As a child I was often told by my culture that I could be whatever I wanted to be. Back in the day, this meant that I could do any job I wanted to do. I could become a superstar athlete, a great physicist, or an expert mountaineer. Nothing was off-limits. I could do anything I put my mind to. While this is patently false, I suppose it is a relatively harmless lie. It likely wouldn’t have taken someone like kid Shaq too many attempts at horse jockeying before he figured out that he would never be a professional horse jockey. Society’s lie may have caused one or two horses with broken backs to be sent to the glue factory and may have caused kid Shaq to misappropriate his time and resources into an area where he couldn’t be successful, but everything would have been OK for Shaq – he just may not have become a basketball star. But life would have gone on.
At some point in time, this message of being whatever you wanted to be morphed in meaning. It turned from a mantra about actions and occupations to one of identity. Being whatever you want to be now means that you can identify as whatever you feel. While this has largely been applied to sexual orientation and attraction, it extends far beyond that. There are now students who are coming through the school systems who identify as animals. They are called “therians” or “otherkin.” Some individuals legitimately believe that they are an animal, or have a strong desire to be a particular species of animal. They literally identify as an animal. There are others in society who identify as being something other than their age. The most disturbing story to me is that of a 40+ year old man who identifies as a prepubescent girl. He has broken apart his family, lives with another family as their child, and plays the role of a young girl. But his fantasy become reality isn’t one isolated case. There are more just like him. Finally, there are those who identify as “transabled.” They are perfectly healthy individuals who saw off limbs or set up “accidents” so they can become amputees, paraplegic, or disabled in some other way. They so badly want to be or identify as disabled that they are now asking society to accept them as they seek to become what they believe they are.
Even if I weren’t a cynic, I hope you can see how the notion of being whatever you want to be is troubling. It’s optimistic, but problematic. For most, I imagine that at least one of the examples I have given above strikes an intuitive chord within you that something isn’t right. The issue at hand is not about wanting to be something that you're not. Such a desire is a vital component to growth. Wanting to be better, stronger, more patient, more kind, and have more integrity are wonderful things. We all need to become that which we now aren't. What isn’t right is the pursuit of something you cannot or should not ever be. While some might be OK with letting a boy who was like Shaq in stature think he can actually become a horse jockey, there seems to be a line that is crossed for almost everyone when it comes to sawing off your own limbs – unless, as is acceptable today, it involves sawing off an appendage which is contrary to one’s perceived gender. We understand that wanting to be an amputee, wanting to be dead, or wanting to be an animal are harmful to individuals and counter to proper human nature. To give into such desires and to aid those who pursue such things is not loving, but cruel.
Before moving on, it is important to know that I am not arguing here about whether we should allow certain things or not. I am not at all advocating in this post that we stop people from sawing off limbs or changing their identity. I am not saying that all of these mismatches of reality and fantasy are harmful to society. I am merely arguing that an ethic of optimism and self-identification carried to the extreme leads to absurdity. It just doesn't make sense with reality, and it leads to terrible applications if we hold this ethic consistently.
The irony in all of this is that while our culture claims we can become anything we want to become, the culture holds a double standard. A man who loves alcohol can overcome his addiction to it and become sober. A teenager who is depressed can overcome depression and be happy. A woman who thinks of herself as lowly can rise up and think highly of herself. In fact, as a teacher, I am called on to not only tell kids that they can be something other than what they are, but that they should want to be something else. I am to tell some that their desires are wrong! If Johnny wants to throw away his potential and scrape by the rest of his life, his desires are wrong! He doesn't realize how terrible his choices are and he needs to change. If Jenny wants to play video games in her mom’s basement the rest of her life, her desires are wrong. If you desire to be the next school shooter, your desires are wrong. We tell people all the time that their desires - their innate desires and identity - are inappropriate and need to change. They should have higher or more moral aspirations. Their desires should align with objective morality. Am I a bigot for telling my students that they have inappropriate desires or for telling an alcoholic that they can and should become more than what they are?
The above examples show we understand that our desires and beliefs about self are not who we are. Kid Shaq’s beliefs and desires about horse jockeying don’t make him smaller or capable enough to become a jockey. A person’s desire to become the next mass murderer doesn’t legitimize the desire simply because they feel it. An individual’s addiction to alcohol doesn’t legitimize their continuation of drinking. We expect individuals in these cases to change their desires, even if they’re born with them or if their epigenetic traits have been triggered, understanding that we are not asking them to change their identity. Rather, we’re asking them to comport with reality and morality. What the examples show us is that there is some sort of metric by which our desires can be measured. Certain desires are inappropriate. Shaq’s desire to be a professional horse jockey butts up against the reality of what it takes to actually compete in such a profession. Though in this instance, the desire isn't wrong, pursued desires should align with reality. The hopeful mass murderer’s desires butt up against objective morality (for the Christian and other religious individuals). Desires should align with morality. We recognize that desires in and of themselves don’t define who we are. They are feelings that may or may not comport with what should be.
Identity, then, is either whatever one feels and believes, or something that comports with some standard. If it is whatever one believes, we have a lot of explaining to do to show how therians and the transabled should be counseled. We also have a lot of inconsistency to explain in regard to condemning those who identify as murderers or telling slacker students to change their aspirations. On the other hand, if identity is something to which we can comport – some sort of objective standard – that changes everything.
If one believes that identity is based on desires and feelings, how would they consistently counsel someone who was depressed and thought their life was worthless? If the individual felt that way, isn’t it true? They are worthless because that’s how they identify. However, if we believe that there is an objective (not a fabricated fiction) standard that says “all humans have inherent value,” we can counsel this individual to uphold their value in accord with reality. No matter how they feel, it is objectively true that they are valuable. If an individual identifies as an amputee, the one who grounds identity on feelings must help that person fully embody (or disembody) their identity by amputating. But to one who holds to objective standards of what humanity should be like and how they should treat their bodies, we can counsel an individual to push back against the urge to maim themselves. We point them to their ideal, not to their feelings.
When we begin to point individuals to their feelings for identity rather than to reality, we create an ethic that seems loving but is highly damaging to the individual and to society. By refusing to confront dissonance when it arises, we are avoiding an initial battle that would be painful and are allowing human autonomy to run unchecked. When we refuse to call out those who fail to comport to reality, we create a very ungainly fiction. There are several specific ways in which the modern ethic harms individuals and societies.
1. It makes change and hope for improvement unloving: If someone struggles with a harmful identity disorder (e.g. transabledism, serial killer, etc), they can’t just will themselves to desire differently (search doxastic voluntarism for more on the will to will). For instance, you can’t just choose to like coffee if you don’t like coffee. You may desire to like coffee for social reasons, but you can’t just change your desires and preferences. To acquire a taste for coffee, you must choose to partake of it until –hopefully one day – your preference changes. Change often requires going against our preferences until our preferences are changed by our actions.
But if our desires and preferences define who we are, then change in all instances is asking someone to go against who they are. Some who are overweight may love food or disdain exercise. Should we really tell them to be who they’re not in order to become what we think they should be? Only if it is not preferences which create identity, but rather objective standards.
2. It makes it hypocritical to condemn evil desires: If our desires are our identity, then we have to take the good with the bad. What do we do with someone who doesn’t identify as empathetic or communal? What if these antisocial leanings turn into desires to harm self or others? How can we do anything but affirm that this individual is valuable for who they are and shouldn’t change?
3. Identity on this view becomes circumstance dependent, not self-controlled: The goal of most activities is to conform a tool or activity to the user’s desired goal. An ideal hammer should effectively hit a nail. An ideal painting should accurately represent the idea the artist is trying to convey. Similarly, our identity as a human should fit within a particular set of parameters. I as a human have moral boundaries and human boundaries. I should not torture another human and I cannot roar like a lion. There are "is" and "ought" limits. If I attempt to break these limits, I will inaccurately portray what it truly means to be human and what it means to live in right relationships. As a human who attempts to recognize these bounds, I can will myself to as accurately as possible represent and achieve this ideal. I am in control.
On the modern view, however, I fail to see how I am in control of who I am. The modern view acts as though it frees us to live as we desire, but what it really does is constrain us to live only within our desires without hope of changing. That might be fine for those whose desires make their identity something worthwhile, but it sucks for the alcoholic or transabled. On this view we are not persons, we are machines – reacting to the whims our genes and experiences create.
4. Identity becomes a whimsical, fickle thing: If I can wake up one day and be a new person because my desires and feelings have shifted, am I really “me” any longer? How does a system which centers around a mutable thing allow for the maintaining of one’s identity? The Christian notion is that the soul grounds this identity and is unchanged by denials of truth or actions against reality. The new notion is that our identity can change – except when it can’t – an exception which seems to be relegated to the realm sexual orientation and attraction.
5. If one is a naturalist, it becomes impossible to escape every state as one which confers identity: It is interesting that only certain groups of people are protected in our society. At the moment, homosexuals and transgendered individuals are given protection for the way in which they identify. It is said that this is because their genetics determine them to feel the way they do. But alcoholism is now thought to have a genetic component to it. Some research is indicating that at least certain serial killers have a genetic predisposition. As we learn more about epigenetics, we find that even if one wasn't born with certain genetic traits, our genes can change over time with our experiences. So even the "born this way" mantra doesn't work so well since we know that experiences are formative - even at the genetic level.
If one is a naturalist/atheist, it really begs the question about why some identities are protected over others on the grounds that they're "genetic." Everything is genetic. We are machines reacting. This means that the alcoholic, the murderer, and even the bigot are all acting in ways which are consistent with their identity. Yet we expect them to change. It is obvious that certain forms of mis-identification are worse than others as it relates to harmfulness, and some may not be that harmful at all. But if we are saying that we must protect one's identity that is grounded in beliefs which stem from genetics, then all identities should be protected. It is only if we say that there is some objective ideal to which we should conform that we can resolve such inconsistency. But naturalism cannot provide such a thing, for there is no way to avoid genetic identity and no way to observe a morality that exists outside of human creation.
In conclusion, I think I'm going to maintain a bit of my cynicism here. Society needs it. Hopefully my cynicism and the world's optimism can balance out somewhere in something which looks something like what reality should be.