October/November 2011

Ideology and the Self

Written by Will Willkinson

JOSHUA KNOBE, a pioneer in the field of "experimental philosophy" at Yale University has contributed a fascinating piece to the New York Times' online philosophy forum on the intuitions of ordinary folk about what constitutes the "true self"
So what has this to do with politics? A great deal, it seems. Mr Knobe and his colleagues, the psychologists George Newman and Paul Bloom, suspected that intuitions about the true self largely reflect prior ideological commitments. So they concocted scenarios designed to elicit different judgments from conservative and liberal subjects. Their "conservative items" describe a person changing in a way one would expect conservatives to approve of. Their example:
“Jim used to be homosexual. However, now Jim is married to a woman and no longer has sex with men.”
How much do you agree with the following statement?
At his very essence, there was always something deep within Jim, calling him to stop having sex with men, and then this true self emerged.”

Likewise the liberal items, such as:
“Ralph used to make a lot of money and prioritized his financial success above all else. However, now Ralph works in a job where he does not make a lot of money and benefits others.”
How much do you agree with the following statement?
At his very essence, there was always something deep within Ralph, calling him to stop prioritizing his financial success above all else, and then this true self emerged.”

The results?

The results showed a systematic connection between people’s own values and their judgments about the true self. 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.”

This shows just how thoroughly ideological we are. Our broadly political commitments reverberate even in our judgments about the metaphysics of the self. The authentic self is the ideologically-validated self. This may help explain the widespread tendency to see those with whom we fundamentally disagree as victims of "false consciousness". We cannot help but suspect that they are in the grip of some kind of illusion, while we are clear-eyed and at home in the world as it is. Our ideological opposites are not only at war with truth, but alienated from their true selves. For conservatives, liberals who convert to conservatism have finally mastered their pathetic, craven yearning for "establishment" approval, summoned the courage to embrace the plain truth and declaim the corrosive, pretty lies of liberalism, opening up the possibility of a life happily in sync with the laws of nature, God and country. For liberals, conservatives who convert to liberalism have overcome hateful prejudice and tapped into the essentially human compassion and instinct for justice that allows us finally to acknowledge and lament our past complicity in maintaining the superstructure of privilege and exploitation entailed by the free- market, limited-government "ideal". And when our ideological comrades defect, they are lost not only to us, but to themselves.

My own view is that the sense of a stable self is an evolutionary construction with a certain social function, which our intuitions about authenticity reflect. The primary human means of survival is social cooperation. But cooperation is fragile. We need to trust one another to follow through, to not take advantage. Coordinating on a common moral ideology facilitates cooperation, but only if we all stick to it. We cannot make others trust that we will stick to it if we cannot trust ourselves not to opportunistically change our stripes. So we build a sense of self upon the shared moral ideology of our local culture. We come to feel that to betray these values would be to betray the essential self. To prize integrity is to fear disintegration. To violate our constitutive values is to risk falling apart. This fear of falling apart—of losing one's self, of standing for nothing—prods us to keep our oaths, to pull our weight, and thus to be truly trustworthy, even when it would be to our advantage, in some sense, to cheat. So the sense of self enables social cooperation. But what matters most is not so much the content of our moral ideology, but simply that we all stay pretty much the same over time, so that we can continue to trust ourselves and one another. This is not to say that the values upon which we build stable, cooperation- enabling senses of self can be anything at all. But anything that works works, and probably there are many moral ideologies that work reasonably well.

It's not really true, despite our fears, that we will be lost to ourselves if we forsake our defining values. And it is not really true that when others forsake their old defining values for ours, they become more fully what they are. Still, as Mr Knobe and his colleagues show, we tend to think it is.