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1 Who am I? Identity and ethics Hektor Yan Department of Public and Social Administration City University of Hong Kong Dec 11, 2008.

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Presentation on theme: "1 Who am I? Identity and ethics Hektor Yan Department of Public and Social Administration City University of Hong Kong Dec 11, 2008."— Presentation transcript:

1 1 Who am I? Identity and ethics Hektor Yan Department of Public and Social Administration City University of Hong Kong Dec 11, 2008

2 2 …only animals live entirely in the Here and Now. Only nature knows neither memory nor history. But man—let me offer you a definition—is the story-telling animal. Wherever he goes he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting marker-buoys and trail-signs of stories. —Graham Swift (b. 1949), Waterland (1984), p. 53.

3 3 Treat a man as he is, and that is what he remains. Treat a man as he can be, and that is what he becomes. —Johann Wolfgang von Goethe ( ), Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjare (1795-6).

4 4 §I. Introduction

5 5 Background: The notion of an identity seems to be relevant to ethics. For example: –Moral philosophers (especially those sympathetic to virtue ethics) are becoming more and more interested in the notion of a moral identity and the narrative self.

6 6 Background: The notion of an identity seems to be relevant to ethics. For example: –What kind of identity people have can also be relevant to ethics: identity seems to be able to give shape and meaning to a person’s life. One experiences an ‘identity crisis’ when one fails to see the direction or meaning of one’s life.

7 7 The aims of this session: To investigate the relationship between identity and ethics. To examine the ethical issues that arise from the notion of identity and questions about which sort of identity should be adopted.

8 8 §II. Identity: What is it?

9 9 Background: Meaning and purpose— a distinctively human issue To understand why different events occur in the nature world, it seems sufficient if we can discover what are the causes and effects. (Take a landslide as an example.) Human actions are radically different from natural events: they are meaningful in the sense that they are performed for some purpose.

10 10 Background: Meaning and purpose— a distinctively human issue What a person’s actions can mean in the course of a human life is not a straightforward matter. The meaning of one’s actions can undergo the process of negotiation, reinterpretation or critical reflection. This means that meaning in the context of a human life cannot be discovered once and for all. It is also necessary for individual human beings to search for meaning and purpose within their particular lives.

11 11 Identity, self-conception and the narrative sense of self: To find meaning in my life I need to have a sense of identity: I should be able to answer the question ‘Who am I?’. [‘I am an entity in the solar system.’ ‘I am a featherless biped.’] We may understand identity in the ethical context as self-conception Self-conception refers to how a person conceives of himself or herself.

12 12 Identity, self-conception and the narrative sense of self: Unlike an inanimate object, human beings can see oneself as an entity that exists over time. In other words, a human being can perceive that he or she has a past, a present and a future.

13 13 Identity, self-conception and the narrative sense of self: This gives rise to the narrative sense of the self, which consists of: –what one has become, –what one is, –what one is going to be, and –how all these lead to one another. It is argued that only when one can tell one’s own ‘life story’, one can have an opportunity to examine the meaning of one’s life.

14 14 Identity: its ethical significance Although the identity of a human being seems to be consist of a description of oneself, such a description can also have important normative implications. For example, if a person describes himself or herself to be a teacher, it is likely that certain ethical attitudes follow from the description itself. (‘A teacher should not use foul language.’)

15 15 Identity: its ethical significance This implies that how one sees oneself can have implications on one’s actions and conduct in two ways: –In the context of the search for meaning and purpose for one’s life as a whole. –In the context of particular moments of life where moral decisions are made.

16 16 Some threats to human beings’ sense of identity: Identity crisis: A common and very human condition, to put it simply, one experiences an identity crisis when one cannot see the direction of one’s future or when one fails to find the ‘shape’ of one’s life.

17 17 Some threats to human beings’ sense of identity: The erosion of the sense of agency: –Can human beings transcend the effect of social conditioning? Are we always the product of a particular upbringing or culture? –Is the behaviour of human beings ‘determined’ by their evolutionary make-up?

18 18 Bernard Walton and Miles Barton, Cousins 《猴親》, (A BBC/Discovery Channel co-production), (London: BBC Worldwide Ltd., 2000), Disc 3, ‘The Apes’.

19 19 BBC Documentary: Cousins, ‘The Apes’ (Threats) (Border patrol)

20 20 Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey, (UK, 1968).

21 21 Film, 2001: A Space Odyssey

22 22 Film, A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)

23 23 Scenes from A Clockwork Orange: Alex and his gang

24 24 Scenes from A Clockwork Orange The ‘Ludovico Technique’

25 25 §III. The multi- dimensional nature of identity

26 26 A person can have different identities at the same time: An example: Peter is a Hong Kong resident, someone’s brother, a post- graduate student, a heterosexual, a music lover, a person who was born in the same village as Lee Ka Shing, a stock-market speculator, etc… One can hold multiple identities at the same time. In particular circumstances some aspects of a person’s identity may become more significant.

27 27 A person can have different identities at the same time: There is an inevitable element of selectivity in the construction of one’s overall identity. In the context of telling a life story, a similar sort of selectivity can be detected: one chooses to include certain events, experiences or achievements while disregarding others.

28 28 The implications of selectivity: There is the danger of self-deception and dishonesty when one chooses to hide certain facts about oneself. The construction of identity can also be abused or misused. This is especially a problem when the construction of one’s identity is manipulated to serve some ulterior motive.

29 29 §IV. A case study: National identity and being a ‘patriot’

30 30 Background: Recently we can notice that identifying oneself as ‘Chinese 中國人 ’ in Hong Kong has become a concern. Surveys have been done to see how many young people in Hong Kong have identified themselves as ‘Chinese’. Once the question of ‘national identity’ is recognised as important, the related issue of whether one is a patriot is often raised.

31 31 Background: The issue: Should one identity oneself as ‘Chinese’? Is it necessary to be a ‘patriot’?

32 32 Two relevant documentaries ‘ 愛國者 ’ (A documentary from the 《新聞 透視》 series), ( 香港 : 電視廣播有限公司, 2004). ‘ 愛國新一代 ’ (A documentary from the 《時事追擊》 series), ( 香港 : 亞洲電視, 2005).

33 33 Criticisms on the ‘national identity’ or the ‘Chinese’ identity from an ethical perspective: In order to see the ethical status of the ‘Chinese’ identity (or ‘national identity’) it seems necessary to examine what kind of behaviour results from such an identity.

34 34 Criticisms on the ‘national identity’ or the ‘Chinese’ identity from an ethical perspective: What kinds of behaviour or obligation does the ‘nation identity’ create? Two possibilities: –A weaker sense of ‘national identity’ creates only a kind of ‘love’ (cf. 愛國 ) or affection towards things related to the nation. –A stronger sense of ‘national identity’ creates some specific and concrete obligations ( 責任 ) such as the obligation to make sacrifice for the country.

35 35 Criticisms on the ‘national identity’ or the ‘Chinese’ identity from an ethical perspective: A dilemma: –The weaker sense of ‘national identity’ does not seem to be morally required. –The stronger sense of ‘national identity’ may invite serious ethical accusations: it seems arbitrary to require that one must do something for one’s country when one has no choice in where one was born (or where one lives). To believe that there are certain things that one must perform for one’s country is morally dangerous: atrocities can be done in the name of the nation’s good.

36 36 Some possible replies A ‘national identity’ can build up solidarity and maintain harmony. Such an identity is instrumental in preserving one’s culture and a decent way of life.

37 37 Some possible replies People living in modern nation-states have the duty of self-governance through political participation, a ‘national identity’ may help to develop some sort of fellow- feeling between such people and this can make it easier for them to listen to and cooperate with each other.

38 38 Film, Persepolis (2007) Directed by Vincent Paronnaud & Marjane Satrapi (Based on a comic by Marjane Satrapi)

39 39 Marjane Satrapi’s self portrait

40 40 From the comic book

41 41 Film, Persepolis (optional)

42 42 Discussion questions for the film Persepolis in relation to identity: Some suggestions 1.What does it mean when one claims that one is Iranian (or Chinese)? 2.What are the ethical implications to be an Iranian? 3.What do you think is the meaning of being Iranian to Marjane Satrapi? 4.What do you think is the relationship between Marjane Satrapi’s ethical character (or moral conduct) and the fact that she comes from Iran?

43 43 Discussion questions for the film Persepolis in relation to identity: Some suggestions 5.Marjane Satrapi’s grandmother told her: ‘Always keep your dignity and be true to yourself.’ And her mother told her: ‘Don’t forget who you are and where you come from.’ What, in your opinion, does it mean to say that one needs to be true to oneself? In what sense is it important not to forget where one comes from?

44 44 Discussion questions for the film Persepolis in relation to identity: Some suggestions 6.What difference does it make to the ethical character (or moral identity) of Majane Satrapi when she refused to acknowledge her Iranian origin? Or is it the case that it makes little or no difference? 7.If you have watched the whole film, would you say that Marjane Satrapi has finally found ‘herself’ or her true identity? Do you think that an identity matters to human beings? Why or why not?

45 45 The complicated identity of Marjane Satrapi She is from a ‘westernized’ family in Iran with relatives involved in socialism and communism. Studies high school in Vienna. Married and divorced a Iranian man called Reza in Iran. Currently a French citizen living in Paris. She now works as an illustrator and she is an author of children’s books.

46 46 Films/documentaries introduced Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, 《我在伊朗長 大》 Persepolis, (France, 2007). Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey, (UK, 1968). Stanley Kubrick, A Clockwork Orange, (UK, 1971). Bernard Walton and Miles Barton, Cousins 《猴親》, (A BBC/Discovery Channel co-production), (London: BBC Worldwide Ltd., 2000 [Published in 2002]), Disc 3, ‘The Apes’. ‘ 愛國者 ’ (A documentary from the 《新聞透視》 series), ( 香港 : 電視廣播有限公司, 2004). ‘ 愛國新一代 ’ (A documentary from the 《時事追擊》 series), ( 香港 : 亞洲電視, 2005).

47 47 References Culler, Jonathan (1997), Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, Chapter 6, ‘Narrative’, esp. pp Gaita, Raimond (2003), The Philosopher’s Dog, London: Routledge. Goldie, Peter (2004), On Personality, London and New York: Routledge, esp. Chapter Five, ‘Personality, Narrative and Living a Life’, pp Kearney, Richard (2002), On Stories, London and New York: Routledge, esp. Chapter Eleven, ‘Narrative Matters’, pp Norman, Richard (2004), On Humanism, London and New York: Routledge, Chapter Five, ‘The Meaning of Life and the Need for Stories’, pp Rosenstand, Nina (2002), The Human Condition: An Introduction to Philosophy of Human Nature, McGraw-Hill, esp. Chapter 3, ‘The Sociobiological Challenge’. Rosenstand, Nina (2006), The Moral of the Story: An Introduction to Ethics, fifth edition, McGraw-Hill, esp. Chapter 2, ‘Learning Moral Lessons from Stories’, pp


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