The Vice President Dines: A Philosophical Dialogue


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Jorge Royan/Wikimedia Commons

[In a swanky Washington DC restaurant, L’Metaphysique, VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE is enjoying an intimate dinner with his wife and constant companion KAREN PENCE]

MIKE PENCE So I said, “Well, Don, if they’ve got the video, and it’s really that bad, why don’t you just” – Karen? Karen, what’s wrong? Is the steak a la potus ok?

KAREN PENCE Sorry, Mike, I just feel a bit… funny…

[KAREN PENCE begins to vibrate alarmingly, and an earthly blinding light suddenly engulfs the room along with a loud humming noise. The light subsides to reveal TWO KAREN PENCES sitting next to each other. They are exactly similar in every way: same body, same clothes, same everything]

MIKE PENCE What the hell?? Karen? Karen what’s going on?

[Pandemonium has broken out. The Secret Service are frantically trying to work out what’s going on, while waiters and diners run around madly. Amid the confusion, an English man with a wild crop of white hair approaches the table. Among this man’s more striking features is that he is quite transparent.]

PARFIT Forgive the intrusion, Mr Vice President, but I believe I might be able to shed some light on this. I’m the late Derek Parfit.

MIKE PENCE Sorry, did you say Parfit? The highly influential Oxford philosopher who died recently? The most important philosopher of personal identity since Locke?

PARFIT How jarringly improbable that you knew that.

Derek Parfit speaks at Harvard, April 2015.
Anna Riedl/Wikimedia Commons

MIKE PENCE Never mind the background, man, tell me what the hell is going on here!

PARFIT Oh it’s perfectly straightforward, really. Your wife has fissioned. Split in two like an amoeba, into two qualitiatively identical individuals. Each individual is both physically and psychologically continuous with your wife as she was before the fission event. So each individual remembers everything your wife remembered up until the moment she split in two. Call this scenario The Second Lady.

MIKE PENCE Why… why are we giving this situation a title?

PARFIT Sorry, force of habit. I’m afraid this does raise rather an awkward question for you, though. I understand there’s been quite a lot of attention paid recently to your policy of not dining alone with a woman other than your wife?

MIKE PENCE Well of course I don’t. The Billy Graham Rule makes perfect moral sense. I mean, what possible legitimate reason could a man have for dining alone with a woman he’s not married to?

PARFIT So, shall we ask the waiter to move you to another table then? I’m sure you wouldn’t like to continue to sit with these women without your wife present.

MIKE PENCE What do you mean, ‘without my wife present’? She’s right here! Aren’t you honey?

KAREN PENCE 1 AND KAREN PENCE 2 [in unison] Yes Mike, I’m here.

[They both turn and glare at each other]

PARFIT You see the difficulty, Mr Vice President. Both women are psychologically connected to your pre-fission wife in the same way as your wife would have been had she not fissioned. Each has the memories, committments, and character of Karen Pence.

MIKE PENCE Ok, so they’re both my wife then!

PARFIT They’re both your wife? Why, that’s bigamy!

[A WAITER turns around]

WAITER Yes, and it’s bigamy too. It’s big of all of us. Let’s be big for a change!

MIKE PENCE You’re accusing me, a deeply conservative Christian who won’t even attend an event where alcohol is served if his wife isn’t present, of bigamy?

PARFIT Well, you’re claiming that each of these women is your wife.

MIKE PENCE No, I’m saying, they’re… they’re both my wife. My one wife, Karen.

PARFIT I’m afraid that’s impossible. They’re clearly two separate individuals. They may be exactly alike – though in time of course they’ll diverge psychologically – but if they’re sitting next to each other rather than occupying the same space then by Leibniz’s Law they can’t be the same person.

[MIKE PENCE looks aghast]

MIKE PENCE You mean one of them’s my wife and one’s an impostor? So which one’s really my wife then?

PARFIT Ah, I’m afraid that solution won’t work either, Sir. After all, they’re qualitatively, but not numerically, identical. Each has just as good a claim to be Karen Pence as the other.

BOTH KAREN PENCES But I’m Karen Pence!

PARFIT Well you can’t both be Karen Pence, but there’s also no non-arbitrary grounds on which we could declare one of you to be Karen Pence but not the other. Fission doesn’t preserve identity. Thus, neither of you are Karen Pence. And you, Mr Vice President, are now having dinner alone with two women who aren’t your wife.

MIKE PENCE You mean I… I have to move tables?

BOTH KAREN PENCES Is that really your biggest concern right now?

MIKE PENCE Sorry, rules are rules[suddenly very formal] ladies.

Mike and Karen Pence arriving at Armed Services Ball.
U.S. Army Sgt. Kalie Jones/Wikimedia Commons

PARFIT Well, before we all get too despondent, look at what The Second Lady teaches us: neither of these women is strictly identical with Karen Pence. Thus, Karen Pence has not survived. And yet, it seems completely wrong to say Karen Pence has died; if anything, apart from some initial awkwardness, this situation may even be much better than ordinary survival. The Second Lady preserves everything we care about in ordinary survival, and adds more of it. There is still someone to carry out the duties of Second Lady of the United States – indeed, there are now two people to do so, and the duties of office will correspondingly be less onerous. Karen Pence had both official duties and a passion for art therapy; now both can be pursued to twice the extent as before. From this we may conclude that identity is not what matters in survival.

MIKE PENCE Do you always talk like this?

PARFIT I did. On paper, anyway.

BOTH KAREN PENCES So where does this leave us?

MIKE PENCE I’m so confused.

[The restaurant doors swing open and PRESIDENT TRUMP walks in]

DONALD TRUMP Pence! Great to see you. Hey, how about I join you? Let’s get some more steaks over here! Extra well done! Just the best steaks. So beautiful, you’re gonna love these steaks.

The ConversationALL THREE PENCES Check, please.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

POSTSCRIPT: After I’d published this on The Conversation, two interesting things happened. The first is that a couple of people rightly pointed out that Mike Pence probably wouldn’t say ‘hell’ so much. That’s fair, and in hindsight it clearly detracts from the otherwise perfect realism of the piece…

Secondly, on Facebook, my colleague from Herts, Brendan Larvor, replied that if identity doesn’t survive fission, there is in fact no problem here: as Karen Pence does not exist post-fission, the Vice-President is now single, and thus is free to dine with whoever he pleases.