What percentage of people’s decisions are driven by their desire to craft their own identity?How much of their choice in music? What portion of their spending? How many of their acts of kindness? Of love? The paths for their career and family?
A cynic tends to choose a higher number:
“Nobody actually is nice/is charitable/still likes Velvet Underground. They’re just being that way because it serves the self-identity they want to create”.
The assumption is that this act discounts the trait in them as less real. If someone is being nice because they want to appear nice, that’s not really that nice.
Although I don’t consider myself a cynic, I’ve come to believe that the number is 100% of all actions, for everyone. Everything we do is driven at least in part by our personal sense of identity.
Think about it through the lens of subjectivity vs objectivity. Although we live in a world of objective facts (using Bertrand Russell’s definition of fact – something that can be known), any decision we make is necessarily subjective. In order to take action, we must ascribe our personal values and beliefs to facts.
For example, it’s August and your living room is 25°C. This is an objective fact, but what happens next is subjective. You can either turn up the A/C, implying that this temperature is too hot, affixing a value judgement to that fact. Or you could do nothing about it, implying a value judgement that 25°C is, at the very least, comfortable enough to not do anything about it.
This is true for any decision. It’s literally impossible to make decisions without introducing your own subjective perspective on the world around you.
So how do we develop our unique, subjective perspective? In other words, our set of values? Does it necessarily include a self-crafting of identity?
In my mind, it’s a clear yes. Here’s why: look at how divergent our decisions are as individuals.
Our Source of Values
Making a value judgement requires having values. Where do we get those values?
It seems self-evident that values are developed through experience: learning about the world and the consequences of people’s decisions. But how do we decide how to interpret our experiences?
Here’s an example of divergence. Some people see a deer get shot and translate that into valuing veganism, while others would translate it into a love for game hunting.
If we were all just translating the objective world into our values through experience, we would all interpret that scenario roughly the same, because we would have similar self-reinforcing loops between reality and values. We would also expect our values to trend towards being more similar over time as a culture.
This is obviously not the case. Our decision-making and values as humans vary widely from person to person, and on a societal scale, appear to only be getting more divergent. So that filter in between facts and values needs to be individual, exist outside of objective reality, and provide a sense of uniqueness in how an individual fits into the world. In other words: that filter is an identity.
So every subjective decision must also filter through the lens of our identity. Therefore, our sense of identity affects every decision we make.
Identity is Still Genuine
I believe this actually frees me from cynicism. Instead of cynically wondering the “real” motivations behind any person’s actions, I can comfortably know that it is indeed at least partially to do with their sense of self. Since that’s how all humans make decisions, it doesn’t make sense passing judgement on that motivation.
Instead, I can focus on the quality of the action itself. Is its effect on the objective world positive? To me, that’s a much more useful framework for judging decisions.
In conclusion, so what if I like Velvet Underground because I think it makes me seem cooler? Heroin is still a sweet song. Back off.