On Philosophy

November 20, 2007

Choosing Who We Are

Filed under: Self — Peter @ 12:00 am

It’s natural to draw a sharp distinction between the internal and external world. But this distinction is often made a bit too sharply, for example in the intuitions of certain people about free will, namely that if it exists it must be purely internal and non-physical. Free will, however, is not what I am concerned with today, rather I am concerned with the distinction that might be made between aspects of who a person is that are thought to be “genuinely” them versus those which are thought to be an imposition on the real person in some way. Consider, for example, the simple fact that we tend to adopt as our own the desires that people around us display. For example, if we spend time around people who place a high value on fashionable clothes we are likely to start valuing them more highly as well, unless we actively despise those people. Such desires might seem not really part of who we are because they come from the external world rather than an internal source. And, more importantly for some, they have not been chosen freely or rationally. Thinking in this way might lead us to divide personalities into a core personality, that is who the person “really” is, and an extrinsic part, that only seems to be who they are but is really a product of the external world.

Now I wouldn’t deny that we might be able to create such a division in name, to label some parts of someone’s personally as core and others as extrinsic. However, I would deny that such a distinction tells us anything significant, that somehow what is labeled as the core personality is more important than the parts of the person’s personality as labeled as extrinsic. Personality as a whole determines the person who someone is, not some part of it. Which means that to favor what is called the core personality or some variation of it over the whole person is simply to favor one possible person over another. And of course there is nothing intrinsically wrong with such judgments, but the person as they are may be better than some alternate version of them that is considered more genuine. Not everything external that has an influence on someone’s personality is necessarily a bad influence on them. For example, we can imagine someone who grows up in an environment that leads them to develop an ethical and self-reliant personality, and that person may very well be better than the person who would have developed without those influences. Nor does it really make sense to suppose that someone might really desire to be the person defined by their core personality rather than the person they actually are, because it is logically inconsistent to wish to be someone else. Of course people do make such wishes on occasion, but they haven’t really thought out what granting that wish would entail, because what they really want is to be able to lead that person’s life while being the same person. But to really be someone else would require a complete personality replacement, and that would be effectively the end of the original person, and so it doesn’t make sense to wish to be someone else, because the person making that wish can never be someone else, at best they can be eliminated and replaced.

A better way to look at how external influences have an impact on the person we are is to think of some past version of ourselves as having before them a number of possible future people they might become. What the external influences do under this model is simply make one of those future possibilities more likely. But just because one of those future people was brought into existence by some particular combination of internal and external factors doesn’t make them intrinsically better or worse than one of those other possibilities who would have been brought about by some other combination. Although those factors determine which possibility is eventually made actual they aren’t themselves part of the person, it is not the case that somehow the factors that brought them into existence are buried within them. Thus the best way to understand the personality of someone, consistent with this understanding, is as completely internal, no matter why they have the personality that they do.

I will grant, however, that when external influences have an effect on us that it makes the choice of which future person we will become not an entirely free one. But that by itself doesn’t tell us anything about those influences. Although freedom is desirable when we are considering the freedom to do what we want, unconstrained by external forces and external threats, that doesn’t mean that a free choice when it comes to what kind of person we will become is necessarily better than an un-free one. What we need is some point of view, carrying with it standards, from which we can legitimately judge whether free choice is necessarily better or worse. But when it comes to matters involving different potential people it is hard to find such a viewpoint. Obviously it will be better for the possible person who is brought into existence by external forces for us to be influenced by them, and thus for us not to have a free choice. And, equally obviously, it will be better for the possible person brought into existence by a completely free series of choices for us to have a free choice. Nor can we appeal to the currently existing person to decide this issue, because they are essentially indifferent to which person they become in the future, only how well things go for those people, and that doesn’t seem to be affected by whether the choices that led to them being that person was free or not.

One way out of this dilemma is simply to privilege the person who actually exists now (somewhat reasonable, given that existence is nine tenths of the law, so to speak). And from the point of view of any actually existing person the factors that made them who they are now were desirable in as much as they had that effect (although they may have been undesirable at the time and their continued existence may be undesirable). Certainly they would mind an alteration of those influences, causing them to cease to exist and be replaced by someone else. Since this is true for all people at all times we might conclude that whatever influences do happen to bring people into existence are acceptable, and certainly not to be condemned. However, such reasoning might seem to dodge the real problem to some significant extent, since it would essentially lead us to endorse everything that occurs, while missing the fact that we might wish to condemn things in some absolute sense based on a comparison as to how well off the people existing with such things existing are compared to those who would exist were such things to be eliminated. For example, it is clear that were wars to be eliminated different people would exist than would in a world were war existed. Obviously it is good for the people who would exist, were wars to continue, to exist. But, in a comparison between the two the people who would exist without war are better off than them, and so we may condemn war in an absolute sense, even though it would be tantamount to suicide if we somehow erased the wars that had previously occurred. Using such a standard we might ask whether people as a whole would be better off were they to be freed from external influences. Surprisingly the answer might be “yes”, despite the fact that some external influences can be beneficial. You see conflicts within a person’s desires can lead to a life that is less than optimal, from their own point of view. And, it seems reasonable to say, a person who is influenced by external factors is more likely to develop desires that conflict with their existing desires. Thus in some absolute sense people as a whole might be better off were they to be freed from such external influences.

But, regardless of whether such freedom is desirable in absolute terms, we can’t eliminate the influence of external forces on our personality. Our psychology is such that we are naturally disposed to mimic other people, and this is one common way in which who we are is changed by the external world. And certainly we can’t rationally try to do away with our tendency to mimic each other; it is only because of it that we have such things as language and society. The best we could hope for then would be to be exposed to only those external factors that are “compatible” with who we already our, which don’t give rise to conflicting desires. But, even given that limited goal I don’t see any obvious changes that we might make to help people avoid “incompatible” external forces, which are compatible and which are incompatible varies from person to person, and thus no sweeping changes will be good for everyone. The best we can hope for is that individuals exercise good judgment on their own, which they are already free to do.

Unfortunately these musings haven’t really provided us with any useful advice or strategies. However, we can use them to answer a question I left open yesterday, namely whether a society that manipulates the desires of the individuals within it on a large scale can be a good one. And, considering what we have established here, the answer must be no. By creating external influences that affect almost everyone uniformly we are almost certain to increase the number of conflicts that arise within the desires of those individuals, because while some people will be compatible with the desires being encouraged not everyone will be. And thus, in an absolute sense, such manipulation is a bad thing.

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