The Ethics of Identity Analysis
by Kwame Anthony Appiah

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The Ethics of Identity Analysis

In The Ethics of Identity, philosopher and African Studies scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah analyzes the differences between individuality and identity. The latter is a broad term that encompasses various social constructs and biological traits, such as race, religion, nationality, gender, and sexuality.

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Using an interdisciplinary approach—which includes citing various ideas from around the world, and throughout history—Appiah attempts to answer how individuality (our personality, individual habits, and perspectives on the world) is influenced by identity. Appiah posits that identity could either limit one's individuality or give it additional dimensions.

For instance, being nationalistic will limit one's perspective on other cultures and breed xenophobia. On the other hand, loving one's nationality could give one a sense of community and unity with one's compatriots.

Appiah's thesis is based on a liberal theory of humanism, in which grand ideas such as morality and human rights are examined in a macro view and are critiqued. Appiah questions whether one's cultural or social identity should be expanded to make for a more holistic way of viewing ourselves and the identities of others.

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In his wide-ranging book The Ethics of Identity, Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah explores the enormous scope of human “identities,” including beliefs, self-concepts, patterns of behavior, and labels. For Appiah, identities are multiple, overlapping, and context-sensitive; some are fundamentally important and enduring, while others are trivial and transient. Each normal individual possesses a unique sense of personal identity, and almost everyone also shares a variety of collective identities with other persons. The range of identities is almost infinite, as they can be based on nationality, race, religion, gender, profession, political ideology, or family, as well as many other associations and activities.

Observing that one’s choices among alternative identities largely determine one’s individuality, Appiah refers approvingly to John Stuart Mill’s ideas about individuality, which Mill sees as an “enterprise for self-discovery,” and becoming the “captain of one’s own soul.” He argues that the development of individuality is a significant element of well-being and is an “intrinsic good” so long as it is part of a good life that gives others their dues. There is, however, an inevitable tension between treasuring this individuality and taking collective identities seriously, for individuality necessarily involves characteristics that make one distinct and unlike others.

For the most part, Appiah argues, collective identities serve as “instruments of self-creation,” provide purpose and meaning to people’s lives, and “create forms of solidarity.” In addition, participation in identities is a good thing, “because we enjoy it and, other things being equal, it is a good thing for people to have and to do what they enjoy having and doing.” Nevertheless, when looking at the great diversity of collective identities in the world, Appiah recognizes that there are numerous ways in which collective identities can go wrong; for example, they can be tyrannical and provide motivation for oppression and social conflict.

When discussing the intriguing question of why a person develops a particular kind of individuality, Appiah makes a distinction between two psychological points of view. The first, which he calls the “authenticity picture,” holds that a person discovers his or her true self, which was just waiting to be found. The other perspective, the “existentialist picture,” asserts that a person exists first and then has the ability to choose the kind of individuality that he or she wants to achieve. Appiah declares that neither of these perspectives is entirely correct. The authenticity picture mistakenly suggests that a person’s nature is entirely fixed at birth. In contrast, the existentialist picture ignores...

(The entire section is 978 words.)