Forward Thinking: The Ethics of Challenging Each Other’s Identities

Forward Thinking is a values development project run conjointly at the blogs Camels With Hammers and Love, Joy, Feminism. Twice each month we prompt bloggers to write about a topic in applied ethics. If you are a blogger, consider participating! Libby Anne has a round up of responses to June’s first prompt on the ideal social safety net. Below is an essay in which I try to make clear some thorny issues before soliciting bloggers’ feedback on the question of when and how it is ethically legitimate to challenge the beliefs and values that others take to be fundamental to who they are as people.

People’s identities matter to them as much as anything else. There is good reason for this. From a philosophy of personal identity standpoint, for centuries many philosophers have construed a person to be some web of beliefs, attitudes, memories, values, dispositions, habitual behaviors, formative experiences, etc. When people’s beliefs, values, habits drastically change we are tread an unclear line between speaking literally and metaphorically when we say that they have become “a different person”. A lot of philosophers would say that with enough changes in beliefs, behaviors, attitudes, etc., you really are different enough to be technically a different person in at least some morally relevant senses. And many people think that were you to have amnesia to the extent that your beliefs, values, habits, memories, memory of relationships and commitments, etc. were all wiped out you would be gone, effectively dead, and replaced with, effectively, a new person.

And people also actively construct their identities as part of a vital and inevitable process of making sense of their lives. No human can make up their life from scratch. We all are socialized from the time we are tiny and for every area of lives we have a ton of messaging to sift through as we figure it out. Some of us are exposed to wider or narrower ranges of options and opinions. We have varying role models, facts at our disposal, institutional guidance, formal education, abstract thought processes, etc. And we also have quite divergent interests from one another.

But at the end of the day, in each area of our lives we are, whether formally or informally, cued in to a number of reference points to guide our understanding of how to do what we intend to do in each area of our life. And we also gain from others a ton of influence with respect to what we think we should do, what is expected of us, and what is ultimately good for us. And ultimately our process of sifting out the approaches to life and to various parts of life becomes a process of identifying ourselves with certain people, institutions, practices, ideals, beliefs, norms, groups, skills, causes, careers, religions, sexualities, genders, ethnicities, values, commitments, hobbies, etc., and not with others. Ideally we custom fit these things we identify with so that we can express our individuality through them and not be subsumed by them. But these things are all bigger than simply us ourselves and by connecting ourselves to them, to one extent or another, we gain footholds for making sense of ourselves by reference to the better established senses that these things we identify with already have, which they lend to us.

So for all these reasons identities become deep parts of our psyches that we rely upon a great deal for forming ourselves, making sense of ourselves, for making choices, for assessing ourselves, for situating ourselves with respect to others, and for much more.

Because of this attacks on us that aim at parts of our lives that we personally take to be core to our identity can cut close to the bone. When someone is virulently opposed to the existence of your own beliefs, values, and practices, to a non-negligible extent they are opposed to your existence–at least as you presently are. And when they convey that they want you to change your beliefs, values, and practices, etc., they are demanding in a way that you as you are now stop being and that you be replaced by a someone different person instead. All this can sometimes be rightly be phrased and construed as personal attacks.

And this is where serious ethical challenges arise. To a great extent some of the most core parts of people’s identities are often very controversial. For many their religious beliefs or their gender identity or their sexual orientation or their value commitments, etc., become so central to people’s core understanding of who they are that any attempts to abstractly consider the correctness of their views on such matters are construed as inherently demeaning personal attacks.

Many people across the moral-political spectrum think there is something fundamentally off limits about calling into question philosophically the things that someone understands to be the fundamental core of who they are. And thus we get laws in more or less theocratic countries that more or less constrain the right to criticize, satirize, and “blaspheme” against religious beliefs and values because such are construed as egregious attacks on the very bearers of those beliefs and values themselves; those people whose very persons are not insignificantly composed of those very beliefs and values.

And on the other side of the spectrum, some of my gay friends report to me feeling like debates in legislative halls about their rights to marry amount to having their very status as persons insultingly put up as an open question for capricious, ignorant people to have a decisive say about. I have had commenters at my blog suggest that topics like the legitimacy of transgendered people’s understanding of gender or the moral approvability of homosexuality, etc. should be topics as far beyond the pale to debate by moral people as intolerable questions about whether blacks are people that, to our embarrassment, were (outrageously) treated seriously in mainstream white discourse none too long ago.

This is a gravely serious issue. It seems like if we are committed to reasoning about every area of life as rigorously as possible, we need to be able to allow any and all beliefs and values and practices to be subject to open, honest, sincere, evidential, rational scrutiny. But inevitably the most fundamental of these debates will expose many of us, if not all of us, to see some things that we feel are core to our very selves treated with some degree of unsympathetic skepticism that can feel threatening or demeaning by its very nature.

I personally do not see how this is avoidable consistent with a principled commitment to forming all our values through a process of free, honest, and open inquiry. And just as I am appalled that in many countries forthrightly expressing one’s atheism or engaging in homosexual sex is forbidden because deference to religious identities and values is enforced by law against atheist and gay consciences, I do not feel like I can protect my gay friends, whose full moral equality I support utterly and completely, by telling their religious foes in the anglo-forums I travel in that the things which go into gay identities are off limits to criticism but the things that go into religious identity are at the same time fair game.

Were I to say, “well, religious beliefs shouldn’t be part of people’s identities in the first place” that would only beg the question in favor of my anti-religious identity and pro-gay identity viewpoints. Religious people routinely think their religious beliefs absolutely should be a central (or, commonly, the central) component of their identities. And whereas I think obviously sexuality should be treated seriously as a matter of core identity, this is precisely a point of contention with those who want to say homosexual sex is wrong. (Nota bene: I do not mean to imply at all with this contrast that all religious people are anti-homosexuality or that all gays are anti-religious.)

Just as I want the more theocratic countries to honor the consciences of those atheists and gays that the religious majorities have contempt for, I need to allow for religious people to express their dissents to atheism and homosexuality that I have contempt for. I have to accept and advocate for some degree of distancing of ourselves from our most psychologically core beliefs and values and practices and commitments for the sake of argument that we may vindicate them on the honest grounds of reason and evidence.

My rule that guides my moderation judgments on my blog and my behavior in life with respect to these things is the following: I only criticize beliefs, values, behaviors, etc. in the abstract and not by disrespecting the individuals I am dealing with who identify with them. So, for example, if a commenter wanted to query and challenge transgendered people’s understandings of their genders, the commenter could only do that on an abstract level and with no gratuitous mockery or flippancy about the documentable anguish transgendered people suffer. The commenter is not allowed to call transgendered interlocutors by pronouns they reject or say directly to them “you’re really this or that gender”. If a transgendered person is going to have to tolerate for the sake of freedom of conscience others’ rights to doubt or query his or her claims about gender, it has to stay as an abstract exchange and not be aimed as a directly personal attack.

And similarly, I keep to criticizing the content of religious beliefs but try my best to avoid personalizing the criticisms of the religious interlocutors I encounter. I don’t make it about questioning their lives in ways that would become too personal. I don’t refuse to call religious leaders by their titles or treat individuals with interpersonal contempt for their personal theistic religious commitments. I stick to the substance of their claims and values that can be abstractly weighed independently of who they are as individual people.

This is the kind of strict separation that I think is necessary so that necessary, rationally vigorous conversations with hope to persuade people can happen that have any hope at all of not alienating away already marginalized people with a hostile, indifferent, or contemptuously detached environment that makes them feel objectified or depersonalized, with their fundamental identity disrespected. If these conversations cease altogether to protect the feelings of gays or to protect the feelings of religious people, etc., then people who are silenced but not persuaded (be they the critic of religion or the critic of homosexuality) feel imposed upon by a set of beliefs and values so weak and irrational that it shut down the whole arena for competing ideas rather than compete.

I do not want that to happen. I want theistic religious ideas and values to be forced into the arena of free rational debate where they lose over and over again, and where the more they lose the more cultural power they lose. And I want the cause of full gay moral equality to be able to fight in that same arena of public debate where its basic rightness wins again and again, and continuously gains in cultural power the longer the fight goes on.

So that’s my stance. I want to hear yours. So in two weeks I will publish blog posts e-mailed to me at camelswithhammers at gmail dot com that address any of the issues I raised above. To crystalize the topic, it is this: “How should we determine the moral lines with respect to what is right and wrong in challenging the beliefs, values, practices, etc. that contribute to people’s understandings of their identities? Are there differences in the ethics of such challenges that arise when they happen in differing sorts of contexts or when varying degrees of philosophical detachment or interpersonal engagement are employed?”

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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