Value Judgments and the True Self

Imagine a person who is addicted to heroin but who desperately wants to kick the habit. He has a craving for another hit, but when he reflects, he rejects this craving and wishes he could get rid of it. Now ask yourself: Which part of this person constitutes his true self — his craving for another hit or his desire to quit?

Looking at cases like this one, philosophers have almost universally agreed that it is the desire to quit that constitutes the agent's true self. They have therefore been drawn to a particular picture of the self. On this picture, the true self is constituted in some way by people's more reflective capacities (e.g., their second-order desires) rather than by the urges they are striving to suppress.

But if you stop to think about it, this case isn't exactly a well-controlled experiment. It is not as though the craving for heroin and the desire to quit are exactly the same in all ways except with regard to the question of second-order desire.There is also the conspicuous fact that you yourself — the person evaluating the story — are completely on the side of one of these desires and against the other. 

To see the importance of this other factor, consider the following case:

Mark is an evangelical Christian. He believes that homosexuality is morally wrong. In fact, Mark now leads a seminar in which he coaches homosexuals about techniques they can use to resist their attraction to people of the same-sex.

However, Mark himself is attracted to other men. He openly acknowledges this to other people and discusses it as part of his own personal struggle.

In many ways, this case is analogous to the one about the heroin addict above. We have an agent who has a craving to do one thing but who, on reflection, rejects this desire. Yet there is also an important difference. In this new case, you yourself might not agree with the agent's reflective judgment. So what do you think: Is Mark's true self constituted by his desire for other men or by his belief that this desire is morally wrong?

To further explore these issues, I teamed up with my colleagues George Newman and Paul Bloom and ran a series of experiments (see our paper). What we found was that people's intuitions about the true self were determined in large part by their own value judgments. For example, when given the vignette quoted above, politically conservative participants tend to say that the agent's belief was part of his true self, while politically liberal participants tend to say that it was not. 

I wonder, then, whether the notion of a 'true self' really is best cashed out in terms of certain distinctive features of the agent's psychology. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that our notion of a true self is, at root, a value-laden one. That is, perhaps the truth is that we can only determine what lies within an agent's true self by making a value-judgment of our own. 

[Feel free to comment even if you haven't read the actual paper. And if you are interested in experimental work on the true self, be sure to check out the work of the amazing Chandra Sripada.]

37 Replies to “Value Judgments and the True Self

  1. I think it is fairly clear that this is correct, i.e., that judgments about our (or others’) true selves have an ineliminably evaluative or normative element, but it’s good to get empirical confirmation. Of course the best and most famous case in literature is that of Huck Finn, where he appears to see his true self as connected to the judgment and corresponding motivation to turn in Jim (a runaway slave), but the reader is invited to see Huck’s true self as connected to his motivation not to. Since Huck doesn’t have access to cultural norms that support the latter motivation, it appears alien and a source of weakness to him, though not necessarily to us.

  2. Joshua,
    I haven’t read your paper, but I’m not yet convinced that the disagreement between conservatives and liberals in the homosexuality case is best construed as a disagreement in values. There’s another possibility, which is that liberals, but not conservatives, see anti-gay sentiment as the product of manipulation, and a manipulated judgment, they think, is not one’s “true” judgment. So, in the homosexuality case, liberals side with the first order desire on the grounds that the second order desire is the product of manipulation. Of course, it’s possible that our assessment of what counts as manipulation is value-laden.

  3. The empirical finding is very interesting. But the solution Joshua proposes seems to entail that if we object to anti-Semitic prejudice, we’ll have to consider Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitism alien to his true self. And that seems odd: I for one would certainly want to say that anti-Semitism was an key component of Hitler’s true self. Wouldn’t it be better to say that Mark’s prejudice belongs to his true self, and that we disapprove of that aspect?

  4. One more observation–I think the reason we consider Huck’s attitude toward slavery alien to his true self is that it’s inconsistent with other normative commitments that Huck has expressed, or acted on, elsewhere in the book. Given Huck’s other attitudes, it ought to be producing some cognitive dissonance, and it does. Hitler’s anti-Semitism, on the other hand, seems part and parcel of his general views and actions.

  5. I haven’t read this paper either however, I would argue that evangelical or fundamentalist religious beliefs, whatever they may be, are centred around value sets that that are either acquired by an adult participant in an effort to obtain membership or acceptance within a group (being the church) or the value sets have been indoctrinated into the belief systems of children born to parents who hold these value sets. The conflict arises when people are attempting to maintain or uphold those value sets in conflict with their own biological urges. Homosexuality is defined as a sin against God, with procreation being the true purpose of sexual encounters within the sanctity of marriage and people are taught to be disgusted by this blight against God’s will. (Not my personal opinion – but observation). Many religions have developed in order to control the masses, for political purposes as well as to instil some collective values in their membership. It isn’t about the liberal capacity to reason or to think for oneself and it’s categorising homosexuality as being an aberration, a personal flaw, that needs to be overcome in order to live a life that reflects the values that have been claimed as one’s own. I would argue that these are values that belong to a collective and that this individual also desires to be accepted within that collective. Hence, his membership within this group (the church) is dependent upon his rejection of his biological desires. Many individuals participating in fundamentalist religions have had their capacity for reflective judgment curbed by the constant reinforcement of value sets prescribed by their religion. In the case of the heroin addict, it is once again, combating a biological desire for a drug of addiction in conflict with value judgments and the behaviour the person would need to engage in to satisfy this addiction. In both instances, the satisfaction of these desires involves actions that will challenge these individuals from their internal values sets. I think you are right, the notion of true self, best relates to the individuals concept of their own psychological conception of their personhood. A person being true to themselves does not live with chronic internal conflict and their actions, behaviour and value sets achieve a sort of equilibrium. Humans have a innate emotional reaction to contempt, anger and disgust (the CAD triad) and any innate reaction a biological challenge to the individuals moral values. Both the homosexual and the heroin addict can be disgusted with their own selves, their weakness, or their lack of control and can hold themselves in contempt for having these desires. These internal psychological conflicts are the source of much grief, and many individuals have committed suicide as they aren’t able to achieve a sense of reconciliation between their own indoctrinated values and the prescribed social expectations expressed by their group. It’s a challenging area because sometimes those indicators are valid and necessary to prevent us from falling into conduct that is criminal or deeply depraved. Yet these same urges can be manipulated by society in order to achieve conformity.

  6. Thanks for all these super helpful comments! They get right to the heart of the issue, and I’m very much looking forward to hearing any further thoughts you might have.
    Yes, Huck Finn is a perfect example. One might initially suppose that the striking thing about this case just lies in people’s normative evaluation of it (people think the agent’s more reflective belief is morally bad). But the experimental results seem to suggest that something further is going on here. The normative evaluation is actually changing people’s conception of the agent’s self (people end up concluding that his reflective belief is not part of his true self).

  7. Mike,
    Good point. This alternative explanation definitely works for the case I mentioned in the post, but I wonder if you would find some of our other cases more convincing.
    For example, we also tried an inverted version of this case — where the agent believes that people of all sexual orientations should be treated equally but still has feelings of disgust toward gay people. For this inverted version, liberals say that the agents reflective belief is his true self, while conservatives have the opposite view.
    We also tried a case in which the agent started out as an avowed atheist but then became deeply religious. Conservatives, but not liberals, said that there was always something deep within him calling him to believe in God.
    Does that help at all to allay the (very helpful) worries you raise here?

  8. Very cool stuff as usual, Josh. I would hesitate to affirm the analogy in one way, as cravings (for drugs) are quite different from sexual attractions, both physiologically and phenomenologically (I would think Mark finds the objects of his desires, well, attractive, whereas that may not be the case for the unwilling addict, who no longer finds anything attractive about the drug, other than as a means to end, temporarily, his pain).
    But at any rate, was the survey a forced choice, such that there was posited to be a TRUE self and only one of the elements — reflective judgments or desires — could count as flowing from it? (Obviously, I haven’t read the paper, although I will: I’m just going straight to the source.) That is, was it even an option for people to say what I think is the most plausible thing, namely, both elements are actually attributable to his “deep self”?

  9. Matthew,
    You are completely right to say that it would be crazy to suggest that being morally good is a strictly *necessary* condition for being part of the true self, but I wonder if you would think that a slightly weaker view might be plausible. For example, suppose we just say that the moral status of a mental state is *relevant* to the question of whether it is part of the true self.
    To assess this weaker view, suppose that Hitler occasionally had moments of compassion, accompanied by thoughts that he might be doing the wrong thing. Would these thoughts count as part of his true self? Now consider an inverted version — where someone works almost continuously to help the oppressed but has moments of callousness accompanied by cruel thoughts. Would thhis cruelty be part of her true self? The prediction is that people would be more inclined to agree in the former case than in the latter.

  10. I think we need to be careful to distinguish between empirical descriptions about how people reason morally, and normative claims about how they *ought* to reason. Your account seems to me quite plausible as an empirical explanation. But moral realists, at any rate, aren’t going to accept that this shows that the notion ‘really is best cashed out’ in this way. To me, it just doesn’t make much sense to say that somebody’s ‘real self’ depends on what *I* approve of or disapprove of, or even on objective facts about what is good or bad. Surely it depends on that person’s characteristic traits.
    So, no, to me it seems obvious that your two cases are symmetrical. Either we should count both Hitler’s moments of compassion and the altruist’s callous moments as parts of their true selves, or we treat both phenomena as aberrations. I don’t feel even the slightest temptation to say the contrary. Naturally, empirically that may make me a outlier compared to most other people asked.

  11. David,
    Excellent points, as always. Here are three quick responses:
    1. Just as you say, the two cases are not completely parallel, but I was trying to make a more limited point: namely, that the reason we think of the addict’s craving as falling outside his true self is not just because of his more reflective rejection. Does that point sound right to you?
    2. We did not use a forced choice. Instead, participants were free to say that both mental states were part of the true self, that neither were, or that one was and the other was not.
    3. I am thinking this stuff might help to explain the puzzling asymmetry that you find in cases of moral ignorance. ( What do you think?

  12. Matthew,
    Exactly the right issue to be bringing up, but my sense is that this actually is quite a plausible view about the nature of the true self.
    Suppose that we were thinking about a philosophy paper and we were asking which aspects truly constituted the ‘essence’ of the paper and which were more peripheral. It seems plausible in such a case that value judgments could play a role in our answer.
    Or suppose we were talking about a band and we said, ‘This band has really betrayed what it was all about.” Here too, it seems that we might use value judgments when determining what the band truly is ‘all about.’
    So my suggestion was that maybe we should understand the notion of a ‘true self’ as being similar to these other notions.

  13. Hey Josh,
    From reading your final (substantive) paragraph, it seems like you’re sympathetic to concluding that whether some tendency is actually part of a person’s true self depends upon the moral status of that tendency. But I have a different reaction to your data, which is to take it as evidence that the notion of a true self is really quite a suspect one.
    Consider the following dialectic, familiar especially from political philosophy and debates surrounding freedom.
    Philosopher A: “There are lots of people who genuinely value X.”
    Philosopher B: “Ah, well those people say or think that they genuinely value X, but actually, their true selves don’t value X.”
    Philosopher A: “This is a suspect notion. When you talk about their true selves, you’re really just talking about what *you* value. You’re using this idea of their true selves valuing it as a cover, because you don’t want to sound paternalistic and/or like you’re intervening with or criticizing peoples’ genuine preferences.”
    Philosopher B: “No, I’m not. Look, you have to accept that people can value things more superficially and more deeply. And we should be interested not just in people’s surface valuings but in their deep valuings. This isn’t suspect, because it’s still rooted in the agent’s psychology. It’s just that we have to look to more complex factors such as their second-order desires.”
    My reaction is to say that your data undermines philosopher B’s response here. Since it turns out that ‘true self’ judgments don’t even track ‘deep’ or second-order desires and valuings, it looks more plausible that philosopher A is right in diagnosing the appeal to a true self as a cover for projecting one’s own valuings onto others. Rather than accept that someone else’s ‘true’ self really does depend upon what I think is morally right (or even what is actually morally right), I think we’d be better off just jettisoning the notion of a true self entirely. (Especially given its historical role in justifications of extensive violations of peoples’ rights and autonomy in the name of their ‘own’ selves or freedoms.)

  14. I think this is a case where our linguistic intuitions just diverge. If the philosophy paper is mostly an incoherent rant that contains an isolated brilliant insight, I would be happy to say, ‘Well, essentially, it’s a rant, but check out p. 27; here he actually says something interesting’.
    The band example loads the question by including the word ‘betrays’. So let’s make the statement the more neutral ‘That band has really changed what it was all about’. To me, that could imply that they either improved or got worse. For instance, the early Pink Floyd really changed what they were all about when they went from playing blues to playing psychedelic pop. I’d say they got a lot better.

  15. Alex,
    Your comment seems in some ways related to Matthew’s, but also importantly different. Matthew suggests that people might be misapplying the notion of a true self, whereas your thought seems to be that the very notion of a true self might be a bankrupt one.
    In my view, the notion of a true self is just the application to the self of people’s more general idea that things can have ‘essences.’ We can speak of the essence of a paper, the essence of a band, the essence of a nation, etc., and in each case, we will use value judgments to figure out what the essence is. Our intuitions about the true self also appear to involve value judgments, and, I think, for similar reasons.
    That said, I think that your point is an important one. Once we come to see how the notion of a true self is used in political discussions, we might conclude that there is something deeply wrong with the whole practice of applying essentialism to the self.

  16. Melanie,
    You are completely right to point to the destructive consequences of conforming to society rather than being true to one’s self. But now we face a further question: Why exactly is it better to be guided by one’s true self? Is it because we have some independent way of figuring out what constitutes the true self and this just turns out to be the part of the self that it is best to live by? Or is it because we just take whatever part of the self is best to live by in and refer to that as the ‘true self’?

  17. I agree, Josh. I’d add that my reaction and Matthew’s differ in another important way, in that whereas his effectively rejects the data, dismissing it as manifesting a tendency of people to misapply the concept of the true self), mine makes positive use of the results to undermine a particular move in the context of a familiar dialectic. My thought was that you’re right to think that normative evaluations are central to the ordinary concept of a ‘true’ self – and to take that to be all the more reason to be suspicious of this concept. So the data puts pressure on those who claim that talk of the ‘true’ self *isn’t* a way of projecting their own judgments onto others.

  18. Josh, very interesting! I’m sympathetic to Alex’s suggestion that the notion of a “true self” is bankrupt, and have always found it puzzling that philosophers give the idea so much credence. My suspicion is that the basic motive for rejecting addictive (etc.) behaviors as “external” to the self is bad faith, a wish to excuse ourselves for our flaws. I wonder therefore whether the driving factor isn’t value judgments about the trait so much as a desire to excuse/find fault with the agent. (That seems a hypothesis you’d find amenable). I’d be interested to see whether these judgments switch depending on whether the subjects are favorably or unfavorably disposed toward the agent, rather than towards the trait. (Note: I haven’t read the paper).

  19. It is difficult to see one’s true self. I found this interesting video, which helped me find my true self quite a bit.

  20. Great paper Josh! And thanks for the shout-out. 🙂
    Reading this thread, I am surprised that people are so skeptical about the notion of a true self. The notion of a fundamental practical self appears in a LOT of philosophical work—so much that the notion shouldn’t be too easily dismissed out of hand. This is most obvious in the free will and moral responsibility literature, where people explicitly appeal of the notion of a true self/deep self/real self. But there is also a lot of work that appeals *in spirit* to the kind of distinctions that true self/deep self/real self theorists are trying to draw. For example, Humean accounts of normative reasons nearly always deny that just any old desire gives a person a reason for action. Rather, one’s reasons depend on a distinguished subset of deeper desires (e.g., one’s core projects and commitments, or the desires you would have under idealized conditions). Desire-based accounts of well-being often draw a similar deep versus surface attitude distinction. Then there is all the work on internality, authenticity, and autonomy that appeals to the notion of a fundamental practical self, even though theorists don’t always explicitly use the ‘self’ label, and even though they draw the boundaries of the self in different ways. I am not saying these folks are all right in appealing to the notion of a deep self and in drawing the deep versus surface attitude distinction. I am just saying they shouldn’t all be dismissed without some weighty argument.
    Josh’s fascinating study suggests ordinary people may employ normative criteria in determining the attitudes that truly belong to the person’s self. I have a different view. I say that just about any attitude can be part of a person’s self, so, as a matter of metaphysical possibility, people can have genuinely knavish selves. But people also believe the following as a contingent truth:
    (G) Nearly all people are, deep down, genuinely good or at least have a hell of a lot of good in them.
    So given limited information about another person doing something bad, it still makes sense due to G to postulate a truly good self in there that isn’t manifest in the person’s behavior. So I say Josh’s results tell us about the *folk epistemology* of the self, without necessarily telling us about how ordinary folk understand the *nature* of the self.
    BTW, does G just reflect pollyannish folk fantasy? Not at all. There are outstanding empirical and evolutionary arguments for why G is true. That’s another debate altogether, but I wanted to block the charge that G is somehow silly or wildly off base.

  21. Steve: Do you think the motive for rejecting OCD, Tourettic, and kleptomaniacal urges and attitudes is bad faith, a wish to excuse their flaws? Seems unlikely. It’s possible that explicit talk about the issue of the “deep” or “true” self got off to a more controversial start than it needed to by Frankfurt’s focus on addiction, but I think the types of agential disorders I’ve just mentioned make a much more powerful case for “alienation” from a subset of one’s desires. (Note: this is alienation from attitudes, not necessarily the actions they cause.)
    Josh, regarding your three points:
    1. I completely agree that reflective rejection is not relevant to determinations of the deep self (the term I favor, since Chandra talked me back into it). We have to allow for cases of what I’ve called “passive identification,” where one finds oneself identified with some attitude regardless of one’s evaluative judgments. The question, then, is what makes these passive elements one’s “own.” I think they are one’s own as long as they reflect one’s cares or commitments. So the fact that the assessor’s normative commitments might influence her assessments doesn’t surprise or bother me too much, then, as whatever cares or commitments they point to are still going to be compatible with their being cares or commitments they point to. So relevant to my point to Steve might be to explore whether Tourettic tics to make homophobic slurs, as opposed to religious slurs, would be thought to be attributable to the agent’s deep self at all by those with the differing backgrounds. In other words, would the normative commitments of the assessor play a role in their assigning some attitudes to deep selves in the first place that cannot sensibly be traced to cares or commitments (or that they might say ARE actually traced to cares or commitments)?
    2. I’m very surprised you didn’t use a forced choice and got those results. I’ll need to take a close look at what you found, then.
    3. I don’t know about whether it will help with the JoJo asymmetries. It could well do so, which would be very interesting.

  22. Chandra,
    This idea you’ve got is very plausible, and I’m wondering what we might do to decide between our two hypotheses.
    To begin with, I just want to see how much is already common ground between us. Consider what happens when people apply the notion of essence to something like a nation. (As when a person says: ‘Equality is the very essence of what our nation is all about.’) I’m thinking that value judgments play a role here that is not merely epistemic and that the very same thing is going on in true self judgments.
    So would you disagree with this hypothesis about essentialism about nations, or would you only disagree with the claim that people’s true self beliefs work the same way?
    I completely agree with the suggestion that people sometimes invoke the true self to justify pre-existing judgments, but I might frame the point slightly differently. To the extent that people consider the true self, it seems like they almost always end up concluding that the true self is morally good. So maybe what happens is that people only think about the idea of a true self when they want to arrive at the conclusion that the agent is fundamentally morally good.

  23. This is a great example and I’ll have to think about it more, but I have some initial worries about the case as it’s presented. I think the example might be trading on an ambiguity with respect to what one’s true self can be taken to be. On the one hand, there is the “true self” that is studied in connection with the metaphysics of agency and responsibility. I take it that this is the sense of the term that philosophers are most interested in. But on the other hand, one might also take “true self” to refer to those aspects of identity which are bound up with sexual orientation. The aspects of our psychology which are authoritative with respect to our “sexual orientation true self” are of a lower order than those of the metaphysical true self. This potentially explains why people are apt to view Mark’s true self as homosexual. His first-order desires constitute his sexual identity, while his judgments and second-order desires are irrelevant (or at least not authoritative).

  24. Hi Josh,
    I like your examples of bands, philosophical papers, and nations. In all these cases, it ostensibly seems that value judgments are playing a role in shaping what gets counted as the “essential qualities” of the respective things. But I am still not ready to say the role being played goes beyond the epistemic.
    When people form a band, write a paper, or build a nation, there are characteristically certain fundamental ends they seek to achieve. For example,
    (B) Nearly all bands have the fundamental aim of producing original and beautiful works.
    (P) Nearly all philosophers have the fundamental aim of achieving clarity of argumentation.
    (N) Nearly all nations have the fundamental aim of upholding certain ideals such as equality and justice.
    I think claims such as B, P, and N are accurate *descriptive* generalizations, even if they employ certain evaluative predicates. If B,P, and N are descriptively accurate, then it is not surprising that people will use their judgments about what constitutes such things as the beautiful, the clear, or the just in ascribing core qualities to bands, philosophy papers, and nations. This is not because people are *making* normative judgments. They are just using their general knowledge of what bands, philosophers, and nations are most fundamentally seeking to bring about in order to infer what are the underlying core qualities of these things.
    In the same way, I am saying people accept the following generalization:
    (M) Nearly all humans are profoundly moral beings. They care deeply about such things as helping, sharing, and promoting the common good.
    If people see M as true, then they will infer that a person’s deeper self seeks to achieve moral ends, even if their outward behavior sometimes strays.
    The real test of your essentialist versus my epistemic hypothesis is defeasibility/cancellability. I am saying that B, P, N, and M are *defeasible* generalizations, and the inferences they support can be canceled by providing more information. If you give people rich, thorough, detailed information about Spinal Tap, Derrida, the Third Reich, and Hume’s Knave, then people should no longer use their judgments of what is beautiful, clear, just, or good to characterize the core qualities of these things.

  25. Chandra, I like your explanation. And since the hypothesized causal mechanism is that people assume that others ‘care deeply about such things as helping, sharing, and promoting the common good’, it ought to be testable.
    Different people are going to make this assumption to a greater or lesser extent, and tests could be presumably designed to measure the extent to which each does. If Chandra’s hypothesis holds up, subjects who score high on the optimism-about-humanity variable should also be more inclined to judge that the agent’s ‘true self’ corresponds to whatever *they* judge morally desirable. So optimistic liberals should be more inclined to judge that Mark’s true self is represented by his sexual inclinations; optimistic conservatives will judge that it’s represented by his evaluative judgement. The correlation shouldn’t be nearly as strong in the case of either pessimistic liberals or pessimistic conservatives.
    One thing that might complicate the test would be if liberals are much more inclined to accept the optimistic view than are are conservatives. Optimistic conservatives or pessimistic liberals might be few and far between, complicating testing. But I suspect one will find some in all four quadrants–in fact, I suspect that *I* may be a pessimistic liberal. (Consistent with the hypothesis, I certainly don’t accept the assumption contained in Chandra’s generalization N, and I’m also inclined to consider Mark’s homophobia more representative of his ‘true self’.) Alternatively, it might be possible to find some controversial form of behaviour to which attitudes don’t line up so clearly along the left/right axis.

  26. Perhaps this point has already been made in the very extensive comments above, but I wonder if, in the spirit of work by people like Richard Moran, questions like ‘what is his true self/true desire/true reason?’ appear to be descriptive but are in fact normative. Moran argues for the same claim about belief: to ask ‘do I believe P?’ is not to go looking for a psychological object or fact, but to appraise one’s evidence for P. In reading the literature on authenticity, I’ve often thought that a similar confusion is going on — that asking what’s authentically me is really asking me a normative question, a la ‘what aspects of myself do I endorse or value?’ Could the same phenomenon be going here, and might it help Josh’s experimental results? I have in mind that what’s presented to test subjects in the vernacular or grammar of a descriptive question — which desires reflect Mark’s true self — is implicitly treated as a normative one.

  27. Chandra and Dave,
    Thanks for the push-back. There are of course many psychological distinctions that could be drawn; I was reacting in particular to the widespread but (I think) implausible idea that some desires are alien/external forces, and that to act on them is to be compelled. That may be much narrower than the idea of a “true self” that others have in mind (I wouldn’t deny that people sometimes act “out of character”, for example). Tourettes genuinely does seem to involve “external” impulses, but these seem more reflexive (involuntary) than desire-motivated behaviors, like sneezing or yawning. But I’m willing to bite the bullet on OCD and Kleptomania, and say “yes, that’s really you, like it or not.”
    I don’t think I suggested anything that rules out Chandra’s (G). Saying that all your (bad) desires are part of you doesn’t entail that there isn’t a helluva lot of good in you as well.
    Josh: you might be right about the asymmetry. I can’t immediately think of counterexamples.

  28. Hi Joshua, You’ve asked, ” Why exactly is it better to be guided by one’s true self? Is it because we have some independent way of figuring out what constitutes the true self and this just turns out to be the part of the self that it is best to live by? Or is it because we just take whatever part of the self is best to live by in and refer to that as the ‘true self’?” I think this still boils down to conflict and equilibrium in some regards. If you feel conscious that you are making a choice that goes against your inner conscience, then its generally the guide that we use to determine when we are uncomfortable with the choices we have made. However, when value sets have been imported, such as by following a set of values that have been outlined by a group such as a religious group, then the conflict also includes fear laden responses associated with the consequences of the breach, ie; coming under the scrutiny of other’s judgment, potential exclusion, being labelled as a sinner – and the outcome relates to these rejections. If you are indoctrinated then you are not given much choice about what you believe and the right to challenge or question these beliefs is often restricted. So it’s an intensive feeling of betrayal to act against the value sets of the group rather than a mere passing sensation of agent-regret. When someone’s survival depends on acting in ways that go against their true nature then they are at the baseline of human existence. It is difficult to pass judgement and to feel ownership of some regrets that would normally be associated with participating in these behaviours. On a positive note, sometimes it’s really healthy for people to ‘step outside of themselves’ and to behave in ways that go against their true nature. Someone physically timid, may go abseiling and develop this physical skill over time and feel a sense of achievement and their confidence grows in their own physical abilities. Someone emotionally timid may stand up to a bully and develop greater confidence in their own personal inner strengths. This can be applied to value sets too. Someone in similar circumstances to Mark, may embrace his homosexual tendencies, and follow the pathway that fits closest to the life that feels ‘right’ or best fits his ‘true self’. This can be precisely how personal growth occurs and how people develop strength of character. I didn’t explain the CAD triad very well, but humans and some animals are hardwired to demonstrate some emotional responses. Contempt, anger and disgust are biological reactions that indicate what we really think or feel in response to circumstances and this would be a reflection of the ‘true self, better than any schooled, polite or structured socially acceptable response as it demonstrates an innate gut ‘reaction’ to circumstances. The problem with indoctrinating children from a young age is that humans can be schooled and their brains hardwired to acquire these responses. Which is why religions can develop prejudices in their young members and they grow with their values being constantly reinforces and internalised through participation in religious activities. It’s why hatred and bigotry are so dangerous in fundamentalist religious groups regardless of whether they are located in Western Liberal Democratic societies or elsewhere in the world. When you are looking at issues of addiction, and where someone is trying to satisfy a physical craving for an artificial stimulant, the individual would have spent many years being ‘themselves’ prior to their addiction. They would be assessing their value judgements trough the lens of knowing what their value sets represented, how they behaved or were inclined to behave and what sort of character they demonstrated prior to developing their addiction. It’s the incremental sacrifices of self and compromises that one makes in order to feed that addiction which drives an individual away from their true self. The focus of their life often then revolves around obtaining the next fix or locating the resources necessary to obtain the next fix. Unless someone is independently wealthy, this often includes committing criminal offenses such as burglary or engaging in acts of prostitution which is a slippery slope when you are considering internal values. Would that person engage in those behaviours or make those moral compromises if it weren’t for their addiction or those other external circumstances that have contributed to their condition? That’s where I think the base line for the ‘true self’ really lies. I wasn’t able to access the whole paper through the link but it would be an interesting read.

  29. Chandra,
    This is a very nice hypothesis, and definitely one worth investigating further. But I don’t think it’s quite right to characterize the issue in terms of defeasibility.
    As an analogy, suppose that we had asked people: ‘Given all of these different aspects of the agent’s self, what is the most essential unifying theme that they all have in common?’ In a particular case, the correct answer to this question might be: ‘The unifying theme is that all of these aspects of the self serve to realize the same moral ideal.’
    Now, in that sort of case, it would be clear that the role of morality was not a merely epistemic one. (It is the fact that this ideal is of such deep moral importance that *makes* it the most essential unifying theme.) But at the same time, the role of the moral ideal in this case seems completely defeasible, in precisely the sense you have in mind.
    Of course, this is not to suggest that your hypothesis is incorrect, only that you wouldn’t be able to support it just by showing that the role of morality is defeasible.

  30. Josh,
    I am not sure I understood some of your last point. But I wonder if I can sharpen the case I am making a bit with a very concrete example: Since on your view the true self is essentially good, what do you say about a person—let’s call him Jimmy The Knave—who is like others in most matters of his psychology and his upbringing except for one thing: deep down he truly cares only for himself, and he cares not a wit for doing what is morally good. Is Jimmy, on your view, just conceptually incoherent? Or maybe your view allows that Jimmy can exist, but it says that we have to think of Jimmy as volitionally damaged in some profound way that compromises his status as an agent?
    I for one think an agent with a knavish deep self is possible. I suspect that ordinary people will initially resist the idea that Jimmy’s self is *truly* knavish (because they subscribe to principle M noted above as a contingent, descriptive truth). But given a careful, detailed description, I predict they will accept Jimmy The Knave as a perfectly coherent possibility. Either way, don’t Jimmy The Knave-type cases provide a way to test your “self is essentially good” hypothesis versus my “self is reliably but not essentially good” hypothesis?

  31. Josh,
    Thanks for sharing some very interesting data and some very thought provoking ideas.
    I do worry a bit, however, about the case you cite and its links to your conclusions.
    In the case of homosexual desires, liberals don’t take those desires to be morally good, the way they might view the desire to quit drugs. Instead, those desires are taken to be morally neutral (no better or worse than desires for heterosexual sex). For political liberals, the homosexuality case is morally loaded, but it is morally loaded precisely because of its link to the true self. We see the long history of many members of the LBGT community having to deny their true selves. We see THAT (being forced by society, or particular individuals, to deny one’s true self in order to be accepted) as morally problematic. And this case is taken as a token of that problematic history.
    Consider the possible response of a conservative as well: She may deny that the homosexual desires are part of a true self, not because the homosexual desire is wrong, but rather because forcing one to deny one’s true self is wrong, so the homosexual desires, almost by analytic stipulation, cannot be part of one’s true self (since requiring one to deny one’s true self would be wrong).
    In short, I worry that there’s an unnecessary entanglement of the issue on which you are trying to get better empirical understanding (beliefs about the true self) and the case you are using to reach conclusions about it.
    This is not to say there isn’t link to the true self and value judgements. I share your hypothesis that value judgements will influence judgements about the true self , but I have a suspicion that this hypothesis might receive better empirical support from other cases.

  32. Hi Josh and Chandra,
    I haven’t read through the whole discussion carefully, so sorry if I am repeating anything that might have already been said above. But Chandra’s last point stirred the following thought in me. Might it be useful to think of these ideas using a (very) broadly Strawsonian approach?
    That is, so long as we are engaging in moral thinking or moral cognition, it might be that we need to represent others as good deep down – since if we didn’t, then we’d have to give up the crucial assumption that it is possible to reason with them. But it is also possible to take a more detached or scientific or “objective” stance, such as the one Chandra takes with regard to Jimmy the Knave, whereby we don’t mentally represent others as good deep down.
    The thought – if one took this broadly Strawsonian approach – would be, then, that so long as one is engaging in the sort of moral way of relating to others that is distinctive of thinking of them as moral agents, the sort of concept of the deep self that Josh is talking about might possibly be a necessity of some sort (practical, pragmatic, idealizing or what have you). But when we put on our lab-coats and think about people in a broadly scientific way, no such concept of the deep self is required. In this way, Josh and Chandra’s suggested ways of thinking of the deep self (if I have understood them correctly) could, so to speak, both be viable, only that they are used within different types of thinking.
    If so, then the Knave-hypothesis might not work against Josh’s thesis; but would instead be relevant to another mode or type of thinking, not the one that Josh is presumably trying to explore. Sound plausible at all?

  33. I need to read your new paper, Josh, but it reminds me of an old one you did with Erica Roedder to which Thomas Nadelhoffer and I responded at an SPP. In case it helps advance the discussion, I will present the two cases we ran to test your theory.
    Adolf Hitler [George Washington] lived in a culture in which women were not considered equal to men and did not have as much power or freedom as men. He thought that the basic viewpoint of his culture was more or less correct. That is, he believed that he ought to be advancing the power of men at the expense of women’s freedom.
    Nonetheless, historians also know that Hitler [Washington] sometimes felt a certain pull in the opposite direction. He often found himself feeling guilty when he did things to limit the freedom of most women. And sometimes he ended up acting on these feelings and doing things that fostered equality for women.
    Hitler [Washington] wished he could change this aspect of himself. He wished he could stop feeling any pull to increase women’s freedom and just act to advance the power and control of men.
    Question: Despite his conscious feelings, Hitler [Washington] actually valued equality for women.
    Results: Most people agreed that Washington valued equality for women, but most people disagreed that Hitler did.
    How would you and Chandra explain these results?

  34. @Sven, Your points are really helpful, although I disagree substantively with certain contentions.
    If I understand you correctly, you are saying that a person’s self might be essentially good in the following sense: If a person has a truly and thoroughly morally reprehensible self, then this is someone towards whom we are obligated to take Strawson’s cold objective stance, as opposed to the participant stance we take to moral agents. An importantly related idea is Wolf’s notion of normative competence. So one might claim that the self is essentially morally good because a person whose self does not respond to moral reasons has an “insane” deep self (to use Wolf’s term), and in this way doesn’t really have a self at all (insofar as their self lacks the right sort of agential standing). This is actually what I was getting at when I said Josh might want to insist that Jimmy-The-Knave must be seen as “volitionally damaged in some profound way that compromises his status as an agent”.
    I think these are indeed interesting avenues to defend the idea that the self is essentially good. But in substantive terms, I think the whole approach is profoundly wrong. You suggest that I am taking the Strawson’s objective stance towards Jimmy. But I actually hold the opposite view—I view Jimmy’s actions as *paradigmatic* instances of expressions of ill will. Jimmy-The-Knave isn’t ignorant of moral reasons. He knows there is moral reason not to inflict severe harm to advance his own ends. But he truly doesn’t *care* about moral reasons, and his actions do express his reprehensible selfish cares. In my view, Jimmy-The-Knave’s having a evil deep self is not only coherent, Jimmy is about as apt a target for the reactive attitudes as there is. I realize that my views here touch on subtle and interrelated issues about the nature of moral reasons, moral motivation, and rationality, to name just a few of the thorny issues. So I won’t even try to defend all that here. But again, I think your suggestion is quite helpful for Josh’s project, even if I substantively disagree.
    @Eddy, really interesting results! I don’t have a clear opinion on what is going on yet. I think I need more time to think about your cases and try to diagnose what is driving my intuitions as well as the intuitions of your subjects.

  35. Many thanks for this, Chandra. I think that I myself would prefer a type of middle-position in between the one you suggest above and the one I alluded to in my comment above. In making my comment above, I was mostly thinking in terms of what overarching view might be able to take on-board both what Josh was saying and what you were saying, and a broadly Strawsonian and perhaps partly Wolfian view would seem to be a candidate.
    Just one (fairly) quick response: I am not sure I would want to say that “[i]f a person has a truly and thoroughly morally reprehensible self, then this is someone towards whom we are obligated to take Strawson’s cold objective stance, as opposed to the participant stance we take to moral agents.” I think that even in what appear to be rather hopeless cases, it can still be worth idealizing a little, so to speak, by continuing to treat somebody as if they were a conversant and minimally reasonable moral agent, even if only to set up a context in which we can communicate our stance of condemning the other parties’ actions and attitudes in a non-violent and respectful way.
    If we are in a position in which we wouldn’t have to worry about suffering violence and abuse at Jimmy-the-Knave’s hands if we were to voice our moral disapproval, then it might be symbolically good and important to do so – if only to set a sort of good example and to communicate a minimal degree of good-will.
    So long, however, as we also think that it is possible to reason things out together, must we not assume that there is some small portion of good-will within Jimmy’s motivational architecture, which he could mobilize, and which could make him responsive to arguments and reason-giving, and not just to (say) threats and punishments? I think so; though I certainly recognize the plausibility in the view that this is a sort of contingent, and not a necessary, feature of our ways of thinking about people’s true or deep selves. In any case, like you said, this takes us down a wholly different road (the nature of moral reasons etc.), and hence away from the topic raised in Josh’s very interesting post above.

  36. Among all of the interesting comments above, there is a recurring theme that strikes me as especially important and worthy of comment. In particular, a number of the comments above suggest that there can be cases in which people conclude that the agent’s true self is actually a morally bad one.
    I think that there is very good reason to accept this claim. (For example, it receives strong support from Eddy’s very nicely designed study.) So let’s just assume that it is correct and think about what follows from it.
    First of all, if we assume that the claim is correct, we will have to reject the following extreme thesis:
    – In absolutely every case, people conclude that the agent’s true self is morally good.
    As a number of the comments above have pointed out, this extreme thesis definitely does seem to be false, and we would do well not to adopt any theory that entailed it.
    However, my sense is that any reasonable version of the view that moral considerations play a role in people’s understanding of the nature of the true self would not entail this extreme thesis. Even if moral considerations are seen as relevant on a fundamental level, it seems crazy to think that their relevance would have this sort of extreme, non-defeasible character. That’s just not the kind of role that moral considerations could plausibly have in a case like this one.
    To see what I mean here, consider Dworkin’s theory of law. On this theory, moral considerations genuinely are relevant to determining what the law is in a given nation. However, the theory does not at all entail the extreme thesis that the law in a given nation always has to be whatever would be morally best.
    I’m thinking something similar would have to hold for people’s understanding of the true self. If moral considerations are indeed seen as relevant, they would have to be seen as relevant in some less extreme way.

  37. great discussion. the analogy of the cases seems logically sound, and the conclusion about value judgements follows, yet I keep wondering if this only serves to raise another sort of question, an epistemological one. For sometimes an analogy only appears to be so as long as we are not noting some important factor. In the present case, the sort of issue that I am wondering about has to do with whether one could say that it were possible to perceive oneself under some set of conditions which set of desires and judgements constituted our more authentic true selves as opposed to some false self. I am not sure, but personally and from a psychological standpoint it can seem so, i.e. that one has some set of desires but also has some set of self-perceptions that one considers amounting to a kind of self knowledge of one’s more or less authentic self. So, I may be able to perceive that my own desires for heroin were an addiction, perhaps connected with something deep about me but also not coincident with and even perhaps antagonistic with my most authentic self, and some other desires , e.g. for members of my own gender, which may or may not seem to express or at least support such an authentic self, and other desires— like for chocolate ice cream or whether to sweeten my coffee– that may seem completely or close to incidental and irrelevant. Values may here still come into play, but the added notion of some process of self knowing or even insight could make this less relativistic.

Comments are closed.