We are all products of our own comprehension. Cognition, after all, is affected by the unique set of circumstances that align to makeup an individual’s background, heightening one’s perception of certain challenges and issues. Then, the talents one possesses lead towards particular types of intelligence, impacting the way each mind synthesizes the information presented to it.
One cannot step outside the lens of one’s personal experience, even when relating to others. As Adam Smith, that savant of the Scottish Enlightenment, noted in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, “As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation.”
All sentiment is ultimately selfish. The sympathies one extends towards others say more about the cast of one’s own character than they do about the situation of another. They are illustrative of a person’s conception of virtue and vice.
Individual life is relative, particularly when considered in the context of another. But that does not negate objective reality. It merely alters the ways in which particular truths make themselves manifest.
Aristotle’s virtue ethics are particularly relevant here, as his philosophy nuances the absolute nature of certain ideas and the contextual realities of the corporeal world which effect the way in which they operate. For Aristotle, individual thought and action is the primary means by which virtue is taken from the abstract world in which it exists as an absolute and brought into the corporeal world, where life is inequitable and contextual. Virtue, which Aristotle terms a state of character, is in the nature of a thing well-engineered and in the work it does that proactively seeks out and advances good:
“every virtue or excellence both brings into good condition the thing of which it is the excellence and makes the work of that thing be done well; e.g. the excellence of the eye makes both the eye and its fork good; for it is by the excellence of the eye that we see well.”
Thus, virtue is both intrinsic and extrinsic to a particular object. It exists apart from the individual: he or she must actively seek out good — implying the necessity of a rational process. But the locus of good is also within the individual: having determined where the good lies, a particular course of action, catalyzed by the individual, must be pursued.
This has several implications for the fundamental assumptions that undergird modern identity politics.
First, the inescapable fact that everything one perceives and does reflects an individual’s essence destroys the modern construct that selfishness is the enemy of the good. Ego and the objective good are all bound up in each other: the individual mind must apply itself to ideas in order to gauge how they stand in relation to broader morality. But the ways in which an individual stands in relation to broader morality is itself affected by several forms of context. The particular situation an individual finds his or herself in determines what values and morals are of the greatest import. And the individual’s own personal morality integrates various broader truths in ways that are a reflection of individual epistemology.
Self-interest is a crucial element of objective process. It is up to the individual to understand how their situation and their own personality stands in relation to broader truth, both in context of dominant social morays and in context of the more abstract idea of absolute morality, and to engage, through reason, in a process of synthesizing the two, all done with the aim of orienting individual endeavors around broader truth. This is, exclusively, a process of the individual’s volition. No one but the individual can decide to begin such a process.
The greatest inducement to an individual for undertaking such a process involves the most selfish of all ends: the desire for self-preservation. An individual out of step with the nature of the reality to which he or she looks for satisfaction of needs is one not destined to long survive. By mastering the reality around oneself, one not only meets the basic needs of daily-survival, but augments this by thriving in an environment, bolstering one’s position in the long-term. The more resources one has at one’s command, the more secure one is in their person. Selfishness, ultimately, is about reason. It necessitates orienting one’s being around broader truths.
Which is where identity politics begins to fall apart. There is a certain strain of modern politics that, at the same time it names self-interest as disqualifying of virtue, suggests the only genuine form of criticism comes from within and that various demographic markers are required in order for one person to truly comprehend another: i.e., the idea that women are alienated by the messages in literature unless they come from female narrators and writers, or the idea that one is alienated by culture unless there’s a hero with the same ideas, skin tone and sexual orientation as the consumer.
The idea that self-interest disqualifies an individual from making empiric choices is not compatible with the idea that one can only come to truth by way of those who are representative of one’s own self. Particularly when take Adam Smith’s observations into account — the recognition that all emotional reactions are a reflection of one’s own inclinations — the idea that one is alienated by anything other than the self really begins to fall apart. If individual reactions are colored by the thoughts and feelings naturally inculcated into one’s own being, then anything external to the self is really irrelevant. The form by which new information is presented must be checked against the fundamental premises of individual being anyway. The question one asks is: how does this new information relate to what I already know, to what I feel? It is the individual’s process of synthesis which is of importance, not the carrier of new information, which is of particular account.
A certain reading of Smith might seem to encourage the idea that being is insular: that if the individual cannot step outside oneself in order to gain knowledge, then it is precisely those who are like me who must be sought out.
But this misses the point: even if the individual’s perspective is relative to the world at large, the nature of reality is still absolute. As is the nature of the individual. Sense of self comes from interpolating one’s own identity with the broader nature of reality: of looking for ways to root those things that are endemic to a person — personality traits and talents — and applying them to goals that are reflective of broader virtues. One channels the absolute nature of the universe through oneself, lifting up both the self and the ends one deems most meritorious. Returning to Aristotle, it is important to remember that virtue is a state of character, this state being determined by a relationship: the relationship of how well an individual’s passions stand in relationship to the broader truth of that which is being sought.
Identity politics, then, cannot ultimately come through tribalism or collectivism. It is a matter of aggressive individuality: of recognizing the power of the individual mind to determine for itself the nature of its own reality. It cannot actually alter reality, but it can determine for itself what particular goals and ideas are to be of influence upon itself. Race, gender, sexual inclination, political ideology: all these things might reflect broader social trends, but only to the degree that the individual accepts them to be. They are binding only when the individual, using reason, finds some virtue in them. They are not, by themselves, indicative of truth.