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Shame and Blame: The Self through Time and Change

  • Jennifer Radden (a1)

Do our customary notions of shame, blame and guilt require us to adopt a particular view of the self's singularity and invariance through time? Consider the intriguing case of John Demjanjuk, tried in Israel during 1987 and 1988 for the crimes of “Ivan the Terrible,” a concentration camp guard at Treblinka in Poland, during 1942–43. John Demjanjuk, a retired factory worker living in Cleveland, Ohio, appeared banal at his trial—old, quiet, ordinary and helpless; descriptions from survivors of Treblinka cast Ivan as monstrous in his vigorous brutality. Should John be found guilty and punished for Ivan's crimes? This question takes us beyond any answers sought at the trial. Even if the spatio-temporal identity of the later John and earlier Ivan had been established conclusively, still the justice of punishing the later man for the earlier one's crimes may be questioned. For a philosophical puzzle of personal identity lingers: is the later John the same person as the earlier Ivan? In cases such as this the passage of time and radical changes of character and personality seem to invite the notion that one self or person has succeeded another in the same body. If this were so, would—or should—culpability transfer undiminished from one self to another?

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1 Like Demjanjuk's defence counsel, I remain unconvinced. See Wagenaar Willem, Identifying Ivan: A Case Study in Legal Psychology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).

2 See Parfit Derek, “Later Selves and Moral Principles,” in Philosophy and Public Relations, edited by Montefiore Alan (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), andParfit Derek, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).

3 With certain exceptions and qualifications that will suggest themselves presently, these may usefully be classified together as emotions of “self-assessment,” i n Taylor's phrase. Taylor defines these emotions as those that are felt when the person experiencing them believes of herself that she has deviated from some norm and that in doing so she has altered her standing in the world. See Taylor Gabriele, Pride, Shame and Guilt: Emotions of Self-Assessment (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985). The self, Taylor explains, is the “object” of these emotions, and “what is believed amounts to an assessment of that self” (ibid., p. 1).

4 Strawson Peter, “Freedom and Resentment,” Proceedings of the British Academy (1962), p. 87, rpt. in Studies in the Philosophy of Action, edited by Strawson Peter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 5.

5 See Reid Thomas, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, 1785, rpt. in Personal Identity, edited by John Perry (Berkeley, CA, and London: University of California Press, 1975). For subsequent versions of this argument, see alsoWilliams Bernard, “The Self and the Future,” Philosophical Review, 79, 2 (04 1970): 161–80;Sheffler Samuel, “Ethics, Personal Identity and Ideals of the Person,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 12, 2 (1982): 229–46;Dardwell Stephen, “Sheffler on Morality and Ideals of the Person,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 12, 2 (1982): 247–64; andKorsgaard Christine, “Personal Identity and the Unity of Agency: A Kantian Response to Parfit,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 18, 2 (1989): 101–32.

6 Madell Geoffrey, The Identity of the Self (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981).

7 Ibid., pp. 125–26.

8 Ibid., pp. 116.

9 Ibid., pp. 115.

10 Parfit's own attempt, in Reasons and Persons, to reply to Madell's challenge is in my view insufficient. Parfit insists, convincingly, that no argument has been offered to resolve which of the two views, outlined above on page 63, he is bound t o adopt concerning responsibility across time. Thus he is free to support the more plausible position: with the weakening of psychological connectedness comes weakening—not elimination—of responsibility and desert. This support i s provided by appeal to the way that in practice we are inclined to allocate desert. Parfit sees statutes of limitations as indicating a tendency to lessen responsibility with lessened psychological connectedness. And he introduces the case of the saintly old recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, who confesses that as a young man he injured a policeman in a brawl. Though this was a serious crime, Parfit notes, “this man may not now deserve to be punished” (Parfit , Reasons and Persons, p. 326). But Parfit's case is inconclusive at best, and adds little to the view that our pre-analytic intuitions invite us to adopt reductionism. (The same is true for the Demjanjuk case.) The methodology of appealing to intuitive moral responses over particular cases in order to establish the plausibility of some tenet of metaphysical theory is an exacting one, to which Parfit's brief remarks and under-described example are not equal. Our willingness to forgive here may be explained not by a theory of plausible reductionism but by (i) a traditional theory of personal identity coupled with certain (e.g., non-retributivist) beliefs about the purposes of punishment or (ii) the view that the man's later good works served as restitution. Nor can Parfit casually presuppose consensus of moral response as he does. There may be some who would punish the man, or would judge him less worthy, for those misdeeds.

11 Hume David, A Treatise of Human Nature, edited and with an Analytical Index by Selby-Bigge L. A. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), Book II, section 2, p. 278.

12 Perry has made some observations about the relation between identification and personal identity that are illuminating on this point, noting that it is not necessary for us to believe or imagine ourselves identical with participants in past or future events with whom we identify. See Perry John, “The Importance of Being Identical,” in The Identities of Persons, edited by Rorty Amelie (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1976), p. 77.

13 James William, The Principles of Psychology (Boston, MA: World Publishing, 1948), p. 177.

14 The term ‘methodological individualism’ is used in several different ways throughout the literature of philosophy, social science and political theory. For an explication of some of these ways see Warren M., “Marx and Methodological Individualism,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 18, 4 (12 1988): 447–76. I do not mean to imply that the law makes an ontological commitment to individualism but merely an explanatory one—although such a commitment must not be supposed value—neutral for that reason. The legal system has an interest i n seeing humans as agents and individuated subjects, thus methodological individualism is a normative doctrine.

15 See Isenherg A., “Natural Pride and Natural Shame,” in Explaining Emotions edited by Rorty Amelie (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1980), pp. 355–83. See also Taylor, Pride, Shame and Guilt.

16 See Williams Bernard, Problems of the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973) andMoral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1980);Nussbaum Martha, The Fragility of Goodness(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986);Baron M., “Remorse and Agent Regret,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy, XIII: Ethical Theory: Character and Virtue, edited by French Peter, Uehling T. and Wettstein H. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988).

17 Madell , The Identity of the Self, p. 126.

18 In addition we shall always be able to construct examples, like Locke's prince-to-cobbler fantasy and Parfit's experiments in branching and fusion, which portray discontinuities insufficient even on an identity-conserving threshold, to force us to speak of successive selves inhabiting one body. But it is my view that these cases offer something less than conclusive grounds for adopting one or another position over reductionism, and that we had best resist the choices they appear to force upon us.

19 Should we try a chemically created self for the crimes of a past self? Should we respect the advance directive issued by an earlier self for the care and treatment of a later, mentally disturbed one? See Radden Jennifer, “Choosing to Refuse,” Bioethics, 2, 2 (1988): 83102;Chemical Sanity,” Public Affairs Quarterly, 3, 3 (1988): 6479; andPlanning for Mental Disorder: Buchanan and Brock on Advance Directives in Psychiatry,” Social Theory and Practice 18, 2 (Summer 1992): 165–86.

20 Morris Herbert, “Nonmoral Guilt,” Responsibility, Character and Emotions: New Essays in Moral Psychology, edited by Shoeman F. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 220–40, andThe Decline of Guilt,” Ethics, 99 (10 1988): 6276; alsoAdams Robert M., “Involuntary Sins,” The Philosophical Review, 1 (01 1985): 331, andBishop Sharon, “Connections and Guilt,” Hypatia, 2, 1 (Winter 1987): 723.

21 Morris , “Nonmoral Guilt,” p. 226.

22 Ibid., p. 222.

23 My friends and colleagues who offered suggestions on earlier drafts of this paper include Beatrice Kipp Nelson, Jane Roland Martin, Janet Farrell Smith, Suzie Laird, Susan Franzosa, Ann Diller, Barbara Houston and Frank Keefe; I am deeply grateful for their help.

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Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review / Revue canadienne de philosophie
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  • EISSN: 1759-0949
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