Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

Who Am I?

Connecting self-knowledge and human fulfillment

We place ourselves and others in many different categories, as a way of understanding both them and ourselves. These categories may include ethnicity, nationality, political views, moral beliefs, and religious identity. We also are defined in many ways by the central relationships in our lives: husband, wife, mom, dad, friend, partner, son, or daughter. Here, I want to focus on an idea related to our self-concept that should receive more attention than it does.

In his book, The Sources of the Self, contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor argues that a key part of our identity is made up of what he calls our strong evaluations. These are judgments about what is good, moral, and valuable, especially as these judgments are connected with what makes human life meaningful. As Taylor puts it,

To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand.  My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand (p. 27).

If we lose these commitments and identifications, we “would be at sea” and “wouldn’t know anymore…what the significance of things was” for us (p. 27). I believe that this is one reason that political, ethical, and religious discussions tend to become volatile—when someone challenges one or more of our strong evaluations, it can feel as if our very identity is at stake. I think that part of the reason we feel this way is that we often fail to think about whether or not our views are true, and what evidence there might be for them. Then, when someone challenges our strong evaluations, the latent insecurity we have about these beliefs (and given their role in our lives, our very selves), is brought to the surface. But we can avoid this.

These strong evaluations are crucial parts of our identity, and so it is important that we know both what we believe about such things and why we believe what we do. It is also important to think about whether or not our lives are consistent with our beliefs. Unfortunately, we often get so caught up in everyday life that we don’t take the time to reflect upon our strong evaluations, and on the extent to which our lives align with them.

With this in mind, it may be helpful to engage in the following exercise. First, write down several of what you think are your most central strong evaluations. Next, underneath each one of these, jot down a few reasons for thinking that it might be true. That is, what evidence is there which supports the truth of each of these judgments? If you have little evidence, or insufficient evidence, for one of these judgments, it would be good to do some reading related to it. Then, you may garner evidence for your belief, or you may find that you ought to have a different belief more in line with the relevant evidence.

The foregoing has to do with rational consistency and our strong evaluations. But practical consistency is important as well. Practical consistency in this context means that our actual choices and actions line up with our strong evaluations. That is, we live our lives in ways that are consistent with our judgments about what is truly valuable and meaningful in life. If I say I value my relationship with my wife and kids more than my career, but spend an inordinate amount of time devoted to my job rather than my family, then I am not being practically consistent. As human beings, we should expect that we will fall short in this way. However, as human beings, we can make progress. We can change for the better. When we do so, we are more likely to have a good, fulfilling, and meaningful life.

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Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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