It seems that people in my corner of the Great Internet Discourse have actually started talking about the Identity Thing.  Some in response to my writing, some not.  This is pretty excellent.

I should respond to their words.

…and perhaps clarify a few of my own thoughts while I’m at it.


Probably the most substantive entry into the conversation is Sarah Constantin’s recent piece.  Like most things that Sarah writes, it is great, and you should definitely go read it yourself rather than relying on me to summarize.  Her analysis focuses on one particular aspect of identity — the external systems-constructed part, the part that says You Belong In This Well-Defined Pigeonhole and You Should Fit This Stereotype, rather than any aspect of modular customized self-constructed identity  —  but that’s a good and worthy subject for analysis.  (If we’re going to do any kind of identity-bolstering culture-engineering work, we’re going to need to help people externalize their identities for mutual intelligibility, so understanding the pigeonholes-and-stereotypes thing is key.)  Mostly she picks apart the feeling of caring about identity, noting some of the various cognitive traps into which it can lead you, and she does so in a way that seems very truthful.  I can get behind pretty much every positive claim that she makes.

Identity is always vivid, personal, flavorful.  It’s not “mere” fact, it’s alive with emphasis and exaggeration.  It’s never bland or dry.  I think that’s part of its appeal.  It makes you special, it makes you valid, it makes you distinctive.  It adds vim and verve to your self-image. It’s like all-caps and italics for your soul.

It may be dull in terms of information content (what it says is, always and forever, “I AM!!!”) but it’s never lacking in personal flair.

Yeah, that is pretty much 100% on the money.

And then she gets to her conclusion, and I facepalm.

…I’m genuinely unsure: do we want to channel identifying-as into safe, satisfying forms of pretend-play, or do we want to just have less of it?

I can answer that one:

You do not want either of those things.  You really, really, really do not want to destroy people’s identities; what you’ll be left with, at the end, will not please you.  And while you do want to help them channel their identity-building drive in useful ways, “channel” does not mean “neuter.” The processes that go into maintaining a worthwhile self-construction cannot be described as “safe, satisfying forms of pretend-play.” 

This stuff is important.  Critically, project-definingly important.  It is not a speed bump for you to charge over on your way to some Glorious Cognitively-Optimized Future. 


Ms. Constantin’s general viewpoint is echoed by a number of the rationalist-types who’ve gotten involved in this conversation.  To the hedonic-utilitarian mind, this whole Identity Thing is really inconvenient overall; it loads people up with complicated desires that are hard to fulfill.  A reasonably representative sample of such thinking, from Tumblr user @jadagul:

Just enjoy things. You don’t need to invest things with deep meaning for them to make you happy. And I really don’t get why the things need to be embedded in a social nexus.

…What I value in me is independence from social pressures and socially constructed meaning, and even from individual meaning and identity. My identity is deeply tied up in my absence of identity. 😛 But I think that that is good and waht everyone else should do.

And, of course, you can find lots of people supporting Paul Graham’s exhortation to “keep your identity small” on the grounds that narcissistic commitments can keep you tied to erroneous beliefs or self-damaging behaviors.

Your identity makes you wrong about things.  It pushes you to hurt yourself.  And you don’t need it to be happy.  Why not just chuck it?  Or, failing that, why not keep it penned up in a LARP, so that it doesn’t affect any of the important parts of your life?


I could answer by saying that, in many circumstances, identity really is necessary for hedonic well-being.  This is just a reiteration of a point I’ve made before — the world isn’t set up to provide us with constant sources of utility, so it’s much better to have a constantly-accessible utility generator inside yourself, even if that generator requires some finicky maintenance.

And, if I were willing to be kind of rude and presumptuous, I could add to that: if you think you don’t rely on your identity-construction for your own hedonic well-being, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re suffering from a major introspection failure, and are in fact just fooling yourself.  (Hint: the wry quips about how “my identity hinges on not having an identity!,” which I’ve seen from several different sources, do not scan as being totally facetious.)

(It’s not a good idea to build yourself around an unresolvable contradiction.  Even if identity is repugnant to your ethics or your aesthetic…well, as the rationalists say, always better to face up squarely to the truth.)

But resting my case there would be cheating.  Maybe there are lots of people out there who genuinely do just fine taking utility as it comes, without investing in the edifice of a strong personal identity.  I won’t deny their experience, if it’s real.  I certainly won’t deny that identity can be a major cognitive hazard; figuring out how to account properly for that fact is one of the major challenges of my project.  And, most importantly, it will obscure my true philosophical motivations here if I rely on the utilitarian calculus to defend my logic.

So, hell, man, let’s be honest.

As far as I’m concerned, identity is a terminal value.  Or, at the least, a value so tightly bound up in my vision of human flourishing that we might as well treat it as terminal.

We refer to our highest state of well-being with the term “self-actualization” — because the thing to be cultivated, the thing to be exalted, is the self.  Being able to look upon your existence from the outside, and to revel in the beauty of the concepts and abstractions that give it shape, is what it means to be experiencing the good life.  It is almost as fundamental as truth, more fundamental than art, and just as morally salient as either of them.  To the extent that we recoil from the prospect of a simple utility-maximizing technology like wireheading, as I do, it is largely for this reason; there is no identity in a wireheader, no self to be actualized, just a narrative-less bag of hedons.  In my eyes, this outcome represents a critical failure to capture what is worthwhile in the universe, no matter how many hedons can be stuffed into the bag.  I would rather be a sorrowing wretch, who knows his sorrow and his wretchedness and finds some bitter pride in them, than that.

If you are genuinely happy living without a strong constructed identity, going from one pleasant experience to the next, and you prefer to remain so — then go to.  It is not my place to tell you what to be, or how to manage your psychological affairs.  I cannot help finding something repulsive in your Way, as I find something repulsive in wireheading, but that is my problem and not yours.

But you should be aware that there are some who feel as I do, not as you do.  (Many such, I would hazard, but the numbers do not matter in this moment.)  My work is for their benefit, and not for yours.  My intent is to build a world where they can better thrive.

And for you to say “keep your identity small, indulge it minimally if you have to, but otherwise seek utility as optimally as you can” —

— well, you imagine some villainous cartoon of a Soviet central planner: Our economy would be so much more productive, so much more efficient, if people didn’t insist on being happy all the time!  Can’t they just do their jobs instead?  Or if they simply must have happiness, can’t they confine it to a half-hour daily break, and spend all the rest of their time working for the prosperity of the People?

It feels kinda like that.


Finally, there are a few people who acknowledge the importance of constructing identity, but who are dismissive of the need to ground that identity in the social sphere or in any kind of externally-validated symbolic vocabulary.  As they see it, the path to true self-actualization involves a radically complete internal rootedness, and an ability to derive all the validation that one needs from self-contemplation and self-awareness.

To which I say — It is good for them if they abide even as I, but if they cannot contain, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn.

It’s very true.  There will never be a perfect translation between your mindscape and the outside world, even assuming the very best of faith, and other people will not always act in perfect faith; so long as you need validation from the outside, some level of narcissistic injury is inevitable.  Better for your identity to be unbreakable and independent, for you not to rely on others to shore up your sense of self.  This is one of my own personal ambitions, which I cultivate as assiduously as I can, and I admire it in others.

But it is essentially a monastic path.  It is built on a counterintuitive form of mental discipline.  And monasticism doesn’t scale.

Charting out new forms of enlightenment is a good and a worthy task.  But you will never ever ever ever ever induce any form of enlightenment in more than a tiny sliver of the population.  That is not a viable method for saving the world.  I’ll probably write a long post just on this topic in the near future, since it seems to come up again and again, but for now just let me say with a sigh: weird mental disciplines are too hard, and the world contains too many countervailing pressures, and human nature has too much inertia in it.

Culture engineering is extremely difficult.  Setting up incentive structures, and compelling symbols, and cyclically-self-reinforcing behavior norms: these tasks are not for quitters. But culture engineering is worlds easier than mass-scale psychological engineering.


2 thoughts on “Responsa

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s