A Life of One's Own

The Ethics of Identity by Kwame Anthony Appiah (Princeton University Press, 384 pages, $29.95)

Many of us, when we pause to reflect on the larger questions, tend to think of our lives as vast projects that we are responsible for planning, organizing, and living out to completion. We often think, in fact, that a successful project must be one that we have tailored to ourselves as individuals. As John Stuart Mill put it, a person's “own mode of laying out his existence is the best, not because it is the best in itself, but because it is his own mode.”

But the choices about how to live that are available to us depend, of course, on who exactly we happen to be: male or female, gay or straight, American or Japanese, Baptist or Muslim. And, to a large extent, who we happen to be is not actually a matter of choice. We don't choose our grandparents, as the saying goes -- but neither, in the ordinary course of things, do we choose our gender, our nationality, or our mother tongue. This leaves us with a set of deep philosophical problems around ethics, identity, and individuality. To what extent is the shape of a life given to us, and to what extent do we create it? How do we reconcile the demands of individuality with the demands of our identities?

These are the problems that Kwame Anthony Appiah takes up in his impressive new book, The Ethics of Identity. Appiah is a philosopher at Princeton University, and if there is any ethical idea in America today that needs a good philosophical working over, surely it is identity. But Appiah's book, thankfully, is not about identity politics. Appiah is less interested in argument or polemic than philosophical diagnosis. (“If an agenda, a set of action items, is what you're after,” he writes, “my one bit of practical advice is that you look elsewhere.”) The result is a thorough exploration of moral concepts such as authenticity, tolerance, individuality, and dignity, and how they are all connected to the task of making a life.

One crucial aspect of making a life involves shaping one's own individuality. Appiah suggests that we have inherited two rival visions of what this task involves. The first, which we have inherited from romanticism, stresses the importance of authenticity. According to an ethic of authenticity, a meaningful life involves getting in touch with our inner depths and being true to what we find there. The second vision, which we have inherited from existentialism, stresses the importance of self-creation. On this account, individuality is important because the only valuable life is one that we have made up for ourselves.

According to Appiah, both of these accounts are wrong. The first is wrong because it ignores the importance of creativity in making a life. The second is wrong because it ignores the materials that are needed for creation. To create an identity for ourselves we must draw on the kinds of identities available to us in our own societies. Some are individual identities; for instance, a person can be a rogue, a clown, or a flirt. But these kinds of identities do not really have a collective dimension.

The more philosophically interesting are collective identities, which come with scripts -- socially generated ideas about how people of a certain type ought to conduct themselves. Scripts tell us how to act if we happen to be Texas men, evangelical Christians, or Jewish mothers. Scripts, as Appiah puts it, are “narratives that people can use in shaping their projects and telling their life stories.”

What makes these collective identities and scripts so interesting today is that they have been changing, in some cases dramatically. The civil-rights movements of the 1960s and '70s helped to create new ways of being black, gay, and female. Sometimes brand-new collective identities emerge, providing new scripts for people in search of a fitting narrative. For example, when sex-reassignment surgery was made available in the United States for the first time in the mid-'60s, it set into place the conditions by which people could create identities for themselves as transsexuals. And, of course, identities can also be contested. To most hearing people, the condition of being deaf is just a disability, pure and simple. But to the hearing-impaired, educated together for centuries in special schools, being deaf is part of a collective identity, complete with its own languages, institutions, and narratives.

An identity allows a person to fit his or her life story into a pattern and to connect that individual story to a larger one. It matters to people that their lives are part of the story of, say, the American people. To some, it even matters that their lives are part of the story of the Daughters of the Confederacy, Yale University, or survivors of repetitive strain injury. The fiction writer George Saunders, whom Appiah quotes, satirizes the self-making obsessions of Americans today by describing emerging nation-states such as Men Who Fish, Individuals Reluctant to Kill for an Abstraction, and People Who Say They Hate Television but Admit to Watching It Now and Again, Just to Relax.

It is hard to know what to admire most about this book: the urbane elegance of Appiah's prose, the reach of his knowledge, or the sheer philosophical sharpness of his analysis. Appiah presents his arguments and observations so cleanly and confidently that they seem not only correct but blindingly obvious. (He even manages to make John Stuart Mill interesting, which is no mean feat.) The conventional rap against professional philosophers is that they write about “narrative” but don't like to tell stories, that they discuss “thick description” but are not too keen on doing it themselves, and that they would rather talk about the concept of culture than any culture in particular.
Appiah is an exception to this rule. While his aims are philosophical, he draws liberally on fiction, politics, social science, and occasionally even autobiography. A novelist as well as a philosopher, Appiah is himself a man of multiple identities -- the child of a Ghanaian father and an English mother, multilingual, gay, educated at Oxford and Cambridge, now an American citizen who has taught at Harvard, Duke, Cornell, Yale, and Princeton -- and, as such, he has a few stories to tell. In the final chapter of the book, titled “Rooted Cosmopolitanism,” Appiah writes of his father, Joseph Appiah, a barrister and member of the opposition in Ghana's parliament who was jailed by three different regimes and whose life represented the combination of intense local commitment and worldly ideals that Appiah admires. The book closes with a proverb from Ashanti, the region of Ghana where Appiah and his father were raised: “In a single town there is no wisdom.”

Carl Elliott is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Center for Bioethics and the author of Better Than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream.