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Sunday, March 13, 2022

Do Obligations Follow the Mind or Body?

Protzko, J., Tobia, K., Strohminger, N.,
& Schooler, J.  (2022, February 7). 
Retrieved from psyarxiv.com/m5a6g


Do you persist as the same person over time because you keep the same mind or because you keep the same body? Philosophers have long investigated this question of personal identity with thought experiments. Cognitive scientists have joined this tradition by assessing lay intuitions about those cases. Much of this work has focused on judgments of identity continuity. But identity also has practical significance: obligations are tagged to one’s identity over time. Understanding how someone persists as the same person over time could provide insight into how and why moral and legal obligations persist. In this paper, we investigate judgments of obligations in hypothetical cases where a person’s mind and body diverge (e.g., brain transplant cases). We find a striking pattern of results: In assigning obligations in these identity test cases, people are divided among three groups: “body-followers”, “mind-followers”, and “splitters”—people who say that the obligation is split between the mind and the body. Across studies, responses are predicted by a variety of factors, including mind/body dualism, essentialism, education, and professional training. When we give this task to professional lawyers, accountants, and bankers, we find they are more inclined to rely on bodily continuity in tracking obligations. These findings reveal not only the heterogeneity of intuitions about identity, but how these intuitions relate to the legal standing of an individual’s obligations.

From the General Discussion

Whether one is a mind-follower, body-follower, or splitter was predicted by several psychological traits, suggesting that participants’ decisions were not arbitrary. Furthermore, the use of comprehension checks did not moderate the results, so the variety of assigning obligations were not due to participants not understanding the scenarios. We found physical essentialism and mind/body dualism predict body-following; while the best educated participants are more likely mind-followers and the least educated are more likely splitters. The professional experts were more likely to be body-followers.

Essentialism predicted the belief that obligations track the body. This may seem mysterious, until we consider that much of essentialism has to do with tracking a physical (if invisible) properties. Here is a sample item from the Beliefs in Essentialism Scale: Trying on a sweater that Hitler wore, even if it was washed thoroughly beforehand, would make me very uncomfortable (Horne & Cimpian, 2019). If someone believes that essences are physically real in this way, it makes sense that they would also believe that obligations and identity go with the body. 

Consideration of specific items in the Mind/body Dualism Scale (Nadelhoffer et al., 2014) similarly offer insight into its relationship with the continuity of obligation in this study. Items like Human action can only be understood in terms of our souls and minds and not just in terms of our brains, indicate that for mind/body dualists, a person is not reducible to their brain. Accordingly, for mind/body dualists, though the brain may change, something else remains in the body that maintains both identity and obligations.