Featured image: Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) suffers in excruciating pain in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009) as he swallows the harmful potion he made himself drink. 'This potion might paralyse me, might make me forget why I'm here, might cause me so much pain I beg for relief. You are not to indulge these requests. It's your job, Harry, to make sure I keep on drinking this potion, even if you have to force it down my throat.' Like Dumbledore, we make promises which we go on to contradict, creating fascinating ethical dilemmas for those around us. (Warner Bros. Pictures)
We like to think of ourselves as unified agents. With apparent clarity, we take ownership of who we are and the decisions we make. But we are misled. Clarity assumes consensus; and, underneath ‘ourselves’, motivations divide us.
Of our conscious thoughts, we form beliefs which immediately retreat, dematerialise, or mutate beyond recognition into new tokens. Of our unconscious desires, feelings pass by and vanish, having never really existed. Who we are—what we believe and what we desire—is unstable, uncertain, and transient.
This is troubling. For how can we be sure that one part of ourselves persists through time? We can only claim who we are on unsteady ground.
More, are we in conflict? If we don’t coordinate our motivations with unity, disloyalty will always be within us: we will always be fighting ourselves.
Who will your friends side with?
Welcome to a lesson on division and disloyalty.
From Ancient Greece to Harry Potter
Have you ever heard about Odysseus (‘Ulysses’ in Latin) and the Sirens? This story, which delivers a great lesson on how people can be divided (mentally, not physically), is part of the lyrical epic Odyssey, a work attributed to Homer, a presumed-blind bard of Ancient Greece.
Odysseus faces many tests of his moral endurance during his ten-year voyage back home to Ithaca after the fall of Troy. One is posed by the dangerous but temptatious songs of the Sirens.
The Sirens were dangerous creatures who had a penchant for luring sailors towards their island with enchanting music. Bewitched, the sailors would be lulled to sleep, allowing the Sirens to tear them to pieces and consume them. Odysseus knows of this—he was warned by the goddess Kirke—but, in his curiosity, he is still eager to hear their reputedly irresistible songs.
After passing the Syrens Odysseus and his men must fight for their lives between monster Scylla and whirlpool Charybdis: 'between the devil and the deep blue sea'. (Roger Payne)
We ordinarily assume a person comes as a whole mental package of beliefs and desires: a personality of opinions, perspectives, experiences, memories, and so on and so forth. In this particular tribulation of the Odyssey, however, Odysseus, as we know him, is set to evaporate when the Sirens start singing.
Now here’s the interesting part: Odysseus makes a commitment which will undermine his future self. Before the ship skirts the land of the Sirens he asks to be tied to the ship’s mast and the sailors to plug their ears with beeswax for their own protection. If he begs to be untied, they must ignore him, he commands: upon hearing the Sirens’ call he will want to drown himself.
Duly, as the Sirens sing, he begs to be untied and the sailors are forced into a moral dilemma: (1) fulfil their promise to the first Odysseus, even though the first Odysseus is no longer present, or (2) obey the second Odysseus, who is clearly demanding to be untied.
Ulysses and the Sirens (1909) by Herbert James Draper. The story of Odysseus and the Sirens acted as a basis for Dumbledore and the Emerald Potion in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009). Each main character undergoes a transformation which shapes the moral landscape of how we consider their wishes.
The sailors choose (1): they remain loyal to the first Odysseus, something which Harry Potter does for the first Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009). As the Sirens sing, the sailors bind Odysseus even tighter with rope; and, as Dumbledore cries for mercy, Harry continues to force into him harmful potion as part of their prior commitment to destroying a ‘horcrux’.
The philosophy of divided agents
The nature of our disunity is fascinating. Both Odysseus and Dumbledore underwent vast psychological changes, which made their friends question who they really were. Their scenarios beg us to ask: could we change like this, too?
This question gives rise to deep-rooted, philosophical problems. Chiefly, if we are, in fact, conflicted in essence, there would be no guaranteed way to establish how someone ought to be treated; there would be no one set of obligations.
Putting on our philosophy hats now, there are big questions to consider—specifically, in (i) metaphysics and (ii) ethics:
(ii) Which part(s) of 'me' should you remain loyal to when contradictions arise?
Starting with (i), the question digs deep into the question of personal identity. An effective solution would allow us to unify someone into one set of interests which can persist over time. Definitions broadly fit within one of two categories: they claim that our identities are (a) maintained by our physical bodies or (b) by the contents of our minds, psychologically. The fundamental issue is that both bodies and minds physically and psychologically change with time.
In the cases of Odysseus and Dumbledore we can assume that their characters did transform. We can also assume that their transformations were psychological by process of elimination: during their challenges, their bodies remained consistent in makeup. Moreover, their characters were beyond recognition as they each cried for help.
This brings us to (ii).
Difficulties in ethics
We require some definition of identity to thread together who each of us is with lasting unity. Without one we can’t claim that we exist as recognisable and persistent individuals over time. Ethically, this would be problematic because, upon intervention, we couldn’t claim to be protecting someone in their best interests.
We are treated as physical and psychological beings in law: our bodies are attached with identities and these identities are veneered with names and enshrined by the personal rights we have access to. A big concern with this approach is that, in life, we can undergo huge changes in body and mind but still keep a legally recognised identity.
Dementia is a malady of the brain which impairs memory, sharpness, language, judgement and understanding of the world. A long-term sufferer might not be same person as before dementia struck, at least psychologically speaking. So do we honour the wishes of their past life or their current life? Both, we say, to be sure of honouring someone. But what if they contradict 'themselves' now by claiming, for instance, that they want to move to a residential care home, when previously they abhorred the idea? (Getty Images)
Let’s assume that identity is, in fact, psychological. We usually define people we know—friends, family, colleagues, and public figures—by how they act (‘They’re generous’, ‘They’re funny’, ‘They’re clever’); and when they discontinue to act in expected ways we either stay blindly loyal or reshape our relationships with them.
Some notion of psychological identity was assumed to apply to Odysseus and Dumbledore, whose friends stayed loyal to previous promises, not to their bodies upon their character changes. But can we assume that psychological persistence to be true in real life? How do we tell the difference between someone being momentarily temperamental and someone authentically changing their mind?
The most-difficult part of establishing persistence or a return of character is defining a unified person: a psychological unit of being in each of us we can call ‘me’. If we can successfully define a single psychological entity, we can cease our concerns now and carry on treating each other as individuals with identifiable sets of best interests to fulfil. However, in practice, it seems we are quite divided creatures.
In the film Split (2016) a man (James McAvoy) is said to have 24 personalities (or one personality split into 24). Each psychological unit says something about him that is definable in a moment and consistent with time. Having twenty-four personalities is bordering on ridiculous, sure; but, given that any physical body on this planet will age and be recycled and given that humans are so psychologically complex and unknown, what can we say is true about each of us? (Universal Pictures)
The claim about our inner division is not made with a great stretch nor on unreasonable assumptions, not least because we each act in multitudes of redefinable ways: who’s really in there?
It is assumed in law that we are unified persons when we are healthy. Significant personality separation is seen as a possibility but only as a mental illness.
Dissociative identity disorder (previously ‘multiple personality disorder’) is one such mental illness. Offenders have been defended in court with it as a diagnosis (through insanity defences), whereby it was claimed that the defendant didn’t commit the crimes they were accused of committing: someone else did and they shouldn’t be held responsible just because their mind has to share a body with another mind, which is evil.
'The devil inside me': Thomas Huskey of Tennessee (pictured) pleaded not guilty to four counts of murder on account of there being a wicked personality within his body. The attorneys argued that this uneducated man with a low IQ couldn't improvise so many characters with distinct styles, histories, and vocabularies. Additionally, they said, Huskey did not remember killing anybody. So evidence being used against him could only reveal a mental illness of split personalities. He was eventually charged and sentenced to 66 years in prison; his responsibility was not diminishable. (Source)
While the cases above only offer extreme examples, they do purvey an interesting doubt about unity. If we can mentally dissociate, as assumed in film and law, then it follows that there is someone to dissociate from—some permanent sense of association to begin with.
Perhaps, like the mentally ill criminal, we are, indeed, divided but our separations occur to lesser degrees. Where we use terms like ‘temperament’ and ‘mood’, they use ‘disorder’ and ‘illness’. Such metaphysical division would rule that we are accountable to more than one ‘personality’ as well.
By having competing personalities inevitable conflicts emerge in our minds: and who should win?
Odysseus and Dumbledore were only under temporary spells: their friends could count on their psychological returns to familiar versions of themselves, making it easy to settle matters. For us, however, how can we be so confident that our friends will be the same in the future?
People sporadically change all the time—differing even to themselves—in an everyday sense of the word ‘change’. But they are also deeply divided. It’s not difficult to find evidence of people acting out their fundamental divisions: their minds are pulled in different directions by cognitive dissonance; they are happy with their lives’ choices one minute, then beset by existential crises because of them another; they live different roles depending on who they meet and happenstance; and so on.
Thus I’m not just talking about extreme changes in mental faculty, which occur with the onsets of conditions like dementia, here: I am talking about a baseline of considerable temporariness and incoherence in nature.
Pictured: Phineas Gage, the man whose life and personality changed forever when he was impaled by a tamping iron (also pictured). Gage, or so the myth goes, went from being kind to cruel—a true story which bears similarity to the paedophile whose urges were at least partially attributed to a brain tumour. So if our brains were besieged in some way, would we remain the same people? According to philosopher Derek Parfit, personhood is a neurological property; however, it is a function of 'sameness' and 'direction', not 'identity'. Thus if your brain was partially removed or irreparably damaged, it is not necessarily true that your personality would connected to one of your past selves; rather, you are just similar.
We could easily have been moulded by life into different characters: how can each of us be sure we know this person’s best interests? In response to this internal disfigurement we tend to pursue unity in our identities anyway. But if unity does not exist, we do so in vain.
This challenge is more sophisticated and runs deeper than simply finding a set of recognisable psychological traits. Perhaps we are psychologically incomprehensible—opaque and mystifying—even when we look at ourselves. Who—what—are we channelling? Is an attempt to define identity a dig for semblances of existence which cannot be married into one individual?
Samuel Beckett (pictured) thought: '… there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, no desire to express, together with an obligation to express.' That is, nothing has real existence; and if anything real did exist, it could not be known. We only feel compelled to express blankness, indolence, and indecision.
Moreover, if each of us is something and that something is divided, then every action is disloyal to some other part of ourselves. We are our own sources of disobedience, in the present and through time.
We are too conflicted within ourselves.
We possess deliberative, rational, and self-conscious minds. Yet we are pulled into different directions when we consider moral dilemmas. We might proudly stand next to one belief during one course of events; and then, during another, we ethically justify an opposing belief. For example, I might attempt to justify a coffee I buy from Starbucks in terms of the enjoyment I will receive; but I could also justify not doing so in virtue of despising Starbucks for avoiding paying tax. The conflict is not rooted in the overall good or evil of either choice but in different parts of me: I, in the hypothetical present, could take moral ownership of either belief. (Source)
Let’s return to the topic of loyalty to see whether we can better resolve some ethical dilemmas.
Staying loyal, like Odysseus’ crew and Harry Potter, might play out well most of the time; but what if a friend, who is more nuanced and layered than a fictional character, changes their mind and is adamant about their new line of reasoning? You would have to override their current will—and there better be a good reason.
Loyalty is premised on inner indivision: a promise between two individuals, each unified. Breaking a promise in good faith requires certainty that doesn’t exist.
The story of a Russian nobleman and his wife: Philosopher of metaethics Christine Korsgaard put forward a form of Kantian ethics that is based on the 'volitional unity' of a 'single unified agent'. Such a moral agent is able to rise above their subjective inclinations with rationality and make autonomous decisions. According to Korsgaard, we are ethically obliged to fulfil our promises to people, assuming each promise is made with this 'inner harmony' on both sides. However, what if one side is divided? In a thought experiment, devised by Derek Parfit (and considered by Korsgaard), there is a Russian nobleman, his wife, and a promise binding them. As a young socialist the nobleman decided to commit large parts of his future estates to peasants. He was aware that his attitudes might change over time, though. So he drew up a contract with to ensure that the disposition of his estates to the peasants can't be revoked without his wife's consent, even if he is to make a rationally clearheaded argument for her revoke. Years later, as pre-empted, he changes his mind about parting with his fortunes, leaving his wife to face a massive moral dilemma: honour her younger husband or honour her older husband. Out of loyalty and devotion, the wife chooses the younger husband. But, in doing so, she implicitly accuses her current husband of being an imposter; else the younger husband must surely dead! How far should a promise go beyond the deathbed? (Source)
Unity deserves loyalty in ethics, for good or ill. In a moral dilemma, if there is a person who is said to persist through time with identity, our actions can be considered with respect to that person’s interests. Regardless of our different takes on morality, what’s important is that they are one person.
Odysseus and Dumbledore, in this vein, held distinctive characters which were destined to persist when spells wore off. But in the real, non-fictional world our scenarios might not be as simply and predictably solved because we aren’t as simple and predictable. Indeed, if we are fundamentally divided, our loyalty to friends is weakened by their inner conflicts: when they shift or transform, we betray them with our promises.
With this thought we can begin to doubt we are capable of fulfilling long-term promises to ourselves, too.
Will you book onto a new fitness regime, even though you doubt your commitment to it now?
Will you force your future self to sit on a gruellingly long but cheap bus journey at the weekend, instead of a train, by buying a ticket today?
Will you still go to bed late tonight with future regret tomorrow?
Will you abandon the vows of your marriage?
Will you refuse to take ownership of your past crimes?
Will you promise not to commit new ones?
To do any of these things is to wilfully interfere with your own affairs and decide for some part of yourself to take precedent. Routinely, you commit treason against ‘yourself’.
Some philosophers, such as Harry Frankfurt (pictured), believe unity comes from 'higher-order volition': conscious reflections of desires of desires of desires of desires … which we subsume into our beings. But if an agent is a bundle of reflections, what sits at the top? Are there infinite reflections? While we can attempt to unify who we are by forming identities, identity is a superficial concept which spills across many 'identity pools'. We are too divided by ourselves; we spite unity. (American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS)/YouTube)
Strangers to ourselves
Disunity pervades us: do we even know ourselves?
While we attempt to distil our thinking, we only bounce between states: the narratives we create are arrows which shoot through clouds of disarray. Neither do we boast sufficient insight to know ourselves nor is there a true want of it—a take shared by Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote:
Thus am I one single set of interests? I do not know.
Then how can you help me? How, even, can I claim today that I can help myself tomorrow?
I’m not sure of any of it; nor should you be.