The Character Option

David Berman

I know, or at least firmly believe, that I am a person whose name is David Berman. I also believe that I am the same person now as I was an hour ago or ten years ago. Why? Because I believe I can remember my past actions and other happenings in my life. This is what is usually referred to as, following Locke, personal identity. It is what all sane, normal, and commonsense people have and must have. So each of us must be a person with a name that we can answer to when called upon. That combination is the sine qua non for living in society. For while one can change one’s name, I do not think one would be permitted to have no name.

Supposing what is said above is bascially right, I now want to pose a thought experiment, similar to one I posed some years back, which I called the “Fantasy Option” (see Free Inquiry, Summer 1995, 38).

A helpful setting for my present thought experiment, which I call the “Character Option,” might be the resolutions that some people make at the beginning of each year. Imagine then a list of traits, tendenices, or capacities that you either want to gain or improve on, and others that you would like to shed and others that you are happy enough to keep. So your list would have at least two columns: on the one side, traits you want to gain or improve; on the other, those you want to shed. So in my own case, on the one side, I would have: I want to have a clearer undersanding of who or what I am; and also I want to be better at language and writing. On the other side: I want to shed my tendency to be a show-off; and also I don’t want to take pleasure in the misfortunes of others, even those who have been unkind to me.

Now imagine that, unlike New Year’s resolutions, whatever you desired would come true. How it happens and why you are sure it is going to happen is not that important. But if called upon, we might provide a sci-fi account. The point is that according to our hypothetical thought experiment, we know it is going to happen—if we go for the Character Option. But there is a price to pay. The price is that we lose our personal identity. So I would no longer be or know myself as David Berman. And I would no longer be able to remember any of my past as David Berman.

Hence, it might be said, it is as though David Berman had died. But that isn’t correct for at least three reasons. First, my new self is not going to be totally different from my old self. For I am still going to have the traits that I—that is, David Berman—did not choose to shed. And it was also I, David Berman, who made the choice to take on new traits, retain others, and shed the ones I wanted to be rid of. And finally, according to my thought experiment, I continue to have the same body I had as David Berman. (Although I can imagine a more radical thought experiment in which I do lose my old body.) So probably a better description of the option would be a selective voluntary amnesia.

Now my question is: Shall I go for the Character Option?

To be sure, I would feel sad giving up being David Berman, because, all things considered, he was not the worst. But, to be candid, neither was he that great. So now that I have the opportunity of becoming much better, I would go for the Character Option. Would you, reader, if you had the opportunity?

David Berman

David Berman is Professor of Philosophy at Trinity College, University of Dublin. This article is excerpted from his Introduction to Atheism in Britain, five volumes of eighteenth and nineteenth century texts, recently published by Thoemmes Press, Bristol, distribution in the U.S.A.: 22883 Quicksilver Drive, Dulles, Virginia 2O166.


I know, or at least firmly believe, that I am a person whose name is David Berman. I also believe that I am the same person now as I was an hour ago or ten years ago. Why? Because I believe I can remember my past actions and other happenings in my life. This is …

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