A psychological glance at whether asumptions about what makes us ‘us’ provide a stable ground for acting morally. 

As any partially conscious UK citizen will be aware, there are only two news stories in the country: i) a ridiculously posh man is marrying a slightly less posh woman next year, and ii) the Government is raising tuition fees.

For all the Government’s ‘Everyone has to do their bit’ and ‘We’re all in it together’ rhetoric, they still face huge criticisms for the spending cuts and raising of fees. The governmental line for this is that the financial situation we find ourselves in dictates such actions, yet the critics contend that this isn’t the only course of action and that conservative ideology that places the burden on the poor is the driving factor. So the question is: were the cuts made on a basis of the character of the Government or by the situation they were in? Or perhaps both?

The question can be applied just as equally to, let’s say, your own idea of who you are. There are undoubtedly those of us who believe that our actions are constitutive of our personality, and that those actions are determined by a static us, who enacts what we do. But the actions we carry out are based on certain contributing factors, claim psychologists. Lawrence Kohlberg identified various stages in a human’s life that cemented ideas of right and wrong. In the earliest stage the human child bases morality on interaction with its immediate physical environment. This ‘molding of morality’ extends to social and cultural influences as the child becomes language capable. And ultimately in the last stage of moral development the being turns these accumulated values into ones that she identifies with herself, that are considered equivalent to her natural disposition. But are they really hers? Consider the following two individuals. Imaginary person one was born into a world of western tradition where money is an end in itself and everyone owns mobile phones and microwaves. Imaginary person two was born into a world of the tribal Australian outback, where money does not exist, clothes are optional and cannibalism is considered a norm. Now, there are a number of observations that can be immediately raised in light of this thought experiment. Firstly, consider these two peoples’ views on one another’s moral system; each one thinks the other person is mad as a hatter. Secondly, which one of these is actually right? What is it that values one system over the other?

If each individual’s actions are determined by the environment and situations they encounter, are we able to divorce how they act from how we perceive them to be? Because, it seems a situation is intrinsically linked to the moral and ethic standards one adopts; the individual is not an individual without the situations they are in and consequently act upon.

Recent resurgence of ancient debates in virtue theory (that morality should originate from character or identity rather than actions, whose first implementation was seen in works by Plato and Aristotle) attempts to offer a counter argument to psychology’s claim that the self is an unstable and unreliable character.

Julian Baggini is a philosopher and freelance journalist. He has authored several philosophical books written for a wider audience. He is the author of ‘The Pig that Wants to be Eaten and 99 other thought experiments’ and, along with Jeremy Stangroom, is co-founder and print editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. He is also known for his contributions to newspapers, magazines and BBC radio. Baggini is the creator of the incredibly lucid, enjoyable and FREE Podcast series Philosophy Bites, and is the frontrunner in the fight for saving the identity of the human character.

So in light of this, can we explain the government’s cuts as constitutive of character (ideologically driven), a result of the situation, or perhaps a synthesis of the two?

If you enjoyed the theme of this article but missed Julian Baggini’s talk at UWE on Wednesday 1/12, you may be interested to know you can listen to the ‘Saving Virtue’ podcast via the UWE Philosophy Society Facebook page.

Jake Procter & James Micic