What is my “true self”?

Joshua Knobe has got a very interesting piece in the New York Times in which he discusses the ideas of authenticity and the “true self” and their normative implications. The starting point of his reflection is the case of evangelical preacher Mark Pierpont, known for his work as an activist encouraging homosexuals to seek a “cure” for their sexual orientation. The paradoxical thing is that Pierpont himself was gay, and, Knobe tells us, constantly waging war against his urges, which he regarded as sinful. The case of Pierpont presents a challenge to the popular idea that the aim of one’s life should be to live authentically, in the sense of being “true to oneself”. Many people would have advised Pierpont to “just look deep within and be true to himself” in order to get out of his predicament. But what exactly does being true to oneself entail in the case of someone like Pierpont?

As Knobe shows, different answers, both initially plausible, could be given to that question. One could argue that Pierpont’s “real self” is that of a homosexual: his sexual urges, even though he disapproves of them, reveal who he truly is, so that being true to himself would mean accepting to live his life as a homosexual, and give up the repressive ideas about his own sexuality that his church had taught him. This answer, Knobe says, tends to be the one most popular among members of the general public. On the other hand, most philosophers have taken the view that what fundamentally defines us are our deeply held commitments, values, and endorsements. David DeGrazia, one of the many advocates of a view of that kind, thus wrote that “who we are has everything to do with what we value” (DeGrazia 2000, 38). This second view of the true self leads to the opposite conclusion in Pierpont’s case: since he does not endorse his homosexual urges, but on the contrary, condemns them as sinful on the basis of his deeply held religious convictions, authenticity requires him to resist those urges and to get rid of them if he can.

Here we may want to ask, which of these two competing views of the true self, and of authenticity, is the correct one? Knobe’s position is that “neither of these two perspectives fully captures the concept of a true self”. He suggests that “people’s ordinary understanding of the true self appears to involve a kind of value judgment, a judgment about what sorts of lives are really worth living”. Those who think that a homosexual orientation is valuable will tend to regard that trait as part of Pierpont’s true self; those who do not see it as valuable, or who think it is downright bad, will on the contrary stress Pierpont’s Christian convictions as defining who he really is. In order to test this hypothesis, Knobe presented a group of subjects, some of whom identified themselves as conservatives and others as liberals, with a series of imaginary scenarios. Some of these scenarios depicted people who changed some key part of their lives in a sense that conservatively-minded people would approve of; others, in a sense that liberals would favour. The participants were then asked how much they agreed that the change in question constituted a manifestation of the person’s true self. The results, Knobe reports, were that “conservative participants were more inclined to say that the person’s true self had emerged on the conservative items, while liberals were more inclined to say that the person’s true self had emerged on the liberal items”. Though Knobe concedes that further research is needed on this issue, he takes these results to provide some support for the hypothesis that people tend to regard the traits they value in someone as part of that person’s true self (and consequently to understand authenticity as demanding faithfulness to those particular traits).

What if further evidence did confirm Knobe’s hypothesis? I would then be tempted to conclude that people’s ordinary criteria for identifying the “true self” are problematic. Indeed, the idea of a true or real self suggests that what we are looking for is what fundamentally characterizes who the person is, and this seems to be conceptually distinct from the question of what we mostly value in the person. Arguably, a plausible view on this matter ought to make room for the possibility that a person’s true self might sometimes include features we do not like or value: for instance, being a psychopath, an opportunist, or a racist. But if Knobe’s hypothesis is right, the common understanding of the true self rules out this possibility, thereby making the idea of the true self reflect not so much the key features definitive of a person as the particular set of values of the observer. If the common view is indeed as Knobe conjectures – and it will be interesting to follow his future research on this topic – then the common view seems inadequate.

The two perspectives that Knobe describes as insufficient at least have the merit – if applied consistently – of retaining a non-evaluative characterization of the true self. If you want to consistently hold that the true self is defined by the person’s set of fundamental evaluations and commitments, you must be prepared to acknowledge that being true to themselves might require some people to do things which you would not recommend, such as fighting off sexual urges that you see as perfectly innocent. Similarly, if you are to consistently apply the criterion that people’s true self is defined by their stable, unchosen desires and preferences, you will have to accept that some people’s true self includes features you disapprove of, and that being true to themselves with regards to those features will mean doing things you condemn. This does not necessarily strip the idea of authenticity of all its normative force: you could still hold that authenticity does give someone a reason, for instance, to suppress his sexual urges, but add that this reason can be defeated by others, e.g. reasons to promote the person’s well-being.

That said, I nevertheless agree with Knobe that these two perspectives on the true self do not seem fully satisfactory. But my reason for thinking so is rather that both seem to say something plausible and important about the notion. Instead of choosing one such perspective to the detriment of the other as the “correct” one, I would suggest rejecting the alternative. Rather than saying that Pierpont’s true self is defined either by his religious commitments or by his homosexual desires, I think we ought to say that both of these things define who he really is. His identity is fundamentally conflicted: it involves features in sharp tension with each other, with significant effects on his life course. This is not an uncommon phenomenon. The world offers many examples of people exhibiting such internal tensions, e.g. shy people with a very strong desire for social affiliation who find it difficult to act on it due to their shyness. Is such a person “really” a shy person, or someone who deeply wants to relate to others? The question is inadequately phrased: arguably, she is both.

Here it might be objected that my ecumenical view of the true self prevents the notion from doing the work we expect it to do, namely tell us how to live our lives and what choices to make in conflictual situations such as Pierpont’s. If both his homosexual urges and his religious convictions are part of his true self, then does that mean he is bound to be true to himself, whether he decides to accept those urges or to repudiate them? Surely that is not a satisfactory answer for someone caught in such a dilemma. In reply to this, I would suggest abandoning the assumption that the notion of the true self, taken on its own, can provide us with practical guidance. Yet while it seems best to define that notion in neutral terms, the idea of authenticity can, by contrast, be understood as fundamentally evaluative – and as offering practical guidance. Instead of characterizing authenticity as simply meaning “being true to oneself”, we should say that it entails being true to oneself with regards to features that are intrinsically valuable. On this view, the moral debate should take place not at the level of the characterization of the true self, but on the issue of what authenticity requires us to do, and which aspects of our true self we ought to be faithful to. Developing this view in more detail, however, would have to be done elsewhere than in this entry.


DeGrazia, D. 2000. Prozac, Enhancement, and Self-Creation. Hastings Center Report 30 (2):34-40.

Knobe, J. 2011. In Search of the True Self. The New York Times (“Opinionator”), June 5, 2011. Available online at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/05/in-search-of-the-true-self/.

Originally posted on the “Practical Ethics” blog of the University of Oxford: http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/.


About Alexandre Erler

I'm a philosopher currently based at Anatolia College/ACT in Thessaloniki. I did my doctorate at the University of Oxford, UK, on the topic of human enhancement and the so-called objection from authenticity. I am interested in figuring out, through the use of reason, how we can make the world a better place, if necessary challenging some received ideas in the process. This blog offers my (fresh?) perspective on a number of topics that I regard as significant, as well as the occasional fun trivia. Constructive comments welcome.
This entry was posted in Ethics, Psychology. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s