Who Do You Think You Are? The Ethics of Identity (Gen Ed 1009)

Semester: 

Spring

Offered: 

2021

Ethics & Civics icon with text

Jay Harris

Who are you? We typically answer this question with a name and a collection of identity terms. Our identities may be ascribed or chosen; we often experience them as simply given, and we sometimes struggle against them. We use these identity categories, in turn, to structure decisions, negotiate relationships, and otherwise shape our lives. Our identity groups seem to make ethical claims on us, and we refer to them in making claims on one another. Yet the ways we conceptualize our identities may change over the course of our lives, and the identity concepts available to us may be more historically and culturally contingent than we recognize. In this course, we will take a step back from the ways we habitually think of identity. Using the tools of multiple disciplines — including art, philosophy, literature, religion, history and sociology — we will deepen our understanding of what identity is and what role it plays in our lives. 

We will begin by confronting ethical questions that arise at the level of the individual, and then expand to questions that arise for social groups, and finally, to questions that arise for institutions:
• How should each of us negotiate between identities that prioritize different values? What role should our identities play in the task of crafting a life and sense of self?
• What claims, if any, can groups organized around identity make on individuals? (“You are one of us, so show some solidarity with our struggle.”) What claims, if any, can individuals make on identity groups? (“This group ought to be more inclusive to people like me.”) What is to be done when groups hold views about identity that are helpful to some but cause injury to others, both within groups and outside groups? (“We can’t accept you and still be true to who we are.”)
• When, if ever, should institutions organize individuals into identity categories and relate to them through these categories? (Is it ethically appropriate to use identity categories to institutionalize affirmative action? The census? Scientific research on race and sex? The very idea of a nation-state?)

Through this course, students will learn to analyze the ways identities impact human lives, relationships, and structures. The purpose of the course is not to try to answer questions about personal identity, social identity, or identity politics once and for all, but to have a rich and open discussion of the issues, and help shape a richer, and more nuanced private and public deliberations on identity and ethics beyond the classroom.