Negotiating Identities: The Crash Solution

14 June 2005

Thanks very much to Anthony Appiah for being our guest on the show last week.   You can check out the episode here.

I meant to be blogging about this one awhile back, but the rest of my life intruded, unfortunately.    I'm about to head off to Australia for seven weeks, where I'll be a visiting fellow at the Australian National University.    I'll actually do three of the shows from down under.  That's going to be tough.  I'll have to be in a studio there at 4.00 AM.  Now that is dedication.

But back to the topic at hand.   I thought our discussion with Anthony was interesting.  I   do wish we had had more time because we  really only scratched the surface and were just getting to an interesting topic toward the end of the episode.  By the way,   I'm about half way through Anthony's latest book, The Ethics of Identity.  It's a fascinating read and I highly recommend it.   

I want to try to  dig a little deeper in this post into a question that kind of simmered beneath the surface of our discussion, but wasn't really addressed head on.   The issue has a little bit to do with identities that are regarded by those who adopt them as in some ways "non-negotiable" and as more or less direct sources of directives about how to live one's own life, and a source of directives about how to live one's life in relation to others who don't share one's identity and may even be hostile to it in some ways. 

By a  "non-negotiable"  aspect of an identity I  mean, roughly,  an aspect   that  the "holder" of that identity  regards  as  non-negotiable  and thus as not subject to revision and reconfiguration.    It doesn't matter for my purposes whether the relevant identity is "really"  up for grabs or subject to revision in certain ways.    I think probably all identities are revisable and are subject to reconfiguration in light of all sorts of things.  For example, some identities simply cease to be possible at certain junctures.    Once the slaves were  freed,  one could remain an unreconstructed  southern racist,  but  you had to find new ways to do so.  You couldn't simply persist as a  slaving-owning agrarian southerner, with all that that entailed. 

On my view,  much  social friction, political turmoil,  cultural change are driven by the "clash" of identities regarded  as non-negotiable with realities on the ground that exert pressure for the reconfiguration of such identities.   I'm not saying that only identities regarded  as non-negotiable  are subject to external pressures of this sort.  But  those who regard some  "threatened"   aspect of their identity as non-negotiable  are, I think,  likely to resist in different ways from those who regard their identities as negotiable.   One can either participate willingly or be dragged kicking and screaming into the reconfiguration of an identity, for example.  Think of the heretofore unreconstructed sexist who sincerely tries to re-think sex and gender in response to social change vs the heretofore unreconstructed sexist who does everything in his power to help maintain the old order and resist the new.   

The real question,  I suppose, is what, if any, aspects of an identity are worth regarding as non-negotiable?   I'm not sure there's an a priori "once and for all"  answer to that question.   When I'm in a "liberal cosmopolitan" frame of mind,  I'm tempted to say  that  just those aspects of ones identity that are consistent  with a thoroughgoing  allegiance  to "the party of humanity" are worth considering non-negotiable. Everything  that  divides and separates, that pits  "them" against "us" is unworthy of being  regarded as non-negotiable.

There is probably something right about that.    But although I count myself  a "would-be" liberal cosmopolitan,  I actually regard a liberal cosmopolitanism  as a "that toward which" some of us have chosen to work, not as an actual concrete achievement already present on the ground. I mean several things by that.    I've laid out some of it in other posts  including   How to be a Relativist and I took on some related issues in   On the Absence of Dogmatism.    But I don't really want to re-hash those posts now. 

The current point I want to make about liberal cosmopolitanism is that in one way it doesn't seem  thick enough to support a  concrete,  particular identity that is tied up with a shared way of life.  And in that sense liberal cosmopolitanism doesn't really define one possible identity that one might adopt among other possible identities.    What ,  exactly, would it mean to live on behalf  of "humanity at large."   What would be the character of one's  relation to one's family, friends,  fellow citizens, or co-coreligionists if one lived primarily as one human among others?  One possible answer is that you would always be a stranger, invested in none of the special projects that define one's nation or religion, sharing none of the special attachments that define one's family.    Indeed, perhaps  liberal cosmopolitans couldn't even share a special attachment to each other, it would seem.  What kind of life is that?  A rootless life,  a life lived always and everywhere "on the outside," always and everywhere as  a stranger.

I don't mean to deny that there are cosmopolitan responses to this line of criticism.   Recall, for example, Appiah's way of thinking  about the difference between ethics and morality.   Appiah thinks of identities as "ethically significant"  partly because an  identity  provides answers to the question "How shall I live?"  He distinguishes that question from the question for morality  "What do I owe to others."  But he clearly thinks that  ethics and morality can conflict.  That's because he allows that  ones choices about how to live, under what "identity" flag to march,  can generate obligations, commitments, entitlements, of their own.  But  so can morality.   Morality is  an independent source of commitments, obligations, and entitlements, not necessarily tied to particular, local, concrete identities.  Sometimes the demands of ethics arising from one's particular, local, concrete identity simply clash with the demands of morality.    But Appiah believes, I think,   that the demands of morality have a certain priority -- though he also thinks this priority is "defeasible," if I understand him rightly.

You can sort of see, given what he thinks identities are like and where they come from,  why someone like Appiah would  think that morality has defeasible priority over ethics.   For  Appiah, after all, there is not  a fixed set of antecedently given identities.  We  "create"  and don't merely inherit our identities. Now  we don't create them  ex nihilo.   Rather,  we  take what is pre-given, what is made available by the milieu in which we merely find ourselves, and we  somehow make something brand new out of it, by engaging in  Millian "experiments in living."     We are always reconfiguring our identities, trying out new ways of living, sometimes, presumably, with great success and sometimes not so successfully.  This makes the ethical demands generated by our identities seem contingent and escapable.  And it makes the  demands generated by morality --which, by contrast, don't depend on the contingent localities of our identities -- seem more binding, less contingent.

As long as one regards one's identities as contingent and revisable in this way,  maybe this all makes good sense.  But what is the cosmopolitan supposed to say about to someone who regards some aspect or other of her identity as non-negotiable?  And how does it help with the charge that the cosmopoolitan is always and everywhere a rootless outsider? 

Take rootlessness first.    Suppose the cosmopolitan  grants  that cosmopolitanism is not the source of one concrete particular identity among others.    Cosmopolitanism really articulates a kind of moral constraint to which all more particular identities are subject.    The guiding principle might be:    whatever identity you adopt,  make sure that it is consistent with having as part of ones life plan due regard for the well-being  of others.   Live as an American, as a member of this or that club, or religion, or whatever, if you will,  but in so living recognize  that your club is merely one club among others and   that the interests of your club do not trump the interests of humanity at large.

The cosmopolitan can even say that having some  well-configured concrete particular identity is a good thing, one  key to a well-lived human life, at least as long as it is constrained in the right  way by considerations of morality and a due respect for the common humanity of all.

I like this story a lot.  On some days,  I'm tempted to believe something rather like it, especially as an answer to the  charge that the cosmopolitan is always and everywhere a stranger.   But I'm not sure it follows that  concern for our common  humanity  defeasibly trumps  or overrides any more local, particular  concrete concerns.   

Here's why.  If who I am is in some sense defined by more local and particular attachments,  I don't see off hand why those local and particular attachments don't trump whatever concern I feel for humanity at large.  After all,  it is those local and particular attachments that make me an insider, that define where home is. Too much attachment to the common humanity of all really does threaten to make me  me always and everywhere the outsider.

Now I'm not prepared to fully reject the claim that morality trumps ethics.  I'm just looking for more of an argument than I've ever seen.  To rephrase my problem.  I started out wondering  what we can say to people  who regard some aspect of their identity as "non-negotiable."   But I see now I wasn't entirely clear about what I meant by that.  I meant that: (a) those non-negotiable aspects are  sources of felt  commitments, demands, entitlements, etc. that place the person who adopts the relevant identity deeply at odds with cosmopolitan principles of morality and/or competing demands from the  concrete and particular identities of others;  (b)  those aspects are regarded by the relevant person  or persons as somehow bedrock definers of who and what they are.   

The cosmopolitan answer to my worry is basically that there can't legitimately be such aspects of our identity.  That's because identities that are mobilized around injustice or immorality are somehow illegitimate.  But I don't know why that is so.  Some would appeal to universal commandments of cold and impersonal reason or the warm glue of human sentiment to articulate the principles of justice that constrain all more locally generated entitlements.  Some philosophers -- like Rawls -- think that to settle the principles of justice, we have to engage in an intellectual exercise of "abstracting away" from our concrete identities and histories.  That's part of the point of his so-called "veil of ignorance."  I've never found this kind of move particularly convincing.  I've never been able to see why I, living under the actual banners that I do live under,  with the actual  particular attachments that I in fact have,  should be bound by  judgments I would make under conditions in which I did not know, in effect, who I am.   Saying in detail why I find such "abstracting away" arguments uncompelling would take a much longer post, though.  So I think I'll leave it with that simple declaration of skepticism for now.

Obviously,  I haven't settled anything here and there is really a lot more to say about all this.  A whole lot more.  You really should read Anthony's book, because it says a lot about these issues and it does so quite well.    I suspect that  the real answer to how we cope with identities worn heavily is something close to the  "Crash" solution (or non-solution).    In the movie  Crash, people learn to see their common humanity across the gulfs that their  identities create simply by crashing into one another, by being brought up short, by experiments in living running aground.     Philosophers would like to believe that something more orderly -- reasoned reflection on our common humanity, judgments made behind a veil of ignorance -- might do the trick.    But  I think many have gotten it the wrong way around.  If we really did have a shared moral vision, rooted in our common perception of our common humanity, that would be a grand thing.  And it would be, I think, a singular and profound cultural achievement.  The belief  that such a thing just might be possible is,  I think, the real innovatiion of  the Enlightenment.  And the project of trying to achieve the what the Enlightenment envisioned as a real possibility is a worthy and honorable one.   But as I've said in other posts,  the Enlightenment project  is just that -- a project and one not yet achieved.   It is a mistake  to think that there is already and has always been  a shared moral community  that is rooted in the mutually recognized and endorsed demands of our common humanity.   It isn't a mistake, though,  to think that if we keep crashing into one another,   we might someday manage to constitute such a community.

Comments (1)

Guest's picture


Tuesday, September 13, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Morality and Beauty for me seem to be interrelated

Morality and Beauty for me seem to be interrelated. I do not go along with Kant?s categorical imperative. If being moral is when a person follows what morality dictates correctly, then a perfectly moral person would be the person who follows the mind of God, and his art nature. The problem I have with Kant?s idea of morality is dictated by rational thought.
If a person is going to follow nature perfectly then I believe that he must go beyond reason. Nature does not always follow rational thought-which is why I think that Plato included Eros and Beauty in his philosophical system, other philosophers would speak of the sublime.
A person does not need to go that far, but I think that if a person understands the connection between morality, ethics, and beauty they will understand how to act morally and ethically.