Friday, October 1, 2021

Musings on personal qualitative identity

Consider the popular concept of “identity”, in the sense of what one “identifies with/as”. Let’s call this “personal qualitative identity”. We can think of someone’s personal qualitative identity as a plurality of properties that the person correctly takes themselves to have and that are important, in a way that needs explication, to the person’s image of themselves.

There are a few analytic quibbles we could ask about what I just said. Couldn’t someone have properties they do not actually have as part of their identity? Surely there are lots of people who have excellences of various sorts at the heart of their self-image but lack these excellences. I don’t want to count mistakenly self-attributed properties as part of a person’s identity, because there is a kind of respect we have towards another’s personal qualitative identity that requires it to be factive. In these cases, maybe I would say that the person’s taking themselves to have the excellences is a part of their identity, but not the actual possession of the excellences.

In an opposed criticism, one might want to require the person to know that they have the properties, and not merely to correctly think they have them. But that is asking for too much. Suppose Alice identifies as ethnically Slovak, on the basis of misreading the handwriting on an old geneological document that actually said she was Slovenian. But suppose the document was wrong, and Alice in fact is Slovak rather than Slovenian. Surely it is correct to say that being Slovak is a part of her identity, even though Alice does not know that she is Slovak.

But the really central and difficult thing in the concept of personal qualitative identity is the kind of “self-identificational” importance that the person attaches to them. We have plenty of properties that we correctly believe, and even know, ourselves to have, but which lack the kind of first-person importance that makes them a part of the personal qualitative identity. There is a contradiction in saying: “It is a part of my (personal qualitative) identity that I am F, but I don’t care about being F.”

In particular, the properties that are a part of the personal qualitative identity enjoy an important role in motivating the person’s actions. Of course, any property one takes oneself to have can motivate action. I don’t much care that my eyes are blue, but my self-attribution of the blueness of my eyes motivates me to write “blue” under “eye color” on government forms. But the properties that are a part of the personal qualitative identity enter into one’s motivations more often, in wider range of contexts, and in a way more significant to oneself.

There is an ambiguity here, though. When one is motivated to act a certain way by a property in one’s identity, is one motivated by the fact that one has the property or by the fact that one identifies with that property? I want to suggest that the right answer should often be the first-order one. It is my duty as a parent to provide for my children, and I identify with my having that duty. But whether I identify with having that duty or not is irrelevant to the reason-giving force of that duty: if I didn’t identify with that duty, I would be just as obligated by it. Indeed, it seems to me to be a failure when I am moved not by my duty but by my identification with the duty. The thought “this is my duty” can be a healthy thought, but adding “and I identify as having it” is morally a thought too many, though sometimes, morally deficient as we are, we need the kick in the behind that the extra thought provides.

In fact, I think there is an interesting moral danger that I think has not been much talked about. If the property F is in my personal qualitative identity, then I also have the higher order property IF of having F in my identity. Logically speaking, this higher order property may or may not itself be a part of my identity. While in some cases it may be appropriate for IF to be a part of my identity in addition to F, in most if not all of those cases, IF should be a less central part of my identity than F, and in many cases it should not be a part of my identity at all. This is because the actual rational motivational force is often largely exhausted by my one’s having F, while a focus on IF adds an illusion of additional rational force.

In general, I think that it is important to be critical about our personal qualitative identities. There are substantive and personally important normative questions about which of one’s properties should enter into the identity. A failing I know myself to have is that I end up promoting generalizations about myself into parts of my personal qualitative identity by having them play too strong a motivational role. That “I am the kind of person who ϕs” should not play much of a role in my deliberations. What matters is whether ϕing, on a given occasion, is a good or a bad thing. Yet I find myself often deciding things on the basis of being, or not being, a certain kind of person. That's deciding on the basis of navel-gazing.

I find the following norm appealing: a property F should be a part of my identity if and only if independently of my attitude to F, my having F has significant rational importance to a broad range of my deliberations. But this austere norm is probably too austere.

1 comment:

James Reveley said...

Do you have any thoughts on the risks of self-deception? Equally, how might we come to know that we are deceiving ourselves? Does the possibility of knowing this imply we must have regard to external standards of virtuous and rational behavior? For example, I take myself to be a brave person - indeed, this is part of my self-identity. Yet when the chips are down, I run from the person who is threatening my neighbor. "You are cowardly" my neighbor later tells me. "Under the circumstances", I retort, "it would have been foolhardy of me to try to defend you - I am brave but not a fool." Perhaps my definition of bravery is not what a rational person would use. Yet I do not see myself as a (Western) rational person - i.e. "being Western rational" is not part of my self-definition. Also, I am entirely comfortable with cognitive dissonance (i.e. I don't mind holding contradictory views). Can it be said that the content of my personal qualitative identity is somehow defective, or even that I am somehow defective?