By Nina Strohminger
Originally published November 17, 2014
Here is an excerpt:
Recent studies by the philosopher Shaun Nichols at the University of Arizona and myself support the view that the identity-conferring part of a person is his moral capacities. One of our experiments pays homage to Locke’s thought experiment by asking subjects which of a slew of traits a person would most likely take with him if his soul moved to a new body. Moral traits were considered more likely to survive a body swap than any other type of trait, mental or physical. Interestingly, certain types of memories – those involving people – were deemed fairly likely to survive the trip. But generic episodic memories, such as one’s commute to work, were not. People are not so much concerned with memory as with memory’s ability to connect us to others and our capacity for social action.
Why does our identity detector place so much emphasis on moral capacities? These aren’t our most distinctive features. Our faces, our fingertips, our quirks, our autobiographies: any of these would be a more reliable way of telling who’s who. Somewhat paradoxically, identity has less to do with what makes us diﬀerent from other people than with our shared humanity.