Morality vs. Identity …

<< Morality vs. Identity !

Two pages are filled and still the initial question has been left unanswered. Having accorded the restrained credit to psychology for its statistical performance, it is preferable to continue the analysis with the perspective of philosophy by starting with the famous Socratic belief that : “to know the good is to do the good”. Human nature seems to be such that when a person makes a decision, choice or undertakes an action, he or she has to have a “good” reason, or at least a “defendable” reason to do so. Even among the mean personalities it is presumably verified. For those who have seen the Kubrik’s famous : “A clockwork orange” film, the evil side seems to cling onto a “just” cause. When the main character “Alex” subdues his companions in a brawl to reclaim his leader’s status alongside a canal alley, what is currently being unfolded in his mind is the Thieving Magpie from Rossini. The music represents the driving agent behind his actions, his motives. He is convinced that he is doing a rightful action because he knows best about how things should be or not. Whether from an exterior point of view, what he does is right or wrong is another matter. Arguably, without his stooges and/or his family; he is but nothing. And so his belief in his self, self-esteem, crumbles. It would suggest that evil arises from collective aggregating, but this is another issue.

What comes out of this story is the fact that the “good” in the Socratic belief depends presumably on the “self”. Therefore, “to know” and “to do”also varies from self to self.

Whether it goes from Descartes and Spinoza on the rational hand, Kant in between or Locke and Hume on the empirical hand, modern and traditional philosophies differentiate the sphere of “the self” and the sphere of “the outside”. In the end, their argument lies in the belief of whether the outer sphere can be reproduced from within (with reason) or from without (with senses), or both. In other words, from the engineer’s perspective: the problematic is the one of Kalman filtering.

Whoever it may be, a philosopher will not deny the existence of perception, and thus the distinction between reality and representation. In a similar way, a person is constituted of his “self” whose representation is arguably his “identity”. It is through his or her identity that one interacts with the outer sphere and sets his or her aims. The mere fact of having to take decisions after decisions, make choice after choice implies that there is a strong call for a purpose or a driving directional motive for making such choices or decisions. Living randomly is not viable neither plausible. Any person needs to hold onto some principles, beliefs or dogmas that shape their understanding of what is good or bad, and therefore that orient their choice-making process. Kierkegaard emphasised this existential need, to relate to the exterior through subjective freedom. He was concerned with how higher sciences and practices contribute to an individual’s life. This underlines the necessity for gathering up a coherent and reliable personal identity which also embodies an ethical perspective.

How reliable and cohesive can an identity be ? Merely possessing an identity does not guarantee the fact of adhering to it. One’s beliefs and principles if they are frail can be baffled by larger society-based ways of conduct. “Being a teenager, I don’t have a smartphone because I think that it secludes people more than it brings them together. But my only friend at school keeps telling me that my belief actually is much more secluding than the fact of possessing a smartphone. I cannot assert counter arguments because what he is saying is objectively true. In the end, I resigned my original belief.”

This is where “self-esteem” plays a central role. There is a distinction to be made between a person’s identity and the steadiness of the bond to its bearer. Building an identity is thus tightly linked to strengthening it. This applies for any activity. A person who is learning how to cook will never be able to reinforce his or her identity as a person who loves cooking if he or she actually never pulls off his or her nose away from the steps of a recipe book. More broadly to an individual, it is more important to contribute, create and imagine, than to watch, follow and abide. This individual need can derive toward more dodgy behaviours. There is often some appealing feeling associated with the fact of bending rules, trying forbidden or disapproved actions or playing with hazard.

These conjectures underline three facts about self-esteem. First, that it is perceived as being crucial for an individual’s sense of self. There is no point in having an identity if one cannot trust in his or her actions.

Second, that building up self-esteem is mainly, if not exclusively, done by assuming the role of an actor as opposed to the one of a spectator. Having read all the books about space cannot replace the experience of having actually been in space. This is not unrelated to the “knowledge argument” of Frank Jackson, available among other sources in the [SEP].

Third, that soon there can be an entangled conflict between building up identity and self-esteem. This conflict can take the form of the very popular act of “selling one’s soul to the devil”. In the movie “Limitless”, a writer is given the choice of enhancing his ability to write lucidly and productively, thus raise his identity as a writer, however at the (not exclusive) cost of lowering his self-esteem by becoming nearly fully dependant on a drug.

At the scale of the individual it seems as if his identity and his self-esteem were all that mattered. Amazingly, morality has never had anything to do with this. It merely occupies a secondary role in the mind of an individual being. The fact that a person observes a moral rule is either because it coincides with his/her perception of moral ethics or because not following it would impede on his/her personal identity.

In the Middle-Ages in Western Europe, it was seen as moral to denounce a person unfaithful to the (Catholic) Church. The vast majority followed that rule and wouldn’t leave heretics alone. The Cathars were an example of a religious movement that separated its purposes and beliefs from the Catholic Church. After razing the Cathar settlements, many Catholics pursued the fleeing survivors just for the sake of cutting their heads off, or torturing them to death. A vast majority of those perpetrators were not forced neither threatened of punishment to pursue the fleeing Cathars. Actually, the most avaricious among them were very motivated to plunder their wealth, just as it is the case today in exemplary conflicts.

Depending on whether one takes the view of objectivism, relativism or non-cognitivism, there are different conclusions that could be drawn from this historical fact. An objectivist would conclude that a person behaves morally only if doing so will have a positive impact or if not doing so would have a negative impact on his or her self. A relativist would conclude that any rule of conduct that raises or at least preserves the integrity of those who conform to it, can be turned into a moral rule. A non-conformist would probably conclude that being human a millennium ago was not the same as it is today. Our emotional stimuli may have evolved so that we have become more sensitive and compassionate.

All three of those points of view could be true or not. In the end, they altogether suggest that it is not essential to conform to moral ethics in order to live. However, it is impossible to continue on living without adhering to an identity. And as a result, it is not uncommon that people prioritise the actions that elevate or build up their identity over what they understand as moral behaviour. Another historical example is given by Stalin’s policy coined as the “cult of personality”. He sought to raise his image so high that he would “airbrush out of history” his opponents through non-moral means [King 1997].

The modern view suggests that there is more than one identity composing an individual’s self [Aquino, McFerran& Duffy, 2010]. Therefore, the centrality of one’s moral identity will determine whether he or she will choose the moral way or not. If moral identity required disgracing a substantial part of oneself’s other identities, it would lose its centrality. This is when the perception of an individual becomes almost arbitrary; a person with a very high but rarely central moral identity would be barely distinguishable from a person with a very low but always central moral identity. Besides, is it possible for moral identity to assume a fully central role ? In fact, many people fancy that the strict compliance to moral principles would probably end up in disabling the development of an identity. It is not moral not to give the food to the beggar if one has some. It is not moral to claim a parcel of earth as your own, when you’re not the one taking care of it. It is not moral to put your desires above the needs of others. And so on…

Most of these statements are an exaggeration. The status of morality usually reaches equilibrium when the needs of each stakeholder are balanced. But the point is that, either consciously or not, the first choice in our mind will always be the one that favours or strengthens our sense of identity or self-esteem. And if we identify ourselves as someone who always thinks first about others, so be it : we will think first about others because it strengthens our sense of identity !

This is when it becomes discomforting to the mind; the vision of humans as little balls full of greed constantly trying to inflate at any cost, and occasionally at the expense of all the other greedy balls. Is our nature really so egocentric ? Do we act for the good just because we expect a reward ? Is morality reduced to the mere fact of keeping our conscience clean ?

It is not a psychological matter, but a philosophical one.

And since it is a philosophical matter, each individual is supposed to find an answer on his or her own.

A random rationalist would presumably argue that our biggest weakness is also the saviour of the miserable aspect of such greedy vocation for building up an identity. We cannot help but being affected by the judgement of the “other greedy balls”. The viability of our identity is compromised by the good condition the identity of others. As a result, when we’re observing a moral behaviour, it is because we have certainty or belief that it will somehow pay-off to us.

Whereas a non-cognitivist would presumably argue that it is human instinct combined with emotions that saves us from thinking only about ourselves.

A poet would write a poem describing a four-lettered word without ever mentioning it explicitly.

Kant provided us with a different view; the one know as the “categorical imperative”. It could be pictured as a unique mountain to the elevation of personal identity with a countless number of sides but only one peak, that is : the absolute feeling of moral behaviour supported by the universal moral law; acting for Humanity per se.

HOWEVER, except for the poet’s argument, the essence of these justifications lies on the fact of postulating the nature of an individual agent’s behaviour to be established on solid ground. Either we believe in our rational sense, or we follow undeniably our motor feelings. Before doing so, it requires for us to make a choice and henceforth to rely on an identity. This paragraph holds the key-centre to the whole discussion of this article. As a matter of fact, it is impossible for one to act as a moral agent if one’s identity and self-esteem are transparent or weak. If one does not know who he is, then he will not be able bring forth rational or assured decisions upon his behaviour. Hence, an absence of identity is related to an absence of morality.

The answer proposed to the very first question entitling this article is that identity precedes morality.

In order to set foothold in a moral ground, it is essential to know in advance who we are. Doing so prevents us from being conformists as opposed to ethicists. Paradoxically, it is thereby necessary for an individual to acknowledge his or her intrinsic part of egocentrism in order to be able to chase off egoism and selfishness. When the one always so serious behind the mirror begins to smile back, when talking is the same as listening, when showing is the same as watching, when a goal is not just an instruction, when personal failure resolves in the feeling alike unpinning a spine in the soul, when solitude is not daunting but soothing, when questioning starts to feel as comfortable as walking, when joy is like a fire that doesn’t burn around but inside, when the moment is regarded as a privilege instead of a sentence… then only it is possible to withstand selfishness, jealousy, anger, disgust, denial or pride, and after then, to lay a genuine helping hand to others. They say there is an African proverb saying : “be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt”. It is pretty straightforward to realise what it would mean to say in this context.

The fact that identity precedes morality; isn’t it a recursive problem? Identity must first be established then moral behaviour will emerge, but ethics are one of the strongest pillars supporting an identity’s core ! Then how could someone be ever able to act morally ?

Luckily, none of us missed passing through childhood. A child on his own is self-centred from the beginning. It is hard for him to learn to acknowledge the needs of other children like him. This fact was and still is observed and validated a great number of times by many different psychologists independently. Up to this point, I have implicitly implied (whatever that means) that setting up an identity is a personal process. Yet, parents or any adult in charge of nurturing a child will accompany him through his personal difficulties and bequeath their own ethical views on him as a model. And this leads us to a next problematic: can an identity be imposed on someone by others ? Can identity be modelled from the exterior ?

In attempting an answer, it would cast us somewhere off-topic. Instead, I would like to spare some trouble and conclude with Sartre’s famous statement:

“L’homme est condamné à être libre”…


  • [Aquino & Reed, 2002] : Aquino, K., & Reed, A., The self-importance of moral identity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2002, 83
  • [L. Glenn et al., 2010] : Moral identity in psychopathy Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 5, No. 7, December 2010, pp. 497–505
  • [Aquino, McFerran& Duffy, 2010] :McFerran, Aquino & Duffy, How Personality and Moral Identity Relate to Individuals’ Ethical Ideology, Business Ethics Quarterly 20:1 (January 2010);
  • [King, 1997] : King, D. The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia. 1997.

One thought on “Morality vs. Identity …

  1. Pingback: Morality vs. Identity ! – noixelfereflexion

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