What makes us who we are? Is it the experiences we have, the memories we hold, or the behaviors we display? Is it a combination of these factors? These fundamental questions of identity and self have concerned humans across all cultures for millennia. Psychologist Nina Strohminger at Aeon offers an intriguing answer: moral character.
Recent studies by the philosopher Shaun Nichols at the University of Arizona and myself support the view that the identity-conferring part of a person is his moral capacities. One of our experiments pays homage to Locke’s thought experiment by asking subjects which of a slew of traits a person would most likely take with him if his soul moved to a new body. Moral traits were considered more likely to survive a body swap than any other type of trait, mental or physical. Interestingly, certain types of memories – those involving people – were deemed fairly likely to survive the trip. But generic episodic memories, such as one’s commute to work, were not. People are not so much concerned with memory as with memory’s ability to connect us to others and our capacity for social action.
In another study, subjects read about a patient who experiences one of a variety of cognitive impairments, including amnesia for his past life, losing the ability to recognise objects, his desires, and his moral compass. The majority of people responded that the patient was the least like himself after losing his moral faculties.
This is consistent with some of the more widely discussed case studies from the annals of neurology. Phineas Gage was a 19th-century U.S. railroad worker who miraculously survived an explosion that saw an iron rod shoot through his skull. Previously mild-mannered and industrious, Gage emerged from the accident obstinate, capricious and foul-mouthed. His friends were horrified and said he was ‘no longer Gage’.
But why should morality stand out more than anything? What about personality traits, faces, or life stories? Perhaps it has something to do with our species’s fundamentally social nature.
Somewhat paradoxically, identity has less to do with what makes us diﬀerent from other people than with our shared humanity. Consider the reason we keep track of individuals in the first place. Most animals don’t have an identity detector. Those that share our zeal for individual identification have one thing in common: they live in societies, where they must co‑operate to survive. Evolutionary biologists point out that the ability to keep track of individuals is required for reciprocal altruism and punishment to emerge. If someone breaks the rules, or helps you out of a bind, you need to be able to remember who did this in order return the favour later. Without the ability to distinguish among the members of a group, an organism cannot recognise who has co‑operated and who has defected, who has shared and who has been stingy.
Nor can you have formal moral systems without identity. The 18th-century philosopher Thomas Reid observed that the fundamentals of justice – rights, duty, responsibility – would be impossible without the ability to ascribe stable identity to persons. If nothing connects a person from one moment to the next, then the person who acts today cannot be held responsible by the person who has replaced him tomorrow. Our identity detector works in overdrive when reasoning about crimes of passion, crimes under the influence, crimes of insanity: for if the person was beside himself or out of his mind when he committed his crime, how can we identify who has committed the act, and hold him responsible for it?
Moral character is integral to identity because it is fundamental to our day-to-day existence, from our interpersonal relationships to how we navigate through society.
Moral features are the chief dimension by which we judge, sort and choose social partners. For men and women alike, the single most sought-after trait in a long-term romantic partner is kindness – beating out beauty, wealth, health, shared interests, even intelligence. And while we often think of our friends as the people who are uniquely matched to our shared personality, moral character plays the largest role in determining whether you like someone or not (what social psychologists call impression formation), and predicts the success and longevity of these bonds. Virtues are mentioned with more frequency in obituaries than achievements, abilities or talents. This is even the case for obituaries of notable luminaries, people who are being written about because of their accomplishments, not their moral fibre.
The identity detector is designed to pick up on moral features because this is the most important type of information we can have about another person. So we’ve been thinking about the problem precisely backwards. It’s not that identity is centred around morality. It’s that morality necessitates the concept of identity, breathes life into it, provides its raison d’être. If we had no scruples, we’d have precious little need for identities. Humans, with their engorged and highly complex socio-moral systems, have accordingly inflated egos.
‘Know thyself’ is a flimsy bargain-basement platitude, endlessly recycled but maddeningly empty. It skates the very existential question it pretends to address, the question that obsesses us: what is it to know oneself? The lesson of the identity detector is this: when we dig deep, beneath our memory traces and career ambitions and favourite authors and small talk, we find a constellation of moral capacities. This is what we should cultivate and burnish, if we want people to know who we really are.
Pretty interesting stuff. What are your thoughts?