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Personal Identity and Public Policy (Invite only workshop)

November 1, 2016 @ 8:00 am - November 2, 2016 @ 5:00 pm

Report on a workshop held in Oxford on November 1st and 2nd 2016.

 Extreme technological risks present important considerations about the future of ‘the person’ that are very hard to evaluate using standard economic of legal procedures.

  •  Firstly, there is the possibility of the total loss of all persons from the world, and hence some portion of space up to and including the entire future history of the universe
  • Secondly, the replacement of human persons with persons, or person-like entities, of other kinds such as enhanced humans, enhanced members of other species or totally artificial intelligence.

This workshop sought to grapple with these two important possibilities by considering the ethical importance of persons in contemporary public policy contexts, and so to examine both how existing policy evaluation mechanisms deal with issues of personhood and what different philosophical theories about the nature and importance of persons imply for public policy.

One aspect of research that we considered is what existing arguments about the nature of personhood in policy areas such as healthcare, criminal justice and human development imply about the nature of persons more generally. Papers from Jeff McMahan (University of Oxford), Tom Douglas (Oxford Uehero Centre for Practical Ethics) and Chase Besnarze (Midwestern University) considered these three policy areas and argued that in each case it is important to consider personhood as a matter of degree. Individuals develop over time and change in ways which mean that, even if we accept that they remain the same person in one respect, we should differentiate between their past and future selves. From the perspective of existential risk, such arguments imply that even within existing policy frameworks personhood exists on a spectrum whereby individuals can be thought to constitute one and the same person to a greater or lesser degree. This creates possibilities for future evaluative mechanisms to extend the moral space and encompass higher and lower parts of this spectrum than are currently occupied by existing people, and so to incorporate a wider range of ‘near persons’ in these frameworks.

 A second aspect of research that was considered is more speculative accounts about how we should respond to technologies that challenge our views about what constitutes a person, including head transplants, brain uploading, cryogenics and human enhancement. Papers from Tim Campbell (Institute of Futures Studies) and Francesca Minerva (University of Ghent) contemplated how we should respond to and govern these technologies and in particular showed how our theoretical views about personal identity might influence such deliberations.

 This contrasted with the third aspect of research that was considered, posing arguments that directly addressed the relationship between philosophical arguments about personal identity and political institutions. Jeremy Williams (University of Birmingham) argued that personal identity was something of a special case because philosophers arguing about its moral importance frequently appealed to metaphysical arguments, which are standardly excluded from secular political discourse, but there did not seem to be any good alternative within political philosophy for debating the political importance of personhood. Hanna Tierny (Cornell) and Max Suffis (Rice) both considered, partially as a response to this kind of concern, whether we should distinguish between different ways of talking about persons and whether we might differentiate between persons characterised as metaphysical entities and persons characterised by fellow members of our moral and / or social communities with whom we interact. Finally, Simon Beard (CSER) suggested that when we consider the value of individual lives we should differentiate between values that depended upon the fact that this life was lived by a particular person, quality of life, from the more common conception of value that attaches to features of the life only, welfare.

The conference ended with a brief consideration of how philosophers with an interest in personal identity and the moral importance of personhood should interact with policy makers. Suggestions included building upon fields of policy making where the nature of persons is already well understood and debated, such as in healthcare allocation and the global burden of disease, and to seek out questions currently being posed in the policy sphere for which philosophers appear to be able to offer compelling and justified answers.


November 1, 2016 @ 8:00 am
November 2, 2016 @ 5:00 pm
Event Category:


The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk; Centre for Law, Medicine and the Life Sciences; Synthetic Biology Strategic Research Initiative
Future of Humanity Institute


Future of Humanity Insitute
Oxford, United Kingdom + Google Map