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By Benjamin Matheson (Stockholm University, former NWO guest researcher, Tilburg University)
In 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi, the current civilian leader of Myanmar (also known as Burma), was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights” (the Nobel Peace Prize 1991) against the military powers that controlled Myanmar at the time. Suu Kyi seems admirable for her courageous and heroic struggle. Her Nobel Peace Prize seems to express this fact. Indeed, it seems plausible that the appropriateness of her Nobel Peace Prize depends on her being admirable for her heroism.
Suu Kyi seems admirable for her courageous and heroic struggle. Her Nobel Peace Prize seems to express this fact.
Suu Kyi has, however, recently come under moral scrutiny for failing to speak out against the genocide perpetrated by her country’s army against the long persecuted Rohingya people. The United Nations (2017) issued a reporting detailing widespread and systemic violence, rape, “indicating the very likely commission of crimes against humanity.” According to Hasan (2017), “she is…an apologist for genocide, ethnic cleansing and mass rape”. Being an apologist for such things is not the behaviour of a moral saint or hero. It is no surprise, then, that she has subsequently had some of her honours withdrawn – such as a human rights award from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Schwirtz 2018). More recently, she had her honorary Canadian citizenship removed with one commentator saying, “She was a saint, now she’s not, so we’re taking back our gong” (Potter 2018). Calls for her Nobel Peace Prize to be revoked are long standing. According to some, “she no longer deserves it” (Monibot 2017). Even though it seems to many that Suu Kyi is no longer admirable, she has not had the Peace Prize revoked.
According to some, “she no longer deserves it”
While it may seem intuitive that Suu Kyi is no longer admirable for her earlier morally excellent behaviour, it is still the case that she did do morally excellent things earlier in her life. So why shouldn’t we still admire and praise her for that behaviour? If she had done something morally heinous in earlier life and now seemed to be moral saint, we would not be so quick to leave the past in the past. She would still seem to be on the hook in some sense for her bad behaviour, so why isn’t she still on the hook (so to speak) for her past good behaviour too? What we need is some theoretical basis for holding that she is no longer admirable. In this article, I try to give such a theoretical basis.
Before we begin, note two points.
First, Suu Kyi’s case seems open to different interpretations. One might think that Suu Kyi was never in fact admirable, but rather just appeared to be. On this interpretation, while her earlier acts gave us evidence that she was admirable for those acts, her later acts give us better evidence that she was never admirable. This is may be because her later acts show us that she never possessed the relevant traits and attitudes required for becoming admirable in the first place. Perhaps she never really cared for and valued human rights for all, but for everyone except the Rohingya. I’m not sure which is the right interpretation of the case, though I do think it is plausible that she was genuinely admirable for her acts in 1991 but that by 2019 she had ceased to be admirable for her acts. In other words, I think it is plausible she previously but now doesn’t care for and value human rights for all. But even if this is not the correct interpretation of the case – and rather Suu Kyi never cared for and valued human rights for the Rohingya – then we have a quick answer: Suu Kyi’s Nobel Prize should be revoked because she never actually deserved it. For the sake of argument, I will assume that Suu Kyi genuinely was admirable in 1991.
Given her earlier self continues to be admirable, we might still admire her at that time.
Second, the claim that she ceases being admirable does not imply that her earlier self (Suu Kyi in 1991) ceases being admirable for performing those acts. This would be an absurd implication because it would imply the past could change. Given her earlier self continues to be admirable, we might still admire her at that time. We might think back to the earlier Suu Kyi with the positive feeling that is typical of admiration. What we are concerned with is the admirability of her later self for her earlier acts, and it seems clear that her later self is not admirable for her earlier acts. But again, intuition alone may not be enough to provide reason to revoke her Nobel Peace Prize. What we need is a theory that explains why she is no longer admirable.
If we deem that someone before us is a different person to their earlier self, then this seems to get them off the hook.
Let’s start by thinking about what best explains the intuition that Suu Kyi is no longer admirable. Earlier I noted that we often continue to hold wrongdoings against a person even if they have changed and come to regret their earlier behaviour. However, we sometimes also do not continue to hold wrongdoings against a person. If we deem that someone before us is a different person to their earlier self, then this seems to get them off the hook. For example, a friend who frequently stole from us earlier in life but who then undergoes a religious conversion such that they seem to be a different person may not seem to be to blame for the thefts. It is the other person, the person’s “earlier self”, who is to blame and not the person before us. So, one possible explanation for why Suu Kyi is no longer admirable is that the Suu Kyi we currently see condoning genocide is a different person to the Suu Kyi who championed social justice in 1991. In other words, perhaps it is not the case that Suu Kyi is no longer admirable for her earlier acts, but rather that (at some point) she became a different person and this new person cannot be admirable because one cannot be admirable for another’s acts.
The problem with this explanation is that the phrase “different person” is ambiguous. In one sense, it means that Suu Kyi in 2019 is a different entity to Suu Kyi in 1991, just as any two objects before you are different entities – for example, just as your laptop computer and mobile phone are two different entities. We can call this sense of “different person” the metaphysical or numerical sense. In another sense, it means that Suu Kyi 2019 has a significantly different character or psychology to Suu Kyi in 1991. We can call this sense of “different person” the practical sense.
Philosophical work on personal identity supports the view that she (Suu Kyi) is metaphysically the same person but allows she may be a practically different person to her earlier self. To see this, let’s now turn to philosophical work on personal identity.
Philosophers have two main ways of thinking about metaphysical personal identity. According to the first, we are essentially thinking beings and we continue to exist over time as long as there is continuity between our psychologies at different times (Locke 1690, Parfit 1984). On these views, we can conceivably survive even if our animal bodies were slowly replaced with mechanical parts as long as those parts support psychological life. According to the second, we are essentially substances of some kind, such as animals (Olson 1997) or souls (Swinburne 1974). All substance-based accounts allow for complete psychological change without metaphysical identity being severed for the simple reason that they do not require the persistence of any particular aspect of a person’s character or psychology for that person to continue to exist. If we are essentially animals, then we continue to exist even if our psychologies change radically overnight. For example, on this view we would continue to exist even if we lost all our psychological capacities as a result of car accident. This view also says that we would survive if we our personality were completely replaced – such as if we entered a years-long fugue state, as a consequence of brain tumour, during which we acquired a new personality and have no memory of previous life (see Shoemaker 2012: 117). A soul account might require the sameness of immaterial thinking substance, but it doesn’t say anything about the particular aspects of psychology or mind that are possessed by that thinking substance. So even if we are essentially souls, we will survive if our psychologies change radically overnight. Again, this view says that we would survive the loss of our psychological capacities and the overnight loss of our current personality.
This is an absurd conclusion for an account of metaphysical personal identity.
Certain psychological accounts do put weight on particular aspects of our psychology. The most famous of which is the memory account of personal identity, typically attributed to John Locke (1690). On this view, we are the same person as an earlier person as long as we genuinely remember being that person. But understood as an account of metaphysical identity, the memory account is doomed to fail. This is because metaphysical personal identity is transitive. This means that if person A is identical to person B and person B is identical to person C, then person A must be identical to person C. (If A = B and B = C, then A = C.) As Thomas Reid (1785) famously pointed out, the memory account violates this. Consider the following case. Suppose an old man remembers being a brave officer in a war, the brave officer remembers being a young boy stealing from an apple orchard, but the old man doesn’t remember being the young boy. The memory account implies that the old man is the brave officer, the brave officer is the young boy, but that the old man is not the young boy. This is an absurd conclusion for an account of metaphysical personal identity (YB = BO, BO = OM, but YB ≠ OM).
Contemporary psychological accounts (e.g. Parfit 1984) avoid the Brave Officer problem by appealing to more sophisticated understandings of the psychological relation that must hold between a person at two times. I won’t go into the specifics here, but notice that to avoid the Brave Officer problem it must allow that one can remain the metaphysically same person even though one does not remember any of one’s earlier experiences. Importantly, these accounts cannot put theoretical weight on any particular aspect of one’s psychology because we can create versions of the Brave Officer case that undermine any such account. We might imagine that the young boy had a particular set of beliefs, desires, cares, values, and commitments, that the brave officer had a similar but not identical set of them, but that the old man has an entirely different set of beliefs, desires, cares, values, and commitments to the young boy. Given that the young boy slowly developed into the brave officer and the brave officer slowly developed into the old man, it seems intuitive that the old man is the brave officer, the brave officer is the young boy, and so we must say that the old man is the young boy.
The result is that all adequate psychological accounts of metaphysical personal identity must allow for the possibility of complete psychological change for a single person over the course of her life. The one caveat is that this change must be over a long period of time. Psychological accounts say that a new being comes into existence if there is a sudden and radical change of psychology. But because there is no evidence that Suu Kyi had an overnight conversion into a morally bad person, it seems implausible that she became a metaphysically new person. (And even if she had a partial overnight conversion, this would still not be enough to create a new person on these views; it would have to be a radical overnight conversion for a new person to come into existence, according to these accounts.) So, we cannot revoke her Nobel Prize on the grounds that she is not the metaphysically same person as the person who deserved it. The metaphysics of personal identity offers us no help in trying to show that we have grounds to revoke Suu Kyi’s Nobel Prize.
But we could perhaps make the case that she no longer deserves it because she is now a practically different person to herself in 1991. We sometimes say that a friend is “not the man he used to be” or that they are now a “new person” without meaning that they have literally become a new entity. Some philosophers think that there is no one sense of practical identity, but rather many different senses that depend on the practical concern which is one’s focus (see Shoemaker 2007). Rather than talk about practical identity, I will therefore rather talk about the conditions on admiration over time – that is, assuming a person becomes admirable at one time, what makes her continue to be admirable at a later time? We have already seen that metaphysical identity cannot be the condition on admiration over time. The mere fact that Suu Kyi is the metaphysically same person as her earlier self is insufficient for her to continue to be admirable for her earlier acts.
A moral hero, then, remains a moral hero to the extent she continues to possess the aspects of her psychology that made her a moral hero.
We might look to theories of responsibility over time to figure out an account of admiration over time. According to Andrew Khoury and Benjamin Matheson (2018), a person remains morally responsible for an action to the extent she continues to possess the aspects of her psychology – such as beliefs, desires, values, cares, commitments – which were expressed in that action. Consider, for example, the young boy stealing the apple. This expresses some of his psychology, such as him caring about his own desires over other people’s property. For the sake of argument, suppose that only this care was expressed in the boy’s act of stealing. On Khoury and Matheson’s view, the boy remains morally responsible as long as he continues to possess that care. So he stops being morally responsible for the theft if he stops caring about his own desires over other people’s property. Even if Khoury and Matheson are wrong about responsibility over time, perhaps their account of responsibility over time could be adapted to become an account of admiration over time. Perhaps a person remains admirable for her acts to the extent she continues to possess the aspects of her psychology that are expressed in her admirable acts. A moral hero, then, remains a moral hero to the extent she continues to possess the aspects of her psychology that made her a moral hero. What are these aspects?
It seems that a moral hero is admirable for her acts at least in part because her acts express positive aspects of her psychology, such as morally good cares, values, and commitments. Suu Kyi in 1991 is admirable for her struggle because she had such positive aspects that she expressed in her heroic acts, such as (among others) her being caring for and valuing human rights for all. But it now seems that she, Suu Kyi in 2019, is showing contempt for one group’s human rights, among other changes in her psychological make-up. We might therefore say that Suu Kyi ceases to be admirable for her earlier actions because she ceases to possess the psychological elements (e.g. cares, values, and commitments) that were essential to her being admirable in the first place.
Assuming that the appropriateness of her Nobel Peace Prize depends on her being admirable for her courageous and heroic struggle, we have clear theoretical grounds for supporting the intuition that she no longer deserves her Nobel Peace Prize. But perhaps the Nobel Peace Prize functions just to indicate that someone once did something that is admirable and makes no claims about whether they continue to be admirable. This may be so, but it then points to a problem with the Nobel Peace Prize itself. Given the important role that the Nobel Peace Prize plays in our society, such an award should take continued admirability into consideration. So either it is time for the Nobel Committee to revoke Suu Kyi’s peace prize or it is time for society to stop giving much weight to the Nobel Peace Prize.
Hasan, M. (2017) “Burmese Novel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi Turned into Apologist for Genocide against Muslims” The Intercept, URL: https://theintercept.com/2017/04/13/burmese-nobel-prize-winner-aung-san-suu-kyi-has-turned-into-an-apologist-for-genocide-against-muslims/
Khoury, Andrew & Matheson, Benjamin (2018) “Is Blameworthiness Forever?” Journal of the American Philosophical Association, 4, 2: 204-224
Locke, John (1690) An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
Monibot, George (2017) “Take away Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel peace prize. She no longer deserves it”. The Guardian. URL: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/sep/05/rohingya-aung-san-suu-kyi-nobel-peace-prize-rohingya-myanmar Accessed on 15/05/2018
Olson, Eric (1997). The Human Animal: Personal Identity Without Psychology. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Parfit, Derek (1984) Reasons and Persons. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Potter, Andrew (2018) “Jettisoning honorary citizens who disappoint us is not the answer”. The National Post. URL: https://nationalpost.com/opinion/andrew-potter-jettisoning-honorary-citizens-who-disappoint-us-is-not-the-answer Accessed on 29/11/2018
Schwirtz, Michael (2018). “U.S. Holocaust Museum Revokes Award to Aung San Suu Kyi”. The New York Times. URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/07/world/asia/aung-san-suu-kyi-holocaust-rohingya.html Accessed on 15/05/2018
Shoemaker, David (2007). “Personal identity and Practical Concerns’. Mind, 116, 462: 317-357.
Shoemaker, David (2012). “Responsibility without Identity”. Harvard Review of Philosophy, XVIII: 109-132
Swinburne, Richard (1974). “Personal Identity”. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 74: 231-247
The Nobel Peace Prize (1991) “Aung San Suu Kyi”. URL: https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1991/ Accessed on 15/05/2018
United Nations (2017) “Resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council on 5 December 2017”. URL: www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/…/A_HRC_RES_S-27_1_EN.docx Accessed on 15/05/2018
 Thanks to Lucía Arcos Barroso for suggesting this point.
 Thanks to Lucía Arcos Barroso and Alfred Archer for comments and discussion on an earlier draft. Thanks also to the editors for their feedback. This post is based on a portion of a longer article titled “Admiration Over Time” co-authored with Alfred Archer.