The Ethics of Identity

Tuesday, July 18, 2006
First Aired: 
Tuesday, June 14, 2005

What Is It

What makes me who I am? Is it fair of me, or others, to take my race or ethnicity as part of whom I am? How does the age-old virtue of standing up for kith and kin comport with the demands of fairness as cosmopolitanism? Join John and Ken and Philosophy Talk regular Anthony Appiah from Princeton.

Listening Notes

What is identity? Ken suggests it is how one represents oneself to oneself. John gives two other possibilities: what others take you to be and how you project yourself to others. What about the ethics part? To help with this, Ken introduces the guest, Anthony Appiah, professor at Princeton University. Appiah explains several distinctions of the concept of identity which he makes in his book. Appiah explains one of the examples in his book, a butler from the novel Remains of the Day. 

Ken asks how free we are to make an identity. Appiah answers that there are two aspects to this: what others focus on and what we focus on. The prior is more constrained than the latter. Ken asks how seriously should we take certain aspects of our identities. Appiah thinks that it partly depends on the history associated with that aspect. Appiah continues to explain that an identity can be criticized if it is being used for injustice or praised if it is being used for justice. He also thinks that "bad" identities can be rehabilitated and changed over time. Some people think our identities generate obligations. What are obligations generated by identity? How can identities make demands on us? Appiah gives some examples, identifying as a parent or having a professional a professional identity. 

Can we lie about our identities to other? Appiah thinks not because this is a case in which morality constrains what identities we can adopt. How do we decide what identities to adopt? Does philosophy help with this problem? Appiah does not have any advice as to what identities one should adopt but offers a bit of advice as to what sorts of identities should not be adopted. How can I claim an identity that I contradict in my behavior? Ken points out that adopting certain identities is done just for gain. Should the government play a role in the formation and maintenance of identities? Appiah thinks governments should provide resources for identities to be set up, such as religious identities.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 04:25): Amy Standen interviews several people about what they identify as.
  • Philosophy Talk Goes to the Movies (Seek to 46:45): John and Ken discuss Crash, a movie about the interaction of identities and human interaction.