21 June 2011

What exactly is a person’s ‘true self’?

Person X is usually kind, generous and courteous. But sometimes she can also be mean, petty and boorish. Which description would she regard as representing her ‘true self’? Which one would her family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances consider to be her ‘real’ character?

Now let’s expand on the above. Say that Person X is characteristically kind, generous and courteous. But when she gets drunk, she undergoes a Jekyll and Hyde transformation into a mean, petty and boorish person. So, which version of Person X is her true self?

In the first case, one might say that Person X is a complex combination of both positive and negative traits, though she may prefer to consider the positive traits as her true self while others may choose to focus on her negative qualities. In the second case, there are two possible responses:

  1. Person X revealed her true, horrible self when drunkenness made her drop her fake mask of good character.
  2. Person X is really a kind, generous and courteous person, since it required something as drastic as getting absolutely pissed in order to change her personality.

This thought experiment presumes that there is such a thing as a ‘true self’. But does such a thing actually exist?

Philosopher Joshua Knobe has written an interesting article on popular conceptions of the term ‘true self’. He uses the following anecdote to raise the same questions posed above.

Mark Pierpont used to be an important figure in the evangelical Christian effort to help “cure” gay people of their homosexual desires. He started out just printing up tracts and handing them out in gay bars, but his ministry grew over time, and eventually he was traveling the world and speaking to crowds that sometimes numbered in the thousands. There was just one problem. Mark Pierpont himself was gay. He continued to feel sexual desires toward other men and was constantly engaged in an effort to suppress them. In the documentary film “Protagonist,” Pierpont movingly describes his inner conflict, saying that he sometimes felt an almost physical revulsion at his own desires and would then think: “Good. I hate this. I hate sin, just like God hates sin.”

Leaving aside the story’s unsavoury religiosity, Mark Pierpont is, like our Person X above, caught by this question: which is Pierpont’s true self? The gay man who is undeniably attracted to other men, or the devout Christian who has renounced homosexuality? And like Person X, the answer depends on the perspective of the one giving it. As Knobe writes:

One person might look at his predicament and say: “Deep down, he has always wanted to be with another man, but he somehow picked up from society the idea that this desire was immoral or forbidden. If he could only escape the shackles of his religious beliefs, he would be able to fully express the person he really is.”

But then another person could look at exactly the same case and arrive at the very opposite conclusion: “Fundamentally, Pierpont is a Christian who is struggling to pursue a Christian life, but these desires he has make it difficult for him to live by his own values. If he ever gives in to them and chooses to sleep with another man, he will be betraying what is most essential to the person he really is.”

Each of these perspectives seems like a reasonable one, at least worthy of serious consideration. So it seems that we are faced with a difficult philosophical question. How is one to know which aspect of a person counts as that person’s true self?

Knobe presents two views from which an answer to his question can be derived. There is the philosophical view, and the ‘common sense’ view. The philosophical view argues that:

[…] what is most distinctive and essential to a human being is the capacity for rational reflection. A person might find herself having various urges, whims or fleeting emotions, but these are not who she most fundamentally is. If you want to know who she truly is, you would have to look to the moments when she stops to reflect and think about her deepest values.

This perspective would say that Pierpont’s true self is the Christian one who reins in his homosexual desires, because they are “not the real him”.

However, the ‘common sense’ view takes the opposite position:

The true self […] lies precisely in our suppressed urges and unacknowledged emotions, while our ability to reflect is just a hindrance that gets in the way of this true self’s expression. To find a moment when a person’s true self comes out […] one needs to look at the times when people are so drunk or overcome by passion that they are unable to suppress what is deep within them.

So of course, this perspective would say that Pierpont’s homosexuality is part of who he really is as a person.

Knobe (perhaps predictably) resolves this conflict by stating that “neither of these two perspectives fully captures the concept of a true self.”

The trouble is that both of them assume that the true self can be identified in some straightforward way with one particular part of a person’s psychology. But it seems that the matter is more complex. People’s ordinary understanding of the true self appears to involve a kind of value judgment, a judgment about what sorts of lives are really worth living. So people will tend to arrive at different judgments regarding the nature of Pierpont’s self depending on whether they think that a homosexual lifestyle truly is a valuable one.

And there lies the gist of this whole matter. The concept of a ‘true self’ is tied to a person’s subjective values. Knobe goes on to describe an experiment he carried out to test this hypothesis, but although he admits that a single study is insufficient to form any solid conclusions, nonetheless the idea that an objective ‘true self’ exists appears untenable.

Russell Blackford has commented on Knobe’s article. He argues that the concept of a ‘true self’ creates a false distinction between all the traits that one possesses:

The thing is, I am constituted by, among other things, all of my desires. There is no sub-set that is my “true” self. If I have a desire to have sex while wearing a rubber wetsuit, while also thinking that there is something depraved about having sex in a rubber wetsuit, while also wondering whether my judgments about what is or is not “depraved” are justifiable, then all of the above is part of me. [emphasis Blackford’s]

Sounds right to me. Going back to Person X, her ‘self’ consists of all her traits, good and bad. To say that certain traits are her ‘true’ self is to impose a distinction that is arbitrary because as Knobe observed, the distinction depends on the values of the one making it. Just as Mark Pierpont’s ‘true self’ depends on whether the one making the distinction (either Pierpont himself or others) considers homosexuality to be valuable or not.

Basically, all this talk of ‘true selves’ is sustained by a belief in a kind of dualism: there is an authentic ‘me’ that stands apart from the mess of desires, impulses and other unconscious mental processes that are (supposedly) not ‘me’. But this separation is a false one. Our entire consciousness springs from a single source – the brain. The ‘real me’ label is something we choose to apply to those aspects of our consciousness that we prefer to identify with. When we protest that “this isn’t really who I am”, what we’re really saying is “this particular facet of my character is something I’d rather not accept as part of who I am.”

Respectable and shameful, noble and base, all our actions, thoughts and proclivities make up our ‘self’. Authenticity doesn’t figure into it. In fact, when we define an ‘authentic’ or ‘true’ self and take it as a standard to measure ourselves by, all we’ve done is cherry-picked the bits about our character that we feel attached to for whatever reason and appointed the collection as representing our ‘true self’. We like the concept of a ‘true self’ because it flatters us.


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