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Blade Runner 2049, Parfit and Identity

Julian Savulescu


Contains spoilers for both Blade Runner films. This is a longer version of a shorter piece without spoilers, Blade Runner 2049: Identity, Humanity, and Discrimination, in Pursuit 

Blade Runner 2049, like the original, is about identity, humanity and discrimination.

Identity and Humanity

In both films, bioengineered humans are known as replicants.  Blade Runners “retire” or kill these replicants when they are a threat to society. In the original, Blade Runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) has all the memories and feelings of a human and believes himself to be a human, only at the end to discover he is a replicant. In the sequel, K (Ryan Gosling) is a replicant but comes to believe (falsely) that he is Deckard’s child. In Blade Runner 2049, we are left to watch K dying, realising his memories were implanted by Deckard’s daughter.

In both films we are left wondering what difference there is between a human and a replicant. In the original, rogue replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) saves Deckard’s life (as Deckard was trying to kill him) and delivers famous “Tears in the Rain” speech:

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

Roy comes across as more human than the humans in the film. Indeed, in a preceding scene, a thorn or spike appears through his hand reminiscent of Christ, whose own identity as fully human and fully divine has puzzled Theologians for two millenia.

Both films challenge what it is to be human. In 2049, K believes the child of Deckard might have a soul because it was born.

Who are we?

The films both raise fundamental questions about personal identity: who are we? What fundamentally defines the existence of a person from one moment to the next? In both films, there is the suggestion that the biological mass, the body, is not what matters but the mind. In the original, bioengineered Roy seems as human as Deckard, as human as someone could be. In 2049, the idea is extended further still: K’s girlfriend Joi is an AI but seems as real as the other characters and her death is equally tragic.

Derek Parfit died in January this year. He was the world’s most famous moral philosopher (and his favourite film was another Ridley Scott classic, The Duellists). One of his famous ideas is that “identity” is not what matters. He articulated this in his masterpiece, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984). According to Parfit, what matters is psychological continuity and connectedness, that is, the unity of our mental states.

To illustrate this idea, consider Star Trek-style teletransportation. Imagine nanotechnology and synthetic biology progress. In 2050, organisms can be built precisely molecule by molecule, atom by atom. You can enter a teletransporter in London. Your whole body is scanned by a supercomputer and the atomic arrangement of your body is recorded, but the process of recording destroys the entire organism. Your entire organism is then reconstructed, atom by atom, in New York, milliseconds later.

It appears that one minute you were in London, the next in New York.

But of course, you ceased to exist when your whole organism was destroyed in London. (This is most easily seen in the case of twinning, when the reconstructor mistakenly makes copies both in London and New York – this is the subject of the Arnold Schwarzenegger film, Sixth Day).

Would you enter such a teletransporter, provided it perfectly copied you? I would, even though my original body had ceased to exist.

This example shows that what matters is that there will be someone in the future who will be psychologically just like us, even if that person won’t be us since we shall have ceased to exist. That is Parfit’s view, but the imagined case of Teletransportion isn’t enough to show this view to be true. Things are different with Parfit’s imagined case in which someone’s brain is successfully divided and transplanted into the empty skulls of two other similar bodies. The divided brains though, are not divided as to functions as we might imagine from pop-science’s left-brain right-brain theories, they are divided more like one amoeba into two: two functioning and identical brains from dividing the one brain.  The two resulting people would here not be merely psychologically exactly like the original person, but this psychological relation would have its normal cause: the continued existence of enough of the same brain.  Of those who are persuaded by this example that personal identity isn’t what matters, many conclude that what matters is psychological continuity, even in a branching form, with its normal cause.

This has implications for ending life. It implies that when a human organism does not have mental states, it is not wrong to end its life. This lends support to the practice of withdrawing life prolonging interventions from people who are permanently unconscious, or even to early abortion and destruction of embryos.

In the Blade Runner films, it is the psychological life, the mental states (including dispositions, character and memories) that matter, not whether one is natural human or a bioengineered replicant, or even an artificial intelligence. This implies that artificial intelligence, if it were to become conscious and have the same mental states as us, should be treated as one of us.

Such issues of moral status face us today. Scientists in the US and Japan are creating pig-human chimeras using a procedure called “blastocyst complementation.” A pig embryo is taken and gene editing is performed to knock out the genes for some organ, for example the liver. In the future, a human skin cell would be taken from a person needing a liver transplant. This would be cloned to produce induced pluripotent stem cells of that person. These would be injected into the early pig embryo. The result would be a pig human chimera where all the cells in the body a mixture of pig and human, except the liver. The liver would be human and could be extracted to save the life of the sick human.

The problem is that it is difficult to predict how human or pig the chimeric organs, including the brain, would be. It is possible the brain could be quite human, but the appearance be pig-like. How such an animal ought to be treated, and whether it is ethical to take its liver, will depend on its mental states. It could be closer to human than to pig. It will, however, be extremely difficult to assess its psychological capabilities and mental states since it would not have direct language.

The pig human chimera would be a kind of organ replicant. How it should be treated will depend not on its species membership, or what it looks like, but on what kind of mental states it has.


The second issue in both films is the unjust treatment of the replicants because they are biologically different, though their mental lives turn out to be very similar to ours. In many ways, they are better than us, more humane.

Our biological origins are irrelevant to our moral status and how we ought to be treated. I coined the term “clonism” for treating clones of existing people worse than non-clones. Clonism is what occurs in recent Nobel prize winning author, Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, “Never Let Me Go.” This kind of issue arose in debates around IVF before the 1978 birth of the world’s first IVF baby, Louise Brown. People worried that “test tube” babies would be discriminated against, teased or treated as socially inferior. They haven’t been and nor of course should they be – the process of conception is irrelevant to their moral status and rights.

This will come up if people are genetically selected or even born as the result of gene editing. What was science fiction in 1982 is fast becoming a reality. The prospect of bioengineering human beings using gene editing is with us. One possible use would be to prevent catastrophic genetic disease in cases where couples have a sole remaining embryo during IVF (so simply selected a non-diseased embryo is not an option). But the possibilities could extend to endowing humans with unprecedented abilities as genes could be transferred or introduced from any part of the animal or plant kingdom.

The moral of the Blade Runner films is that what matters is the quality of mental life, not its biological origins, or even whether it is “original.” In the future, new life forms will exist with mental lives, some of these will be biological in origin and others will arise from artificial intelligence. Such lives ought to be respected and treated according to psychological properties, not according to physical appearance or the origin of their “hardware.”

In the years since 1982 when Blade Runner was first made, cloning of human beings either by nuclear transfer or embryo splitting has become possible. Genetic selection using whole genome analysis of every gene in the genome is on the horizon. Gene editing is being done on human embryos and artificial intelligence is increasing exponentially in power. Yet a failure of philosophical understanding of identity and moral status pervades our discussion of these life changing advances in science.

Law and Conjoined Twins

Lack of understanding of the nature of personal identity also shapes the law. A good example is the justification for separating conjoined twins.  [the following is taken from my Savulescu J. (2013). Editorial: Abortion, Infanticide and Allowing Babies to Die, Forty Years On. Journal of Medical Ethics 39(5):257-259]. In a widely publicised case, in 2000, the twin daughters of the Maltese couple Michaelangelo and Rina Attard, Jodie (real name Gracie) and Mary (Rosie), were joined at the pelvis with a fused spine. The facts of this case are described by Lord Justice Ward in his judgement:

“Jodie and Mary are conjoined twins. They each have their own brain, heart and lungs and other vital organs and they each have arms and legs. They are joined at the lower abdomen. … [T]hey can be successfully separated. But the operation will kill the weaker twin, Mary. That is because her lungs and heart are too deficient to oxygenate and pump blood through her body. Had she been born a singleton, she would not have been viable and resuscitation would have been abandoned. She would have died shortly after her birth. She is alive only because a common artery enables her sister, who is stronger, to circulate life sustaining oxygenated blood for both of them. Separation would require the clamping and then the severing of that common artery. Within minutes of doing so Mary will die. Yet if the operation does not take place, both will die within three to six months, or perhaps a little longer, because Jodie’s heart will eventually fail.” [In Re A (Children) (Conjoined Twins: Surgical Separation) [2001] Fam. 147, 155.]

The High Court authorised surgical separation, knowing that this would kill Mary. The legal justification for this is striking:

“Mary may have a right to life, but she has little right to be alive. She is alive because and only because, to put it bluntly, but nonetheless accurately, she sucks the lifeblood of Jodie and she sucks the lifeblood out of Jodie. She will survive only so long as Jodie survives. Jodie will not survive long because constitutionally she will not be able to cope. Mary’s parasitic living will be the cause of Jodie’s ceasing to live. If Jodie could speak, she would surely protest, ‘Stop it, Mary, you’re killing me’. Mary would have no answer to that. Into my scales of fairness and justice between the children goes the fact that nobody but the doctors can help Jodie. Mary is beyond help.

“Hence I am in no doubt at all that the scales come down heavily in Jodie’s favour. The best interests of the twins is to give the chance of life to the child whose actual bodily condition is capable of accepting the chance to her advantage even if that has to be at the cost of the sacrifice of the life which is so unnaturally supported. I am wholly satisfied that the least detrimental choice, balancing the interests of Mary against Jodie and Jodie against Mary, is to permit the operation to be performed.”[ In Re A (Children) (Conjoined Twins: Surgical Separation) [2001] Fam. 147, 197.]

This was, in my view, the correct judgement and separation was in the interests of Jodie, much more so than it was against the interests of Mary. But it is also my view that it is a convenient fiction to describe Mary as a parasite using Jodie’s body as a host. It was –technically– a case of infanticide, a case of killing one innocent infant to save another.

Conjoined twins arise when a single embryo fails to completely divide into identical twins. Both Mary and Jodie arose from the same single embryo. The separation of Jodie and Mary meant severing the common artery which enabled oxygenated blood circulated by the stronger heart on Jodie’s side to pass through Mary’s body as well. Neither has a greater claim on the shared organs, tissues or body parts. Thus, it is my own view that it is not “accurate” to describe Mary as killing Jodie. They were both dying because their anatomy and physiology, as it happened to develop, could not support both of their lives. The common artery no more belonged to Jodie than to Mary. There were two brains, and so two minds, sharing vital parts. Mary was killed, subjected to infanticide, to save Jodie. Of course, Lord Justice Ward did not accept this view, seeing one twin, Mary, as an aggressor against whom her sister needed to be protected by the Court.


I first saw Blade Runner in 1982 at Pinewood Cinema in Mt Waverley as a first year medical student. In 2017, I saw it as Professor of Practical Ethics from Oxford and was invited to review it by the Melbourne Law School, where I visit as a Professor. Yesterday, the very conservative Assisted Dying bill passed the first house of parliament in Victoria. I completed my doctorate on end of life issues in 1994 and was convinced euthanasia would be legalised by 2000. In many ways, we have made little progress in understanding what matters in life, and how people ought to be treated.

Our scientific powers have inordinately increased in the last 35 years but our moral insight has progressed very little. The pool of human ideas is limited. We seem to have made little philosophical progress since Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons published in 1984. In some ways, Blade Runner 2049 is inferior to the original. It certainly doesn’t introduce any radically new ideas. But maybe it doesn’t have to. Sometimes it’s enough just to let the compositions, the colour and the visual lushness wash over you while the work pays homage to past greatness.




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1 Comment on this post

  1. Several claims in this piece are puzzling.

    1. Parfit is usually understood as holding the claim that

    (Suff) Psychological continuity not accompanied with personal identity suffices for considering similarily the morally relevant interests of psychologically continuous entities.

    But to say

    It [that claim] implies that when a human organism does not have mental states, it is not wrong to end its life. This lends support to the practice of withdrawing life prolonging interventions from people who are permanently unconscious, or even to early abortion and destruction of embryos.

    is a blatant non-sequitur. When a human organism loses the disposition to have mental states, this means that it won’t be able to participate to relations of psychological continuity, and thus that this organism won’t (non-trivially) satisfy Suff. But this says nothing of other reasons, compatible with Suff and with the absence of a disposition to have mental states, in favour of not ending its life. Any view ascribing morally relevant interests to living organisms independently of a disposition to have mental states would see a reason not to kill the organism.

    2. “The second issue in both films is the unjust treatment of the replicants because they are biologically different, though their mental lives turn out to be very similar to ours. In many ways, they are better than us, more humane.”

    The usualy interpretation of the movies has it that replicants lack empathy. This does not sit well with the claim that they are more humane (of course K may somehow acquire a capacity for empathy, but this is precisely why he questions the border between replicants and humans.

    Also, the origin of the replicant matters only derivately to the justification which the movies hint at when it comes to discrimination; what matters seems to be rather the fact that replicants have been designed to receive various forms of conditioning (we are even told in the first movie that empathy didn’t fare well with conditioning, hence had to be removed). This suggests that the alleged justification for discriminating replicants has more to do with their potential lack of autonomy, and perhaps free-will.

    3. There is nothing in the quote from Justice Ward that implies that he indeed rejected the view that both twins were persons, whose morally relevant interests were enough to make them bearers of moral consideration; and there is nothing in the quote which rules out that the kind of moral consideration owed to them might justify in certain cases the claim that killing one is infanticide. Admittedly, Justice Ward’s paraphrasis of the facts is, as he writes, “blunt”; but describing the relation between Mary and Jodie as parasitic is fully compatible with “balancing the interests of the twins aginst each other”, as he puts it.

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