Some years ago I heard one of the Beatles in the course of a conversation about his career opine that 'after all I might easily have been someone else, mightn't I'. I remember not being sure about this proposition. One half knows what is being got at but on the other hand, it seems barely intelligible. Could I easily have been someone else? Ian g

Well, not easily, or everyone would be doing it.

This expression might mean one of several things. Here are just three possibilities: (1) That the person I am, what has happened to me, seems accidental, a result of small 'twists of fate' which, my experience of similar events tells me, could 'easily' have turned out differently. The implication might be that the particular identity we happen to have is fragile and to some extent out of our control. (2) That I do not deserve to be who I am or have what I have; that there is no moral reason or principle of justice by means of which I deserve all this. This raises an interesting question in ethical and political thought: to what extent is it just to allow someone to profit from their luck, or even from their talent (or suffer their bad luck or lack of talent)? 'Luck' and 'Talent' are defined as good or bad things that happen do you that are out of your control and not a result of the decisions you have made. (A system of the partial redistribution of wealth through taxation or similar measures might be justified by thinking along these lines, as in Rawls.) (3) One final point of interest is that the imaginative identification with others is sometimes said to be an important ability within social and moral behaviour. (See Hume on sympathy.) Other people are not just things, but are like me; and this identification might serve as a motive to behave differently towards them.

In general, also, there are a number of problems that arise around 'counterfactuals', claims that speculate along the lines of 'not X, but what if X...?' Because such an analysis is not obviously empirical in nature, philosophers are given to wonder whether a counterfactual analysis could be said to be 'true' or not. Clearly, a counterfactual can be a useful device for thinking, but normally not concerning a fictional alternate past and present, but instead for learning about how to behave in the future. For example, I tell my daughter 'Don't run so fast down the stairs, you might have fallen'. Her reply, 'But I didn't fall' is true, but misses the point.

The idea of counterfactuals might extend our analysis of meaning (1) above. The expression might additionally mean: If my past seems accidental, then that is all the more reason to tread carefully in the future (make contingency plans, don't takes risks you cannot afford to lose, etc.).

Several years ago, in a fit of anger at her father, my daughter turned her anger on me and demanded that I explain to her why I had ever gotten involved with him. I pointed out to her that she had no right to be angry at me on these grounds, since she wouldn’t have existed had it not been for my involvement with him. Her origins are essential to her, and she wouldn’t have existed had it not been for these origins. Might she then have reasonably replied that she could have been someone else? I agree that this claim is barely coherent. It is true that she could have had many different attributes. She might not have developed certain interests; she might not have looked exactly the way that she looks. But that’s not to say that she could have been someone else; it’s to say that she– the very same person– could have had certain different attributes. For further thoughts that are relevant to this question, see 302 and 433.

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