Archive for the 'identity' Category


Documentary on Solitude

I’m planning on reading a book pretty soon about solitude and the value of being alone, and as with all subjects more and more knowledge is the best way to start thinking broadly and creatively.

So when I saw this documentary, I was really entranced. This photographer, Alec Soth goes around finding people who are hermits or monks or are otherwise completely withdrawn from the world. He then tries to capture their withdrawal, and some of the shots are really stunning. My only quibble is that some of the subjects don’t really seem to fit the project. And what I mean is that some of the people seem to be straightforwardly suffering from very serious mental disorders. So it’s not completely about withdrawal (which to me implies a purposive decision) but about neglect as well.


Motivation versus Actions: friendship

I’ve said many times on this blog that motivation matters to the values we can work with. It’s not just what we do but why we do them.

For example, if you see your friend in the hospital out of duty and not out of a desire to see your friend, you may harm the value of your gesture.

Also, here’s a scenario (that I think mainly effects guys, but I’m open to being enlightened). A girl says “I noticed you didn’t do X.” Guy says “o you want me to do X, fine, consider it done.” Then the girl says “No, I don’t want you to do it because I asked. I want you  to want to do it on your own.”

Very infuriating sometimes, but I confess, the point is actually an interesting one, which is that some gestures only have value if they are NOT DERIVATIVE. If someone has a desire to try and accommodate his girlfriend on various things, and finds out that she wants him to take out the trash, and then he forms a desire to take out the trash, his desire is derivative because it came from his desire to do some things she wants. But the point the girlfriend is making is that such gestures lose their power unless they are original. She was hoping that he would want to do this for her, not because he wants to do the things she wants him to do, but because he wants to help her in the kitchen, or whatever.

Anyway, all this is leading to a small point about friendship. I manage my time very carefully, and I try to leave MORE THAN ENOUGH time leftover for friends, so that if someone calls and asks to hang out at a random time, I can say yes. But there is a difference I find between having enough time and more than enough time for friends. If you have just enough time, you have to think carefully before going out with friends. You have to bring them into close competition with other duties. But, if you budget more than enough time for friends, than you can leap instinctively to hang out or help without having to weigh friendship up against other things you have to do.

The two are not different in principle, but if my point about motivation is right, then being able to accept invitations to hang out instinctively instead of deliberately might make a real difference to the way one experiences friendship. I know for me that I feel much happier when I know that I’ve kept a very healthy bubble of time in my schedule so that I can say yes to a friend as if it were the only thing I was planning to do that day.


dressing well, politeness, religion, and fraternities

I’ve been working on a big paper for the past few days so I haven’t had time to post, but was recently thinking about whether there is a value to dressing well. All my life, I thought the answer was a clear no. What does it matter what you look like? In defense of this position, I uttered all the angry anti-superficiality slogans that one often hears. What matters is on the inside, if I do a good job at work, why do I have to dress well, suits are uncomfortable…and so on. I still don’t dress well and I don’t think I will anytime in the future, but I can see now how dressing well can be valuable.

My main justification for this change of heart has to do with respect, and the analogy that dressing well has with politeness. Rules of etiquette are, in general, obsolete holdovers from aristocratic traditions of the 19th century, but rules of politeness are different. Saying thank you, you’re welcome, holding doors, and stepping out of people’s way while saying excuse me are all ways of manifesting respect for other people. I don’t know the stranger that I hold the door for and I’ve never met the shopkeeper who I say thank you to, but by taking these steps, I acknowledge their value and their worth in a simple way. I think some cynics are inclined to dismiss this argument, but I don’t think the rules of politeness can be so easily done away with. As a former waiter, I can testify that there is a huge difference between customers who treat you as a servant versus a server. When treated as the former, one is merely an object that is supposed to attend to the table without being heard or seen. There is no respect and so no politeness. When treated as the latter, one is treated a person or an identity worthy of respect, even if this identity is an subservient and helpful role. The difference between treating someone as server instead of a servant is the difference between a helpful role and a submissive one.

What does this have to do with dressing well? Well, I think in some circumstances, dressing well is a sign of respect. When you show up to a business meeting in casual clothes, it shows that you don’t care. You may care very deeply about the other participants, as some impolite people care very deeply about others, but you will not express that concern. Insofar as someone does care about meeting the other board members, or his girlfriend’s parents, or his friend’s grandfather, a clean and nice set of clothes expresses that intention and makes it manifest. Weddings and funerals are other classic examples. Showing up to a funeral without a suit smacks of indecency and unconcern.

But this is not to say that dressing well is something to obsess about or that all the instances of proper dressing in our society are manifestations of respect. They certainly are not. Some people dress well out of vanity, some dress well out of a kind of desire to awe or intimidate, and some dress well to display their wealth and separate themselves from others.

And to return to the beginning of the story, these bad reasons for dressing well is why I originally thought that dressing well was ALWAYS bad. I only picked up on the exclusionary and trivial reasons for dressing well and never took notice of the value of doing so in the right context. The lesson is general: oftentimes we miss values that are right in front of us because we only see their ugly flipside. Some people see religion (my examples are all about Christianity here) as dangerous because of its dogmas about sexuality, or the inquisition, or the crusades, or any number of other grievances, but in doing soon, one overlooks the other side of the coin. Religion (Christianity again) is responsible for orphanages, huge amounts of other types of charity, and people who are genuinely loving and open (of course I’m aware that some are just angry hypocrites, but again, good and bad is present). I think this sort of dual-nature applies to many things that there is sharp partisanship about. A trivial but I think useful example is fraternities. Some people think they are misogynistic, homophobic, exclusionary, and disruptive. Personally, I think they are, in general, all of these things. But not always and not to the exclusion of being other things too. They are also a host of other things such as fraternal (duh), fun, wild and social. They cultivate leadership, democracy, independence, and responsibility, and yes, they do some charity too (though I laugh when fraternities defend themselves in university newspapers by pointing to their charity. Gimme a break. Gimme a fucking break.) Now, this does not mean that we cannot pass judgments on things like fraternities or religions when everything is tallied up (are they the same thing?), but just to realize that genuine value can be concealed by disvalue and vice versa.


a defense of tattoos

Roughly one third of all people aged 18-25 in the U.S. have a tattoo, and I think that tattoos actually have a lot of value. In the past they were used spiritually or to demonstrate authority, and in today’s society, I think they serve valuable purposes as a kind of indestructible memory (tattoos of mourning or of love or ones that just remind you of that night you made that horrible mistake…) or a form of art. To be fair, there are more trivial uses of them and I wonder if some people really get tattoos with the proper reverence for the value that they serve, just as some drug users might have a very instrumental relationship to the drugs they take (see here). But who cares, not every action has to express some deep value or commitment. Some things are just fun or whimsical.

What I want to emphasize though is certain stodgy or intellectualized disdain for tattoos. The argument usually goes like this “you shouldn’t get a tattoo because chances are you won’t like it when you’re older.”

This argument is simply invalid. Later disapproval is not a reason for current inaction. Who knows what you’ll be like in ten years. Maybe you will be bitter and unemployed or hopelessly conservative or any number of things. In other words, there is no reason to let the judgment of your later self trump the judgment of you now. Also, the disapproval of your later self might be a reason to get a tattoo. The tattoo might remind your later self of what you used to be like and can serve as a reminder of the possibility of change and warning against prejudice. What I mean is that the beliefs of people harden as they age, and they develop a category of knowledge they call “common sense” but usually there is nothing common about it, and it’s usually not that sensible either. So, the remedy is to intersperse various reminders about how different one used to be. For example, I used to be a libertarian, I’m not anymore. This reminds me often about how what I currently believe might be a sham. This galvanizes my thought and my curiosity, and this is all for the better.



When someone says “you are such a fag” we view this as a very offensive type of insult. What exactly makes it worse than say, “you are such a loser.” And is this insult always worse than a more generic insult like “you are such a loser.”

An answer will depend on how we insult people. I see three ways.

The first way involves comparing them to something objectively bad or undesirable. Something like “you are such a nazi” functions by equating the person to something that really is bad.

Another way to insult someone is to claim that they have betrayed their fundamental principles or have become something that they, by their own lights, would like not to be. We might say to the starving bohemian artist “you are so bourgeois.” The sting of this insult comes from claiming that this artist has betrayed his principles and has become something he does not want to be.

A third way of insulting someone is to claim that they are something that society frowns upon, though it may not be bad in itself. I think “you’re such a fag” falls into this category. We think that this insult is wrong because it relies on a misstaken public judgment to the effect that there is something being wrong with being gay. Unlike the nazi case, there seems to be no reason other than prejudice to claim a fault with being gay. So, the insult then is a mischaracterization of an acceptable and in some cases desirable way of life.

There is much more to be said on this topic, but my point is that calling some gay in an accusatory way may sometimes function in mode 3 above. In other words, you could be claiming that the person is something that they do not want to be. We could imagine a gay person saying to another gay person “you are so straight” and mean this as an insult in the context, as implying that the person is somehow not being true to who they are. In some cases, I do think that such identity based insults are meant in this way, to attract attention to a betrayal of principles, and this seems much less offensive. The claim is merely that the person is something that they do not wish to be, and even though, as I believe, there is nothing wrong with being gay, someone may be insulted by being labeled as something do not wish to be.

I’m not certain that this is right, and as I said before, there may be more that needs to be said. For example, the insulted person may have no reason not to want to be gay, and so again, the insult may take its force merely from prejudice.


another problem with existence — the identity problem

This example comes from Derek Parfit.

Imagine that someone could have a kid when she was 16 or wait until she was 25. If she waits, she can care for the kid better and he will have a better life than if she decides to have a kid when she’s 16.

We think that it would be better for her to wait and worse to have a kid when she cannot care for it as well as she could later on.

But the reason for this intuition that she should wait does not have to do with harming anyone. This is because her choice is not just about the welfare she can grant to a single person, but also a choice about the identity of her child. In other words, the kid she has at 16 will be different than the kid she has at 25 (for a variety of factors, one of which is the purely genetic reason that the egg that will grow into a person will be different at different times).

So, pretend she decides to have the kid at 16. We think this is a mistake, but waiting will not make this kid’s life any better. All waiting will do is result in a different person being born. Here’s another way to think about it. Imagine the girl has a kid at 16. Later, when he’s grown up, she tells him “I’m sorry I decided to have you so early in my life. That decision made your life much harder.” The kid might respond (if he’s a philosopher) “Don’t worry about it mom, if you hadn’t had me then, then you would have never had me, you would have had someone else. If you had waited, you would not have made my life any better. Rather, you would have just made my life never occur.”

One might take this to show that we should maximize total utility. The girl should wait until 25 because this decision will result in more total utility, even though generating less total utility by not waiting would not, in this case harm anyone. To put it another way, waiting would not benefit anyone (unless you count causing someone to exist as a benefit, see this post.) even though it would increase total utility.

But maybe the lesson is more narrow: that when faced with two options, one should maximize utility when neither choice will harm anyone. This is a much more limited role for utility maximization and thus more congenial to deontologists.


political morality verus individuality morality

In politics, we tend to think at the very least, governments should strive to treat their citizens equally. It’s wrong to impose burdens on one group just for the sake of burdening them (indeed, this would just be oppression) Alternatively, privileging one group (like funding the group’s religion) without doing the same for other groups is also a type of discrimination. This is well in line with the view that morality should reflect the equal moral worth of all people.

However, one large problem for this view of morality is that it forbids partiality. Can I save my mom instead of two other strangers from some danger. What entitles me to bestow my estate to my children versus other people that may have a claim to it?

Anthony Appiah’s answer to this question is that politics and individual life are two different realms. In politics, we must treat all equally, but in individual life, we are allowed, and sometimes required, to treat people differently depending on our ties to them.

Thus, Appiah denies what I call the congruence hypothesis, which is that morality and politics should be aligned. Politics should be an extension of morality or, morality writ large. Appiah thinks that they are separate worlds governed by different rules.

In another post, I want to take up this question more fully, but for now, I have this observation which I think at least makes the presumption rest with congruence of incongruence: states are large agglomerations of individuals. Imagine a homogenous group that treats each other with special consideration. Pretend that this group creates a state and the state’s laws show favoritism to only people from their group and its practices. If these people can show favoritism in their individual lives, why can’t they now show favoritism when they act in concert? What about the creation of a state makes it impermissible to act with favoritism.