Buying One's Identity


David Brooks has it right today. He still hasn’t got the language straight, but that’s OK. He writes about what it is to be and what it takes to flourish without using either term. There are two threads today. One is a story of how we get to be the person we think we are; the second is that transactions are not the same as actions.

Writing about an MIT graduate student who has figured the best way to do “good.” Splitting his time between his studies and a hedge fund, he uses his “ample salary” to fund charitable actions. In typical MIT fashion (I should know having studied and taught there), he has figured that $2500 can save the life of a single malaria victim so that by giving away his money he can maximize his goodliness. Brooks write that Trigg was influenced by Peter Singer a well-known, but often controversial, utilitarian philosopher.

Brooks correctly disputes this basic way of life arguing that humans are more than a bundle of transactions.

We live in a relentlessly commercial culture, so it’s natural that many people would organize their lives in utilitarian and consequentialist terms. But it’s possible to get carried away with this kind of thinking — to have logic but no wisdom, to become a specialist without spirit.

Making yourself is different than producing a product or an external outcome, requiring different logic and different means. I’d think you would be more likely to cultivate a deep soul if you put yourself in the middle of the things that engaged you most seriously. If your profoundest interest is dying children in Africa or Bangladesh, it’s probably best to go to Africa or Bangladesh, not to Wall Street.

One’s self or better one’s identity is created through the history of the actions taken over a long time. Identity is never monolithic or singular. One always has multiple identities, but not in the sense of schizophrenia. Life is played out as a series of roles, each one referring to a sphere of action. One is variously a student, financier, benefactor as in Trigg’s case, but more generally as parent, spouse, teacher, doctor, and so on. Identity lives in the assessments of those who observe action, not as some inner property or essence. Brooks does recognize this when he writes that life in a financial institution will shape who you are no matter how often you donate to a charitable cause.

Identity lives only through the actions one takes; there is no ego or inner self lurking inside the body. Merely naming an identity, say as a good person because you give away most of your money does not do that. I disagree with Brooks use of soul as some driver of the good life. Soul or other similar metaphors are useful in conversations but have no real existence. You are what you are observed to do in life. After a while, no matter what Trigg intends to be called, he will be seen as a financial services person.

Identity alone does not produce satisfaction. What matters is whether what you choose to be springs from some internal source of caring. Trigg claims to care about impoverished and sick people and uses his charitable contributions as evidence. Seeing the world through an economic lens and measuring the worth of people in monetary terms is not caring in the sense of human Being. Caring happens in committed, maybe passionate, interconnected relationships, never in a purely utilitarian, economic transaction. Such transactions may be a means to some caring end, but are not the same as who one is. Transactions are always a measure of what prefers more than something else. Trigg prefers to spend his money on charity, not on cars, but preferences are not the same as caring.

Our identity lives in the assessments of others. We create it by acting in the domains we care about. Discovering those domains is always difficult. Much wonderful literature is about people moving through life trying to discover who they are. Brooks, in the above quote, points out that this process of discovery is very fraught these days.

The subject of identity is critical to sustainability-as-flourishing. Flourishing comes only to humans who are taking care of their concerns, measured by whatever standard they have adopted in each key domain. One uses a different standard to assess completion in caring for family than that in career or care for the world. Assessments of completion, only valid in the moment, arise out of some form of wisdom, as Brooks writes. The moment the state of one’s being becomes assessed in the utilitarian or consequentialist terms Brooks mentions, the game is up. The actor becomes little more than a transaction machine directing one’s economic resources according to a set of preferences. There is no caring there. Having written this, Trigg would seem to “care” deeply about the targets of his charity, but he has become trapped in the culture that robs him of the authenticity of his intentions. It takes actions not transactions to care.