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Fr. 698

December 18, 2015

Another possible corrective to inaccurate self-narrative or self-valuation lies in supposing a set of idealized epistemic conditions. As the author puts it:

Could we say that a person’s identity is not defined in terms of the reflexive attitudes she actually has (minus those excluded by the realism condition) but by those she would adopt under certain idealized epistemic conditions (p. 18)?

The hypothesis of idealized epistemic conditions is familiar from contemporary debates in epistemology and political philosophy. In general, this hypothesis entails that the person in question would justify knowledge or positions in a manner unlike the habitual were she to benefit from an augmented cognitive context by having more complete information, increased intellectual powers and clearer foresight of the consequences. As applied to reflexive attitudes in the form of self-narrative and self-value, such a hypothesis would hold that, given more complete information on her traits as well as greater powers for their apprehension, the person’s narration or valuation would reflect those traits central to her individual identity.

In short, there would remain no room for self-deception. Yet the hypothesis unfailingly brings with it suspicions that the agents would no longer be human in an important sense. Unsurprisingly, Mogensen puts his finger on just such a concern when he notes:

Certain of the traits that are important to who I am may be lost if I were fully informed and fully rational in my deliberations (p. 19).

Indeed, posing the hypothesis as is seems liable to underestimate the breadth of the wildly transformative experience that the person would undergo, to the point of being unrecognizable to herself. Although the author develops his case against this supposition by highlighting the importance of fallibility to the person’s identity as a temporally finite knower capable of incremental progress, the example does not prove the most helpful in illustrating just what the supposition is likely to denature.

Suffice it to say that, in a broad range of cases, those traits most valuable to the person would likely hold no value at all for the person operating in epistemically ideal conditions. Would family, community and religion prove of the same importance to the agent who was apprised of all? (Just as importantly, what is built into the notion of a person operating in epistemically ideal conditions stands in some doubt.)

Epistemically ideal conditions aside, a third tack to the problem of attitudinal inconsistency arises in the form of the person’s disposition to value possession of a given trait. As summarized by Mogensen, this tack holds that:

[A] person must have a disposition to value her possession of a given trait if that trait is to constitute a central part of her identity. This is compatible with her actually failing to value the trait (p. 19).

In other words, this solution for attitudinal consistency amounts to the view that to the actual valuation of the trait must be joined a readiness to value that trait. For it is conceivable that a person’s absence of valuation renders a trait peripheral as opposed to central. Yet, if the person lacks the necessary conditions to value the trait, which is all the same latent in her character, then this absence proves much less telling than it would seem. Indeed, it may be possible to speak of a trait being (conditionally) central to a person’s individual identity but remaining conditionally so because unarticulated due to different factors, e.g. ignorance, dominant cultural practices, etc.

Accordingly, identity centrality would pass through self-value whether or not it obtains in the person. If the attentive reader finds in this summary the hint of an ad hoc solution, which reduces a legitimate problem to a trivial outcome, Mogensen is prepared to articulate just such doubts. Certainly, this view:

[…] may help us to account for cases in which a person fails to value a trait because she doesn’t know she has it, as in the case of someone who fails to realize that she in fact cares deeply about the welfare of some individual. The dispositional condition doesn’t seem quite as successful in handling cases where a person actively rejects certain of her core traits (p. 19).

Again, the author seems to have the right of it in that the interference in the latter example stems not from outward societal conditions but from inward attitudes. If the person herself rejects such traits, the philosopher justifying this approach cannot appeal to ignorance. If, note taken of dominant cultural practices and all things being equal, the person still rejects such traits, the justifying philosopher cannot appeal to conformity, alienation or other social complexes. In the end, this approach would amount to a view on which the person’s attitudes obscure her attitudes such that her reflexive attitudes are no longer reflexive at all. Mogensen comes to a similar conclusion through different means when he recalls:

Whereas it’s widely accepted that dispositions can be masked by extrinsic factors, there is considerable controversy as to whether a disposition can be masked by something intrinsic to the individual or object (p. 20).

If ad hoc solutions of this kind cannot be countenanced and there remain no candidate criterions left to speak of, what then becomes of individual identity?

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