What is my “true self”?

Joshua Knobe has got a very interesting piece in the New York Times in which he discusses the ideas of authenticity and the “true self” and their normative implications. The starting point of his reflection is the case of evangelical preacher Mark Pierpont, known for his work as an activist encouraging homosexuals to seek a “cure” for their sexual orientation. The paradoxical thing is that Pierpont himself was gay, and, Knobe tells us, constantly waging war against his urges, which he regarded as sinful. The case of Pierpont presents a challenge to the popular idea that the aim of one’s life should be to live authentically, in the sense of being “true to oneself”. Many people would have advised Pierpont to “just look deep within and be true to himself” in order to get out of his predicament. But what exactly does being true to oneself entail in the case of someone like Pierpont?

As Knobe shows, different answers, both initially plausible, could be given to that question. One could argue that Pierpont’s “real self” is that of a homosexual: his sexual urges, even though he disapproves of them, reveal who he truly is, so that being true to himself would mean accepting to live his life as a homosexual, and give up the repressive ideas about his own sexuality that his church had taught him. This answer, Knobe says, tends to be the one most popular among members of the general public. On the other hand, most philosophers have taken the view that what fundamentally defines us are our deeply held commitments, values, and endorsements. David DeGrazia, one of the many advocates of a view of that kind, thus wrote that “who we are has everything to do with what we value” (DeGrazia 2000, 38). This second view of the true self leads to the opposite conclusion in Pierpont’s case: since he does not endorse his homosexual urges, but on the contrary, condemns them as sinful on the basis of his deeply held religious convictions, authenticity requires him to resist those urges and to get rid of them if he can.

Here we may want to ask, which of these two competing views of the true self, and of authenticity, is the correct one? Knobe’s position is that “neither of these two perspectives fully captures the concept of a true self”. He suggests that “people’s ordinary understanding of the true self appears to involve a kind of value judgment, a judgment about what sorts of lives are really worth living”. Those who think that a homosexual orientation is valuable will tend to regard that trait as part of Pierpont’s true self; those who do not see it as valuable, or who think it is downright bad, will on the contrary stress Pierpont’s Christian convictions as defining who he really is. In order to test this hypothesis, Knobe presented a group of subjects, some of whom identified themselves as conservatives and others as liberals, with a series of imaginary scenarios. Some of these scenarios depicted people who changed some key part of their lives in a sense that conservatively-minded people would approve of; others, in a sense that liberals would favour. The participants were then asked how much they agreed that the change in question constituted a manifestation of the person’s true self. The results, Knobe reports, were that “conservative participants were more inclined to say that the person’s true self had emerged on the conservative items, while liberals were more inclined to say that the person’s true self had emerged on the liberal items”. Though Knobe concedes that further research is needed on this issue, he takes these results to provide some support for the hypothesis that people tend to regard the traits they value in someone as part of that person’s true self (and consequently to understand authenticity as demanding faithfulness to those particular traits).

What if further evidence did confirm Knobe’s hypothesis? I would then be tempted to conclude that people’s ordinary criteria for identifying the “true self” are problematic. Indeed, the idea of a true or real self suggests that what we are looking for is what fundamentally characterizes who the person is, and this seems to be conceptually distinct from the question of what we mostly value in the person. Arguably, a plausible view on this matter ought to make room for the possibility that a person’s true self might sometimes include features we do not like or value: for instance, being a psychopath, an opportunist, or a racist. But if Knobe’s hypothesis is right, the common understanding of the true self rules out this possibility, thereby making the idea of the true self reflect not so much the key features definitive of a person as the particular set of values of the observer. If the common view is indeed as Knobe conjectures – and it will be interesting to follow his future research on this topic – then the common view seems inadequate.

The two perspectives that Knobe describes as insufficient at least have the merit – if applied consistently – of retaining a non-evaluative characterization of the true self. If you want to consistently hold that the true self is defined by the person’s set of fundamental evaluations and commitments, you must be prepared to acknowledge that being true to themselves might require some people to do things which you would not recommend, such as fighting off sexual urges that you see as perfectly innocent. Similarly, if you are to consistently apply the criterion that people’s true self is defined by their stable, unchosen desires and preferences, you will have to accept that some people’s true self includes features you disapprove of, and that being true to themselves with regards to those features will mean doing things you condemn. This does not necessarily strip the idea of authenticity of all its normative force: you could still hold that authenticity does give someone a reason, for instance, to suppress his sexual urges, but add that this reason can be defeated by others, e.g. reasons to promote the person’s well-being.

That said, I nevertheless agree with Knobe that these two perspectives on the true self do not seem fully satisfactory. But my reason for thinking so is rather that both seem to say something plausible and important about the notion. Instead of choosing one such perspective to the detriment of the other as the “correct” one, I would suggest rejecting the alternative. Rather than saying that Pierpont’s true self is defined either by his religious commitments or by his homosexual desires, I think we ought to say that both of these things define who he really is. His identity is fundamentally conflicted: it involves features in sharp tension with each other, with significant effects on his life course. This is not an uncommon phenomenon. The world offers many examples of people exhibiting such internal tensions, e.g. shy people with a very strong desire for social affiliation who find it difficult to act on it due to their shyness. Is such a person “really” a shy person, or someone who deeply wants to relate to others? The question is inadequately phrased: arguably, she is both.

Here it might be objected that my ecumenical view of the true self prevents the notion from doing the work we expect it to do, namely tell us how to live our lives and what choices to make in conflictual situations such as Pierpont’s. If both his homosexual urges and his religious convictions are part of his true self, then does that mean he is bound to be true to himself, whether he decides to accept those urges or to repudiate them? Surely that is not a satisfactory answer for someone caught in such a dilemma. In reply to this, I would suggest abandoning the assumption that the notion of the true self, taken on its own, can provide us with practical guidance. Yet while it seems best to define that notion in neutral terms, the idea of authenticity can, by contrast, be understood as fundamentally evaluative – and as offering practical guidance. Instead of characterizing authenticity as simply meaning “being true to oneself”, we should say that it entails being true to oneself with regards to features that are intrinsically valuable. On this view, the moral debate should take place not at the level of the characterization of the true self, but on the issue of what authenticity requires us to do, and which aspects of our true self we ought to be faithful to. Developing this view in more detail, however, would have to be done elsewhere than in this entry.

REFERENCES:

DeGrazia, D. 2000. Prozac, Enhancement, and Self-Creation. Hastings Center Report 30 (2):34-40.

Knobe, J. 2011. In Search of the True Self. The New York Times (“Opinionator”), June 5, 2011. Available online at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/05/in-search-of-the-true-self/.

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18 Responses to What is my “true self”?

  • Peter says:

    I hope you follow this up in more detail. Specifically, I would like to see you develop the notion of authenticity, and its requirements, more fully.

    Is what we "ought" to do the same as want we "want" to do? If not, what role does our desire play in our "authenticity?" Philosophers have made what seems to be helpful distinctions along these lines. I am thinking of Kiekergaard's "Either-Or" and whether we choose an aesthetic life for ourselves, or an ethical life, for example.

    Regarding desire, we must distinguish between types of desire: of love, we have eros, philia, and agape. Of feelings, we have self-regarding and self-transcending. It seems to me we must discern these through a process of self-appropriation. We must come to understand exactly what we hold in our consciousness regarding our desires, their sources, our values, and the tension between these.

    Many folks seem to want to claim a Epicurean philosophy: eat, drink and be merry, but is this really the wise path? If we look closer, the best Epicurean poetry of the Greeks and Romans are always haunted by sadness. The man who stakes his whole life on its pleasurable moments often becomes desperate in his search for them. Doesn't this resonate with our modern ennui?

    I think the aesthetic life ultimately lacks meaning. It rings hollow. If we linger in it too long, we become depressed, our lives seem futile and ridiculous. Ultimately, therefore, we tend to turn to values, to the ethical life, a life that is centered on something greater than ourselves. We seek transcendence, realizing that the age of our youth was egotistical, and shallow. When we talk of the true self, I think this is what we are hinting at: the fact that throughout time man has sought something beyond himself. Eastern and Western religions and mystical practices share this sense that the ego must be escaped if we are to become authentic to ourselves. This would indicate that the "true self" transcends the "ego." Religion and psychology; Eastern and Western traditions share this insight.

    I think this journey is what life is all about. I think the meaning of life is found in discovering our true selves, of discovering a desire deep in our hearts that transforms our very notion of who we are.

  • Alexandre Erler says:

    Thanks for your comment, Peter. Developing the idea of authenticity and its normative implications in further detail is actually the aim of my doctoral dissertation, which I am still writing…

    Personally, I'm not sure that authenticity is a moral concept robust enough to rule out e.g. a rather shallow or materialistic life (can't someone like Paris Hilton be living an authentic life?). An author like Charles Taylor, on the other hand, would very much agree with what you say – in his book "The Ethics of Authenticity", he precisely argues that authenticity demands the acknowledgment of goods that transcend us.

    • Peter says:

      I suppose the answer to the Paris Hilton question is entirely dependent on the definition of the word, "authentic." I will offer a perhaps flimsy attempt at a possible definition of what we might mean by this word. Authentic: reflecting a conscious personal choice.

      I cannot speak for Paris in this regard, certainly. I think it is only through a process of self-appropriation where Paris herself can address the question of whether her actions are a response to a meaningful desire of her heart – thus corresponding to her unique self – or something more superficial, such as a response to peer pressures or an unconscious attempt to respond to underlying psychological issues, for example.

      Again, I believe Kierkegaard addresses some of this in "Either Or" and other places. I don't believe he renounces the aesthetic life, but he does distinguish it from the ethical life. Above all, he stressed the value of the individual over any systemic moral template, and there is of course in his writing the centrality of making a choice. Only Paris can ultimately decide the authenticity of Paris' actions and Paris' life. Our moral declarations and perceptions of these is another matter.

      My experience and study reinforces the wisdom of the oracle at Delphi, "Know thyself." If you go through life trying to please others you will not be happy, for example. And if you go through life trying to please yourself in ways that do not ultimately satisfy the deepest longings of your heart, you will never be fulfilled, never be at peace.

      To the moral dimension and relationship to this question, I agree that such a conception of "authenticity as choice" is not a "robust" moral concept. Is it altogether impossible to lead an authentic and immoral life simultaneously? We'd have to develop many other ideas before coming to such a conclusion. Is evil possible? If it is, must we say that there are authentically evil persons?

      It may well be that authenticity is a necessary but insufficient part of the moral life? Can we or cannot we not conceive of a moral act that is done for inauthentic reasons? I leave such questions aside for now.

      I do question the idea, proposed by some of the commentators I have seen in the NYTimes article, who say that what they ought to do is equivalent with what they want to do – that a person's desires, and a response to those desires are necessarily "authentic."

      This is a recapitulation of Nietzsche's position of man's will to power as a replacement to the principle of morality, which he deemed an enslavement of the weak over the strong. No one makes this case on paper better than he did. It is an appealing argument at some level, and I think it demands a response. I think perhaps his life speaks for itself in this regard, however.

      It is my belief that when you find yourself conflicted between what you want to do and what you ought to do – between your desires and your values – you begin to discover yourself, as if questioningly looking into a mirror. How you respond to this choice will define who you are. At issue with regard to authenticity is whether you let someone else answer this question for you, or if you dismiss the question entirely. All that authenticity requires, it seems to me, is that you not look away from the person looking back at you in this "mirror." Whether you choose the aesthetic or the ethical/moral is another question entirely. I have not made the same choices Nietzsche made. I think I am right and he is wrong in this matter. Does this mean I think he was not authentic? Not according to the definition above. Perhaps we mean to expand this definition so that the authentic corresponds with a higher concept? If so, which concept do we wish to correspond to? The good? The moral? Are these really the same?

  • Peter Wicks says:

    Personally I've always been a bit sceptical of calls to "be true to thyself". It has always seemed like a tautology to me: whatever I do, I am anyway going to be myself. Who else could I possibly be? I don't have a problem with having a smattering of Paris Hilton's in the world – they provide entertainment for the rest of us, no? – but what about serial killers? Should we be telling them to be true to themselves? I guess this is partly what drives my moral subjectivism.

    In the mean time I do think authenticity is an important concept, but I think I would describe it more as being *honest* about yourself. There's who you want to be, and who you actually are. I respect people who understand the difference, who are willing to accept who they are (and also accept criticism on that basis), while at the same time making serious efforts to change into the kind of person they would prefer to be. That's what I try to do, sometimes more successfully than other times, and it's the best way I've found so far to feel good about myself.

    On (the other) Peter's point about "want" vs "ought", I actually think there are at least three definitions of "wanting" something: there's what you think you want, there's what would make you happy, and there's what you are actively striving for. Often they can be three completely different things (or more: one can have inconsistent ideas about what one wants, and one can actively pursue incoherent goals). As a moral subjectivist I don't think there is any "right" answer to questions about what one "ought" to do, but one can come up with meaningful answers based on one's own values. This is where my utilitarianism comes in: in general I think people "ought" to behave in ways that maximise overall well-being, whatever they might "want" to do in the various senses described above. I'm not saying I always do, though. In any case I strive to increase the coherence between what I think I want, what I actively strive for, and what seems likely to actually make me happy (which is why I'm so interested in empirical research on happiness). Because of some combination of my social instinct and my upbringing, I find that having a (utilitarian) view on what kind of behaviour is likely to serve the common good helps me to do this.

    (This comment is partly intended as a fuller reply to Anthony's comment to me on the "excitement vs importance" thread, sorry if it's somewhat off-topic here.)

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    I share Peter Wicks’ scepticism about the concept of « true self », and not just because it smacks of tautology, as Peter and Alexandre both point out. And I don’t think that Alexandre should feel it necessary to reinvent it in a more ecumenical sense either – taken on its own or diluted, it seems to me to have very little value except in rhetoric.

    What alienates me from the concept is the implication that a person has a certain, static, essence (to which he can be « true » or not). I think this view is almost certainly false empirically, and conceptually seems misguided as a basis for ethics. That people use the term « true self » display the evaluative biases described in Knobe’s experiments is not at all surprising, because the term rests on this essentialist concept. We could also note that the notions of « true self » and authenticity, or its opposites such as « selling out » and « bad faith » are typically used by those who are pursuing some form of moral crusade.

    One of the problems is that there is a certain sleight of hand which goes approximately as follows :
    1 We cannot admire inauthenticity ( we do not like people who trick us or who otherwise fake elements of their behaviour)
    2 Therefore we should be authentic (we have an inner/deeper self to which we must be true)

    The fact is that people change over time and act differently in different circumstances (back to the thread on Zimbardo, the Savage in Us All). This does not imply a series of deviations from our « true self », and even less that our « true self » is one of savagery (Zimbardo did not put students back to nature, but in the uniquely human construct that we call a prison)

    • Peter Wicks says:

      What if we replace the "sleight of hand" with the following?
      1 We cannot admire inauthenticity (we do not like people who trick us or who otherwise fake elements of their behaviour)
      2 Therefore we should be authentic (we should avoid tricking people or otherwise faking elements of our behaviour).

      Avoiding tricking people would presumably mean avoiding deliberate deception, and also paying some (limited) attention to the expectations we may be creating inadvertently so as to avoid accidental deception. (I say limited because obviously we cannot take responsibility for everybody's unfounded expectations of us, particularly when we are in the public eye. We'd never do anything else.)

      Avoiding faking elements of our behaviour is trickier (sorry for the pun), because it depends on what we really mean by faking, and potentially relies on the same false, essentialist concept as the idea of the "true self". So perhaps we should just stick to avoiding deception. Perhaps we can also add avoiding self-deception, which would then pick up some of the points I made in my earlier comment (distinguishing between who you are and who you would like to be etc).

      Btw I don't think it's quite accurate to say that we "cannot" admire inauthenticity. Some people seem to have an positively perverse admiration for crooks.

      • Anthony Drinkwater says:

        Hi Peter
        Re paragraphs 1 to 3, this was exactly my point, which I obviously didn't write as well as I should have.
        Your steps 1 & 2 are logical – we should be authentic in our behaviour in this sense of not faking etc. The sleight of hand consists in extending the sense of authentic to imply that there is an authentic "true self"

        On your last point, I think that we admire some crooks more than others, and the reasons can be interesting to discuss. Clearly the confidence trickster usually has a better press than the armed robber, but this may be more to do with our schadenfreude at the gullibility of his victims than his inauthenticity. Bernie Madoff was what we might call a straightforward crook – he told lies, stole from some greedy clients to give to himself and to other greedy clients to keep them in the game and is now serving his jail sentence. Somehow I am inclined to view this as more authentic than the behaviour of other more "honest" bankers.
        Such are the ironies of life, which suggest that Alexandre is right in stating that people are more accurately and completely described by their internal contradictions than by reference to a "true self"

  • Alexandre Erler says:

    Anthony and Peter (Wicks): thank you for your thoughtful comments. I feel that the scepticism you express about the idea of the "true self" is quite common among intellectuals today, yet I personally think it is unwarranted – even though I can understand that the rather slippery way in which the notion is often used might have encouraged such scepticism.

    While I think it might be possible to identify certain features that would count as "essential" in the sense of constituting an unchanging core that stays with us throughout our life (think e.g. of the property of being born from certain parents), I certainly agree with Anthony that such an essentialist model of the true self will not yield the features that people typically associate with the notion, such as personality traits. As you suggest, such features can indeed change through time, sometimes quite significantly.

    Still, modern psychology tells us that we do have personality traits, and that personality tends to remain pretty stable over the life course. Even in cases where it changes a lot, we can still properly attribute a particular set of personality traits to a certain person at a certain point in time. And while situationist psychology may have undermined the traditional notion of character traits (as authors like John Doris have argued), I am not aware that it poses a threat to the modern understanding of personality traits. Experiments like Zimbardo's do not, I think, show that we have no true self. Rather, they show that we are complex beings, capable under certain circumstances of doing things we'd like to think we could never do.

    Besides personality traits, I would include other features, more (sexual orientation) or less (moral and religious convictions) stable, under the heading of the "true self". The notion seems to me helpful notably because it encapsulates what we are trying to find when we are searching for self-knowledge – something which, since the time of Socrates at least, has been seen as an important condition of a life well-lived. Would you still object to such a characterization of the "true self"?

    • Peter Wicks says:

      Would I still object to such a characterization of the "true self"? No, I don't think so. What I'm still wondering about though is the normative implications. That we should have some understanding of the nature of our true self seems sensible, but what if you value spontaneity and innocence? Depending on exactly how one defines those things it may be difficult to make this compatible with self knowledge. Arguably, spontaneity and innocence rely precisely on being ignorant about our true selves.

      It remains the case that I respect people who understand the difference between who they are and who they would ideally like to be, and make serious efforts to become the latter. Clearly this requires a degree of self-knowledge, so clearly there are things that are more important to me than spontaneity and innocence. In this I still take an essentially utilitarian view, which is why I would prefer people to make serious efforts to become better people (happier, and more likely to make others happy) than to be "true to themselves". The obvious caveats are that we need to be realistic about how quickly and easily we can change, and once again we must avoid the temptation to believe (through wishful thinking) that we are already better than we are. A less obvious caveat, and perhaps this is where I become more sympathetic to the concept of the "true self" even from a normative point of view, is that we are only really interested in future happiness to the extent that we identify with those future beings (whether evolutions of our current selves or completely different people/entities), and we are less likely to identify with beings that are considerably different from ourselves. In this case the motivation to be true to oneself can be seen as essentially a motivation to maintain homeostasis, and this becomes especially important in times of great change and uncertainty.

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    Thanks for your reply, Alexandre. To answer your question, I don't object at all to your socratic characterisation, any more than to existentialist writing on authenticity. If this is what you mean by the ecumenical view, I agree with you, and of course there are traits that are unchanging and perhaps even traits of humanity which are equally unchanging.
    I would be interested in how you develop your view on how authenticity should be characterised as being "true to oneself with regards to features that are intrinsically valuable". This presumably implies that being authentic isn't sufficient. What does it mean to say that authenticity remains nevertheless necessary ?

    Incidentally I didn't make the strong claim that Zimbardo's experiment shows that we have no true self, merely the weaker claim that it doesn't prove that there is a true self (and – in contrast to Roger Crisp – even less that this true self is "savage").

  • Dmitri Pisartchik says:

    Thank you for interesting post Alexandre,

    To my mind, one's identity can be interpreted or defined in three related but ultimately distinct ways: the way one is, and the way one wants to be, and the way one ought to be. The first definition is empirical in nature, its simply who you are in virtue of your present condition. Think of a little boy born to first generation immigrants to the US. The second definition draws from the personal conception of what one wants to be. Think of the little boy dreaming of being an astronaut. This is a normative definition, but of a norm that is personally imposed. The third definition is of a social nature. Its what the society (most notably through ones parents, teachers, etc.) wants you to be. Think of that same little boy being told by his father he will be a doctor, not an astronaut. Clearly, the second the third interpretations are closely linked since much what what we take to be our personal desires depend extensively on desires imprinted on us by social forces. Nevertheless, there is I think an important element of individuality there as well – that is, I deny that all of our desires can and are derived from social conditioning.

    As such, to pose the question: which of these is one's "true self"? is to my mind the wrong approach and ignores the complexity and evolving nature of our identities. The "true self", if there is such thing at all, must be, or so it seems to me, some product of the interaction of the three concepts that I've outlined above. Who you really are is a product of what you actually are, what you want to be, and what others want you to be. I do not see any coherent way of reducing the notion any further. Personal identity and true self seems to me a negotiation between empirical facts, personal desires and social norms and such is more of a process and less of a definitive object or thing.

    • Dmitri Pisartchik says:

      I realize now that I have contradicted myself somewhat by first suggesting that the true self is a product while later claiming that its a process. I should qualify that by product I do not mean a kind of thing or object, but a product in terms of process, if that makes any sense. In a similar way, if I may stretch a metaphor, that a merging of three streams into a single one.

  • Peter says:

    Another point worth bringing up here is that it seems that much of the confusion in this notion of the "true self" is related to the much older and deeper philosophical problem of essentialism. To ask what a thing is, or to inquire into any true nature, is to want to investigate an object. The question, "what is it?" is not necessarily a question that makes any sense.

    It is easy with language to turn anything into an object, even verbs. But can the verb "to be" be predicated? What is "is"? Where is "is"? Is "is" real? Philosophers have been caught in this metaphysical whirlpool for thousands of years, meditating on the true nature of being and existence. It was metaphysical paradoxes like this that prevented the concept of zero from being devoloped for centuries in the West. Philosophers would not allow for it, for the simple yet confused reasoning that zero was nothing and how can nothing be something?

    This metaphysical/ontological confusion held back progress for centuries.

    It is useful – especially with highly abstract notions like mathematical objects such as irrational and complex numbers – to conceive of these not so much as objects of existence but rather as defined processes or methods. In this formulation, the "thing" is what it does. The number 5 is not an object, but a meaning.

    We must be able to get away from the instinct to make objects out of our abstractions. Understanding is not picturing. This mistake has cost mankind tremendous brain power throughout history. Anyone who understands Einstein and Heisenberg knows that it is not by picturing that we know how the subatomic world operates but rather by understanding the data.

    Existentialist philosophers have much to say about the true self and the flaws of essentialist thinking. I think we must not forget these lessons when discussing the "true self." We must first ask whether it must be insisted that the self is a static object, or an object at all.

    So what then are we to make of Polonius' maxim? Shall we throw it out as nonsense like the Greeks did with zero? No. Polonius' maxim merely calls us to be conscious of the reasons for our choices. Don't do something because someone told you to; don't do something because of peer pressure; don't do something unless you know why you are doing it. Virtuous persons act because they understand why they must; others act because they cannot help themselves. The difference is knowledge. "Be true to yourself" and similar edicts simply mean that one should act with the knowledge and understanding which clearly sees where desires and impulses come from. This is merely wisdom, which is perhaps the beginning, but certainly not the end of morality.

    The question of whether desire or values represents the true self is a poor one. The meaning of the "self" cannot be reduced to desire, or to reason, for the self is contains these. I am not my desire and I am not my thoughts. I have desires and I have thoughts but these are not me. There is no contradiction to be drawn in the notion of the true self by pointing out that my desires and my thoughts or values can come into conflict. This, in and of itself, does not mean that the notion of the true self is defunct. Remember, the Greeks held back their civilization by denying zero. Let's not make the same mistake with our "selves."

  • Greg says:

    Sorry I'm so late to the conversation!

    My thoughts tend to dovetail with much of what Peter Wicks has been saying (even though we subscribe to different ethical systems), and others who have argued against essentialism and steered the conversation towards discussing values. When we have a deeper understanding of what a self is, and how it arises, I think we have to realize the question isn't are you being true to yourself (as Peter mentioned, how can you not be?), but rather what kinds of selves do we want to be? What kinds of selves *ought* we to be. The question isn't, should we follow our desires or our values, but rather, what is our justification for following each? We can be wrong about what we should value, and our desires may often times be right. It's these normative ethical claims that are really at stake. And the results of Knobe's experiment I think shows that people, at least implicitly, tend to think along these lines as well, and just confuse those thoughts with the notion of a "true self".

    I wrote a blog post about this topic, where I basically expand in more detail on what I just wrote above: <a href="http://cognitivephilosophy.net/consciousness/how-am-i-not-myself">How am I not myself?</a>

  • John Scott says:

    I find the debate about the nature of one’s true self fascinating but feel before we fully consider the concept of our true self that we should perhaps consider the usefulness of the concept. To whom might the concept of a true self be useful? Firstly it might be useful to someone deciding what to do. Secondly it might be useful when ascribing praise or blame and predicting what that person will do.

    I would suggest any concept of true self should not be used in ascribing praise or blame to others. Praise and blame seem to be more naturally connected to someone’s autonomy rather than her true self. Of course I accept that someone’s true self may be connected to her autonomy. Nonetheless I believe the ascription praise and blame should depend directly on someone’s autonomy and that no useful purpose is served by involving the concept of ‘true self. It seems obvious to me that understanding a person’s values might be useful in predicting her actions. However if our concept of true self is limited to the values we approve of as suggested by Knobe then this concept will only be useful in predicting what we think someone should do rather than what she actually will do. For these reasons Knobe’s suggested concept of someone’s true self does not seem to me to be a useful one when applied in this context.

    Is then any concept of her true self useful to someone making a decision? Perhaps in this case she might question what her true self would do; what is the authentic thing to do. It seems clear to me if someone accepts her true self is defined only by the values others value in her and she acts in accordance with this concept then she isn’t acting authentically. Knobe’s suggested concept of true self seems not to be useful in this context either. Let us assume someone’s deeply held commitments, values, and endorsements useful to her when making a decision? I would suggest our deeply held commitments, values, and endorsements are things we ‘care about’ in the way Harry Frankfurt uses the term ‘care about’. However even if it is accepted that one’s true self determines one’s actions it does not automatically follow that one’s true self is always useful in deciding what to do. What someone intends to do and what he ‘cares about’ need not be identical. Frankfurt argues someone might be unable to carry out her intentions. For instance a single mother might intend to have her baby adopted, an unlikely example in this day and age I admit. She might believe he would have a better life. She might further believe this is what she ‘cares about’. However when the time comes for the adoption she finds she cannot go through with the adoption; it is not what she really ‘cares about’. The reason for the mother’s false belief is the way Frankfurt links ‘caring about’ to wholeheartedness and satisfaction. Frankfurt defines satisfaction as an absence of restlessness or resistance. A satisfied person may be willing to accept a change in her condition, but she has no active interest in bringing about a change. Our mother may not be able to accurately predict what will satisfy her prior to her actually having to hand over her child for adoption. It follows the concept of our true self defined by our deeply held commitments, values, and endorsements may not be as useful in making as assumed above. For these reasons a composite concept of true self might be more useful. A more detailed argument may be found at http://woolerscottus.blogspot.com .

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