Academic journal article Trames

Moral Obligation and Changes in Personal Identity

Academic journal article Trames

Moral Obligation and Changes in Personal Identity

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Many accounts of personal identity entail the possibility that a human being may change personal identity. (1) This possibility has been claimed to cause significant problems for our ideas about interpersonal moral obligations (see for instance the essays in Mathews, Bok, and Rabins 2009). If I have an enduring moral obligation to person A and he has at some later time turned into person B do I still have that obligation? Or conversely, if person A had an enduring obligation towards me, does person B now have that obligation?

If we posit that obligations owed and held bridge changes in personal identity we seem committed to deny that these obligations are owed to and held by specific individuals thus possibly committing ourselves to the existence of 'free floating' moral obligations, or committed to positing some mechanism by which these obligations are automatically transferred to successor persons. And if we posit that they do not bridge such changes we seem committed to a range of counterintuitive implications, because the person B coming into being would not be embedded in any network of interpersonal obligations.

But are we committed to one of the horns of this dilemma? And if we are, do we thereby commit ourselves to embarrassing implications?

It is often claimed that one reason why these issues are seen as puzzling is that we only have limited experiences with persons changing identity. Our intuitions are therefore weak, and our normative frameworks not well developed.

But I will show that we do in fact frequently experience person-like entities that change identity and that we have well developed normative frameworks for deciding which obligations are owed to and held by such entities after their change of identity. I will also show how these normative frameworks can be transferred from their current context to changes in personal identity. These normative frameworks are found in law, but as I hope to show they are not without moral justification.

2. Changes of personal identity and the law--two examples

In law firms, states and other organisations have legal personality. They are legal subjects capable of both holding and being owed legal obligations. Just as I may owe you money I may owe my bank money. And just as you may have an obligation not to harm me, a particular state may have such an obligation.

Entities with legal personality come into existence at a certain point in time and they cease to exist at some later point in time. But they also frequently change identity through merger, break-up or acquisition. An effective legal system has to take account of these changes and has to contain rules for how these changes affect the obligations the legal persons are owed and held. Let us analyse two examples with an eye to what they can tell us about obligations and changes in human personal identity. The two examples are taken from two quite different areas of the law in order to discern whether the law has a general approach to this issue. The first example is the law relating to firms and insolvency, mergers and acquisition (2) and the second is the international law of state succession.

3. Here today--gone tomorrow

Companies come into existence, merge, split, get acquired and fall into insolvency every day. They are here today, but may be gone tomorrow. But while they exist they take on obligations and they come to be owed obligations. These obligations are not unimportant. Few of us, if any can exist and flourish in modern society unless we enter into relationships of mutual obligation with companies. How does the law handle obligations held by and owed to companies which although they have bona fide legal personality often change this personality during the course of our relationship with them?

The basic principle is that unless a company is liquidated, something rather akin to being declared 'dead', the obligations it has and is owed are always transferred to one or more of its successors. …

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