticipation except in expressly excluding the implication of believed identity.  To quasi-anticipate having someone’s experiences is to feel the same way, and to be similarly motivated, with respect to those experiences, as one normally feels about and is motivated towards one’s own.  In most places where Martin talks about anticipation, “quasi-anticipation” could be fairly substituted.

Martin uses everyday examples to remind the reader how anticipation of experience feels:

Ordinarily there would be a huge difference…between how it would feel to you to anticipate your enjoying a delicious dinner and how it would feel to you to anticipate my enjoying that same dinner….The difference might be diminished somewhat if the person whose experiences you anticipated were someone, such as your spouse or one of your children, with whom you were strongly empathically connected. (39)

The mention of feelings towards persons with whom we are “strongly empathically connected” underlines the point that the experience of self-concern is not an all-or-nothing affair.  Something resembling a continuum extends from ‘identification’, through love, liking, and indifference, to attitudes opposite to self-concern: antipathy and  schadenfreude.

Martin mentions temporal overlap as a factor that inhibits anticipation of future experience.  If, because of some expected fission or replication process, a person believes that two or more of his ‘survivors’ will be alive and conscious at the same time, that fact makes it harder, if not psychologically impossible, for him to anticipate having their experiences.  Martin is inclined more towards the ‘harder’ than the ‘impossible’ end of this spectrum.


Martin helpfully distinguishes between what is rationally permissible and what is rationally required – something I failed to do in earlier posts when discussing the question whether self-concern is “rationally justified.”  Better questions are:

Under what circumstances, if ever, is self-concern rationally required?

Under what circumstances, if ever, is self-concern rationally permissible?

“Rationally permissible” and “rationally required” are two sides of a coin. If it is rationally permissible to believe some proposition p, then it is not rationally required to believe that not-p.  But although those are mutually exclusive, there is a middle ground: it may be rationally permissible to believe either that p or that not-p.

It is usually irrational to believe a claim of fact without any evidence whatever.   For example, it would be irrational – not rationally permissible – for me to believe that a man in a bear suit is just now walking up the street towards my house, on no better grounds than that I like the idea.   But I am not rationally required to believe there is no such man, since I have not, after all, gone out to look.  A man in a bear suit may be coming up the street; I just don’t know.  If I go out, look carefully up and down the unobstructed street, and see nobody, I become rationally required to believe that no man in a bear suit is there.  I could only believe otherwise if I were to believe that I might somehow have overlooked such a large and obvious creature, or that a man in a bear suit might be invisible, or so well camouflaged that I might not notice him – all implausible hypotheses which I could only believe if I were irrational.  I know I see well enough, invisibility cloaks are still extremely exotic and experimental, and camouflage just wouldn’t work on an open road in broad daylight, if only because of shadows.

As with factual questions, so with logical ones, if the pertinent logic is sufficiently abstruse that one might miss it without being guilty of irrationality.  I cannot rationally claim to be unsure whether 2+2=5, but I could rationally be unsure whether there is a largest prime number, if I were unacquainted with the proof.

An emotion or attitude may be described as irrational (not rationally permitted) if holding it depends on an irrational belief.  Do the attitudes and emotions of self-concern depend on irrational beliefs?  Arguably they sometimes do.  Anticipation of conscious experience after death, common among religious people although supported by little evidence, could be such a case.

Fission Rejuvenation and the Strategies of Self-Concern

Central to Martin’s book is a fission example which he has carefully designed to avoid features that tend to inhibit the allocation of self-concern, thereby making it “invulnerable to neo-conservative attempts to show that identity is really what matters in survival.”  He uses the example

to support two ideas: first, that for many people identity is not what matters primarily; and second, that for those same people there is no reason to think that identity should be what matters primarily. (p 53)

The example involves a healthy twenty-year-old named John, whose “prospects are good for a long and happy life.”  John is offered the opportunity to undergo fission rejuvenation, a procedure purported to double his remaining years of life.  In the procedure, John’s brain is surgically divided into “functionally equivalent halves, each capable of sustaining his full psychology.”  Both halves are transplanted to new bodies, each of which is just like John’s pre-fission body; that body, now brainless, is then destroyed.  After recovering from the operation, one of the survivors resumes John’s life.  The other is put into a drug-induced coma, and held in a state of suspended animation in which the body does not age.  Its brain is equipped with a receiver of wireless signals from a transmitter in the brain of the other John.  All brain activity of the waking John is transmitted to the brain of the unconscious John, where it is encoded just as though it had resulted from ordinary experience.  The same learning takes place in both brains, and the same memories are laid down by the hippocampus.  “Thus, throughout the time [the sleeper] is in a dreamless coma, he will have a dispositional psychology exactly like [the waking John’s] a few seconds in the past; but he will be completely unconscious and will not age physically.”  (p 54)

The sleeper remains comatose for fifty-five years.  When his counterpart dies of natural causes, the sleeper is awakened and allowed to carry on John’s life.  After waking, he ages normally.

Martin says the fission rejuvenation procedure would be “unquestionably a good deal for John”, and admits that he “would give a lot to have been in John’s position when I was twenty.  Had I been in it (and had my current attitudes) I would have undergone fission rejuvenation gladly, without hesitation or reservations.” (p 56)

According to Martin, John’s fission rejuvenation doubles his remaining years of healthy life, and gives him the added joys of a second youth following the first body’s senescence and death.  “A crucial part of what makes it possible for John to secure such benefits is that by undergoing fission rejuvenation he creates two fission-descendants of himself with each of whom he can fully and rationally identify.”  (p 55)

The special features of this fission case, not shared by some others in the philosophical literature, make it psychologically possible for John to so identify.  Martin describes these special features as facilitating “strategies of identification.”  John at age twenty finds it easy to identify with both fission descendants because he knows:

  1. that only one of his fission-descendants will be conscious at a time
  2. that one will become conscious only after the other ceases to be conscious forever
  3. the causal mechanisms underlying his conscious experience (i.e. the functioning halves of his brain) will be preserved in both fission descendants
  4. each fission descendant will initially have the same psychology that John had when last conscious before his fission
  5. psychological dispositions of the two fission descendant s develop in tandem during the time in which both are alive

Strategies of Self-Concern: Physical Continuity

The fact that both descendants preserve enough of John’s original brain to “support his full psychology” counters the misgivings some people feel about cases like information-based teleportation, in which physical continuity is lost.  With respect to physical continuity, fission rejuvenation is not inferior to a brain transplant in which one hemisphere is moved to a new body and the other hemisphere dies.  If the transplanted hemisphere will retain the patient’s full psychology, he should have no difficulty expecting to survive the operation.

Strategies of Self-Concern: Psychological Continuity

Because the life-experiences of the waking John are recorded in the brain of the comatose John, John’s psychology will continue seamlessly even through the critical transition when  the waking John dies.  At no point in time will there be a catastrophic break in psychological continuity, as there surely would be if this feature were omitted (as in my life insurance example, if a policyholder were to die fifty-five years after making his last backup).   The worst disruption will be John’s adjustment to a youthful body after having lived for years with an elderly one.  No doubt it would take some getting used to.  But I don’t know anyone who would regard the prospect of suddenly renewed youth as a discontinuity equivalent to death.  That would be no greater than the changes suffered by healthy young persons who are suddenly rendered brain-damaged or quadraplegic as a result of accidents.  Persons in that situation do not think they are new beings replacing their able predecessors; quite the contrary.

Strategies of Self-Concern: No Branching

Because one of the fission descendants is unconscious while the other lives its life, their coexistence in time does not impede John’s ability to identify.  At any moment in time only one has experiences; the other, being unconscious, does not compete for John’s self-concern.

As several writers have remarked, the prospect of branching tends to inhibit our ability to identify.  Many people, if contemplating undergoing a transformational process that will result in more than one coexisting successor, would regard those successors as ‘mere duplicates’, and the transformation as one that would end their life.

Martin explains our lack of personal interest in multiple fission-descendants as a psychological limitation.

In my view, the basic reason is that to feel the sort of special concern for one’s fission-descendants that normally one would feel only for oneself one has to be able to anticipate having the experiences (and performing the actions) that these fission-descendants will subsequently have (and perform).  And to do that one has to be able to project oneself into the psychologies of these fission-descendants in pretty much the same ways most of us currently project ourselves onto our own future psychologies.  As a matter of contingent fact, few of us can easily project ourselves into what we imagine will be the psychologies of more than one simultaneously conscious fission-descendant.” (p 67)

I think Martin is right; we aren’t wired for that.  Why would we be?  Nonetheless it is interesting that we are limited in that way.  This is not a limitation of imagination, because we can easily imagine having multiple fission-descendants – we can even imagine their lives ‘from the inside’, and give detailed, sympathetic accounts of how they would feel and interact.  What’s difficult is to fully appropriate their expected experiences and actions; to feel full-blown self-concern for those multiple descendants, who will lead separate lives.

This barrier is, I suspect, surmountable.  Temporal overlap is less of an obstacle to self-concern if the overlap is minor.  The attractiveness of information-based teleportation, as described in my story “Forking”, is not appreciably diminished by the short period of time when the transported person exists simultaneously at his point of departure and his destination.  Nothing much happens during those few minutes; they no more block the traveller’s ability to allocate self-oncern than would ordinary forgetting of a half-hour wait in an immigration line.

In Reasons and Persons, Derek Parfit offers another example of limited branching which poses no serious barrier to self-concern: his Physics Exam.  In this case, his corpus callosum is fitted with a switch that allows him to disconnect his left and right hemispheres.  While writing a physics exam, Parfit thinks of two different approaches to the final problem.  Since he is short of time, he decides to let each of his hemispheres work on one approach simultaneously.  Each hemisphere, controlling the opposite hand, will be able to jot down calculations; each will work independently of the other.  When he makes this decision, Partit anticipates having two streams of experiences simultaneously.

I might, in my right-handed stream, wonder how, in my left-handed stream, I am getting on.  I could look and see.  This would be just like looking to see how well my neighbour is doing, at the next desk.  In my right-handed stream, I would be equally unaware both of what my neighbour is  now thinking and of what I am now thinking in my left-handed stream.  Similar remarks apply to my experiences in my left-handed stream.  (RP, p 247)

Note the use of “I” and “my” to describe both of these independent centres of consciousness.  Prior to disconnecting his hemispheres, Parfit exhibits normal self-concern for both, allowing for the numerical and linguistic weakness of the right-hemisphere by assigning it the easier of the two approaches to the problem.  I am sure that if he expected either hemisphere to experience distress or pain while disconnected, his concern would resemble the concern he would normally feel for himself when connected.

After reconnecting his hemispheres, thereby reuniting his mind, Partfit appropriates the memories of both streams.  He remembers, in the right-hand stream, being unaware of what the left-hand stream was thinking.  I expect he would experience a brief period of integration, resembling an interior monologue of the “on the one hand/on the other hand” variety, while he sorted out which answer was a better bet for his final submission.  The experience of reuniting his mind might be odd, the first few times.  He might feel both the frustration of a failed attempt and the elation of a successful one.  Since coming up with one right answer is enough for his purposes, this emotional discord should be easy to resolve.  It would be like trying one approach and failing, then trying another and succeeding.  The simultaneity of the two attempts is immaterial.

Given the branching possibilities with which technology is likely to present us in the future, I suspect that the psychological obstacle to self-concern posed by branching cases is one that some people will overcome.   How many of us have wanted to pursue more projects than we have time and energy to carry out?  Suppose you could write that Pulitzer-prize-winning novel and make a fortune in business?  Given the opportunity, some people will choose to branch in order to follow multiple careers.  At the right stage of life – age twenty, say – one might be able to embrace two futures with eager anticipation, undeterred by the fact that they will run concurrently.

Strategies of Self-Concern: Identity

I have studiously avoided the questions of personal identity which guided Martin’s design of the fission rejuvenation case.  Martin thinks that John’s two fission descendants are different persons from one another, and that neither is identical with the pre-fission John.

Like Parfit, Martin separates questions of identity from ones of self-concern.  In particular,  identity does not appear in his list of strategies of self-concern.  I suspect that is because his idea of personal identity is constrained by the assumption that persons are biological organisms. The only way to reconcile that assumption with Martin’s intuition that self-concern should span cases of fission rejuvenation is to divorce personal identity from self-concern.

But non-identity is a psychological barrier to self-concern. This is evident in the views of personal-identity conservatives and radicals alike.  The difference between them, crudely,  is that conservatives refuse to extend self-concern to successors whom they believe to be non-identical with themselves, whereas radicals describe their relation to such successors in terms like “almost as good as ordinary survival.”  The word “almost” is an admission, even from radicals, that loss of identity is an obstacle.

In my view, preservation of identity should be added to Martin’s list of  ‘strategies of self-concern.’   My position on the fission rejuvenation case is that John, as an informational entity, is one person throughout; and that the comatose John should be regarded as a backup copy of that one person.  The sleeping John is like the backup copy of a database, which can be put into service and become the production database when the original database fails as a result of hardware failure or data corruption.  My preference for this account rests on the grounds that self-concern is centrally important to our concept of a person.   If, faced with cases like fission rejuvenation, we can extend that concept so that it coincides with our allocation of self-concern, we should do so.  It is the most natural way to speak: John would undoubtedly refer to events belonging to all  three stages of his one-hundred-and-thirty-year lifespan as his own life: ‘his’ childhood, ‘his’ first middle years and death, ‘his’ second youth.  John’s self-descriptions would remain consistent from the time he first decided to have the procedure, throughout both of the later stages.  In so describing his life, John would be implicitly taking the position that he is an informational entity, not a biological one – for the case clearly involves three biological organisms, not one.

The Meaning of Fission Rejuvenation

On the evidence of my own straw poll, I think Martin is right that the special features of fission rejuvenation remove most or all of the psychological barriers to self-concern to which contemporary Westerners are likely to object in other fission cases.  Still open to question is what that means.  Should we conclude from the fact that there is no psychological obstacle to easily, freely identifying across the life-spans of both fission-descendants, that it is rational to do so – i.e. rationally permitted?

Martin’s answer to this question is yes, on grounds that he cannot find a solid argument to the effect that identification with both fission-descendants is rationally prohibited.  If a sane person, after being presented with the opportunity of fission rejuvenation and duly considering the facts of the case, finds himself able to ‘identify’ with both fission-descendants ‘without reservations’, then who is to gainsay him?  To say he is wrong – that he is making a mistake – would be to come to a metaphysical impasse admitting of no resolution.

As we have seen, however, there is sometimes a middle ground between a belief being rationally permitted and the contrary belief being rationally proscribed.   Does ‘identification’ with fission descendants fall into this doubtful territory?  Could it be that it is not rationally permissible either to extend self-concern to one’s fission descendants or to withhold it – that the only rational position is agnosticism on the point?

I don’t think so.  Agnosticism is the rational position when one is not cognizant of all the relevant facts, or when the question involves complicated logic and one just doesn’t know the answer, as, for example, we are unable to answer the unsolved problems of mathematics.  The question whether to extend or withhold self-concern for one’s fission-descendants does not seem to fall into either of those categories.  All factual matters which one philosopher or another has suggested could be relevant have been settled  in Martin’s example; and if any additional factual concerns were raised, the example could probably be extended in ingenious ways to cover them.   As far as logic goes, I think the ground has been well covered.  We are not dealing with a conjecture which may or may not follow from the axioms of a formal system by a complicated application of rules of logic.  We are dealing with a basic tenet of folk psychology, one closely tied to human emotions and motivation.   In that light, Martin’s position is attractive – if a normally competent person, after duly considering the facts, can extend self-concern to her fission descendants, then she is rationally entitled to do so.

When Martin talks about “rationally anticipating” experience, it is in the weak sense that anticipation is rationally permissible.   While reading Self-Concern, I repeatedly wondered why Martin qualified so many statements with “rationally,”  a word that smacks of the normative, and is responsible for his claims being “largely descriptive” rather than plainly descriptive.   If he removed the word, would Martin overstate his case?   Consider this quote again, with “rationally” replaced by an asterisk placeholder:

…if you are like me in this respect, then if you could not * anticipate having the experiences that…your transformational descendants would have, then from the perspective of your self-interested concern to survive, something crucial would be missing, regardless of how else you and your descendants might be connected; and if you could * anticipate having the experiences…something of extraordinary and perhaps overriding importance would obtain, regardless of whatever other connections might be missing.(p 34)

It is at least a clearer statement; and omission of “rationally” does not make it obviously false.  If it is false – if irrational anticipation of experience misses something important which rational anticipation has – an argument is needed to reveal that missing something.  That something would be at the heart of the matter if it existed.   But it may be more fruitful to banish talk of rationality from the whole subject. 

Other Strategies of Self-Concern

Are Martin’s conditions indeed psychologically necessary for self-concern?  I doubt they are universally so.  Evidence to the contrary lies in the millions of people who believe they will experience a disembodied life after death or will be reincarnated, and who experience full-blown self-concern for those imagined beings.  The psychology of self-concern is very fluid, when supported by the appropriate metaphysics.  Are those believers irrational?  As I said, I would prefer a moratorium on that question.  But I think the answer is no.  We have evolved to project ourselves onto an imagined future – each person designates part of the future he imagines, as himself.  Appropriation of part of the future in this way is highly motivational, for motivation is central to self-concern.   It is hard to imagine having self-concern for someone in the present or future without being strongly motivated to act in that person’s interests.  Martin gives an example, drawn from Inuit culture, of a dying elder who believes he will be reincarnated as his niece’s expected child.  Believing that, the elder would be motivated to provide special gifts for the child, to do what was in his power to ensure that the child gets a good start on life.  This self-concern would not extend to other children.  Is it irrational?  As Martin says, “it is difficult…to put any but the mildest limits…on what rationally can matter to a person.” (p. 18) This example does not strike me as more or less irrational than extending self-concern to the limits of the lives of our biological organisms, and no further.  Because self-concern has more motivational than descriptive content, there is room to attach it to the world according to different principles without falling into rational error.

Like the Inuit elder, the protagonist of my next story allocates self-concern without much regard for Martin’s strategies.  Jerry is a contemporary academic – a neuroscientist – who is diagnosed with an incurable brain disease leading to dementia.  Rather than submit to this fate, he decides to jump ship by copying his psychological attributes to the brain of one of his graduate students, who happens to be female.   Despite faults, Jerry is not a murderer; he would not erase her psychology.  He expects to share her body.  In the days leading up to the procedure, he invests his self-concern fully in the young woman he has chosen to bear his psychology.  He does so even though he knows his mind will fail gradually, and that a man who calls himself Jerry will “shamble around” in his body for a few months yet.  Is Jerry making a mistake?  That is not obvious.

Click here to return to the Phantom Self home page.


Martin, Raymond (1998), Self-Concern, Cambridge Studies in Philosophy

Parfit, Derek (1984) Reasons and Persons, Oxford University Press (RP)

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