Can you step into someone else’s shoes, and in doing so, become that other person? In “Dead Man’s Shoes,” that seems to be what happens, and the ambiguity surrounding what really happens is a feature of the story, not a bug. Of course, the mechanism of the transfer of personhood really doesn’t matter.
Dane, a thug, is killed by another thug, and his body is unceremoniously dumped by some trash cans on a city street. Nathan, a transient, discovers the body, and steals his Italian loafers. That is, Nathan steps into Dane’s shoes. When he does, he seems to become Dane, though he clearly doesn’t appear to be Dane to others, since his body is that of Nathan, not Dane. At the very least, he seems to take on Dane’s interests and dispositions, including the disposition to drink tequila on the rocks, and to physically abuse Dane’s girlfriend. Ultimately, he seeks revenge on behalf of Dane.
Nathan, in Dane’s shoes, never claims to be Dane. When he’s not wearing Dane’s shoes, it isn’t clear that he knows who he is or how or why he is where he is. In Dane’s shoes, he is focused on finding Dane’s killer and extracting revenge, as Dane would have done, had he survived the attempt on his life. Again, from the perspective of others, Nathan is not Dane, even when he’s wearing Dane’s shoes. Dane is dead, and at least some people know that.
It’s part of the fabric of human interaction that one person’s project or projects can become the project or projects of other persons. It’s a commonplace that a person’s project can be taken on by another person after the death of that person. If a person survived the death of their body, then they would, in virtue of being the same person as the person who suffered the death of their body, wish to continue their projects and further the interests they had before bodily death, all things being equal. While surviving your death might make it more likely that your projects are attended to, if what is important is that those projects stay on the books, survival isn’t required. One simply needs the continued existence of someone who identifies with those projects and interests to a great enough extent as to perpetuate them.
Derek Parfit explores these issues in his 1971 paper and in much subsequent work. As we’ve seen in several episodes, the problem of personal identity is not easily resolved. Parfit argues that there are cases where there is no determinate answer to the question of whether a person at one time is the same person at another time, and further, that it doesn’t matter to what we care about when thinking about survival. If what we care about is whether our projects continue, then identity isn’t important. If, at my death, fission occurs and there are two individuals who share my beliefs, desires, and projects, it doesn’t matter that if there’s no way to determine which one of them is me. Neither has to be me, as long as at least one of them continues to carry out my projects.
Parfit’s position is well represented in “Dead Man’s Shoes.” Nathan isn’t Dane, but that doesn’t matter. Somehow he has enough continuity with Dane to carry forth on Dane’s behalf.
Derek Parfit, “Personal Identity” The Philosophical Review 80, 1, (1971), 3-27.