Is my identity determined by my choices and my actions? Or does my identity determine the choices I make and the actions I take? Do we make up ourselves as we go along, each choice and action working like a brush of paint, a chip of the sculptor’s chisel, a sentence of the writer, bringing ever so slowly a human work of art into view? Or are these artistic maneuvers driven by the artwork itself, leading us to slowly find out who we are, who we were all along? Do we ‘merely’ become who we are? Are we invented or discovered? (The question of which of these views Nietzsche was committed to has often caused much debate among those who read him.) Perhaps we are a bit of both, part invention, dynamically created, and part discovery, revealed by our intellectual and moral commitments.
Our answers to these questions reveal a great deal about the kind of entity we take ourselves to be, one supposedly the subject of ethical theorizing. And, thinking about the choices we make and the actions we take–that is, the kind of person we become and make ourselves into–and their placement within the network of choices made by others is of course, one of the concerns of ethical and moral theory. Our choices and actions do not, after all, exist in isolation; they bear on others, affecting the trajectories of their lives, the contours of their decision-making.
This influence goes both ways so that the unilateral picture which we might have had in mind when we began asking our questions above acquires further complexity: we might be locked into a co-determining relationship with other moral agents, our identities slowly constructed in a tightly coupled complex system made up of interacting agents. One of the perils of living an inauthentic life, as we come to learn (hopefully) quickly, is that it can make others’ lives false too. (Consider for instance, the gay man, repressing his desires in order to fit in and conform, marrying and ‘settling down’. all the while not-belonging, looking elsewhere, and making himself and his partner–and sometimes his children–live a lie.) These considerations, do not, though, detract from the central linkage of the question ‘Who Am I?’ with the question ‘How Should I Act?’ or more broadly and traditionally, ‘What Is the Right Thing To Do?’
These rough approaches to framing the ethical issues surrounding the question ”Who Am I’ underwrote some of the discussions my students and I participated in last week (in my Philosophical Issues in Literature class, which I wrote about earlier this week.) Teasing them out from a reading of literary works has proven as invigorating as I hoped and has served to confirm my intuitions–bolstered by my experience in using feminist science fiction on my reading list for Philosophy of Feminism a few years ago–that literature can help us think philosophically by dramatically illustrating the bare bones of a philosophical problem, and by locating it within the very particular concerns of beings just like us.