Ethics and the Self



Ethics and the Self


The self is perhaps the most elusive subject in philosophy. It seems impossible to say what the self is. Doubts about its existence are perfectly understandable, if exaggerated. The self seems intensely real, but its nature remains opaque. This is why all the standard theories are wide of the mark: the body, the brain, a series of mental connections, a transcendental ego. We are convinced of its unity, but the basis for this unity is unclear. It seems bound up with consciousness, but it is not an object of conscious awareness (as Hume noted). The self is a conundrum locked in a mystery surrounded by an enigma. Yet it is what we care about most, the thing about which we are most anxious, the entity most dear to us. Our life centers around something we find baffling. Every time you go to the supermarket you are surrounded by a phalanx of these baffling beings, each focused intently on itself, peeping out from behind anxious eyes. We don’t even have adequate language for them, these secret unities: we give them proper names, we apply pronouns to them, we call them “persons” (or just “people”), we invent fancy terms for them (“selves”, “souls”, “subjects of consciousness”); but none of these labels really provides anything by way of illumination—they are just words for we-know-not-what. Selves are a magical mystery tour (John, Paul, George, and Ringo—who are you really?).

None of this uncertainty might matter much except for one thing: selves are central to ethics. Ethics is about the right way to treat selves (animal as well as human)—whatever selves may be. What we owe to each other we owe to other selves. Selves are what suffer or prosper; they are what we have duties towards; they are what we make contracts with. Yet they make no explicitly articulated appearance in standard ethical theories: no account of their nature underpins the prescriptions offered. This is most obvious in the case of utilitarianism. We are told to maximize utility, utility being a mental state: but it is a mental state of persons (selves, subjects, sentient beings)—what is maximized is the wellbeing of persons. There is no such thing as maximizing wellbeing in the absence of selves—like maximizing the amount of grain in the world. We are trying to make people happy. We are trying to create facts of which people are essential constituents. But we don’t really know what people are. So the theory rests on an epistemic abyss. If we knew what selves are, we might appreciate better the soundness of the utilitarian position—we might see why the happiness of persons is so important. Or conceivably we might come to doubt that importance. As things stand, however, we are asserting the ethical centrality of personal happiness without having much idea what it is that is happy or unhappy. If selves are particles of the divine spirit that fact might be morally relevant, while if they are actually non-existent fictions that might be relevant too (how can it matter whether persons are happy if there are no persons?). There is thus a lacuna at the heart of the utilitarian theory. That might be acceptable from a practical point of view—we are ignorant of many things yet we get on with life regardless—but theoretically it is far from satisfactory. Wouldn’t it be better if ethics were not predicated on an enigma?

Kant’s ethics is instructive because of the explicit reference to persons. We are told to have “respect for persons”—autonomous rational beings, supposedly. Persons create obligations; the principle of universalization quantifies over them. It is regarded as self-evident that persons are the source of our moral duties (though Kant has a problem with animal ethics). But elsewhere in his philosophy Kant tells us that selves are noumenal beings—their essence is unknown to us. So the categorical imperative applies to beings whose nature we do not and cannot know. We know they are rational and autonomous (allegedly), but we don’t know what grounds these traits. We are admonished to respect entities whose real nature escapes us. Wouldn’t it be better to have an ethics that rests on knowledge of its essential subject matter? Maybe knowledge of the noumenal nature of selves would make us see that these entities are of supreme moral worth—one would assume that this must be so. But we are not granted such knowledge, so our ethical convictions lack the grounding necessary to them. This is a dramatic statement of what is implicit in common sense: we have only a vague idea what a self is, our own or others.[1] Our attitudes towards these elements of nature are solicitous, to be sure, but we don’t really know what grounds them, if anything. Maybe a better understanding of selves would convince us that we underestimate their value (that is particularly true in the case of animals), but we are not in a position to say. Also, moral skeptics might be kept at bay by a more penetrating understanding of the nature of selves: as things stand they can rightly complain that the basis of ethics rests on ignorance. The skeptic may protest, “Why do you say that selves matter so much?” and we have little to say in reply except to appeal to self-evidence. What if complete knowledge of the self were to demonstrate not only the validity of ethics but also the correctness of one ethical theory over others? What if knowledge of the noumenal self were to vindicate Kantian ethics as against utilitarian ethics? The trouble is that the ethicist is proceeding in profound ignorance; or worse, knowledge combined with ignorance. For we do know some of the attributes of the self—consciousness, rationality, will—but not its full nature; and the known attributes may bias us in a direction full knowledge would contraindicate.

We are familiar with the point that ethics depends on the persistence of the self over time: you can’t, for example, blame someone for what his earlier self did.[2] The metaphysics of the self is not irrelevant to the ethics of selves. But the point is more general: ethics cannot be independent of the nature of the self at a time either. If ethics were concerned with biological organisms as such, with no reference to psychological subjects, then it would have a clearly articulated subject matter and its prescriptions would be solidly grounded in knowable fact. But as things stand it is concerned with those mysterious entities called “persons” or “selves” or “subjects of consciousness”; and these are philosophically problematic. It’s a bit like applying ethics to mathematics without knowing what numbers are: doesn’t it matter whether numbers are abstract platonic entities or marks on paper or ideas in minds? But the self is even more elusive, to the point of being under suspicion of non-existence. A Humean about the self can hardly base her ethics on the principle of respect for selves! That would be the equivalent of a utilitarian who denies the existence of mental states. The problem of the self is the dirty little secret of ethics.[3]



[1] We have only indexical ideas of the self not descriptive ideas: the self is what I am and what you are and what heis—it is this (pointing inwards). As Hume would say, we don’t have an “adequate” idea of the self, based either on experience or reason.

[2] Derek Parfit emphasized this point based on considerations about identity through time: see Reasons and Persons (1984).

[3] I don’t at all mean to assert that ethics is impossible without a resolution of the problem of the self; I just mean that it lacks solid theoretical foundations without a clearer conception of what the self is. That, at any rate, is a possibility we do well to take into account. My own feeling is that our rather glancing conception of animal and human selves leaves our ethical appreciation of selves seriously etiolated.

2 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Maybe ethics can be seen as one (partial) way to define selves. Not defined in a bottom up way, of course. I mean ethics might provide an ‘algebra’ of sorts of how selves relate.

    This isn’t the only language or theory in which to grapple with selves, since it would deny that introspection can also elucidate aspects of the nature of self (eg the constructed nature of self).

    It seems both perspectives are required (outer shared and inner private realities).

    There may be no one conceptual underlying theory of self from which these two perspectives can be deduced.

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      Locke’s “forensic” view of persons goes with the idea that our talk of persons serves ethical and legal questions more than biological or metaphysical ones. The concept seems to have a foot in several camps.


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