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.]