On The Ethics of Identity

This was by far the most interesting NYT book review I’ve come across in months:

[Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony] Appiah uses [John Stuart] Mill… to focus ethical attention on the notion of identity.

This notion, he suggests, posits both a self with the freedom to create itself and a self shaped in relation to collective identities. Indeed, for Appiah these two ways of viewing the self are inseparable. I am who I am not only because I am engaged in the lifelong task of becoming the person I want to be but also because I can identify myself with groups of people engaged in similar ”life-projects”: secular Jews, people with kids, people raised in Iowa City, to mention three personal instances. Appiah stresses that the life-project I am carrying out, the story of my self that I’m struggling to tell, can’t be separated from the affiliations in which that project was formed and to which it refers. The very pursuit of individualism demands the cultivation of collective identities, and the often conflicting ethical demands of each represent the poles between which Appiah’s arguments swing.

Although far from a firebrand, Appiah doesn’t shy away from controversy. Thus, while his sympathies are clearly with social out-groups (how could an admirer of Mill, that visionary defender of women’s rights, not be so inclined?) he is suspicious of many group-rights arguments. He maintains that the appeal to ”culture” as a marker of group identity fails the test of coherence, falling into the very race-based logic it was designed to contest. He questions the expansive rhetoric, if not the ideal, of universal human rights — its ”mission creep.” Identity politics turn him off.

Similarly, Appiah recognizes the importance, for the sake of solidarity in a hostile world, of collective identities based on race or sexual preference, but is uncomfortable with the notion that black and white or gay and straight will always and everywhere need to be parsed as Black and White or Gay and Straight. Above all, he emphasizes the category of the individual, no matter how socially enmeshed that notion may be. ”The final responsibility for each life,” he resoundingly concludes one chapter, ”is always the responsibility of the person whose life it is.”

I’ve long been confused by my allegiance to certain groups: Arab Americans, Single Mothers, Gays, Palestinians, Egyptians, Alexandrians, Fat Chicks, People Who Grew Up In the 80s and 90s, People Who Witnessed The Gulf War, People Who Don’t Like To Have “Real” Jobs, etc.. I think of these groups in lower-case but write them down in upper-case to validate their group-status in my real world. In my real world, though, most of these groups lack coherence, and often do fail me, as an individual. I have thus opted to pursue friendships with individuals rather than pursue the larger group, which (pre)tends to stand for the larger good. I am intrigued by Appiah’s questioning of collective rhetoric– something I question daily. And the idea of two ways to view the self, and consequently, the struggle between the individual and collective identity, is one that has long fascinated me. I must read that book.

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