Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The ethics of identity

I’ve started reading a newly published book called The Ethics of Identity. It’s of particular interest as it discusses in a very open way the liberal attitude to gender and ethnic identity.

The author is a Princeton professor, Kwame Anthony Appiah (who is of mixed ancestry, with a father from Ghana and an English mother).

For today, here is a brief review of the preface to the book.

Professor Appiah begins with the observation that liberalism “is not so much a body of doctrine as a set of debates”. When I read this I was reminded of the way that liberalism has managed to “frame” the way that politics is discussed and debated in the West.

If a set of liberal debates is typical of Western politics, then it’s little wonder that conservatives often find it difficult to intervene and express their own point of view. The conservative viewpoint lies outside of the framework of debate.

Therefore, when conservatives look at politics we have to be willing, at times, to reject both points of view. To be true to what we really believe, we have to try to collapse the existing framework of debate. In effect, we need to establish different polarities – different points of contest.

A second useful observation made by Professor Appiah is that liberalism has captured mainstream politics in the West. He writes that liberalism encompasses “nearly all members of nearly all of the mainstream political parties in Europe and North America” and he even adds that liberal issues should concern us “even if, mirabile dictu, you do not find yourself disposed to think of yourself as a liberal at all” (mirabile dictu means wonderful to relate).

Professor Appiah, then, freely admits that liberalism has achieved near monopoly status amongst the political class. Yes, we do get to choose between different parties at election time – but the mainstream parties are all fundamentally liberal in their political outlook.

So we shouldn’t place too much faith in the mainstream “right-wing” parties, as these parties have accepted an essentially liberal world view.

Which brings us to the final and most important part of the preface. When Professor Appiah sets out his basic argument he writes that, “First, the measure of my life, the standard by which it is to be assessed as more or less successful, depends, if only in part, on my life’s aims as specified by me. Second, my life’s shape is up to me.”

He later adds “I start always from the perspective of the individual engaged in making his or her life, recognizing that others are engaged in the same project”.

Now this is very familiar. It is the basic liberal principle that what matters is that we are left unimpeded to create ourselves - to author our own lives - according to our own individual will.

Professor Appiah is following this principle when he claims that the measure of a life is the ability of an individual to determine the shape of his own life and his own life’s aims.

The professor considers this view to be “unexceptional”. But conservatives ought to jump in here and object. As a liberal, Professor Appiah is concerned above all to uphold conditions of autonomy. But this leads to a distorted focus.

Traditional societies did not focus on issues of autonomy in measuring the success of a life. What was important was the fact that a man was a good father, or a good churchman, or a good Englishman, or a virtuous man.

These roles or aims may not have been “self-selected” as part of a project of self-authorship. They may simply have been considered a natural inheritance or a customary understanding of “goodness” in life.

Yet they represent more significant aspects of life than those things we can determine individually, such as our career, our place of residence or our lifestyle.

And there is a further problem with Professor Appiah’s focus on self-authorship as the measure of a life. There are important parts of our self-identity which we don’t get to choose. We don’t get to choose, for instance, our race, our ethnicity or our sex.

Which is why liberals often view such forms of identity negatively as being restrictions on individual autonomy. This is exactly the issue Professor Appiah wishes to explore.

He does not simply assume that individuals are blank slates, as some liberals do. He recognises that “we make our lives as men and as women, as gay and as straight people, as Ghanians and as Americans, as blacks and as whites.”

For Professor Appiah, this raises the “conundrum” of whether such “identities represent a curb on autonomy”.

He declares in the preface that he writes “neither as identity’s friend nor as its foe”. He is certainly not its friend by conservative standards. He asserts, for instance, that identity is socially constructed rather than being hardwired into us.

He also uses typically negative liberal language at times to describe identity. He writes of “the encumbered self, laden with all the specificity of its manifold allegiances” and he worries that ethnic identity might “harden into something fixed and determinate” (putting it outside the realm of individual choice).

Still, there are signs in the preface that he is willing to take the claims of identity more seriously than most liberal philosophers.

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