Sunday, June 27, 2010


To identify myself in the relevant sense with some quality is to see that quality as embodying a particularly important feature of myself, as making others who have that feature be potential particularly salient role models for me, etc. This isn't any sort of attempt at an analysis of identification, but simply to hint at which sense of "identify with" I am using. In particular, to identify myself with Q involves existentially more than just identifying myself as having Q, and does not imply a weird claim that I believe I am identical with the Platonic entity Q.

I think I should identify myself with being a child of God, a Christian, a father, a husband, a son or daughter, and maybe a philosopher. I should not identify myself with being big-nosed or lazy or a Frenchman. The last sentence may seem a mix: Maybe I shouldn't identify myself with being a Frenchman, because I am not one. Maybe I shouldn't identify myself with being lazy, because although I am lazy, that is something to fight against rather than identify with. Perhaps I shouldn't identify myself with being big-nosed, because although I have a big nose, and that's nothing to fight against, it's still superficial.

Is there some general story we can tell about what qualities of myself I should identify myself with, a story that will help with the question: Should I identify myself with my ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, etc.? 

Clearly, the virtuous person identifies with having certain values, and there are certain things that no virtuous person would identify with.

Identifying oneself with a quality, even a quite innocent quality, can carry serious dangers. There is a danger of being guided by stereotypes rather than healthy role models. There is a danger of self-reduction--of not sufficiently seeing oneself in one's individuality (and, correlatively, not sufficiently seeing others in their individuality). There may be a self-curtailing of one's autonomy.

Here is a rough hypothesis. You should only identify with having Q when having Q places you under serious role-obligations whose fulfillment either requires this identification or at least is very difficult without such identification.

Since something that constricts one to fulfill one's serious duties does not objectionably curtail one's autonomy, the autonomy worry about qualities does not apply. Moreover, when the role involves serious role-obligations, the need for role models may outweigh the danger of stereotyping. When the physician identifies herself with being a physician, there is the danger she will rely on stereotypes of her profession, but more likely it will help her fulfill her serious obligations by looking to good role-models. Moreover, one's individuality is particularly importantly expressed in one's serious role-obligations.

The hypothesis fits with what I think about the cases. I think that being a child of God, a Christian, a father, a husband, a son or daughter, and maybe a philosopher each implies serious role-obligations, and the need to fulfill these calls for a self-identification. (My choice to put "father" and "husband" rather than "parent" and "spouse", and "son or daughter" rather than "son", is deliberate and obviously controversial. I am inclined to think the parental and spousal roles are gendered in a way in which filial roles are not, though I am not able to provide a full account. But my bigger points do not depend on this controversial claim.) But being big-nosed, lazy or a Frenchman does not provide me with role-obligations. Being a Frenchman doesn't provide me with role-obligations because I'm not a Frenchman. Being big-nosed is too superficial. Being lazy provides me with an obligation to cease to be lazy, but that is just a special case of a general obligation to be industrious.

1 comment:

Jarrett said...

I like this view of self-identification. It takes away from the superficiality of many other types of self-identification. Especially things like physical attributes, i.e. skin color, height, body tone, and etc.

I think self-identification should be something intrinsic and not something externally based. For example, if I woke up one mourning and my skin color changed dramatically and I grew 4 feet in height and even if I became of different nationality. These things are not, and do not determine who we really are. I can wake up with different physical appearances and nationality and be the same person intrinsically.

So, I really like this view of self-identification.