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Fr. 696

December 15, 2015

More importantly, for Mogensen, proves the continuing tension between such accounts and negative instantiations of the ethics of authenticity. He deems that the principle turns on a fundamental normative incoherence. In a first step, the person would make set a principle of the kind: given a trait’s centrality, I ought to ensure that it increases in influence on my thought, speech and deeds in different fields. In the second, the person would then add the observation: given a trait’s influence, that influence contributes to its identity centrality. Finally, there emerges a corollary which seems to harbor a normative incoherence:

In that case, if you give expression to the trait, it is more central to your identity; if you curtail its expression, it is less central. Since your reasons for giving expression to some part of your identity are stronger in proportion to its centrality, this creates a baffling state of affairs in which your decision to increase or decrease the expression of some trait determines the strength of the obligation that you thereby satisfy or violate with respect to the expression of that trait (p. 16).

More simply, the person’s decision to given expression a trait would itself determine the normative charge of its expression and, in the end, render the normative charge an arbitrary one. For the author, the claims of arbitrariness prove near decisive in eliminating depth and breadth of influence as the criterion for determining centrality in individual identity. So long as we countenance a normative component for individual identity’s expression and that normative component wavers on the obligation imposed by a given trait’s expression, the account’s normative dimension flies in the face of standard approaches to normativity:

[W]hen taken in conjunction with the ideal of authenticity, the suggestion that depth and breadth of influence contributes to identity centrality entails a violation of the principle that the strength of one’s reasons for (or against) performing some action cannot be a function of whether the action is (or is not) performed. This principle may considered an implication of Erik Carlson’s principle of Normative Invariance, according to which the normative status of an action does not depend on its performance (p. 16).

Just as murder’s wrongness does not vary with its instantiation or non-instantiation, the duty imposed by expression of central identity traits (and by extension their centrality) should not be expected to grow or to lessen with their expression or non-expression. In the end, depth and breadth accounts cannot help but seem conceptually tainted for they hide a perplexing normative incoherence at bottom.

We will now take a step back to consider the weight of Mogensen’s charges against the candidate criterion of depth and breadth of influence. Starting with the second charge, let us grant that Mogensen correctly applies the Normative Invariance implication and, furthermore, that an ethics of authenticity underpins contemporary dialogue on individual identity. What remains to be said in the face of the author’s claims? So long as we grant a normative component to the ethics of authenticity, the charge, at least for arbitrating claims to individual identity, seems damning. It is hard to countenance why normative standards would fail to apply in a context like that above. In short, it is difficult to envisage a coherent depth and breadth account which makes sense of individual identity, as defined by Mogensen.

As to the first charge, that of inclusivity, the outcome does not seem as decisive. Certainly, a depth and breadth account of influence, otherwise unmodified, would encompass a number of processes which carry weight in our thoughts, speech and deeds in various domains. Moreover, we find therein both fields to which we have conscious access and could subject to at least minimal revision (determinations stemming from folk psychology) and to which we have no conscious access and are thus subject to no revision (unconscious brain processes).

That said, it is unclear why such processes should fall under an identity-oriented account of depth and breadth of influence. Indeed, for reasons similar to those evoked in relation to the second candidate criterion, i.e. uniqueness, it seems simple enough to filter the processes according to significance to the person. Her methods for and views on attributions of mental states may not hold the same significance for the person as her religious beliefs, her attachment to ethnicity, nation or language, her sexual orientation, etc. So it seems a priori feasible that a “significance filter” could set the identity claims to influence apart from non-identity claims to influence.

If such a move does not reveal itself ad hoc, it may prove suggestive of what we see as a larger shortcoming of Mogensen’s account: when specifying a criterion for describing, it is equally important to consider the purpose and context in which that criterion is to serve. We will return to this (pragmatist) point later.

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