On Philosophy

September 25, 2007

Role And Importance

Filed under: The Good Life — Peter @ 12:00 am

I would claim that no one is important to other people. Which must seem absurd, surely you can list a number of people who seem important. But I think that when we think of individuals as important we are making a conceptual mistake. What is important is their role, and a number of different people could have easily played that same role. Now obviously the role a person plays isn’t completely separate from who they are, but I think it is separate enough that we can reasonably say that the person is not important.

But before we can address these issues we must first consider what makes a person. That is obviously a large and weighty question of its own, but we don’t need to give it a comprehensive treatment to proceed. We can divide the major components of the person into three categories: physical, historical, and psychological. Obviously the physical components don’t define the person, if we swap the brains of two people, as in a bad sci-fi movie, personal identity transfers with them. Thus the person must be defined by historical and psychological facts. Now if we turn to considerations of identity over time it is clear that being the same person does not require having the exact same psychological and historical facts; the same person at different periods of time does not have the same psychological and historical properties at both moments. But although perfect identity is not required it is also clear that a high degree of similarity is. Clearly the same person does not exist before and after an episode of amnesia. And even something so “trivial” as frontal lobe damage (trivial in the sense that many psychological properties, such as memory, are unaffected), which changes a person’s attitudes, can result in a different person by most standards.

Now let’s first turn our attention to the most important figures on the stage of history, such as Martin Luther King Jr. Consider why Dr. King is important. He is important because of the speeches he gave and the leadership he provided to the civil rights movement. And at the time there may very well have been no one else who could have filled his shoes. But surely there are many other possible individuals who could have played the same role as him. To play the same historical role as him they must give essentially the same speeches, provide essentially the same leadership. Not exactly the same mind you, but similar enough to have essentially the same large scale effects. But they are free to be radically different in every other way. Although history has recorded many of the details of Mr. King’s life just because they were recorded doesn’t make them important. Most of the details could easily have been altered without a noticeable historical difference. And there are enough possible differences that it is clear that the influential role that Dr. King played could have been filled by a number of different people, and thus that his influential role does not define him as a person.

But perhaps considering the importance of people in the broad historical context is not the right way to consider how people can be important. It is certainly not the only way. Some might admit that on the stage of history it is not the person but the role that is important, but that on the personal level, the importance of one individual to another, the role and the person are one and the same. Intuitively this might seem true, after all we know so many details about the people who are important to us that clearly no one else could fill their shoes. That I will grant. However, we must question whether all these details constitute how they are important to us. I would deny that every detail matters. I would argue that, like on the historical stage, what is important, even on a person to person to level, are only a few of their properties, and that many other properties could have been different without their importance to us changing in degree or form. Consider someone you deem to have had an important influence on you. Now identify what that important influence is (how you have been changed by them) and what caused that change. I suspect that this influence can be attributed to some of their attitudes and/or a number of shared experiences. And, like the case of historical figures, this means that most of the other details could have been different and they would have still had basically the same importance. Thus even on a personal level the importance of people is to be credited to the role they play and not who they are.

That I think is sufficient to argue that at least in the vast majority of cases roles and not people are important. Of course in many ways this is a trivial difference, but I think it should have an impact on how we think about our goals. Specifically it implies that it doesn’t really make sense to want to be an important person, if we define that importance in terms of our impact on events or on other people. Admittedly we could desire to play an important role, but thinking of it in those terms makes it obvious that there is no intrinsic benefit in this to us, as a person, unless it is genuinely something we desire. Or, in other words, that filling an important role won’t necessarily make us better or worse people because who we are and the roles we play can be distinguished. It also emphasizes the fact that it is quite possible to play an important role and not receive much public recognition for that fact, such as Stanislav Petrov. Finally, it follows that genuine importance, where the person is important and not just their role, can only exist with respect to the person themselves, i.e. a person can only be truly important to themselves. Which is another way of pushing for the idea that the best lives are those that address the most fundamental desires of the person themselves.

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