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Politics & Current Affairs

Why Fearing Your Own Death May Make Little Sense

The death of any given person is just a lack of connectedness to future experiences. 

I’ll get to the idea behind the headline in three paragraphs, but as a segue (trust me), we have to think briefly about the Rachel Dolezal brouhaha that has inspired a torrent of commentary over the past week. Many see the former president of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as a fraud. Others deny that Ms. Dolezal is any different from Caitlyn Jenner, the 65-year-old woman who until recently was a male track star known as Bruce Jenner. “The only difference between these two,” Sean Davis fumes, “is the extent to which society is willing to accept their delusions.”

The rhetoric is rather overheated on both sides of the debate. For me, the most curious aspect of L’Affaire Dolezal is how angry and passionate the rest of the world has become over one woman’s admittedly bizarre story of putative transracialism. Tricksters and cunning rogues wear all kinds of masks to position themselves in ways that work to their advantage, and it appears that Ms. Dolezal may have claimed one racial identity to launch a lawsuit against Howard University and then another to launch her career in academia. If valid, the picture is of a race-imposter who is, literally, two-faced. But why is duplicity more morally egregious when it involves race?

Those who say that Ms. Dolezal is guilty of cultural appropriation may be right, and her racial canard may indeed have been facilitated by the ultimate in white privilege. But these charges rest on a widespread conception of personal identity that may be false and that may be giving us more anxiety than we ought to have about our eventual demise.  

Derek Parfit, a philosopher at Oxford, thinks that the way people imagine themselves to be is based on a fundamental mistake. The “natural” way we construe personal identity, he writes in his 1984 book Reasons and Persons, is as a coherent, deep, relatively stable set of essential qualities enduring through time. So when you look back on photos of yourself as a toddler, you might interpret your facial expressions as indicative of some present personality trait or even of the spirit within. Ms. Dolezal claims she remembers using a brown crayon rather than a peach one when drawing her self-portraits as a youngster; that’s the idea. Or when you imagine yourself 10 or 40 years down the line, you think of what life might be like for a rather well-defined you who has gone through a number of new, as-yet-undefined experiences. The key, when thinking of yourself today vis-a-vis your former and future selves, is that those selves are one: You are who you are throughout your life. You’ll go through inevitable tweaks and tinkerings, and you may even have transformative experiences, but you are still recognizably yourself from the beginning to the end.

For Parfit, this is all wrong. Your selves are not necessarily linked in any way. Two-year-old you, 20-year-old you, 40-year-old you and 95-year-old you may have certain psychological connections — memories, desires, preferences, inclinations — and to this extent you may say your various yous are related to one another. But where those connections are frayed by bodily alterations, memory loss or various kinds of reorientations, it makes no sense to think of yourself as the same person moving through time. It is a series of different, more-or-less loosely connected persons we’re talking about rather than a single identifiable person.

So assume for a moment that Ms. Dolezal is being completely honest about her perceived racial identity and that she did not (effectively) wear blackface strictly for profit. This isn’t out of the realm of possibility. What if she honestly “feels black” today, as she told Matt Lauer on the Today show? Can anyone other than Ms. Dolezal contest that subjective fact? And is it any critique of her present sense of herself to dig through her birth records or demand she submit to a DNA test to confirm or deny her black roots? Isn’t it just possible that the variety of experiences in her life, including having four black siblings and a black (ex-)husband, has led the Rachel Dolezal of recent years to identify herself as black in her own mind? And, speaking hypothetically, consider the implications of a finding that she did in fact have a black ancestor. Would her charade suddenly be justified on genetic grounds? Doesn’t that seem odd, in an era in which race is understood as a social contruct rather than as a biological fact?

I’ll leave those difficult questions hanging. Former Big Thinker Will Wilkinson has an insightful post at The Economist with a contrasting view. My brief take is that no one can criticize Ms. Dolezal for how she feels, but her public acts of deception, if in fact they were lies, are another story. I want to close by delivering on the promise of the title: explaining how a Parfitian conception of personal identity — which is, to be clear, a radical critique of that very concept — may lead to a diminished fear of death.

Parfit admits that “some may find it … depressing” to suddenly give up on the “deep further fact” of individuals having some kind of enduring soul or spirit. But Parfit finds the thought “liberating and consoling”:

When I believed that my existence was a further fact, I seemed imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster each year, and at the end of which there was darkness.

Upon philosophical reflection, this all changed:

When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.

So how does Parfit view death now? Under his old view, he writes, “I also cared more about my inevitable death. After my death, there will be no one living who will be me. I can now redescribe this fact. Though there will later be many experiences, none of these experiences will be connected to my present experiences.” As a result, he writes, the death of any given person is just a lack of connectedness to future experiences. Seen in this light, he says, “my death seems to me less bad.”

I’ll leave it to you if this thought is cheering or depressing. I find it mildly encouraging as I write these words … I think. But as for tomorrow, who knows?

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