Action Cannot Be Identity

I keep saying I’m going to make predictions for the 2020 Democratic primary race, but frankly, that’s kind of boring. Those takes are a dime a dozen, and my thoughts on the matter are more suited for Twitter than this blog (be sure to give @DK24blog a follow). In one sentence, I think either Beto O’Rourke or Kamala Harris will win the nomination, depending on whether the Democrats respond to Trump strategically or out of anger. Whoever it is, I think they’ll will go on to beat Trump in 2020. If you want a more complex take, check out this link. If you are really curious about my thoughts at length, you can get in touch with me. And as things heat up, I’ll be here writing about them.

But there’s something more important that came back to me last night as I was waiting to fall asleep. About a year and a half ago I had a disagreement with a friend. Disagreement is a strong word, it was honestly a petty and irrelevant thing, something you usually don’t remember six hours later. The question at hand was about high school seniors using chalk to decorate their parking spaces. My friend asked me why I didn’t participate, and me being the snobby elitist I am, made some comment about how it was childish and kids these days needed to grow up. We talked about it for a while, and eventually she said “I don’t know why you’re calling me childish.”

I was slightly taken aback, for I didn’t think I had attacked her. Once again, going several levels deeper than a conversation about chalk warranted, I answered “I haven’t attacked you. I can judge your actions without attacking you as a person.”

She shrugged and said “I don’t know.”

Here, we see the problem (through a conversation about whether chalk is childish). I was told growing up, most distinctively through teachers and pop culture, this lie that¬†we are what we do. English teachers seemed to have a particular affinity for it. (I’ve noticed that in a secular academic landscape where religion is considered off-limits and philosophy is deemed irrelevant, the nursery for young people’s moral thoughts is the English classroom. It’s the only discipline abstract enough to consider moral problems.) A theme in one of my all-time favorite movies, Batman Begins, is this lie, when Batman tells Rachel Dawes “it’s not who I am on the inside, but what I do that defines me.”

I mean, it makes sense. If you murder someone, we call you a murderer. If you lie, that makes you a liar. It’s very utilitarian, perfect for the rationalist era. It might even be a humble assertion. For every action, there are potentially infinite motivations.¬† Trying to discern the underlying motivations or beliefs of any action is incredibly difficult, so difficult it’s often immoral to even try. To go a step further, and consider not just underlying beliefs, but the overarching state of being that undergirds those beliefs (what I’ll call the self), now that is just undoable. So we forsake valuing who we are on the inside, and what we do becomes who we are, and the judge of our self-worth.

Only this can’t be. If we are to have any sort of moral system, there must be a distinct notion of self, independent of what I do. Otherwise I can’t be corrected, and there can be no standards. Because let’s face it, there are things I do that are wrong. Correcting these failures would improve my relationships with those around me. But if I consider every correction an attack on who I am at a fundamental level, I’m never going to change.

It is impossible to have any moral system where our concept of self is not distinct from our actions. In that world, the necessary condemnation of our bad actions becomes a rejection of who we are. And if we define morals as the social constraints on individual self-interest (a functionalist definition I’m borrowing from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt), is it any wonder we’ve become so isolated, atomized, and self-interested to the point of being greedy? There’s no pursuit of the common good because there’s no moral system demanding it, and there can be no moral system when any moral system is a judgement on who we are.

I believe our moral problems come from an identity crisis. We can’t fathom that okay, maybe somethings I do are bad, but I am still valuable, and what I do doesn’t change that. Now, I am of course guilty of this as well. But we will never be able to make the journey to where we should be as long as we don’t understand who it is that is making that journey.

We need to find some way to understand that Batman was wrong. What we does not define us. Because a lot of what we do is bad. But we are valuable anyway.

All that from a conversation about sidewalk chalk in a parking lot.


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