Normative Identity

Normative Identity

by Per Bauhn


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Normative Identity is about how we define ourselves and others in terms of our ideas about the good and the right. Conflict as well as cooperation spring from our normative identity. Terrorists as well as social reformers find meaning and justification for their actions in their beliefs about whom and what they are and should be. But normative identities are not immune to rational criticism. This book argues that we should try to develop for ourselves a complex normative identity, based on the values of truth, justice, and beauty and consistent with the requirements of rational agency. Per Bauhn develops distinct but interrelated themes in moral philosophy to offer a new understanding of the relation between identity, values, meaning and agency. Ultimately he outlines a normative identity that is both rationally justified and can function as a source of meaning and motivation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783485772
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 10/05/2018
Series: Values and Identities: Crossing Philosophical Borders Series
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 5.97(w) x 8.68(h) x 0.54(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Per Bauhn is Professor of Practical Philosophy at Linnaeus University, Sweden. His publications in English include Ethical Aspects of Political Terrorism (1989), Nationalism and Morality (1995), and The Value of Courage (2003).

Read an Excerpt

Normative Identity

By Per Bauhn

Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd

Copyright © 2017 Per Bauhn
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78348-578-9


The Concept of Normative Identity

Identity is about sameness. But sameness can be accounted for in more than one way. A thing may, for instance, be quantitatively identical with itself but qualitatively identical with many other things. A red billiard ball is quantitatively identical only with itself (this particular red billiard ball cannot be anything else than this particular red billiard ball), but it is qualitatively identical with any other red billiard ball in the world (it could be replaced with any other red billiard ball without changing anything of relevance in the world of billiards).

When it comes to persons, identity becomes a more complicated matter. For one thing, persons change in appearance as they grow older, which forces us to consider the question of what identity over time can mean. And this is only a complication concerning physical identity. However, we also have to consider how a person conceives of herself. The identity of a person has something to do with how she identifies herself in relation to other people and to society, and to goals, projects, pursuits, values and norms. This book is about persons' identification with values and norms and their connecting a conception of who they are with a conception of what they ought to do. This form of identification constitutes a normative identity.


Personal identity can be conceptualized in different ways. It can be analysed as a quasi-logical relationship, stating that if a person A is identical with another person B, then all significant properties that can be ascribed to A must also be ascribable to B, and vice versa. This is a quasi-logical relationship, since it is modelled upon the image of logical identity, according to which '[t]wo things are called one, when the definition which states the essence of one is indivisible from another definition which shows us the other'. In relations of logical identity, conditions of quantitative as well as qualitative sameness must be fulfilled. Typically, an object can be logically identical only with itself. Applied to persons, however, while conditions of quantitative sameness may be satisfied, conditions of qualitative sameness will not, as human individuals change physically as well as psychologically over time.

Moreover, in talking of personal identity we normally do not refer to every characteristic of a person (e.g. the exact number of freckles on her arms) but only to her significant properties (and we may well have different opinions concerning which of her properties are significant). Hence, personal identity when it is expressed in terms of sameness can at best resemble the logical model, and therefore, the label 'quasi-logical' is apt. It is this quasi-logical sense of personal identity that has occupied philosophers such as Derek Parfit, who famously concluded that 'personal identity is not what matters'.

The reason for Parfit's pessimism about the significance of personal identity is his belief that psychological continuity over time, which is one of the aspects we usually find important in personal identity, does not presuppose such an identity. It is logically possible to imagine a person's brain being divided and transplanted into two other persons. Then both of these persons would be psychologically continuous with the donor (having her memories up to the time of the split of her brain), but none of them would be identical with her (neither quantitatively, since they are two and she is one, nor qualitatively, since she is dead and they are alive), hence Parfit's conclusion that personal identity is not what matters.

Perhaps Parfit is right, but probably only as long as we conceive of personal identity in quasi-logical terms, as stating conditions of sameness over time. However, the concept of personal identity does not have to be reduced to such an external and descriptive content, focusing on observable empirical criteria for sameness. We can also think of personal identity as having an internal and normative content, that is, in terms of the agent's beliefs not only about who she is but also about what she ought to do because of who she is. This is to discuss personal identity as normative identity.

When a person believes that she ought to avenge the killing of her brother because she is a member of a family the honour of which requires this, that she ought to risk her life in the defence of a particular country because she is a citizen of that country or that she ought to forgive her enemies because she is a Christian, then she is expressing various normative identities. Being a family member, a citizen or a Christian functions as normative identities in the examples given earlier since they connect a person's beliefs about who she is with beliefs about what she ought to do. However, it is also important to note that agents differ as regards how they connect one and the same description of themselves to certain norms. For instance, a person may well believe herself to be a family member, a citizen or a Christian without believing that she ought to avenge her brother's death, defend her country or forgive her enemies, respectively.

It is also important to note that when I talk in the present work about an identity as being normative, I intend this term to be understood from the point of view of an agent and her normative self- conception. I do not use 'normative' in the current 'norm-critical' sense, according to which the 'normative' just refers to some allegedly dominant perspective ('the norm'), that marginalizes other less privileged viewpoints. For instance, in Veronika Koller's discussion of 'homonormativity', she defines this phenomenon 'in parallel to heteronormativity, that is, as presenting homosexuality as part of someone's "true self" and privileging certain expressions of homosexual identity over others'. But when I talk of an agent having a normative identity, there is no implied assumption that this identity is in any way 'privileged' in comparison with other identities. An agent's normative identity tells us something about her normative beliefs, but whether or not these normative beliefs are socially favoured in any way is a separate question that has nothing to do with the idea of normative identity itself.

Now, the 'ought' of a normative identity is to be understood as a moral 'ought'. It refers to norms that regulate the agent's conduct in relation to other people, and these norms are perceived by the agent as justified independently of her personal desires and preferences. Even agents who explicitly deny being moved by moral considerations may still endorse a moral 'ought' in this sense. When Hermann Göring was interviewed by the prison psychologist G. M. Gilbert in Nuremberg, the topic of morality obviously annoyed him:

What the devil do you mean, morality? — word of honor? ... Sure, you can talk about word of honor when you promise to deliver goods in business. — But when it is the question of the interests of the nation!? — Phooey! Then morality stops! ... When a state has a chance to improve its position because of the weakness of a neighbor, do you think it will stop at any squeamish consideration of keeping a promise? It is a stateman's duty to take advantage of such a situation for the good of his country!

What Göring is saying here is not that he does not care about morality but rather that his morality is related to the promotion of the interests of Germany. Being a German statesman, he ought to do whatever serves the interests of Germany — that is his normative identity, brought out by his use of the term 'duty'. What he seems to reject is a morality based on the interests of communities larger than the nation (e.g. humanity).

To form a normative identity for oneself is often about turning something contingent into something necessary. Here I agree with Christine Korsgaard, speaking of practical identities in general: Our practical identities are, for the most part, contingent.

... [W]hether you treat them as a source of reasons and obligations is up to you. If you continue to endorse the reasons the identity presents to you, and observe the obligations it imposes on you, then it's you. ... [Y]ou can walk out even on a factually grounded identity like being a certain person's child or a certain nation's citizen, dismissing the reasons and obligations that it gives rise to, because you just don't identify yourself with that role. Then it's not a form of practical identity anymore: not a description under which you value yourself. On the flip side, you can wholeheartedly endorse even the most arbitrary form of identification, treating its reasons and obligations as inviolable laws. Making the contingent necessary is one of the tasks of human life and the ability to do it is arguably a mark of a good human being.

Having a normative identity hence ties a person's self-conception to values, to things that are important to her. As Charles Taylor has remarked, 'What I am as a self, my identity, is essentially defined by the way things have significance for me'. And in this sense, viewed as normative identity, personal identity is anything but unimportant.


Adopting a particular normative identity for oneself might from an external point of view be considered as an aspect of human beings' innate desire for classifying themselves and others. The history of ethnocentrism and its malevolent offspring racism points to the dangers inherent in such pursuits. Assigning various noble qualities to one's own group while defining members of other groups in terms of inferior properties and as lacking in worth has often been used to justify slavery as well as genocide.

However, the fact that normative identities can be abused does not mean that they must be abused. Nor does it mean that we can do without them. Normative identities do not have to be ethnocentric in the problematic sense in which they ascribe moral superiority to one's own ethnic group just because it is one's own ethnic group. In another more descriptive and sociological sense, however, normative identities will necessarily be ethnocentric at least as regards their origin, since they are always formulated within some particular ethnic and cultural context. Our initial conceptions of what is good and right, bad and wrong will necessarily be influenced by the evaluative and normative perspectives of the groups of which we are members. Hence, it isinescapable that at least our initial classifications of ourselves and our actions as well as of other persons and their actions in terms of what is familiar and 'normal' or unfamiliar and 'strange' will carry the imprint of our own cultural expectations. For this reason, as the anthropologist Christer Lindberg has observed, the belief that we can do away with ethnocentrism is utterly unrealistic, since 'this would imply that we disconnect ourselves from that which organizes all our impressions, leaving us in a chaotic and incoherent world'. Equally important, however, is the observation that cultural origin and cultural influence are not the same as cultural determination. Our initial values, norms and self-conceptions are inevitably shaped by the surrounding culture, our place in that culture, the times in which we live and so on. But we are also agents, capable of creatively reinterpreting, modifying and even rejecting these initial conceptualizations in favour of others.

Moreover, the fact that certain cultural classifications and the values and norms implied by them are repressive and should be rejected does not mean that we can do without such classifications altogether. It is an essential part of any child's upbringing to 'know its place' in society in order to have a secure platform from which to develop into a socially responsible adult. Now to 'know one's place' should not be understood as just another blanket justification of any existing social order with its particular historically and culturally recognized hierarchies, separating men and women, noblemen and peasants, true believers and heretics and so on. In the context under discussion here, to know one's place involves a more fundamental knowledge about social relations, about how to approach other people, how to avoid being a nuisance to them, how to invite emotions of friendliness rather than hostility and so on.

This kind of social knowledge will, of course, be influenced by cultural expectations, but it is also a universal aspect of what it means to develop as a human being. In the words of the human ecologist Thomas Malm:

As we know, as soon as the child begins to express its 'I', a process of upbringing dealing with social relations and 'knowing one's place' is required. Those who do not have this particular kind of knowledge might become an outright danger to themselves as well as to others. Hence, among the things that everyone must learn early on in life is what it means to be a human being in relation to other human beings and to other beings in general.

One way of knowing one's place is to develop a normative identity for oneself. In this process, the agent does not just passively accept a role assigned to her by others but identifies herself with values and norms that she believes to be justified. The initial steps of this process will necessarily be influenced by the historical, social and cultural contexts in which the agent finds herself. But the process does not necessarily end within the evaluative and normative framework of that context. Human agents have, as we have already noted, a capacity for critical reflection that may well take them far beyond the confines of their original normative world.

An agent's normative identity does not necessarily refer to features that are unique to her. While uniqueness may well be a part of what many people associate with having an identity (maybe as a consequence of thinking of identity in logical or quasi-logical terms), it is not plausible as a condition of having a normative identity. As Oscar Wilde famously noted, 'Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their life a mimicry, their passions a quotation'. Even our strongest moral, political or religious beliefs are normally not originally formulated by ourselves. We come to a world already populated with normative beliefs and believers, and we relate to this world by adopting, modifying or rejecting these beliefs. But even as we reject the values and norms that we encounter, we probably rely on ideas and beliefs already formulated by others.


Now, let us summarize and clarify what we have said about normative identities so far. For an agent A to have a normative identity is for A to believe that there are certain things that she ought to do simply because she is A. Hence, a normative identity has two components, one descriptive and the other prescriptive. The descriptive component states your beliefs about who you are. You may, for instance, believe yourself to be a member of this or that family, a citizen of this or that country, a member of this or that political or religious movement and so on. The prescriptive component states your beliefs about what you ought to do. You may, for instance, believe that you ought to support your aged parents, contribute taxes to the state or spread the gospel. Moreover, in the eyes of the person who has a certain normative identity, its descriptive and prescriptive components are linked to each other so that the descriptive component justifies the prescriptive component, in the sense that the former provides a conclusive reason for the latter. She would hold, for instance, that she ought to support her aged parents because she is a member of their family, the 'because' here referring to a justifying reason.

To have a normative identity is, then, to identify with certain norms or prescriptions for action. The moral philosopher Richard Hare once famously argued that '[i]n identifying myself with some person either actually or hypothetically, I identify with his prescriptions.' For instance, to identify with someone else would be to also identify with her negative evaluation of being expose to pain. In the case of normative identity, however, it is not so much a question of identifying with another person as it is of identifying with a certain descriptive–prescriptive conception of oneself.


Excerpted from Normative Identity by Per Bauhn. Copyright © 2017 Per Bauhn. Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd.
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Table of Contents

Preface / 1. The Concept of Normative Identity / 2. The Need for Meaning / 3. The Narrative Conception of Self / 4. The 'Is'-'Ought' Problem / 5. Normative Identity and Agency / 6. The Citizen Agent / 7. The Artist Agent / 8. Concluding Comments: Normative Identities for an Imperfect World / Works Cited / Index

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