Personal Identity in Moral and Legal Reasoning

by Richard Prust (St. Andrews University, USA) , Jeffery Geller (University of North Carolina at Pembroke)

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Far and away the most important contribution to personalist philosophy in at least the last 10 years. More, this book effects any and every attempt to speak about persons and the world in which they live. Prust and Geller’s ‘Character Logic’ lifts the heavy burden of Aristotelian categories from the shoulders of Western philosophy once and for all. Follow their thinking out and we will certainly discover the means to reconcile the many dichotomies which continue to plague us: subject/object, mind/body, self/other, etc. ‘Character Logic’ transforms all such abstractions into concrete modes of activity: the ways and means by which persons come to be. Furthermore, by subtly navigating the practical proceedings of our moral judgements, this ‘Character Logic’ offers every kind of ethicist a route back to the real world of human intercourse. Put bluntly, this illuminating work could and should change the way philosophy is done across the board. Since it is only the beginning of a new philosophical conversation, it is to be profoundly hoped that this is not the last word on the subject. It is, nevertheless, quite clearly the first sensible word that has been spoken on the subject in some considerable time.

Simon Smith
Open Research Team, University of Surrey;
Editor of 'Appraisal', journal of the British Personalist Forum

The concept “person” is central to Western thought and life but has fallen into philosophical disrepute. Rational discourse about persons seems illusory to many. In this book Prust and Geller reclaim the concept and set out an approach to reasoning about persons.
What they term “character logic” is central to their project. They posit that reasoning about persons is different from reasoning about things. Aristotelian logic is inappropriate because it concerns relationships between categories. For Prust and Geller, persons are not categorical. Instead, persons are identified by “the present character of their resolve.” Roughly speaking, that means a person is what she intentionally does. Character logic takes the form A does C. Explanation is not causal, but intentional.
Importantly, Prust and Geller eschew rough speaking: they use formal language in developing their argument. This short review is insufficient to present their language and lay out their reasoning. I rely here on paraphrase hoping not to distort their meaning too much. (Their formal terms are accessible with clear intuitive and etymological bases. And the presentation is crisp and engaging. The book rewards careful reading.)
In developing the moral and legal implications of their theory of persons, the authors explore how persons act with resolve toward other persons, how a person’s resolve extends over time, and how a person negotiates her own competing intentions. They discuss the bases of personal rights and personal responsibilities. They posit, defend, and apply an axiom of moral integrity. They conclude by making a rational case for punishment and rehabilitation of persons who commit criminal acts.
This book will challenge and excite not only philosophers, but students of law, ethics, society, anthropology, politics, and religion. By giving us new language to reason about personhood, Prust and Geller open a new perspective for our thinking about our life together as persons.

Gordon P. Whitaker
Professor Emeritus, School of Government
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

'Personal Identity in Moral and Legal Reasoning', by Richard Prust and Jeffery Geller, offers highly original and convincing arguments for the indispensability of our notions of the person—what some would call the self—in ethical reasoning and the moral dimension of human experience. Their defense of the concept of the person (understood as a coherent center of sustained and purposeful action, capable of displaying what they term “resolve” or “resoluteness”) is reminiscent of Kant’s transcendental mode of argument: rather than arguing directly for the reality of personhood, they show that such a notion provides the taken-for-granted foundation of the forms of moral understanding that come most naturally to human beings, and without which (as we intuitively sense) the worth of our lives would be severely diminished. The authors offer elegant discussion of what this implies for our understanding of promises, the obligation to be honest with oneself and others, long-term commitments toward the future, the appropriate punishment of criminal behavior, and, more generally, our ability and obligation to cooperate with others.
As Prust and Geller explain early in their book, their own position runs counter to widespread current conceptions: e.g., to the causality-oriented “naturalism” popular in the philosophy of mind, evolutionary psychology, and cognitive science; but also to the anti-humanist approach found in postmodernist and poststructuralist circles, where the self can be dismissed as little more than an oppressive, bourgeois illusion. What these authors term their own “character logic” also differs from the “category logic” we inherit from Aristotle, which in their view fails to appreciate the ubiquity of various forms of ambiguity, overlapping, and dynamism characteristic of human life (e.g., the fact that a person’s character is inseparable from his or her concrete actions, or that a person cannot be identified entirely with a past action lest her current potential for personal transformation be ignored). In an interesting section, the authors discuss the role of Abrahamic monotheism in fostering a potential for personal integrity and resoluteness that they compare to physical coordination or grace, but see as having been less available to the human beings who lived in the archaic universe of Homer. Another intriguing section discusses the truth-value of stories, especially the capital-s Stories or myths that have sustained religious and cultural life in the past, but are now too readily dismissed, and sometimes exploited, by those who evaluate them in simplistic, factual terms.
This is, overall, an excellent book: the arguments are original and cogent, the prose is invariably graceful and often witty, the scholarship and reasoning is highly impressive. The central argument concerns issues central in current debates and that bear on deep questions concerning our understanding of human existence more generally. I think the book should attract a significant readership in philosophy and perhaps also the fields of law and criminology.

Louis Sass
Distinguished Professor, Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology
Rutgers University

Prust and Geller refine and revive the idea of the person in relation to telling stories, to creating a narrative, a self. The idea is of vital importance, and they tell us why. Right off, the authors show why it is a problem if we cannot talk about persons and that in contemporary analytic and continental philosophy we do not. This creates problems for the way we look at legal and moral agents, and they seek a way beyond the problem. The authors identify the person with his resolve. What are the person’s intentions in carrying this resolve is similar to her story? Identifying somebody personally in terms of the character of his resolve determines what moral and legal judgments it is reasonable to make about him and his action. They seek to codify the rules we follow in making inferences about a person’s resolve. They call this “character logic.” This helps shed light on issues that come up when we want to talk about personal rights and responsibilities. Resolve relates to creating a character; this is similar to telling a story. For moral and legal purposes—when we treat a person as the resolve he presently projects in his personal story. This is helpful in many ways, for example, we might talk of personal rights rather than human rights, see contracts as personal promises for which we bare personal responsibility. Later, Prust and Geller explain the idea of moral integrity in this story or the person giving a history of the idea. They then explain why moral integrity matters in creating a society of persons. That narrative grasp of personal identity continues to underwrite inferences we draw in making moral and legal judgments. Finally, they argue that person-respecting societies depend on the issue of whether a life of moral integrity is possible. This is a very creative approach to the problem of persons in society.

James M. McLachlan
Philosophy and Religion, Western Carolina University

Many questions about moral and legal judgments hinge on how we understand the identity of the agents. The intractability of many of these questions stems, this book argues, from ignoring how we actually connect actions with agents.

When making everyday judgments about the morality or legality of actions, we do not use Aristotelian logic but what is termed “character logic”. The difference is crucial because implicit in character logic is an understanding of personal identity that is both coherent and intuitively familiar. A person, as we conceptualize him in moral and legal contexts, is a character of resolve. By unpacking what it means to be a character of resolve, this book reveals what underwrites our most fundamental beliefs about a person’s rights and responsibilities. It also provides a new and useful perspective on a variety of issues about rights and responsibilities that perennially occupy philosophers. This book discusses the following:

• How we can make better sense of “human rights” if we think of them as “personal rights”.
• How the right to be civilly disobedient, in contrast with ordinary law-breaking, can be justified as a personal right.
• What basis we have for holding that someone’s responsibility is diminished.
• How it makes sense to hold someone responsible for acting irresponsibly.
• How it makes sense to distinguish a juvenile offender from someone who should be tried in criminal court.
• What kind of correction we should expect from our correctional institutions and how we should design them to achieve that.

By making explicit the axioms of character logic and exploring their origins and justification, the book provides a conceptually powerful tool for interpreting the protocols of a person-respecting society.


Chapter 1 Personal Stories

Chapter 2 Personal Presence

Chapter 3 Personal Rights

Chapter 4 Personal Responsibility

Chapter 5 Personal Integrity

Chapter 6 Prospects for Personhood

The Axioms of Character Logic



Richard Prust is the author of Wholeness: The Character Logic of Christian Belief, published by Rodopi Press in 2004. He taught Philosophy at St. Andrews University in North Carolina and has been a long-time participant in the Forum on Persons.

Jeffery Geller is a retired Philosophy professor, having taught at UNC-Pembroke for several decades. He has held fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation and the Camargo Foundation. He received his PhD from Duke University. His publications span a variety of sub-disciplines, including epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and the history of philosophy.

Rights, responsibilities, character, personal resolve, personal identity

Bibliographic Information

Book Title
Personal Identity in Moral and Legal Reasoning
Number of pages
Physical size
Publication date
October 2019