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Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) 256281

The Grounds of Moral Agency: Lockes Account

of Personal Identity

Jessica Spector
The Academy, 220 Weston Rd, Weston, CT 06883, USA

For Locke, the personal identity problem was a moral problem from the beginning, an attempt
to pin down the conditions for responsibility and accountability. This article discusses the
implications of Lockes consciousness theory of personal identity for thought about the continuity
of moral agency, arguing that Lockes treatment of personal identity is best understood in
connection with his expanded discussion of liberty in the Essay and with his interest in the
proper grounds for assessing responsibility for action. By grounding personal identity in an
agents ability to recognize her actions as her own, Locke presents a picture of moral life
compatible with skepticism about substance while not skeptical about morality. I argue that this
description highlights some important features of self-awareness and personhood without
resorting to any metaphysical suppositions such as soul, essence or spirit.

Locke, personal identity, moral accountability, moral agency, self


By applying questions about identity to persons,1 Locke turned what had

previously only been (treated as) a metaphysical problem, into a practical one
about moral agency and accountability. Locke was interested in this moral

In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, by John Locke, ed. Peter H. Nidditch
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975). This edition is based on Lockes 4th edition, originally
published in 1700. References are hereafter cited as Essay, followed by book, section, chapter and
page number. Questions about identity in general and what it means to say an object is the same
thing from one point in time to the next go back further of course, but it was Locke who rst
asked the questions about the identity of persons that philosophers are still discussing. For more
on the history of the matter, see Kenneth F. Barber and Jorge J.E. Gracia (eds.), Individuation and
Identity in Early Modern Philosophy (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994).
Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2008 DOI 10.1163/174552408X329000
J. Spector / Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) 256281 257

problem because he wanted to nd a way to mirror Divine Judgment here on

earth without relying on vague ideas of substance. His solution was to oer
a criterion for accountability that did not rely on the idea of immaterial sub-
stance or soul. This solution is fraught with problems and ultimately may not
be metaphysically satisfying. But focusing simply on the accounts metaphysi-
cal failings as a memory theory of personal identity misses the signicance of
Lockes moral project.2 Even treating the account as a memory theory obscures
some of the deeper features of Lockes search for the grounds of moral agency.
What I want to do here is draw our attention to some of these deeper features.
Specically, I will show how Lockes discussion of personal identity is con-
nected to his account of liberty and rational action, and then show how Lockes
account of the conditions for accountability involves more than simply
memoryand begins to oer some insight into the elements of moral
motivation and continuity of agency.

Conditions for Accountability

At rst blush, Lockes discussion of personal identity seems only to be a treatment

of a particular species of relation, namely the identity relation. Indeed, the Essay
chapter on identity immediately follows two chapters on other sorts of rela-
tions.3 However, despite what its placement in the Essay might suggest alone,
the timing of Lockes addition of the identity chapter is revealing of the practical
motivations behind it.4 At the same time that he adds the section on identity to
the Essay, Locke expands his discussion of liberty to include a lengthy discussion
of rational will and moral agency. The fact that these two concurrent additions
to the Essay are driven by the same concerns has unfortunately been overlooked

For a range of important eorts to take Lockes moral concerns seriously, see Henry Allison,
Lockes Theory of Personal Identity: A Re-examination, Journal of the History of Ideas ( Jan March
1966); J.L. Mackie, Problems from Locke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976); Michael Ayers, Locke
(New York: Routledge, 1991), Part III: Identity; and Stephen Darwall, The British Moralists and
the Internal Ought 16401740 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
Essay 2.27 Of Identity and Diversity follows Essay 2.25 Of Relation and Essay 2.26
Of Cause and Eect and Other Relations.
Locke adds the chapter on identity in the second edition of the Essay, along with an expanded
discussion of liberty and necessity in Essay 2.21 Of Power. These revisions to the second edition
are an interesting matter in their own right. Many were inuenced by Lockes correspondence
with William Molyneux. In particular see their exchange of letters between 23 December 1693
and 26 May 1694, where they discuss the problem of identity at great length. These can be found
in a number of places, including The Correspondence of John Locke, ed. E.S. De Beer (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1979), vol. 4.
258 J. Spector / Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) 256281

by readers of both sections.5 The liberty discussions increased emphasis on

self-determination has not previously been connected to the investigation of
personhood or self in the chapter on identity. So before plunging into Lockes
personal identity discussion, we need to do a little work on how his concern
with freedom and responsibility lead Locke to examine the continuity of moral
We can start by reminding ourselves that the overall purpose of the Essay
project is moral, or practical.6 It is for knowledge of conduct, or action in
general, that Lockes famous candle shines brightly enough.7 We should
approach Lockes discussion of liberty in light of this ultimate concern with
practical knowledge, specically the limits of responsibility and account-
ability for action (that is, authorship of action and answerability to praise or
blame for it).
According to Locke in his expanded discussion of liberty, a person who is
not self-determined is not free to direct her own action and so cannot be justly
rewarded or punished for her behavior. The thought is that if she is not respon-
sible for her actionif she cannot be considered the author of her conduct
then she cannot be held accountable for it. (For instance, in a case of force
another person might be considered the author of her action.) There is no
need to get into a technical discussion here about the nuances of responsibility
and authorship of action and what should count as coercion. A brief look at
Lockes chain of reasoning suces to show this connection between self-
determination and accountability. According to Locke, a self-determining
will8 is a necessary condition for reward or punishment. We impute an action
to an agent and praise or blame her for it only when she has the power to

I am arguing that the section on personal identity is driven by the same concern for account-
ability driving the section on liberty. My understanding of the section on liberty owes much to
Stephen Darwall, who argues, in British Moralists, op. cit., ch. 6, that Locke is concerned with
accountability in the newer material on liberty. (Especially intriguing are Darwalls analysis of
Cudworths inuence on Locke in this area, and his discussion of the possible inspiration for
Lockes new material.)
Our Business here is not to know all things, but those which concern our Conduct. If we can
nd out those Measures, whereby a rational Creature put in that State, which Man is in, in this
World, may, and ought to govern his Opinions and Actions depending thereon, we need not be
troubled, that some other things escape our Knowledge. Essay, 1.1.6, p. 46.
Essay 1.1.5, p. 46. Ayers believes Lockes motivation is religious (Ayers, Locke, p. 273 in
particular). Suce it to say, this does not contradict my claim that the project is a moral one
(in the broad sense of the term).
See Essay 2.27.14-19, pp. 338-42 for Lockes rejection of the expression free will as incoher-
ent. An in-depth discussion of what <is?>Lockes conception of will would take us far o the
present track.
J. Spector / Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) 256281 259

reect and deliberate over her course of action. So accountability requires

responsibility, and such responsibility requires self-determination.
Never mind that deliberation itself seems blameworthy in some situations.9
If a person has the power to so reect and deliberate but does not exercise it,
she may be held accountable for her rash action. A self-determined agent is
answerable, or accountable, for her deliberative action even (and perhaps espe-
cially) if she does not in fact deliberate before acting, because she has the power
to examine her choices and decide her actions for herself. Thus it is the capacity
to rationally reect, deliberate, and choose an action that qualies an agent as
self-determined (or self-determinable) and opens her up for reward and pun-
ishment.10 Without the capacity for self-determination, the agent cannot be
obligated or capable of law11 in the sense that she cannot bind herself to an
authorized course of action.12 In order to be capable of law, and thus a proper
subject of reward or punishment, the agent must be susceptible to reward and
punishmentthey must be able to somehow aect her deliberation. And this
is only possible if she is implicated as the author of her own actions, that is, if
she has the ability to make practical judgments about her course of action.
So self-determinationthe power to reect and deliberate about actionis
what allows us to blame a choice of action and evaluate it as a violation of law.
If a person cannot reason deliberatively when performing an action, she cannot
be taken to task for her conduct and so cannot be considered bound by law.
By making self-determination requisite for accountability in this way, Locke
sets himself up for the next question: what is a self ? He provides a small hint at
what will turn out to be the crucial criterion for a responsible, accountable self
when he says that a responsible agent is one who is self-consciously self-
determined. This is another revision Locke makes to his discussion of liberty

For example, if I were to reect and deliberate about whether to save a child from a car
hurtling toward him, we would probably say there was something disturbingly wrong with me.
Unfortunately, we must leave these large problems with rational deliberation criteria aside, since
we are tracking Lockes treatment of self, not constructing an apology for his moral philosophy.
This is not to say that Locke must be maintaining self-determination as a sucient condi-
tion for reward or punishment. A person who is self-determined about trivial courses of action
might not be a candidate for reward or punishment. I may reect and deliberate about which
shirt to wear, but however calm and rational my thought process, I do not think Locke would
require my praise or reward. Similarly, if I just throw on any old thing in the morning, that
would not typically set me up for blame or punishment, though we could always contrive a case
where it might. It may help to try to logically map out Lockes chain of reasoning, but we lose
any hope of subtlety if we treat it as a deduction. It isnt one.
Locke does not clearly distinguish between law and obligation at this point.
See Darwall, British Moralists, ch. 2, for a discussion of the roles of external and internal
authority for Locke. I am sliding past the issue of internalism (in all its forms) here because I want
to get to the generally neglected moral implications of Lockes account of personal identity.
260 J. Spector / Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) 256281

at the same time that he adds the discussion of personal identity to the Essay.
In the second edition of the Essay, will becomes the power to self-consciously
direct action. According to Locke, a free agent must not only be self-determined
but be self-consciously so. Although Locke does not elaborate on what it means
to be self-consciously self-determined, it is clear from his discussion that part of
liberty is the power to direct ones own actions with the awareness that they are
ones own actions. In stepping back and surveying alternatives, a free agent
recognizes that she is deliberating over the course of action that she herself will
take. The liberty of intellectual beings hinges on this ability to suspend our
present desires and examine our options,13 with the awareness that the conse-
quences will aect us. It is our duty and all that is our duty as intellectual beings
and thus is all that we can be properly punished or rewarded for.
So for Locke, self-conscious self-determination is tied to a proper prudential
concern for ourselves and the ability to rationally choose actions that further
our own good. If self-conscious deliberation is in an agents power, then failure
to do a good job of it is something for which he can be held accountable.14
A failure to suspend present desires, or a too hasty examination of alternatives,
are grounds for punishment when they are mistakes made by an agent able to
reect on the proper course of action to bring about his own happiness.
Without delving any further into Lockes views on liberty and rational
action, we can see how the search for the grounds of moral accountability
directs Locke to questions about personhood. In his discussion of liberty,
Locke links accountability to the capacity to self-consciously determine ones
own actions. An agent who has the power to examine his choices and direct
his own actions based on this examination can be justly rewarded or punished
for his actions. The next step for Locke is to ask what constitutes a self-
determined agent. What makes us consider an agent free and responsible, and
what allows us to judge an agent over time?

Candidate Principles of Continuity

It is at this point that the investigation turns metaphysical. By resting account-

ability on the continuity of a self-conscious, self-determining agent, Locke

This suspension and examination in the service of the care of ourselves, that we mistake not
imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty (Essay 2.21.51, p. 266).
See also Essay 2.21.52, p. 267.
If the neglect or abuse of the Liberty [a man] had, to examine what would really and truly
make for his Happiness, misleads him, the miscarriages that follow on it, must be imputed to his
own election (Essay 2.21.56, p. 271).
J. Spector / Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) 256281 261

makes the proper distribution of reward and punishment dependent upon

our discovering and understanding the nature of this continuity. But the
nature of this continuity is metaphysically uncertain. Locke cannot ground it
in immaterial substance, since we have no clear idea of what pure substance
material or immaterialis.15 We may believe in immaterial substance or soul,
but we have no knowledge of it, and our idea of personhood and our judg-
ments of accountability cannot depend on an idea of which we have no
knowledge. Without any certain knowledge of how substance could persist
over time, we could not even begin to assign praise and blame to persons
based on continuity of substance.
Lockes concern with nding a sure basis for these judgments lies behind
his search for an alternate principle of continuity for persons. For Descartes, the
existence of immaterial thinking substance is self-evident from the fact that
we are aware of our own thinking. Though Locke agrees with Descartes that
our own thinking is self-evident, he thinks we have no real knowledge of
what immaterial substance could be like, so avoids Descartes connection
between the cogito and immaterial thinking substance.16 Since our idea of
immaterial substance is vague, it cannot add anything to our knowledge of
what makes a person or self the same over time, so is insucient for ground-
ing our practical judgments about personal identity. Yet without appealing
to immaterial substance, it seems there is no thing that is responsible (let
alone that can be held accountable), no thing that could be immortal, and
no Divine Justice.17
So without a coherent idea of immaterial substance or soul, Locke is left
with no clear object of praise or blame, so no way to guarantee justice either

Locke says of Substance, we have no Idea of what it is, but only a confused obscure one of
what it does. Essay 2.13.19, p. 175. See also Essay 2.23, pp. 295-317 and Essay 4.3.6, pp. 540-41.
Locke is not really a materialist, but is truly a skeptic about any kind of substance. Lockes views
about the possible nature of soul are actually quite odd: he agrees with Henry More that souls
can be extended. See Henry More, The Immortality of the Soul (London, 1659). Stillingeet calls
this Lockes hideous hypothesis. See Lockes 16971699 correspondence with Stillingeet in
The Correspondence of John Locke, op. cit., vol. 4. Lockes views on the possible nature of soul and
immaterial substance were commonly misunderstood by his contemporaries.
For Descartes, a res cogitans is actually a thinking substance.
For Descartes, there is no problem grounding responsibility and accountability for action in
an immortal soul. (It is interesting to consider that in the case of the Christian doctrine of origi-
nal sin, personal identity or continuity of agency does not seem relevant.) But that is not an
option for a skeptic about substance, like Locke. And since death destroys body, it is hard to
see how there can be immortality without immaterial substance. Thus, without an appeal to an
immortal soul, there seems no way to ensure ultimate reward or punishment for action, which
means no Divine Justice.
262 J. Spector / Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) 256281

here on earth or for the afterlife.18 The threat is that if knowledge of immaterial
substance is jettisoned without being replaced by something more satisfactory,
Locke will have no grounding for morals. This problem propels Lockes search
for an alternate criterion of personal identity. His interest in mirroring Divine
Justice here on earth by securing some criterion for judging agents responsible
and holding them accountable over time leads him to inquire what sort of
thing a person or self is. The trick is to nd a principle of continuity that will
allow assignment of praise and blame and thus save morality from destruction
by skepticism.
Locke begins this search for a way to judge when a person is the same as
a person who performed a blamable/laudable action by investigating the con-
cept of identity itself: what makes us call something the same over time and
unitary at any one time.19 His goal is dierentiating the principle that makes
us hold someone accountable for her actions over time from the principle that
makes us say a substance remains the same over time. If Locke can do this,
then he has a shot at grounding moral accountability in something other than
continuity of substance. Without resorting to the obscure idea of substance

Questions about the identity of humans, as related to doctrine about the Resurrection and
the Trinity, were debated before Lockes Essay. However, Locke can be credited with rst casting
the problem of personal identity as a philosophical problem about how we apply the concept of
identity to moral agents, and about what does and should make us hold agents accountable for
their actions. In order to secure some level of certainty for our retributive practices, he wants to
nd an alternate principle of continuity that will legitimize our punishing (or rewarding) some-
one for something she did in the past.
In current literature on personal identity, these are referred to respectively as diachronic and
synchronic identitythe technical problems of personal identity. (See John Perry, Personal
Identity [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975], p. 11.) Lockes investigation of the
concept of identity in general begins with the principle of individuation. His statement of
the principium individuationis has three parts. First he says identity consists in the constancy of an
idea: a thing (or idea of a thingLocke admits some looseness of expression between the two.
See Essay 2.8.8, p. 134) is identical if it does not vary over time (Essay 2.27.1, p. 328). From here
he slides into saying that one thing is identical to another if they have the same beginning. These
may seem like dierent denitions, but for Locke the latter follows from the former. An idea that
does not vary does not have more than one history, so two ideas are identical if and only if they
share a beginning. For example, the rock in my garden today is the same as, or identical to, the
rock in my garden yesterday if it has not varied from yesterday to today and shares the same his-
tory of being deposited by the last glacier, buried for millennia, unearthed by me while garden-
ing, etc. On top of uninterrupted existence or continuous history, Locke adds that a substances
identity is determined by its particular location in time and place. A substance of a certain kind
(God, Finite Intelligence, or Body) cannot be in the same place at the same time as another of
its kind. God may be everywhere at all times (because there is only one of Him, on Lockes view),
but only one spirit or body can be in any place at a time (Essay 2.27.2-3, pp. 329-30).
J. Spector / Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) 256281 263

(material or immaterial), then he could provide a more satisfactory way

(on his view) of ensuring the just distribution of reward and punishment
a distribution that would match Gods distribution at the Final Judgment. The
result would be a skeptics account of personal identity that was not destruc-
tive of the foundations of morality.
Locke thinks that understanding what identity means in a given case
requires understanding to what it applies, since identity conditions depend
on the kind of thing in question.20 So he starts narrowing in on the prin-
ciple of continuity of a moral agent by examining the diering principles of
continuity of various kinds of things. The rst thing he observes is that
masses of matter and living things warrant identity ascriptions in dierent
ways.21 According to Locke, the identity of a living thing depends on the
organization of parts within a common life.22 The individual particles of

Essay 2.27.3, p. 330.
For instance, the conditions for ascribing identity to a pile of rocks and an oak tree are not
the same: the tree can grow and change dramatically and still be considered the same tree, while
if rocks are removed from the pile or the pile grows then it might no longer be considered the
same. There has been some debate about whether Locke is saying that it is the conditions for
ascribing identity that dier while the concept of identity is the same for dierent sorts of things,
or whether he is saying the concept of identity is ambiguous. (For an instance of the former view
see Jonathan Lowe, Locke on Human Understanding [London: Routledge, 1995], p. 102. For the
latter view, see Allison, Lockes Theory of Personal Identity, p. 43.) On the face of it, the fact that
this question is not easily resolved by the text, which lends itself to both interpretations (compare
Essay 2.27.3, p. 330 with Essay 2.27.7, p. 332), seems like it might be important for understand-
ing Lockes account of personal identity. But the question of whether Locke means that the condi-
tions for the application of identity vary, or that the concept of identity itself varies as it is applied
to dierent sorts of things, is really a non-issue here and we should be wary of entangling ourselves
in this shrubbery when we have not even reached the forest yet. I am not sure what it ultimately
means to say the concept of identity varies depending on the sort of thing it is applied to, other
than to say that the conditions for applying it dier. The same shift in meaning seems to be picked
out whether described in the rst way or the second. I am staking no position on meaning or
reference here, nor entering the debate about possible world semantics. I am only saying that
answering the question one way or the other makes no dierence for how we understand Locke
and that forcing him to come down on one side or the other is fruitless. We need not worry about
which formulation Locke should want. Lockes contribution on this matter is recognizing that
there is this dierence in the way we ascribe identity to dierent sorts of things.
Locke wedges the rst stake he will use in hoisting himself up to the limits of the moral
sphere through this distinction between identity conditions for living and non-living things.
He uses it to introduce the idea of organization as central to a things identity, pointing out the
change in how we ascribe identity when form or organization is an essential element in the con-
cept of a thing. A simple mass of matter is considered identical over time if its constituent parts
remain the same, while the identity of something whose organization makes it what it is does not
depend on the continuity of the same particles of matter. For example, a lump of clay remains
264 J. Spector / Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) 256281

a living organism may change over time, but the organization of parts and
their tness to the same life do not.23
I identify this move as the beginning of Lockes delimiting the moral sphere
because the recognition of how identity diers in the living and the non-living
provides Lockes rst grip on an account of what moral accountability
consist<s?> in, without an appeal to substance.24 But this is merely Lockes
rst grip; he still needs a way to distinguish between the moral accountability
of persons and the simpler ascribability of actions pertaining to all sorts of
creatures that we do not consider part of the moral realm. Charging an agent
for her actions goes beyond a physical claim about which living thing exhibits
what behavior. Locke is after something more: a criterion for assigning respon-
sibility to rational actors and for holding them accountable for their actions,
and for this he needs to nd the principle of continuity of a particular form of
life: a person.

the same lump though turned inside out, while a buildings identity is destroyed if it is taken
apart and its stones put back together in a dierent pattern. The identity of the building depends
on the way the stones are arranged, while there is (presumably) no arrangement to the lump of
clay. That is why we may say a building is the same if disassembled then reassembled across town,
but not if its stones are mixed up and heaped haphazardly together like so many pieces of clay
incorporated into a lump. The rock pile falls somewhere in between these two extremes in that
its parts, though discernible, are not organized in any particular manner. We should not get hung
up on where to draw lines in these gray areas: it is enough to see how Locke focuses on organiza-
tion as a key component in our assessments of identity.
Odd though it may seem, but in character for the seventeenth century, Lockes example of
this kind of identity of organization is actually a machine (see Essay 2.27.5, p. 331). For Locke,
a machine is like a living thing in that it has an articer, so is knowable. What makes something
like a watch the same over time is the way its parts are confederated. Even after individual ele-
ments are changed, the parts of the watch are still tted to the same purpose. It is the organiza-
tion of springs and gears and their making the watch run that make it the same watch. Just as a
watchs individual parts may be gradually replaced while maintaining the same watch, so a living
things parts may change without destroying its identity. The dierence is that a living organisms
organizing principles and impetus to persevere come from within, while the watchs come from
without. (Beginning in the late fteenth century, machines became the dominant metaphor for
life in European literature. Importantly for our purposes, what had an articer was considered
knowable. For more about the French development of this tradition, see Lenora Cohen Rosenfeld,
From Beast-Machine to Man-Machine: Animal Soul in French Letters from Descartes to LaMettrie,
2nd edn [New York: Octagon Books, 1968].)
Kenneth Winkler also focuses on this moment in Lockes discussion, but he identies it as
the dicult case because Locke is here trying to discern the principle of individuation of an
organized body. I argue that what is signicant about this move is that it is Locke dealing with
life here (see note 23, above, for more on the watchlife analogy). If we miss the signicance of
this, then the problem of the identity of a particular form of lifeone capable of moral agen-
cyis reduced to a problem about substances and modes, etc. See Kenneth P. Winkler, Locke on
Personal Identity, Journal of the History of Philosophy 29 (1991), pp. 201-226.
J. Spector / Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) 256281 265

Following along as Locke homes in on his prey, we see that the identity of a
man25 is the continuance of a certain kind of life.26 Man is not just a rational
animal but an animal of a physical form, so when we say that a man is the same
we must mean his physical form is the same.27 Of course, this does not mean
the identity of a man is found in the identity of material substance. Locke rules
out material substance as a candidate for providing the continuity which
grounds moral accountability. As with a machine, we say that a man is the same
body over time despite a continual change of material parts; a man remains the
same, young then old, despite a (gradual) change in particles of matter.28 Lockes
point here is that we look in the wrong place when we look for the principle of
continuity of life in material substance. What makes us call something the same
life has to do with the relations among its parts and how these relations are
maintained over time. And if we cannot ground identity of life in material
substance, we certainly cannot ground moral accountability in it, since account-
ability only pertains to certain forms of life.29 What Locke is arguing is that

Since Locke is trying to make a conceptual distinction which English is only delicately
equipped to handle (namely, between the physical and moral aspects of people), we should avoid
muddying the waters any further by attempting to bring Lockes language in line with modern
sensibilities and changing man to, say, human being. However, there is no problem inter-
changing man and woman in Lockes discussion.
Essay 2.27.6, pp. 331-32.
We might ask a number of questions here about what physical form means. For instance, is
my physical form the same if my arm is replaced with an articial limb? What is important for
our inquiry is that Locke does not believe accountability ultimately rests with corporeality.
If physical form were not part of what it means to be called man then we might call any rational
animal a man, including the impressive parrot of Lockes Essay who could reason and speak
(see Essay 2.27.8, pp. 333-35). It is interesting to compare Lockes discussion of the parrot at
Essay 2.27.8, pp. 333-35, with his discussion of the monkey at 3.11.16, p. 517. According to the
latter passage, written before the chapter on identity, a monkey may be considered a man if
rational and capable of law. This seems to support the reading, below, of person/man as abstractions
of some kind.
Of course, it would be hard to see how the machine or man might be the same if I suddenly
replaced every piece of it. This is just the old problem of the Ship of Theseus, which Plutarch rst
wrote about in Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, trans. John Dryden (New York: Modern
Library Classics <year?>), ch. 1, Theseus. The puzzle regards a ship whose boards are replaced
one by one, while the old boards are reassembled in the exact same pattern. The question is, are
they the same ship? Hobbes took up the problem in De Corpore 2.11.7, in The English Works of
Thomas Hobbes, ed. W. Molesworth (London: John Bohn, 1840), vol. i, and it remained a standard
thought experiment through the eighteenth century.
Neither can the identity of man consist in the unity of soul or immaterial substance. If same-
ness of soul were what made the same man, then we might say that men living in dierent times
and places were the same man. But, Locke maintains, we do not. We may talk about disembod-
ied spirits and spiritless carcasses, but neither are these what we seem to mean by man.
266 J. Spector / Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) 256281

man is not reducible to a certain kind of substance (material or immaterial)

but rather is a corporeal term, referring to one tly organized body.30
All this talk about human corporeality is meant to show that identity of
material substance, identity of immaterial substance, and even identity of
physical life, do not yet yield the principle of continuity of the moral man.
Though they may turn out to be necessary for personal identity, they are not
jointly sucient for it. In so far as man is corporeal we can assign actions to
him only in the way we assign actions to horses and dogs. If simple ascribabil-
ity of action qualied as accountability, then all animals could be said to be
accountable for their actions.31 What Locke is interested in is something more
than a way of assigning actions to individuals; he is interested in the proper
conditions for reward and punishment. As we have seen, his view is that being
under a lawthat is, being obligated, or subject to moralityrequires that an
agent be susceptible to reward and punishment for action.32 Only if an agent
can reect on the possibility of reward and punishment can he govern his
action according to law. This requires the agent be responsible for his action,
that it be imputable to him. And what Locke shows is that the corporeal iden-
tity of man will not do the job; it is not sucient for the kind of responsibility
on which moral accountability depends.
A problem with this train of argument is that it does not make clear why we
cannot or should not be culpable for corporeal acts, or even how we might
decide which acts count as merely corporeal. This is not a diculty for a
Cartesian, who would place moral agency in the soul and then say that animals
with immaterial souls (humans) are part of the moral sphere while animals

For instance, when we talk of mens souls being put into hogs, we say they are no longer men
(Essay 2.27.6, p. 332). Similarly, Locke says that Socrates and the Mayor of Quinborough are
dierent men according to our use of the term, whatever we may discover about their souls (Essay
2.27.19, p. 342). Here it looks like the concept of identity (not just the conditions for applying it)
diers according to the kind of thing in question (Essay 2.27.7, p. 332). It is not just that what
makes us say a man is the same diers from what makes us say a mass of matter is the same, but
that what sameness means is dierent in each case.
Essay 2.27.7, p. 332. There may be times when we use man in a broader way, but this is not
a problem for Locke. In order to show that the identity of man cannot be reduced to a matter of
substance, Locke need only show that there is some evidence of our distinguishing talk about
human corporeality from talk about the material that makes up human bodies or souls.
I do not know whether Locke would deny that non-human animals are sometimes blamewor-
thy or praiseworthy. But even those of us who recognize that animals are not automata as Descartes
thought, must admit that they are not capable of law in Lockes sense. As John D. MacDonald
put it: I imagine nothing is more futile than trying to convince a cat he is morally wrong to catch
birds. Quoted in The Notable Cat, ed. Virginia Mattingly (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1993).
For a discussion of the degree to which morality is a juridical notion for Locke, see Darwall,
British Moralists, ch. 2, pp. 37-44.
J. Spector / Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) 256281 267

without souls are not. The limits of moral agency are much clearer if you can
posit a substance carrying responsibility and accountability along with it, which
Locke cannot. He is left with this problem because he thinks the idea of soul or
immaterial substance is not clear enough to help us determine the limits of
responsibility and the proper conditions for accountability in any actual
situation. Locke not only wants to explain how God will mete out justice in the
afterlife, but wants to gure out a way to approximate that justice as nearly as
possible in this life.
This is a complex agenda. Locke aims to clarify and possibly reform our
thought about personal identity both because he is concerned with the proper
distribution of earthly reward and punishment and also because he is interested
in how our identity will be maintained at the Resurrection and how we will be
judged at the Final Judgment.33 In the face of skeptical worries about how we
can ever know the true grounds for Divine Judgment and the relationship
between earthly and Divine deserts for action, Locke tries to build an account
of personal identity that can guide our thought about accountability and
reform our ideas about just punishment. His interest in moral accountability
thus rests on a concern with the actual grounds and proper conditions for
praise, blame, reward, and punishment. Unfortunately, as we will see, the thing
Locke uses to get a hold on these proves rather tenuous.

Continuity of Agency

Thus far we have seen where the sucient grounds for moral accountability
cannot lie for Locke. He has argued that substance, material or immaterial, is
not the place to look for a principle of continuity that will help determine the
proper conditions for moral accountability. But it is the next phase of Lockes
argument that is supposed to actually give the principle by which we can and
should allocate reward and punishment. This is where Lockes distinction
between man and person comes in: it provides a means of distinguishing the
moral accountability we attach to humans from the way we attribute action to
other animals. Lockes rst grip on the limits of the moral sphere came from his
distinction between the identity of the non-living and the living. The distinction
between man and person will provide Locke his second grip on the moral sphere
and a second necessary condition for moral accountability.

Ayers thinks that the problem of resurrection is the driving force behind the discussion of
personal identity. See Ayers, Locke. For an especially good sketch of how important the idea of
resurrection was to Locke, see Winkler, Locke on Personal Identity, op. cit. esp. pp. 209-11.
268 J. Spector / Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) 256281

We have seen how Locke cannot accept the concept of man as sucient for
determining the limits of moral accountability. He has argued, however con-
vincingly, that bodily continuity is not sucient for holding an agent account-
able for past action (although it may turn out to be good evidence of personal
identity). Rather, we hold someone accountable if she is the same person
who performed the action. According to Locke, when expressing praise or
blame and distributing reward or punishment, we make a distinction, or
should (he does not clearly dierentiate these), between the identity of a man
and the identity of a person. Locke does not oer a denition of person, so
much as an observation about what we apparently mean when using the term.
He says that what we mean by person is a thinking, intelligent Being, that has
reason and reection, and can consider it self as it self, the same thinking
thing in dierent times and places.34
This distinction between man and person is Lockes attempt to dierenti-
ate the corporeality of humans from the features that make us consider moral
agents the same over time, without appealing to continuity of substance. The
identity of a person is not the corporeal identity of a certain physical life, but
the continuity of the ability to reason and reect and consider ones actions as
ones own. Locke admits, that in the ordinary way of speaking, the same
Person, and the same Man, stand for one and the same thing.35 But he wants
to indicate both where there is a dierence in our talk about men and persons
and also where there should be, so he uses the distinction to reveal the concep-
tual framework undergirding our assessments of accountability for action.
This is the nal boost Locke gives himself to the criterion for moral account-
ability. Consciousness of perception enables a person to consider herself as a
self. Like Descartes cogito, this reective consciousness is the agents ability to
recognize herself, to consider herself as an I. We have already seen that self-
consciousnessthe ability to own36 ones actionsis necessary for moral
accountability. Now we nd that the principle of continuity of a person is not
something underlying this consciousness, but is this very consciousness itself.
It is what enables an agent to recognize her own actions as hers and so take
responsibility for them, and is also what enables us to ascribe identity to her
and so hold her accountable for her actions. Inasmuch as it is wrapped up with

Essay 2.27.9, p. 335.
Essay 2.27.15, p. 340.
The property suggestion here is interesting. For the liberal individualists of the Enlightenment,
property was the dominant paradigm for thought about rights, justice and even personal identity,
as we see with both Locke and Hume.
J. Spector / Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) 256281 269

the social practices of reward and punishment, this concept of personality is

something public.37 It is a social concept, just as the norms of morality are
social norms. Moral ideas may be deducible from the laws of nature, but their
particular formulation is social. In this sense, the moral world is always to
some degree social.
Thus, Locke nds an alternate criterion for the continuity of a moral agent
that is both public and personal. Personal identity boils down to this ability to
recognize or be conscious of ones own actions as ones own and so be able to
take responsibility for them.38 Continuity of this consciousness of oneself as
a self, or self-consciousness, enables other people to ascribe identity to a person
from one point in time to the next. In other words, rst person appropriation
of actions enables third person ascription of personal identity.39

Locke says person is a Forensick Term appropriating Actions and their Merit, and so belongs
to intelligent Agents capable of a Law, and Happiness and Misery (Essay 2.27.26, p. 346).
Whether forensick is understood in a legal or religious context is not a problem here, since the
intelligibility of the Final Judgment would ensure the coincidence of these two. Neither should
we worry about the sincerity of Lockes allusions to God. Whether it is God or other persons
passing judgment on action, we are in some sense in the social sphere.
The continuity must be of the ability to recognize our own actions, and not just the actual
recognition of our own actions, otherwise a person who temporarily forgot a past action would
not be considered the same person.
Butler charges that Locke is confused here between the evidence for, and constitutive principle
of, personal identitymistaking the way we ascertain our identity for an account of what per-
sonal identity is. (Reid later reiterates this criticism as well as Berkeleys intransitivity criticism.
See Thomas Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, ed. Baruch A. Brody [Cambridge, MA:
MIT Press, 1969]. Both Butler and Reid think that the search for a constitutive principle is
doomed, since personal identity is not denable.) According to Butler, consciousness of past
actions ascertains our personal identity to ourselves but is not constitutive of personal identity
( Joseph Butler, Dissertation I: Of Personal Identity, appended to The Analogy of Religion, in The
Works of Joseph Butler, ed. W.E. Gladstone [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896] p. 388). So con-
sciousness is not what makes us the same person who performed a past action but, rather, it is
what makes up our personality. Butlers claim that a person is either a substance or a property of
a substance allows him to conclude that identity of consciousness proves identity of substance, but
in making the claim he begs precisely the question that worries Locke. Lockes endeavor has been
to give an account of personal identity that does not appeal to the problematic notion of sub-
stance. As far as Butlers criticism assumes such a notion, it misses its mark. As we have seen,
Lockes project is an attempt to save morality from skepticism by grounding personal identity in
something other than continuity of substance. Whether Butler fails to address this concern
because he misses Lockes point, or because he disagrees with Locke about the integrity of our
knowledge of substance, either way his criticism ultimately miscarries. Nevertheless, Butlers
charge that Locke confuses what constitutes personality for what constitutes personal identity is
revealing. I have argued all along that Lockes primary interest is in what is and should be the
criterion for moral accountability. In as much as this criterion has to do with personality, Butler is
right that Locke gives an account of personality rather than a denition of personal identity.
270 J. Spector / Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) 256281

In the secondary literature on Locke, this ability to appropriate past actions

to oneself is usually equated with memory.40 Lockes account of personal iden-
tity is thus characterized as a memory theory. But it is a mistake to simply read
memory for consciousness. Locke himself primarily uses the term conscious-
ness not memory, in his discussion of personal identity, and when he does
talk about memories he talks about them as things of which we are conscious.
Even Reid, who faults Locke for using consciousness rather than memory
(and considers the use of the former term a mistake), recognizes a dierence
in meaning between them.41
Without making too ne a distinction between the two terms, I want to
point out an important dierence between them: consciousness seems to carry
the sense of ownership of ones actions along with it, while memory does not.
This ownership42 might be captured as self-recognition. We can remember
the actions of other persons, but we do not say we are conscious of them our-
selves. For instance, we may talk about our memory of a movie plot but prob-
ably would not say we are conscious of the plot, as we might say about past
actions of our own.43 We might even imagine a case where we could say we are
conscious of having done something without having a memory of doing it.
Consider the sort of recognition we might feel upon seeing a note written in
our own hand, but with no memory of writing it. One might object that in
such a case we simply observe that the handwriting looks like our own, but
that would not capture the perspective with which we might recognize what
we do not recall. We can at least imagine being in a situation where, rather
than saying That looks like Xs handwriting. And lo! I am X! we might say
Thats mine, yet I dont remember writing it. Huh! However we might squab-
ble over such intuitions, it is clear from the intelligibility of the example that
consciousness should not be read as simply standing-in for memory.
This is important because if we unreectively elide the two concepts, then
we lose the personal part of self-consciousness. An agents awareness of self is

And as Butler agrees, personality, or who we are, is a matter of consciousness. The acuteness of
Butlers criticism lies in his recognition that Lockes discussion centers around the question of
what kind of thing a person is.
Bennett describes the virtual unanimity among Lockes readers regarding this equation.
Jonathan Bennett, Lockes Philosophy of Mind, in The Cambridge Companion to Locke, ed. Vere
Chappell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 109.
Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, Essay III, Of Memory, ch. vi, pp. 358-59.
Lockes use of ownership is itself a bit problematic. See note 36, above, about the property
paradigm in Enlightenment thought.
I choose the example of a movie plot rather than another persons actions because in the
movie case, there arises no question about whether or not shared thoughts and feelings might
amount to shared consciousness.
J. Spector / Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) 256281 271

central to his consciousness44 in a way that is not captured by the term mem-
ory. That is what makes the problem of paramnesia, or false memory (a.k.a.
transference), seem so odd. In such cases, the agents memory of an action
performed by another may be impeccableindeed, it may be more accurate
than the memory of the agent who we would say truly performed the action.
But in such a case, there is something wrong with the agents perspective on the
action: he is aware of himself as somebody else. We might say his perspective
is rst person where it should be third person. And it is this rst person per-
spective, the personal aspect of personal identity, that Locke is trying to
For Locke, as for Descartes, all of our sensations and perceptions make us
aware of our self.45 However, despite this faith in the cogito, Locke does show
some sensitivity to part of the problem Hume later nds with this view of the
self as immediately perceivable.46 The continual interruption of consciousness
may make us wonder whether or not the immaterial substance of a person
remains the same. However, Locke does not think this the same question as
whether or not the person remains the same. His skepticism about substance
(and rejection of a Cartesian reliance on thinking substance) allows that one
substance might be more than one person at dierent times, but according to
Locke this kind of continuity of substance is not morally meaningful without
the retention of the same self-consciousness. The sameness of the moral
agentof the personis a matter of sameness of a persons ability to consider
himself, to use the term I. If a person can continue to reect on himself
as himself, then he has the same consciousness.
Thus, Locke has a Cartesian conception of consciousness, without the
Cartesian conception of thinking substance. He buys the cogito and its

Of course this will not make any dierence to the problems of paramnesia, or false
When we see, hear, smell, taste, feel, meditate, or will any thing, we know that we do so.
Thus, it is always as to our present Sensations and Perceptions: And by this every one is to him-
self, that which he calls self... (Essay 2.27.9, p. 335).
Locke says that if we always had the same perceptions in our minds it would be easy to think
that personal identity could be reduced to identity of substance. Then he points out that this is
not the case: our perceptions do not remain constant over time, our consciousness is interrupted
and we are continually losing sight of our past selves (Essay 2.27.10, p. 336). This worry hints in
the same direction as Humes later worry about the eeting nature of our perceptions, though it
does not indicate the same radical skepticism about personal identity. Humes problem will be
that he cannot nd the self to begin with; he can nd no simple impression of a unitary thing
that could be the source of his idea of an enduring self. Lockes problem is just that we lose sight
of the self over time. His worry is not about the cogito itself, as Humes is, but about how to judge
the continuity of self through interruptions in consciousness.
272 J. Spector / Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) 256281

connection between consciousness and continuity of self. Like Descartes,

Locke thinks consciousness is essential to thinking, since we cannot per-
ceive without perceiving that we perceive. By perceiving that we perceive,
he says, every one is to himself, that which he calls self .47 However, unlike
for Descartes, for Locke the persistence of the same person over time does
not depend on the same (non-extended) thinking substance.48 Along with
his denial that bodily continuity is sucient for personal identity, Locke
also denies that being the same person means having the same spiritual
substance. For Locke, sameness of consciousness, not sameness of body or
soul, makes us call someone the same person over time and enables us to
hold somebody morally accountable for certain actions.49
But what happens if someone has no consciousness of his past actions? Locke
answers the question of how someone can be called the same despite such a lack
of self-conscious memory by distinguishing various applications of the term
I. He says that when speaking of persons and selves, I applies to conscious-
ness, while when speaking of man, I applies to body.50 When consciousness of
all past actions is lost, the agent loses the ability to consider himself as an I and
thus is no longer the same person, though he may remain the same man. Locke
thinks the locution of the question intelligible only because the same body hap-
pens to be attached to the same consciousness. Body may turn out to be a decent
mark of identity (it may even be a necessary condition for it), but the important
principle of personhood is how the subject conceives of himself.51 If he has abso-
lutely no consciousness of any past actions, then he has no sense of himself as a
self. We might press Locke on the degree of consciousness needed for the same
man also to be the same person. The signicant point, though, is that Locke
manages to separate the criterion for accountability from bodily identity.

Essay 2.27.9, p. 335.
Allison points out that Locke is the rst to make this separation between the cogito and the
concept of a thinking substance. See Allison, Lockes Theory of Personal Identity, p. 58.
[A]s far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past Action or Thought, so far
reaches the Identity of that Person whom we can hold morally accountable (Essay 2.27.9, p. 335).
Essay 2.27.20, p. 342. Since self-consciousness is what constitutes our identity over time,
whatever of our bodies is vitally united to that, which is conscious in us, makes a part of our
selves. Essay 2.27.25, p. 346. So an arm or a leg is part of our self as long as it is part of the same
organization of parts tted to a common life and thus part of the object of our consciousness.
For a discussion of the subject versus the object of consciousness, see Ayers, Locke, p. 265.
Winkler makes a similar point in his argument that Lockes account of the constitution of
the self is subjective. He says It is subjective because it cannot be criticized from a viewpoint
wholly external to the self. Any legitimate criticism must be based on the self s own appropria-
tions (Winkler, Locke on Personal Identity, p. 208). The problem here is that the assignment
of punishment is based on just such external assessments. I return to this problem below, in the
section Problems for Locke.
J. Spector / Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) 256281 273

Our habit of speaking of someones not being himself further suggests to

Locke that we conceive of personality as distinct from the identity of the man.
One way to think about this conception of person is as an abstraction from
the idea of a human being, that is, a way of considering certain aspects of
human life. Distilling this from Lockes account is complicated. Allison thinks
Locke equivocates between person as an abstract idea and as an idea of reec-
tion.52 On Allisons view, the idea of person as a thinking, intelligent being,
acquired by immediate self-awareness, is in tension with the idea of person as
an abstraction from the idea of a human.
This tension may be partially relieved, however, by considering that there
are two sides to Lockes discussion of personal identity: the continuity of ones
own self-consciousness and the assessment of continuity by others. While
Locke seems to tangle these two in his discussion of the identity of persons,
what Allison may be noticing is the place where the two split apart for Locke.
If this is the case, then it looks less troubling for Locke to claim a subjects
consciousness of himself as an idea of reection, while maintaining that an
observers conception of the person is an abstraction. The question then
becomes how the subjects consciousness of self relates (or should relate) to the
observers ascription of identity and responsibility. Allisons criticism here is
that if Locke is interested in the latter question only insofar as person is an
abstraction, then he is not addressing what has become the traditional per-
sonal identity problem at all, but is really concerned with the accountability of
a moral agent.53
And this is just what I have been arguing. The criticism of Lockes confu-
sion between the constituents of personal identity and how an observer might
establish it may be warranted as a criticism of Lockes account, but it also
contains a thought I have tried to harness for interpreting it. The thought is
that the traditional metaphysical lens used on Lockes discussion of personal
identity is not the lens we should be using. If we are to understand either
account, we must recognize that the metaphysical aspects of the personal iden-
tity problem are inseparable from its moral aspects. Allison is right: Locke is
really concerned with accountability and moral agency. When Locke asks
about personal identity, he is not simply asking how we might discover our
identity through introspection, but is also asking what kind of thing a person
is and how others might recognize one. In the answer to this question, Locke
says, is founded all the Right and Justice of Reward and Punishment.54 For

Allison, Lockes Theory of Personal Identity, p. 44.
Ibid., p. 47.
Essay 2.27.17, p. 341.
274 J. Spector / Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) 256281

Locke, a person turns out to be a self-determining, reective, rational agent.

The problem of personal identity is the problem of the identity of a moral
The importance of this connection is lost on Lockes most important early
modern critics, Berkeley and Butler (and later Reid55). Their respective
charges of intransitivity and circularity have proved the most devastating
criticisms of Lockes account, even to this day. Ultimately, however, both
Berkeley and Butler fail to see how the metaphysical problem of personal
identity is tied to the moral problem of accountability for Locke. Because
of this, neithers criticism drives completely home.
Berkeleys criticism of Lockes account of personal identity is that it does
not preserve the transitivity of the identity relation.56 The criticism is that
memory cannot be the criterion for personal identity because memory is not
transitive, while identity is. One person may be said to be identical to a sec-
ond person because they share memories, and that second person so identical
to a third person, but the rst and third persons may still not be considered
identical. Therefore because memory fails to preserve the transitivity of iden-
tity over time, it cannot be what personal identity consists in. This criticism
of memory theories of personal identity in general is typically known, through
Reids formulation of it, as the Brave Ocer objection.57 Reids thought
experiment concerns an old general who remembers himself being a brave
young ocer who performed heroic feats. That brave young ocer, in his
turn, remembers himself as a schoolboy, reprimanded for bad behavior.
However, the old general has no recollection of being the young schoolboy. So
it seems that according to a memory theory of personal identity, the old gen-
eral is the same person as the brave young ocer, and the brave young ocer
is the same person as the schoolboy, but the old general is not the same person
as the schoolboy.
The intransitivity of memory and consciousness may seem like a big prob-
lem for Locke. But it is no more or less of a problem than the fact that memory
and consciousness are not reexive over time either. The old general in the
example above remembers and is conscious of having been the brave young
ocer, but the brave young ocer has no memory or consciousness of his

Reids elaboration of both Berkeleys and Butlers criticisms have been especially inuential
on current discussions of personal identity. See Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man,
chs iv and vi.
George Berkeley, Alciphron (orig. London: T. Johnson, 1732). Reprinted in Berkeley
Alciphron in Focus, ed. David Berman (London and New York: Routledge, 1993). Berkeleys
brief critique of Lockes account of a memory theory of personal identity is on pp. 131-32.
See Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, ch. vi, pp. 357-58.
J. Spector / Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) 256281 275

future self. Nevertheless, Berkeley and Reid have no qualms about admitting
that the two are the same person. Shouldnt this be as big of a problem for
Locke as the intransitivity problem?
The answer is yes and no. Yes, the logical relation of identity is both
reexive and transitive, while memory and consciousness are not. But it is
not the logical relation of identity that is really at issue in Lockes discussion
of consciousness and personality. As we have seen, Locke is interested in the
problem of responsibility and accountability for action, which are no more
reexive or transitive than memory and consciousness. Our judgments of
praise, blame, reward, and punishment violate transitivity and reexivity all
the time. Consider how we hold a parent accountable for his childs behavior
but not the reverse. Or consider the very example oered as a criticism of
Lockes account. The old general might be honored for his actions as a brave
young ocer, but surely we would not punish him for his misbehavior as a
schoolboy. The old general does not recognize the actions of the young
schoolboy as his own, so as we have seen before could not be concerned for
them anymore than if they had never been done.58 We do not blame or
punish the old general for the schoolboys actions; in this way, we really do
treat him as a dierent person. Of course, we still may have diculty draw-
ing some of the lines between persons (as Locke shows in his struggle with
the case of the drunk man), but we apparently already recognize that person-
hood is neither transitive nor reexive.
The point here is the same point made above about personal identity being
the identity of a moral agent. What Locke is investigating in his examination of
consciousness is not just the relation of identity, but the constituents of moral
agency. For Locke, this identity of a person, or moral agent, rests on the ability
to recognize oneself over time. When we wake from sleep, if we can remember
yesterdays actions as part of the same consciousness as todays actions, then we
are the same person. As we have seen, this is not simply a matter of memory.
Rather, it is the memory and recognition of an action as one of our own. Locke
is not very clear about what this means, never pinning down what self-con-
sciousness consists in. But amidst this confusion over what it means to recognize
ones own actions, Locke makes some interesting observations about the nature
of self-awareness and personality. In his discussion of consciousness we nd
Locke reaching for an account of moral agency that goes beyond an empirical
explanation of personal identity in terms of continuity of memory. It is this
reach that we need to focus on, for it indicates a depth to Lockes account that
its aws belie.

Essay 2.27.26, p. 346.
276 J. Spector / Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) 256281

One might be tempted to try to help Locke by saying that recognizing

past actions as ones own means recognizing them from the same point of
view. The idea would be that memories of past actions are expressive of a
particular perspective, like pictures taken from a certain vantage point. On
such a view, my recognizing past actions as mine is grounded in the stance
they are recalled inI recognize an action as mine because I see it, so to
speak, from my eyes. We could put this another way and say that I am able
to own (that is, acknowledge as mine) any actions which I experience subjec-
tively. However, such an interpretation walks Locke right into the charge of
circularity.59 It is hard to see how an appeal to subjectivity does not wrap
Lockes account of consciousness in a tighter circle than his reliance on rec-
ognition of past acts as constitutive of consciousness. An appeal to rst per-
son point of view, or subjectivity, does nothing to help here because it
requires that we recognize certain actions as our ownthe very thing we
were trying to explain. Though it is supposed to enable this distinction
between oneself and others, rst person memory presupposes the very ability
to make such a distinction. And that is what we were after in the rst place
thats what the term memory could not capture the same way self-con-
sciousness could.
One might also try to help Locke by suggesting that our ability to own our
past actions is tied to our emotional reactions to certain kinds of actions.
On this view, tendency to respond in certain ways to certain actions provides
the continuity that makes a consciousness the same over time. The idea here
is that a person exhibits a unique pattern of emotional responses that can be
traced over time, and this constancy of emotional reaction marks the persons
identity.60 But this makes Locke look like he is relying on an extremely sim-
plistic notion of character for the continuity principle of a moral agent; a
notion too simplistic to do him any good at all. It would force him to con-
clude, for example, that a persons identity changes every time she has a
change in mood. Since a persons pattern of emotional reactions certainly
seems as variable as her memory, this does not really help Locke. He has
enough trouble with continuity of memory, without grounding continuity of
self-consciousness in constancy of emotional reactionseven if he could
specify what counts as such.

Indeed, this is Butlers charge. See Dissertation I: Of Personal Identity, appended to The
Analogy of Religion, in The Works of Joseph Butler, ed. W.E. Gladstone (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
For a suggestion of this sort, see David Ward, The Solution of the Problem of Personal
Identity via Locke, Butler and Hume, Locke Newsletter 25 (1994), pp. 53-63.
J. Spector / Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) 256281 277

Although Locke may seem hopelessly obscure about what recognizing past
actions as ones own means, and attempts to help him do more damage than
good, he does make an interesting move in a direction some recent commen-
tators have argued that Hume later takes in his account of personal identity.61
Locke is clear that recognizing with the same consciousness has something to
do with the prudential concern we take in ourselves.62 He is not explicit
whether this concern follows from self-awareness, or what being self-aware
means. What is important is the connection between this prudential concern
and moral accountability. Locke goes on to say that concern for ones own
happiness is the unavoidable concomitant of consciousness,63 i.e. part of what
it means to recognize oneself as a self.
We can now start to see how the ability to ascribe past actions to oneself is
linked for Locke to the concern taken in ones own future. As we have already
seen, according to Locke susceptibility to punishment is entailed by obligation
under a law, and the possibility of sanction is the only obligating motive a per-
son can have. For an agent to be capable of law, she must be prone to reward
and punishment for her actions. But she can have no concern for reward or
punishment if she cannot impute her past actions to herself. Actions which she
cannot appropriate are as if they had never been done.64
Without a consciousness of the past, then, an agent can have no concern
for the future, and thus there can be no continuity of consciousness over time.
Therefore, since personal identity and the moral accountability it is supposed
to enable reaches no farther than consciousness, it seems we should not punish
a person for actions she is not conscious of having done. To do so would be
like punishing one twin for the actions of the other according to Locke:
it would be both pointless and (though Locke is not clear on this distinction)
wrong. It would be pointless because the punishment would be disconnected
with the persons prudential concern for herself. If she cannot recognize her
past actions or be concerned for herself in the future, she would be, as Locke
says, as if created miserable.65

Most notably Jane McIntyre in Personal Identity and the Passions, Journal of the History of
Philosophy (October 1989), pp. 545-57.
Self is that conscious thinking thing...which is sensible, or conscious of Pleasure and Pain,
capable of Happiness or Misery, and so is concernd for it self, as far as that consciousness extends
(Essay 2.27.17, p. 341).
Essay 2.27.26, p. 346.
Essay 2.27.26, p. 346.
Essay 2.27.26, p. 347. This passage might also be read as a dig at Calvinism, according to which
the elect are visible through their ability to rise above the misery humans are born into. Lockes
political agenda should not be overlooked, even when assessing his more philosophical writings.
278 J. Spector / Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) 256281

Problems for Locke

At this point, Locke is faced with two problems. The rst problem is how to deal
with cases where a man has clearly performed an action of which he is no longer
conscious. Put another way, this is the question of whether a person can be held
accountable for actions he cannot recognize as his own. The second problem for
Locke is how to treat cases of false consciousness, or paramnesia, where a person
seems to be conscious of actions she did not perform. Both of these are problems
of how to connect the activities of the man with the consciousness of the person.
Since Locke has distinguished between man and person, he needs some way of
capturing both within the same bounds of accountability.
Locke dismisses the rst problem by pointing to the fact that we do not
punish the mad man for what the sane man has done, or vice versa.66 In this
way, we consider the men as separate persons. Lockes considered view is that
if a person cannot conceive himself the same as another, then he is not the
same person, since selfhood consists in the ability to own ones actions and be
concerned for oneself. A lack of consciousness of past actions prevents a per-
son from recognizing them as his own, and because we cannot hold someone
accountable for actions he cannot recognize as his own, punishment is not
appropriate in such cases.67
Saying the two persons, sane and mad, share a soul would not justify our
punishing one for the actions of the other. As we have seen, this is meaningless
for Locke without a shared consciousness, for punishment is annexed to per-
sonality, and personality to consciousness.68 One person could still not own
the actions of the other, so could not be the same self. Locke surmises that soul
and consciousness probably go together,69 but maintains that it is the
consciousness that makes us call someone the same person or self. In his
famous example of the exchange of souls and consciousness between a prince
and a cobbler,70 Locke says it is only in virtue of the transfer of consciousness
that we say the prince is still the prince though now in a cobblers body.71

Although there was no articulated legal test of insanity in England until 1843, the rst
insanity acquittal occurred in 1505. See Joshua Dressler, Understanding Criminal Law
(New York: Matthew Bender, 1997), p. 296.
Although in one of his least ne moments, discussed below, Locke later elaborates on why
the case of the drunk man diers by chalking up to expediency the fact that we actually do pun-
ish him sober for what he did while drunk.
Essay 2.27.22, p. 344.
Essay 2.27.25, p. 345.
Essay 2.27.15, p. 340.
For a dierent way of considering such an event, see Perry, Personal Identity, pp. 5-6.
J. Spector / Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) 256281 279

This brings us back again to the concept of person as an abstraction. When

we dierentiate between a persons performing an action and his recognizing
it as part of the same consciousness, we are really considering dierent aspects
of human life in dierent lights. Locke gets tangled up in his example of the
drunk man because of this confusion.72 He tries to explain why we punish the
sober man for what he did while drunk, and resorts to the practical argument
that since we cannot very well tell whether the sober man is conscious of what
the drunk man did, we err on the side of punishment. The problem with this
answer is that it does not give us a principle for judging the accountability of
an agent, merely an excuse for treating an agent as if he were responsible for
his actions. This is hardly just, according to Lockes own account of the proper
relation between self-determination and reward and punishment. If the sober
man really has no consciousness of what the drunk man has donethat is,
cannot recognize his past actions as his ownthen, according to what Locke
says previously, he should not be treated as though his actions were the conclu-
sion of a rational, deliberative process, and part of one continuous conscious-
ness. If he was not deliberative, then he cannot be considered a free agent, so
cannot be held accountable for his actions.
Locke is in a muddle here. It is not really clear whether it is the sober man
who was not deliberative or the drunk man, and what dierence the choice
makes. Locke resorts to a lame expediency appeal and does not take the rather
obvious way out of holding the sober man accountable for getting drunk in
the rst place. Nevertheless, he is attempting something interesting and inno-
vative. As we have seen, he is trying to gure out when and why it is appropri-
ate to hold someone accountable for his actions, without appealing to a
Cartesian immaterial substance. The trouble is that he cannot seem to account
for situations such as drunkenness, where we blame peopleand hold them
accountablefor non-rational, non-deliberative action which they do not
remember nor have any consciousness of.
Yet what is interesting about this very confusion Locke is in is that it exhibits
a struggle in the direction of making accountability hinge on motivation. It is the
consciousness of ones own deliberative actions that is the important thing for
assigning reward and punishment. Locke never says that we should look at what
the drunk man wrought in assessing the sober mans culpability. Lockes expe-
diency move is only made to justify our treating the sober man as if he were the
same person as the drunk man. What that does is link the self-conscious delib-
erative ability of one person to the harmful actions of another. And this is because

Essay 2.27.22, pp. 343-44.
280 J. Spector / Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) 256281

it is the continuation of self-conscious deliberative ability that is central for

holding someone accountable for an action. We might also cut Locke a little
slack here when we consider that this practical problem is not his alone. We really
do have a very hard time guring out what to do about cases like the drunk
mans, where the power to deliberate about ones actions and behave prudently is
hampered, but hampered though the agents own actions.73
Lockes answer to the second problem described above, concerning errone-
ous recognition of past actions, is also ultimately unsatisfactory. The question
is, what if we are conscious of performing an action that our body did not
perform? Locke says that the goodness of God ensures that we will not be
conscious of actions we have not performed when they are actions for which
we would be punished or rewarded. But even this copout (aside from appear-
ing patently false) seems to beg the question of who we are that did not really
do the thing we are conscious of doing. If the man is innocent, but the person
conscious of the action, then why should the person not be punished? Locke
is not fazed by saying that if he has the same consciousness of Noahs Ark and
the Great Flood that he has of last winters Thames ood, then he is the same
person who saw both.74 He thinks he is just as accountable for all the actions
he is conscious of, though the events may occur an epoch apart.
This may sound strange, but what lies behind it is Lockes view that our
subjection to morality rests on our susceptibility to reward and punishment,
and thus on our self-consciousness. For Locke, the entire rational, deliberative
process by which we direct our own action is based on our prudential concern
for our own happiness in light of this susceptibility to reward and punish-
ment.75 So a person who is conscious of having performed an action, and is
concerned for his future, is justly held accountable for that action without any
additional facts having to be known about substance, soul, or corporeality.
The problem with this is that it makes consciousness not only necessary, but
sucient for moral accountability. All along, in his search for the sucient

It may be easy to make fun of Lockes position on the drunk man, but it really is not so far
from the way the US legal system approaches drunkenness. For example, in a mere fteen years
or so, we have seen public views on the culpability of drunk drivers shift dramatically in the US.
(Other kinds of intoxication are a dierent story, for a whole dierent set of reasons.) And in
Canada, there have been a set of cases concerning the culpability of sleep walkers, where what
has been at issue is the inability of the agent to deliberate about action, the possibility of the
agents lying about his condition, and the question of how to adjudicate between these.
Essay 2.27.16, pp. 340-41.
In this personal Identity is founded all the Right and Justice of Reward and Punishment;
Happiness and Misery, being that, for which everyone is concerned for himself (Essay 2.27.18,
pp. 341-42).
J. Spector / Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) 256281 281

conditions for moral accountability, Locke has cast aside conditions that might
have been necessary, but not sucient for an ascription of identity
(e.g., bodily continuity, immaterial substance). Then in the end, he turns
around and lumps necessary and sucient conditions together, making con-
sciousness both a requirement for accountability and a justication for it.
However, despite these serious problems, Lockes account of personal
identity is to some degree successful. By grounding personal identity in an
agents ability to recognize her actions as her own, Locke presents a picture of
moral life compatible with skepticism about substance while not skeptical
about morality. Although the description itself is ultimately unsatisfactory, it
does highlight some important features of self-awareness and personhood
without resorting to any metaphysical suppositions such as soul, essence or
spirit.76 Lockes account draws our attention to the way the metaphysical and
moral aspects of personal identity are inherently linked. Questions about the
identity of persons over time are questions about what it means to be a person
and what makes for continuity of moral agency over time. And we are still
puzzling over these.

There have been numerous interesting attempts to repair his account and provide a coherent
neo-Lockean memory theory of personal identity. See, for example, H.P. Grice, Personal
Identity, Mind 50 (October 1941), pp. 330-50; Mackie, Problems from Locke; Derek Part,
Reasons and Persons (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).