In this paper I will discuss a certain view of personal identity: empathic access. In particular, I will introduce empathic access and describe its nature and criteria. I will then consider the view in detail, examining the strongest arguments for, the strongest objections to and the responses to these objections. I will end by summarising the defence for empathic access this paper has crafted. View The empathic access theory is the view that in order to preserve an identity, one must have empathic access to the states of their former self.
Empathic access refers to a compassionate connection to the past, one that is not just memories, but that holds a fundamental sympathy for the remembered states. Accordingly, it is more than just recollection, but essentially requires one’s former psychological make-up to be used for future decisions (Schechtman, 2001, p. 102). Considering people experience change in their values, and characteristics over time, it is necessary for psychological identity defining theories to measure the extent to which change is identity destroying.
The empathic access theory is not a theory designed to solely define personal identity, but rather an attempt to strengthen the psychological continuity theory by clarifying identity-preserving and identity-destroying change. Essentially the empathic access theory considers one to have maintained their identity where they can remember their past states and have sympathy and understanding for these states. Strongest Arguments for I will argue the empathic access theory by presenting the shortcomings of other psychological continuity theories of personal identity, and showing how empathic access can overcome these.
Psychological continuity The psychological continuity theory requires someone’s psychological state to remain constant throughout their lifetime in order to preserve their personal identity. The observable has not been considered: people experience a change in their beliefs, desires, character traits and values throughout a lifetime, without being perceived to have undergone a change of identity. Thus, there must be something that distinguishes between personal development and identity-destroying psychological discontinuity. Some theorists suggest that it is the abruptness at which change occurs.
When changes are violent and radical, they seem to disrupt an identity, while gradual changes are likely to be seen as personal development. If we consider Schechtman’s example of two matrons (Schechtman, 2001, p. 101), however, we will see that identity change can happen slowly, as well as quickly. A ‘serious’ matron remembers her wild party days, but over time she has withdrawn herself from her past desires and does not understand why she once did as she did: “she, herself, is so alienated from those desires and passions that she cannot quite comprehend how she could have made those choices” (Schechtman, 2001, p. 01).
A ‘less-serious’ matron also remembers her party girl days, but she has chosen not to withdraw herself from them and, in fact, has decided to use her past lessons in future decision-making: “[she] has not lost access to her past phenomenology; she has only placed it in a broader context which causes her to make different life choices. ” (Schechtman, 2001, p. 101) Using the psychological continuity theory, we are unclear which matron has preserved her identity, as both have undergone a gradual change.
If, however, we use the empathic access theory, it is clear that the ‘less-serious’ matron has preserved her identity, while the ‘serious’ matron has not. The less serious matron lives a changed lifestyle based on her experiences as a party-girl, her present views are an expansion of her past values, beliefs, goals and desires – she has empathic access. The ‘serious matron’, in contrast, lives a life unable to sympathise with her former self and thus her values, beliefs, goals and desires have been replaced- she does not have empathic access.
Narrative Theories Another argument for psychological continuity is the narrative view, that a life story of the actions, experiences and events of one’s life can be formed, and psychological change is identity-preserving as long as there is an intelligible narrative of change, which makes the latter psychological configuration the successor of the former (Schechtman, 2001, p. 100). If we refer back to the matron example, it is very easy to create a life story describing how age and social expectations have worn away the appeal of partying.
It is also easy to understand how age and social expectations have caused change; there is a coherent narrative of change. But as Schechtman argues, all that intelligible narratives of change show is that there can be understandable stories of how someone loses her identity (Schechtman, 2001, p. 100), it does not define criteria for identity-preserving change. It can be seen that where psychological continuity and narrative theories fail to distinguish between identity-preserving change and identity-destroying change, empathic access can.
It becomes clear that a loss of identity is when old views are completely replaced by new views, with no sympathetic relation to the old views at all. However, when old views are expanded into new beliefs and values, where the new views are based on the old views, and there is still sympathy to the old views and it is thus personal development. Strongest Objections to At this point, it is necessary to consider the following objection: that there is a flaw in the determining relationship between the two psychological states that form empathic access – memory and sympathy – because of the ambiguous nature of memories.
Empathic access is based on a model where by the memories of a person allow for the formation of an empathy to the values, desires, characteristics associated with these memories. As a person lives on their reactive attitudes can alter the way in which they interpret their memories, distorting them in such a way as to create different memories to be sympathetic to. Consequently, this creates an empathic access to the psychological state perceived as that of one’s past, but this is not actually an empathic access to the psychological state of the past.
It is an empathic access to an internally generated psychological state of the past. For example, a reformed drug addict who lives a calm, mediocre life may claim to have empathic access to her wild drug taking days. This however could based on sympathy to the happiness associated with her drug taking days, which is an emotion the present reformed drug addict has associated with the perceived care-free, exciting memories, not that which the past drug addict associated to his drug taking times at the time of his drug taking (which were the total opposite – stressful, relationship destroying and tiresome).
Furthermore, empathic access has an epistemological concern. It is very difficult to know if someone actually has empathic access to their past. If someone was to loose empathic access, so that it was possible to say that they no longer represent the past person, it is the succeeding person that we talk to. The concern is that it we will hear her take on whether empathic access has been preserved, and this is not necessarily the suitable take. It is very difficult to know with certainty which claims to empathic access are liable.
Response to the Objections Schechtman might respond to my objection regarding the ambiguous nature of memories by saying that in cases of strong repudiation of these past experiences, the empathic access relationship is undermined and thus it would not count as empathic access (Schechtman, 2001, p. 105). Empathic access requires that the memories be an accurate recollection of the past, if, in such cases as the drug addict, they are not an accurate recollection then it empathic access cannot be claimed.
In response to the epistemological objection, it can be pointed out that one’s behaviour should be able to confirm genuine empathic access. This is because empathic access requires that a person retains access to some sympathy for the mental state of a life phase, and the sympathy is meant to take part in the present person’s decision-making processes (Schechtman, 2001, p. 109). This suggests that the present person’s actions, decisions and thus behaviours should coincide with the views they claim to have empathic access to.
Schechtman uses the example of a mother with empathic access to her teenage years, explaining that her behaviour will differ to a mother without this empathic access: “the kinds of explanations she will give for her actions, the kind of regret she will feel at the restrictions she imposes, the kind of second-guessing of her decisions that she might engage in – will be different from that of the mother who lacks such access” (Schechtman, 2001, p. 109). Conclusion I conclude to defend the empathic access theory, as this paper has successfully argued that empathic access is necessary to define personal identity.
The strongest argument for empathic access is that it enables the classification between identity-preserving change and identity-destroying change that other theories fail to do. Objections such as the questionable nature of the memory-sympathy relationship it depends on, and the epistemological concern, although valid arguments, have been responded to sufficiently. This leads to me to say that empathic access is a good theory as a criterion for personal identity.