Akeel Bilgrami on the nature of subjective identity

Interview with Akeel Bilgrami.

Published : Feb 18, 2022 06:00 IST

Akeel Bilgrami.

Akeel Bilgrami.

Last time, we discussed the distinction you made in some early articles of yours between objective and subjective identity, and we spoke mostly about objective identity. Can we speak now more on the nature of subjective identity? You have described it as a kind of identification more than an identity, saying that when one identifies oneself with something, one’s subjectivity is involved, whereas in objective identity, one has a certain identity whether or not one identifies oneself with that thing. So, what exactly is it to identify oneself as something, thereby forming a subjective identity. Is it an act of choosing an identity?

After I wrote those early pieces long ago about subjective identity as identification, some people did use just your term “choose” to describe what subjective identity or identifying with something is, though I myself have avoided using that word.

Why would you want to avoid it?

I think the rhetoric of choosing is quite misleading. It is not as if it isn’t sometimes apt, but it is mostly not apt, and so it should not be the rhetoric we adopt as a general or generic description of subjective identity.

What is misleading about saying we choose our identity?

I think, if you give that as a general description of subjective identity, it makes subjective identity come off as too voluntaristic . A subject can be involved in identity-formation without it being a matter of sheer will, sheer subjective decision, as to what the identity is. As I said, though it can happen sometimes, of course, that I choose my identity de novo , usually when my subjectivity is active, it takes the form of endorsing something I already have objectively.

Can you give an example of how it can be misleading to talk of choosing?

Yes, it would be misleading for me to say I choose my Indian identity. I endorse the fact of my being Indian and make it in some way central to my life. That is, I endorse and make central something ongoing, some relatively objective fact, something given to me by my birth and biography. I need not have endorsed it, nor made it central in my life. I might have instead identified myself as an American, endorsing a different fact of my biography, my having been domiciled there for over four decades now, but I don’t. (As it happens, by the way, I don’t even have an objective American identity in any formal sense since I don’t have an American passport; I am still an Indian citizen.)

I don’t think we should confuse the fact that my endorsing of some given facts about me (rather than other given facts about me) is something I choose to do with the fact that I choose my identity . To say I choose my identity gives the impression that I go around choosing to be anything I like even if it is not an endorsing of anything that is already given to me in some more objective sense. If I can choose any identity in that way, then it would seem to follow that I can just choose the identity, say, of being an African American. Now, under some very unusual circumstances, we can imagine that happening. But, by and large, the question of choice is only over which given facts about me I should endorse and not directly choice over one’s identity.

So you are saying “choosing” identity happens only exceptionally. When does it happen?

Sometimes choosing is done somewhat flamboyantly and, as it were, metaphorically, however seriously intended. I remember someone writing to me from Paris after September 11 [2001] “We are all New Yorkers now” as a way of expressing sympathy for what New York had just been through. Well, OK, so obviously that is a kind of highly contextualised identification, and it is not endorsing any objective facts about the person. (She was a Frenchwoman who had never been to New York.) More real cases of choosing one’s identity de novo that do not go via endorsing objective facts about oneself are conversion to another religion on the basis of finding its doctrine attractive, say, or the transgender phenomenon. Here, we repudiate objective facts about oneself and seek to adopt altogether new facts. But most subjective identities are not like that, which is why I prefer to speak of forming one’s subjective identity not by choosing it (directly), as in these cases, but rather by choosing to endorse some given facts about myself. These cases (transgender, religious conversion) should be seen as somewhat exceptional cases.

But did you not choose your identity of being a professor or an academic?

Yes, I chose to be an academic, but not everything of that kind that I choose constitutes what I mean by subjective identity. Having chosen it, I may not identify with it. As a result of my choosing to be an academic, it is a fact about me now that I am an academic and I chose to make it a fact. But it is only if I go on to endorse that fact about me and make it central in some way that I can be said to have that identity in the subjective sense. And I may not endorse it, I may not ident ify with it because I may feel quite alienated from the academic profession. And when that happens, I think we cannot say that it is my subjective identity. So, when it comes to the issue of identity, my having chosen to be an academic is neither here nor there.

‘Who am I?’

Yes, that makes sense. In the last interview, you spoke about how objective identity relates to society and politics. How does subjective identity relate to them?

The most general way of describing subjective identity is to say that it emerges as an answer we give to a question that we pose to ourselves: Who am I? Now, it is often said that one only asks the question of identity, the question “Who am I?”, when one has been dislocated from one’s moorings in one’s own locality in some way. The question does not arise for us if we unselfconsciously feel a sense of belonging in a place and among a community of people. I think there is something right about this. I think what this view is resisting is an overly philosophical understanding of identity such as those of the existentialists. Someone like [Jean-Paul] Sartre, for instance, especially in his early pre-Marxist and pre-Maoist phase, used to say that we are in some sense always stuck with the question of identity. It is the human condition to ask “Who am I?”, the condition of being “thrown” (a favourite term among existentialists) by one’s birth as an individual into the world, having to form one’s identity through one’s life decisions, and struggling to preserve it against the various opportunities for bad faith. That idea of identity seems to me to be unhelpfully general, and I think it is an advance on it to say that the question of identity tends to arise in our minds only under specific conditions when there is some dislocation.

You mean dislocation as in the case of refugees?

The most obvious cases of dislocation are physical or geographical, yes. Refugees are the most dramatic case, though, of course, you will find the question arising more generally and very frequently among immigrants of all kinds (whether across countries or even within one’s own country [when one moves] from one place where one was culturally tethered to another). I assure you that it takes a lot of moral shrewdness and cunning to navigate one’s life as an immigrant. Many immigrants, though not all, understandably struggle with issues such as how much should one assimilate without losing self-respect; how much should one adapt to the mores, the customs and values of one’s new setting; and when should one resist it…. These are all issues relevant to subjective identity.

But I think we should not interpret “dislocation” too narrowly, restricting it to such cases of geographical dislocation. One can be socially dislocated even while sedentary . This could happen because of large alterations in one’s environment, especially alterations in the economy or political changes of one kind or another. And one can be psychologically dislocated by various forms of social and political trauma…. All of these dislocations prompt questions such as “Who am I?”. And more particularly, they prompt “quests” for identity, of seeking and finding an appeal in one or other source of belonging as a response to the dislocation.

But does not someone who asks the question Who am I? give very different answers to it in different situations and contexts? Is this not what is sometimes called “hybridity”?

Well, first of all, “hybridity” is a very inappropriate conceptualisation for this phenomenon because hybridity is an organic idea, but the trouble is that the theorists who use that term are all convinced that they are talking about constructed subjects and identities. So that is an elementary mistake in their conceptualisation. But even if one just speaks of the old and familiar idea of multiple identities without this confused rhetoric of “hybridity”, it would be glib to say that the fact of each one of us possessing multiple identities is a reason to be sceptical about the very notion of identity or to be sceptical about the topic of identity. The plain fact is that though one may have many identities (someone is a professor, a father, a cricketer, an Indian, a Muslim, …) for one or another reason (such as what we just were discussing, one or other kind of dislocation), we often and in a sustained way endorse a particular identity in our self-understanding and often give it a far greater centrality in public life and in politics than the other identities we have. That’s what gives rise to the significance of the subject of identity, something you cannot dismiss by pointing out that each one of us is many things.

Now, of course, it may be that many of the vexing problems that arise in identity politics may require one to explore the relations between these particular identities we make central in our lives and the other identities we have or potentially have, and that is a complex negotiative process involving the exploration of relations between a person’s moral psychology and the political context he or she finds herself in and has to navigate. But that does not mean that subjective identity is endlessly and infinitely malleable. It is malleable, it is subject to negotiations in changing circumstances, but often we also resist malleability for one or another reason. That’s when identity becomes an important subject for politics.

Muslim identity

Was that not one of the main themes of your essay “What is a Muslim?” ?: How Muslims began to identify with Islam and make it central to their lives when they experienced the dislocations of their lives by colonialism and felt powerless under colonial rule and then, even after decolonisation, continued to experience dislocation because of post-colonial forms of subjugation and exploitation of Muslim-populated areas of the world by Western powers.

That’s right. I was trying to analyse the appeal of Islamist politics in West Asia today and in the past along those lines. But also its appeal among immigrants (from erstwhile Muslim-populated colonised regions of the world such as the Maghreb, South Asia, etc.) in European nations, which had invited them there after the Second World War to deal with the labour shortages due to the loss of manpower as a result of deaths and casualties during the war. You might say that those feelings of powerlessness and humiliation felt by Muslims in the colonised lands that motivated [their] turning to Islam as a source of dignity and autonomy was being replicated after decolonisation in immigrant Muslim populations in the metropolitan countries, now having to cope with the humiliation of racialist attitudes towards them and the economically exploitative relations that they found themselves in.

That is an example of religious identity. What about other identities such as gender, race, caste and class? You discussed some of these identities when you were discussing objective identity in the last interview, but how do these relate to subjective identity and identity politics?

One should proceed carefully here, if one doesn’t want to run together different things. The term “identity politics” is multiply ambiguous. Not only does it result from these different forms of identity that you have listed in your question, but the way in which some of them are invoked is different from others. Let me mention one extremely important difference or distinction.

Sometimes, one can endorse something about oneself and form a subjective identity only instrumentally and not as an end in itself . This is typically true of subjective identity in the case of caste, that is, in the case of underprivileged castes. In these cases, one tends to identify oneself with one’s caste only to the extent that doing so gives [one]... some benefits or only so as to make claims on the state. If one belongs to an underprivileged caste, it is not usual to identify with the caste as an end in itself. So, identity politics, when it mobilises people for some sort of demand on the state, only appeals to identity to the extent that it is a source of mobilisation for that demand. Independent of the demand and the mobilisation, there is no identification with the caste. (Of course, others may nevertheless identify you as belonging to that caste even if you don’t. That is what I mean by “objective” identity. But we are talking about subjective identity now.)

Even class identity, when it comes to underprivileged classes, is like this. It is instrumental. I don’t deny that a working-class person might be proud of his working-class culture and ways of life, but the point of Left politics has always been to aim eventually for a classless society, so even that prideful identification is presumably something working people will eventually want to transcend. In that sense, caste and class subjective identities of underprivileged castes and classes are only instrumental. And being instrumental, it is temporary, an identification that is intended to last only till such time as one has effectively gained what one wishes from that instrumental identification.

Actually, Anagha Ingole, a scholar from the University of Hyderabad, has recently written an interesting book on caste panchayats, and she discusses how though the affirmative action benefits political culture for caste (what is sometimes called the “Mandalisation” of politics) has undoubtedly democratised politics and brought gains to underprivileged castes, it can also tend to perpetuate identification with one’s caste seemingly indefinitely. She demonstrates how caste panchayats have played a certain traditional, oppressive role in this perpetuation despite the highly modernist instrumental context of seeking benefits. I think her work reveals a rather fascinating tension between [B.R.] Ambedkar’s two goals, one of “empowerment” of castes through affirmative action and his other goal of the “annihilation” of caste. Ambedkar’s idea was to seek empowerment via a wide range of affirmative action legal arrangements and through such empowerment to be in a position to eventually transcend caste altogether, to annihilate the caste system, which they could not do while they were powerless. This was a very worthy pair of goals. But I think her work reveals—through an excellent scholarly study of various networks of political relations formed between caste panchayats, political parties, electoral politics, the protocols of state welfare and affirmative action policies, etc.—how, in fact, in the exigencies forced upon castes in this politics around empowerment via benefits, the goal of being in a position of eventually transcending and annihilating caste seems to get indefinitely abandoned. I myself think that the deeper reason for this is that the political culture of affirmative action benefits for caste got consolidated in India in the context of a neoliberal political economy from the 1990s. I think this can be demonstrated in detail, and I hope she will do that in her future work. All these are complexities of identity politics when it comes to caste. But the complexities don’t undermine the basic distinction I am making between instrumental and end-in-itself versions of subjective identity.

Moral psychology

So, in what sense and when is subjective identity in politics not instrumental in this sense?

Right, so when subjective identity is an end in itself rather than instrumental, the identification one makes takes a quite different form in the “moral psychology” of the person.

You have used the expression moral psychology more than once. Can you clarify what you mean by it?

Ah sorry, I gave into a bit of jargon there. I mean the term “moral” psychology to contrast with “empirical” psychology. Moral psychological phenomena are not predictive. They are normative.

Can you say a little more what that means?

OK. Take the concept of “character”’. It is not a predictive notion. If it was a predictive notion, there would be no such thing as character. As many psychologists have pointed out, each time you attribute a character to someone with a view to predicting what they will do, you will find that sooner or later they will do something that refutes the attribution of that character to them. So, if you predict behaviour on the basis of someone’s character, the prediction will sometimes be wrong and the attribution of that character to that person will have to be withdrawn. But we don’t withdraw it because character is not really a predictive notion. It is not a notion in empirical psychology, it is a notion in moral psychology. So, we don’t withdraw the attribution of that character to him; rather, we say what they did on those occasions was not “in character”, it was “out of character”. What gives us the right to say that? I would say two things. First, I suppose, is the obvious point that the person must to a perceptible extent act in character and not out of character. I don’t mean countably more often than not. Character is not a statistically frequentist notion. I mean something much less precise and codified than that. But, more crucially, we also feel that some things are more important for us (and for him or her) than other things, more normatively and more morally important. Thus, for instance, we might say she has a courageous character because, even though she does sometimes fail to act courageously, when it comes to a crisis, she shows courage—even if on other occasions, which are more routine, she did not. So, we stress the normative importance of the courage she has shown in crisis situations, and it is through that stress that we filter out the behaviour on the more routine occasions as anomalous, something out of character. And this stress on a normative prior , through which we filter our perception of her behaviour, allows us to see her in soft focus, as it were, something we cannot do if “character” is intended as a predictive notion. That is what makes the notion of “character” a notion in moral psychology, not empirical psychology.

You have said in some of your writing that moral psychology is highly relevant to politics. Is that widely thought to be so?

Yes, yes, very much so. All through intellectual history. In the Western tradition of political thought, in the ancient period and also through the mediaeval period and later, there was constant talk of virtue and its relation to politics. In the early modern period, if you remember, Machiavelli famously compared the moral emotion of love with that of fear while advising “the Prince”, saying it was better to generate in the populace a fear of the ruler rather than love for the ruler, and his very interesting ground for saying this is that love (love of this sort, anyway) is freely given (unlike fear, which wells up helplessly) and that means the ruler would be granting a quite powerful form of agency to the populace, something he considered dangerous. This relation between agency and politics is central to the moral psychology of politics, and it is one of the aspects of political philosophy that most interests me. [Thomas] Hobbes based his entire conception of the state as a kind of counter-force to our aggressive psychological nature. [John] Locke situated political principles in an assumed background of moral education. Adam Smith thought moral sentiments were the foundation of politics. [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau’s idea of a general will was basically asserting the moral psychology of group agency . [Karl] Marx’s focus on alienation (there throughout his corpus, though interpreters like [Louis] Althusser tried to restrict it to the early work only) had everything to do with moral psychology because removing alienation enabled our free agency and that was the deep underlying motivation in the goal of a classless society, without which that achievement would be considered by him to be merely a kind of social engineering. [John] Ruskin insisted that exploitation was a moral failing of a society because it reflected not just what he called “heartlessness” but also a failure to see that beauty goes missing in the lives of people when it is characterised by heartlessness and exploitation. And, of course, [Mahatma] Gandhi was obsessively concerned with the moral emotions around non-violence and tried to found a whole conception of politics on that basis and on the agency of human subjects rather than the power of the state, which he thought, by its very nature, was not the sort of institution one could reason with or persuade in moral terms but must, therefore, resist with one’s morally motivated human agency in a mass politics.

Thank you for giving that intellectual history of the relation between politics and moral psychology. Coming back to your idea of identifying with something non-instrumentally, please explain it.

The non-instrumental identifications we form yield the deepest sense of subjective identity. I have argued that it is based on the idea of a subject’s most fundamental commitments. In my paper “What is a Muslim?”, I basically characterised subjective identity as the identity of a subject who has some very fundamental commitments (to a religion, to a political position or to one or other set of values quite generally, such as, say, to friendship or to one’s family or to one’s vocation—let’s say the life of the theatre, for example, or even to a sport such as cricket …) and such a fundamental commitment constitutes his or her identity, and it is on the basis of that identity that someone then allows himself or herself to be mobilised in her actions, including sometimes political action.

Fundamental commitment

What do you mean by “fundamental” commitment?

It requires some intellectual spadework to answer that. It is tempting to avoid that work and just say [that] what makes a commitment fundamental is that it is held more intensely than the other preferences or desires that the subject has, it is a stronger preference or desire than her other desires and preferences. But “intensity” and “strength” are not helpful notions. It is not clear what would measure strength or intensity except seemingly tautological criteria, such as: “of all the preferences she has, the strongest ones are the ones she acts on”. But if that is the criterion for strength of commitment, then strength of commitment cannot be a way of characterising what I have in mind by “fundamental” commitments because we often act irrationally, from our own subjective point of view . To act irrationally in this sense is to go against one’s commitments. So, our actions can’t be reliable indicators of our most fundamental commitments.

Can you give an example of acting irrationally in this sense?

Sure. It happens all the time. Consider someone who has a serious and deep commitment to be a responsible teacher with all that that entails: concern to give a good lecture in one’s classes, concern for one’s students’ education, concern for one’s reputation in the academy, etc., etc. And suppose such a person has to teach a class at 9 a.m. the next day. He is sitting with some friends the night before in a pub. He knows that he should not have that fourth Scotch, that if he does, he will not feel well the next morning, [and will] give a bad lecture, disappoint his students, perhaps even undermine his reputation, etc. Yet he drinks that fourth Scotch. From his own point of view , he does something irrational. He acts on his strongest or most intense preference, for the Scotch. But it is an irrational action, by his own lights. So that action, though it is an indicator of his strongest and most intense preference, cannot be an indicator of his commitments. Strength of preference cannot thus be a criterion for commitments. This is a rather trivial example. There can of course be much more interesting examples. But the point is that we need another criterion for defining fundamental commitments than such notions as strength or intensity of preference because we ourselves are sometimes alienated from our strongest preferences.

Alienated from?

By “alienated from”, I just mean they are preferences that we ourselves consider irrational, as going against our commitments, as being in tension with our commitments. So the point is that if we can be alienated from our strongest preferences sometimes, if we can find them to be irrational, we need another criterion to define our most fundamental commitments, not strength of preference but those preferences we consider to be in some sense more central to our moral psychologies.

OK, so you are saying that one therefore needs to spell out what this idea of centrality is and that is the harder intellectual work that needs to be done to explain what a fundamental commitment is?

Exactly. My thought has been that if we can characterise what makes some among all the preferences one has central in our psychological economies then we can say that these preferences are our fundamental commitments, which constitute our (subjective) identities because they capture how we conceive of ourselves in some fundamental way, (and not just for an instrumental purpose). So a lot depends on how we characterise “centrality” here.

A first stab at saying which of our preferences or desires have a centrality for us is this. Of all the preferences and desires we have there are some which even if they are not the strongest or most intense are preferences which if we should fail to act on them and instead act in a way that went against them, we would in some real sense fail to recognise ourselves in that action . This is not to be confused with just feeling very bad or guilty should one act that way. It is rather to literally wonder for a moment “Would it even be me , who does that?”

The initial example I give in my essay “What is a Muslim?” was a personal, not political, one about how one may feel that even if one thought that one’s close friend was a very immoral person and openly disagreed with him on some behaviour of his which was, let us say, illegal, and if some policemen who were suspicious of him came to ask one whether one’s friend was up to something illegal, one would deny knowledge of any such activity. Why? Because among all one’s preferences and values and desires, including even one’s valuing moral and legal behaviour, the value of friendship was central in this self-defining way . One’s moral values may make one feel bad or guilty for not having turned in to the police an immoral person indulging in illegal activities, but if one had turned one’s friend in, one would not just feel bad or guilty, one would not even feel more bad or guilty, but rather one would have felt something qualitatively different. One would have felt: that’s just not me, I wouldn’t recognise myself if I had turned him in . (You might think of this particular example as being a sort of British schoolboy identity, as exemplified in E.M. Forster’s remark: “I’d rather I betrayed my country than betray my friends.”)

The main point is that my identity in the subjective sense is defined by values when those values are held with this kind of self-defining centrality. These are the values I call fundamental commitments. Most of one’s values are not held in this way. Holding it with such centrality is what I called having a fundamental commitment. It may not even be my strongest commitment. In the example I gave, my moral commitments to prevent a gravely illegal activity may even have been stronger and I may even have turned my friend in, acting on my strongest preference or value, but then (like drinking that fourth Scotch) to do so would have been to go against my fundamental commitments since strength of preference or value is not what makes for fundamental commitments. It is this self-defining idea of centrality that makes for them.

Now when it comes to politics, people sometimes have a commitment like this, to a nation, to socialism, to Islamic values, to one or another such cause. And when they do, they are not like the identitarian commitments one forms instrumentally for a cause, such as when someone might identify with something only to the extent that that identity is a basis for one mobilising people towards a cause and a struggle to eventually overcome such an identification. And, of course, there are complicated cases, when one can identify both instrumentally but also as an end in itself, as sometimes might happen when women identify with their gender in this dual way.

Ulysses’ ‘fidelity’

Can you give some political examples of what you call fundamental commitments that characterise subjective identity.

Yes, but before I do, let me just say one last thing about this idea of identity based on such commitments. So far, I’ve talked rather loosely about how a fundamental commitment is a commitment that, if I violated it by some action of mine, I would not recognise it as my action. That is an intuitive way of bringing out the connection of such commitments with one’s subjective identity or identifications. But I actually think that the intuition that I am gesturing at can be more rigorously characterised. And in some of my work, I’ve tried to do that. Consider Ulysses and his motivations for tying himself to the mast. We can see this as owing to a fundamental commitment in the sense I have in mind. One can read the myth as follows: Ulysses had a fundamental commitment to fidelity (to his wife, Penelope). He also knew that in his travels, the sirens would sing their seductive songs and he might very well be seduced by them. So he ties himself to the mast with the idea that even if he were seduced, he could do nothing about it and would thus remain faithful to his wife. That means at time t1, he values fidelity in such a way that even if at some future time tN, he ceases to value fidelity and gets seduced, he nevertheless is living at tN by his values at t1. That is how deep and fundamental his commitment to fidelity is at t1. I think all of us very likely hold at least a few of our values in this deep way that Ulysses does. In fact, I think we would be rather shallow moral beings if we held no values in this way. The idea is that one would see oneself at the later time tN as a kind of weakening of commitment, and a departure from what one most deeply values, from what one most deeply is . And so such commitments define one’s identity at t1.

I think this is a particularly good way of characterising subjective identity because it shows that one’s fundamental commitments and identities are not immutable or essentialist. They are not primordial. They can change. At tN, Ulysses has given up the subjective identity he had at t1. I’ve only defined what his subjective identity is at t1. At t1, his identity is constituted by his fundamental commitment to fidelity. He defines himself by it. How so? By entrenching that value in a way that he lives in accord with it in the future (at tN) even if in the future he does not hold that value. That’s how deeply he is committed to it at t1.

So my more intuitive and loose talk of “not recognising oneself” in an action that violates one’s fundamental commitment can be captured more rigorously in this way. I hope I am being clear.

Yes. But can you now give a more political example of it than the Ulysses example.

Yes, in an essay of mine I extensively discuss the example of certain kinds of Islamic identity. Ayatollah Khomeini once said something like this: “Modernity is very pernicious and it is bound to infect everyone, even us Ayatollahs. We should therefore entrench Islamic values in such a way that even if we are infected by the spread of modernity and are tempted by godless and degenerate ways of life, we will not be able to live that kind of life and we will be living by Islamic values.” That is as good an analysis of what goes into Islamic identity as any. It is exactly the thinking that is exemplified by the Ulysses example. You may not share Khomeini’s particular fundamental commitment, but what I am pointing to is the structural feature of the commitment that makes it constitutive of identity. You don’t have to share Khomeini’s substantive views to see the structural point I am making. Many of our deepest social and political commitments, which may be very different from his, nevertheless have this Ulysses-like structure and they constitute our subjective identities.

Liberalism and free speech

In one or two essays in your book “Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment”, you say that identity formed on such fundamental commitments is something that liberalism cannot cope with. You even point out that the difference between Gandhi’s views and John Stuart Mill’s liberal views brings out this fact.

That’s right. Liberalism’s continuing failure to cope with identity politics owes to its doctrinal inability to grasp the nature of deep and fundamental commitments. And such a failure surfaces not just in its responses to identitarian politics (such, as for instance, Islamist politics) but also in its response to radical Left politics. By the very nature of its doctrinal commitments, liberalism does not have a place for what I call fundamental commitments of this kind.

Can you explain that?

The entire classical liberal tradition from Mill to [John] Rawls emphasises fallibility and revisability of human beliefs and convictions and leaves no room for commitments of this kind. Thus, for instance, Mill bases his chief argument for liberty of speech on the fact that our opinions, however certain we are of them, however committed we are to them, can be wrong. That is his “fallibilist” ground for free speech, for tolerating dissent from our views, because the dissenting view may be right and our view, however convinced we are of it, may be wrong. I think this argument for free speech is numbingly fallacious. I cherish free speech as much as anyone but not on the basis of an argument such as Mill’s.

Why do you think it is fallacious?

I’ll need to spell out the argument a little more before I can answer that. Mill’s argument basically has two premises and a conclusion.

The first premise is that “We have been absolutely convinced of various things in the past which have turned out to be false.”

The second premise is actually derived by induction from that first premise and it says: “Therefore, our current convictions may be false, however much we are convinced of them.”

And the conclusion derived from both these premises is: “Therefore, we should adopt free speech and tolerate opinions dissenting from our current opinions, in case they are true and our current opinions are false.”

This is a tremendously influential argument in the history of liberalism and is still cited as having foundational importance, even in the law and in constitutions. Just notice how ambitious it is. All you need to be able to do is induction (generalise from observation about the past to conclusions about the present) to grasp its force. In fact, it is known, as Mill’s meta-inductive argument.

Why is this argument wrong?

I think there are two things that are unconvincing about it.

For one thing, the first premise that our past opinions have turned out to be false is a judgement we make from the point of view of our current opinions . But the second premise is saying that our current opinions might be false, however much we are convinced of them. Now, if our current opinions might be false and our first premise is based on them, then, to that extent, our first premise might be false. How can we believe in any conclusion based on shaky grounds such as this?

For another, the conclusion, which says we should adopt free speech because dissenting opinions may be true, presupposes that we have the goal of seeking and arriving at the truth. But the second premise, which says what we currently are convinced is the truth might be false, presupposes that even if we arrive at the truth, we can never know that we have arrived at it. (For all we know, it could be false.) I think there is something very strange about the goal of seeking the truth, in that case. What sort of peculiar goal is it that we can never know that we have achieved it, when and if we achieve it. If we achieve it, it is some sort of bonus or fluke that we have no control over and can never know we have attained it. It makes it sound as if all of inquiry into the truth is like sending a message in a bottle out at sea when we are lost on the sea, with no idea about whether it is going to be found. That’s not a sensible way of thinking of inquiry.

The whole idea (the whole epistemology) underlying Mill’s argument is based on a modal incoherence, whereby one has a current opinion that some proposition is true and yet one thinks that it may be false. It makes no sense to assert our current belief that the earth is not flat and then add (from the corner of one’s mouth), “but, for all we know, it may be flat.”

What about Rawls? He is such a major figure in political thought; would you tell us about his liberalism.

Rawls’ argument reflects essentially the same outlook as Mill’s. It’s interesting to note the similarities and how important their shared outlook is to liberalism.

In his major work, A Theory of Justice , Rawls presented a contractualist argument for two principles of justice: what he called the “principle of equal liberties for all” (which included the liberty of speech) and “the difference principle”. The similarity with Mill is in his argument for the first principle. So, let’s ask what is the argument for the first principle, which includes free speech? To put it in summary form, his idea is roughly this.

Rawls’ whole point in writing that great book is to provide a method for arriving at (for contracting into) principles to live by such that if you followed that method, it would be impossible to choose principles that would be biased in your own favour. This is why he says his conception of justice is “justice as fairness”.

So what is this method? He says each person in such a social contract must choose the principles to live by in a scenario in which nobody is allowed to know who they, in particular, are (their place in society, their commitments, their values,… all this is screened off from them). As he puts it, the principles should be chosen behind a “veil of ignorance”. This is his famous “original position”, his version of what earlier social contract theorists called “a state of nature”. It is, of course, a stipulated state, a state of artifice, not a state of nature. But it is his starting point , just like the state of nature is the “original position” or starting point of earlier contractualist accounts such as in Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau.

So, Rawls’ idea is that if you chose the principles behind such a veil of ignorance (i.e. without knowing what your position in life is, what your preferences and values are), it would be impossible to choose something that is biased in your own favour. And he claims that, among other things, a rational person would in this scenario of the original position choose liberty of speech.

Why does he think one would choose that?

It’s an interesting, slightly complex argument. One thing he insists on is that when you choose principles behind the veil of ignorance without knowing who you are and what you value and want, you can’t gamble. So, for instance, you can’t say: “It’s not very likely that when the veil of ignorance is lifted, I will find out that I am a socialist, so let me choose the principle of private property.” He doesn’t allow gambling of this kind because he, understandably, wants each social contractor to be wholeheartedly committed to the principles he or she has chosen behind the veil of ignorance, once the veil is lifted. But if we gamble like this, we won’t be wholehearted if we lose the gamble; we will be regretful, we will say: “Dammit, I shouldn’t have chosen the principle of private property.” So, basically, Rawls wants the contractors to be risk-aversive. But now, if gambling is not permitted when one is choosing, what we are basically being told is that behind the veil of ignorance we should be choosing something, no matter what we imagine we will turn out to be when the veil is lifted. So the claim has to be that, whatever we imagine ourselves to be behind the veil of ignorance, we will choose liberty of speech.

Well, when he made this argument, a whole infantry of philosophers calling themselves “communitarians” said this is simply wrong. They said if I imagine myself, for example, to be a devout Muslim, I would certainly not choose free speech because that would mean I would have to tolerate the publication of a book like The Satanic Verses . Why would I choose free speech, then, if I imagined myself to be a devout Muslim? (And remember gambling is not allowed and I can’t say: “Oh, it’s not very likely I will turn out to be a devout Muslim when the veil is lifted, so I’ll choose free speech.”)

When there was this outcry from the communitarians, Rawls gave what I think is a typically liberal response, very much along the lines of Mill. He said to the communitarians that they had basically misunderstood his argument. He pointed out that behind the veil of ignorance, you are prohibited only particularistic knowledge of who you are and what you value, etc. You are not prohibited general knowledge of human nature and psychology. And so each contractor behind the veil of ignorance has such general knowledge, and if she does, then she knows, for instance, that people change their minds, they revise their opinions and values . And so even if you imagined yourself to be a devout Muslim, you would do so with the general knowledge that you might one day change your mind and cease to be a devout Muslim, you may revise your values. And so, you would still choose free speech. This is very close to Mill, who stresses the fallibility of our opinions. Mill’s “fallibility” of our beliefs, in the slightly different contractualist setting of Rawls’s argument, becomes the “revisability” of our opinions. The basic idea is that since we never know what our future values are going to be (since values are always revisable) nor which are the right values and beliefs (since we are fallible), free speech is the best policy to adopt. This is the heart of the liberal outlook.

And so why do you think this outlook cannot deal with the concept of identity?

Precisely because identity, in the subjective sense, is, as I said, defined upon the idea of fundamental commitments. Remember, fundamental commitments are commitments which if we think we are going to revise them we will (as Ulysses and Khomeini did) consider ourselves to be surrendering to a kind of weakness. So, we tie ourselves to the mast with our fundamental commitment. They define us, our (subjective) identity.

So, the situation is this: Rawls asks social contractors to adopt free speech even if one imagines oneself to be a devout Muslim because free speech is an insurance policy that will protect our future , possibly revised, states of mind. Whereas identity (say, of Ulysses, Khomeini) is defined upon fundamental commitments (fidelity, Islamic values), which tie oneself to their mast and thereby provide an insurance policy for our current values against future possibly revised values. That’s the impasse. So if I imagined myself to be like Ulysses or Khomeini, I would not choose free speech. That is why liberalism cannot cope with identity politics. This I think is the deepest conflict between liberalism and identity politics. It is not just individualism versus communitarianism. Liberalism cannot cope with the moral psychology of commitment . That is the theoretically deeper point that I don’t think the communitarians really understood. That is why I focus on the notion of identity in my work and not on the notion of community, when I am critical of liberalism.

Would you not say that liberalism is a better position than Khomeini’s, though, even if there is an impasse and liberalism [cannot argue against him?

You have to understand that when I am making philosophical criticisms of liberalism and of Rawls or Mill, I am not denying free speech is a very good thing. (Few things matter to me more than freedom of expression.) I am merely saying that if one is going to seek out the best justification of free expression, their justifications are not the best place to look. And I think the underlying reason why their arguments fail is that you cannot seek to justify free speech as they do, trying to find an argument that will convince everyone, no matter what their values are, no matter what their commitments are. That’s what Mill and Rawls are trying to do. Mill is trying to give an argument that any rational person is supposed to accept, any person capable of induction. So, the argument is intended to carry universal conviction. It’s the same with Rawls: the veil of ignorance in the original position is supposed to arrange it so that no matter what your own values or commitments are you are supposed to rationally contract into his first principle of liberty. I don’t think you can argue that way in politics. It’s too ambitious. It can’t work, and I’ve tried to say exactly why it doesn’t work in this case by introducing the notion of identity in my counterargument. That’s all I am doing. I am merely trying to point out that when you justify free speech, you can only make justifications of a more modest sort, appealing to some other value that is promoted by free speech and justifying it that way. In other arguments that he gives, Mill, in fact, does that. One argument he gives is that we should embrace free speech because it encourages diversity in society. Now that is a much more modest argument. It will only convince those who value diversity . If someone does not value diversity, he or she may not find the argument compelling. I think that is the best that philosophical argument can do in politics. It cannot really provide a universal form of compellingness that will knock down all human beings with conviction. But it is Mill’s more ambitious argument that has been of great influence in shaping liberalism (not just among philosophers and political theorists, but, as I said, in the law as well), not the more modest argument(s).

Are you, then, attacking liberal universalism?

I am not attacking the idea that a value or a principle (like free speech) can be or should be thought to apply to everyone. I think the term “universalism” should be restricted to that idea. Something with universal application. I am only doubtful that you can give an argument justifying principles or values like free speech that everyone will find convincing, no matter what other values and principles they hold. That is what Mill is trying to do with his meta-inductive argument for free speech and that is what Rawls is explicitly seeking in his argument that stresses the “original” position’ with its veil of ignorance as a starting point. Now, of course, this means that a principle with claims to universal application, like free speech, may not be accepted by everyone since there is no argument for it that is guaranteed to be accepted by everyone through the sheer force of logic and reason independent of any other values that people hold. But that’s life. We have to accept that. We can’t do better in philosophy, in political philosophy, anyway.

Would you say, then, that liberalism’s weakness is that it does not believe in commitments of that deep and fundamental kind and, therefore, has no place for the notion of identity?

That is a more far-reaching question than it seems. Yes, you are right that that is the upshot of what I’ve been saying so far. Officially (that is to say, doctrinally), liberalism is committed to the fallibility and revisability of our commitments and, therefore, to saying that attitudes that you find in Ulysses and Khomeini are irrational.

It actually says commitments and identity of that kind are irrational?

Yes, I think that is implied by their arguments that I’ve briefly outlined. Just look at Rawls’ argument: the pivotal point in the argument is that even for people like Ulysses and Khomeini it would be rational to take out an insurance policy for their possibly revised future preferences rather than their present commitments. That strictly implies that the identitarian in Ulysses and Khomeini is irrational. But I just simply don’t understand why it is any more rational to take out an insurance policy for one’s future (possibly revised) commitments as against one’s present commitments than it is to tie oneself to the mast with one’s present commitments as against one’s future (possibly revised) commitments. It seems to me neither is more rational than the other.

But, as I was saying, this is the official liberal doctrine, stressing fallibility and revisability. However, there is a strain in liberalism itself that seems to concede what I am saying about fundamental commitments and (subjective) identity being perfectly rational. So, in the end, I think there is something schizophrenic, something internally inconsistent, about liberalism.

How so?

Liberalism is committed to rights . And I think the very idea of rights is basically the idea of a fundamental commitment, in my sense. So, in my view, liberals have a subjective identity despite the official position finding such identities irrational.

Why do you say rights are a kind of fundamental commitment in your sense?

Ask yourself what rights, at bottom, are. Or more specifically, ask yourself what makes rights different from other more ordinary values we have. Take the value of free speech, which we have been discussing and which is so fundamental to liberalism. Why does liberalism elevate this value above so many other values and erect into a right, with a very special place in the constitution? Well, one reason is this. Suppose tomorrow someone goes about propagating something in public that we find very wrong and offensive. Many of us may instinctively want to censor him. But if we have made free speech into a right, then we will be prevented from doing so even if we want to do so. Now, this is to do with the value of free speech exactly what Khomeini wanted to do with Islamic values and Ulysses with the value of fidelity. In liberal societies, we see our instinctive desire to censor the offending opinion which has emerged in our midst as a weakening and that is why we tied ourselves to the mast with the commitment to free speech, and made it into a right. As a result, just like with Ulysses and Khomeini, even if we want to censor, we can’t. So this aspect of rights gives the liberal himself a subjective identity. It contradicts his official doctrine’s outlook that stresses fallibility and revisability.

OK, it is coming out now that you have a critique of liberalism from many different angles. In your interview on populism a couple of years ago (“Capitalism, populism & crisis of liberalism”, Frontline, June 21, 2019), you were critical of its political economy, and here through the notion of identity, you are critical of its politics.

Yes, I am critical of its politics, but that was mostly when I was criticising Isaiah Berlin in the last interview on objective identity. Here, while we are discussing subjective identity, what I am really criticising is not its politics but the moral psychology that underlies its politics, the inadequacy of its arguments for its political conclusions (rather than the conclusions themselves), and the inconsistencies within its overall doctrine. You see, I don’t think that even when it comes to ideals such as liberty, we should allow liberalism to corner the market on liberty. Its arguments for liberty, as I’ve tried to argue, just don’t convince. So even liberty is something we will need to argue for outside of liberalism.

Now, of course, liberals will say that they can recover libertywithin liberalism despite these criticisms of Mill and Rawls; they will even say that Rawls himself gave up on some of these arguments that I’ve been criticising in his later work, but he never gave up liberalism. I don’t myself think that those are entirely intellectually honest responses. Rawls’ later work, even his very last work, was committed to the idea of what he called the “original position” and the “veil of ignorance” method that I briefly expounded. Well, if Rawls’ liberalism can really embrace the direction of the criticisms I’ve been making, then the original position and veil of ignorance method should be completely redundant. But, as I said, he retained it, unto the last. He never thought it was redundant. In general, what makes liberalism such an interesting doctrine is that it is ambitious in the way that Mill and Rawls are. I actually think that there is something noble about Rawls’ project even though I have been critical of it. Now, if liberalism gives up on his (and Mill’s) ambitious arguments and waters down its ambitions, it loses much of its interest. It becomes continuous with doctrines that are quite different and is completely vulnerable to being taken in directions that leave it unrecognisable. It would be seeking to justify liberty outside of liberalism.

To return to where we started in the interview, you said in your essay “What is a Muslim?” that subjective identities based on fundamental commitments were often formed in conditions of dislocation and to overcome feelings of powerlessness. Does this mean that in these cases it is an instrumental version of subjective identity rather than an end in itself because it is there to deal with dislocation and feelings of powerlessness?

That is a very shrewd and sharp question. But before I respond to it, let me just say that subjective identities can also be formed under conditions of triumphalism. The historian Linda Colley writes of how the Scots conceived of themselves as having a British identity for the first time out of a pride in the British Empire overseas. [Noam] Chomsky points out that many Jews in the United States identified with Israel and came to make central their Jewish identity after Israel’s smashing victory in [the] 1967 [Arab-Israeli War]. And I think some identification with jehadi Islamism grew out of the Mujahideen sense of triumphalism after the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan. So, subjective identity can grow both out of the soil of triumph as well as of defeat and powerlessness.

But to return to your excellent question about the cases when it does grow out of dislocation and helplessness, I think, perhaps it is closer in these cases to functionalism than to instrumentalism. What I mean is that we don’t consciously form these subjective identities in order to cope with dislocation and powerlessness in the way that instrumentalism would suggest. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that it is the function of subjective identity, in these cases, to deal with the conditions of dislocation and powerlessness. That is a subtle difference. But it is a real difference. I don’t think instrumentalism and functionalism are the same thing. But, you know, the fact is that, in the end, I don’t even think what I had in mind to say was functionalist either. It’s a quite different framework I tried to provide in moral psychology from either instrumentalism or functionalism. I can’t possibly elaborate that now, in an interview that is already too long. I would need to present a lot of background, and it would just make the discussion too academic. But, let me close, by saying something about this very point you have made which is more straightforward and accessible but also more important in the moral psychology of politics. One of the things that had worried me in that essay is how one’s own understanding of one’s sense of dislocation and powerlessness as the basis for forming subjective identities can have a very bad moral-psychological effect. It can come in the way of one’s agency, it can come in the way of one being capable of self-criticism, which is central to having agency.

One’s self-understanding goes against one’s own agency?

Well, yes, it doesn’t sound intuitive, but it is a real problem, and a deep problem. Look, take first a less political or public case and then we can return to the Muslim identity example. Suppose you say of me, “He is who he is, he is the way he is, because he had a rather traumatic childhood…”. And suppose you are quite right in saying so. Now, suppose I say the same thing, “I am who I am, I am the way I am, because I had a rather traumatic upbringing as a child…”.

I think your saying it is fine. But, by comparison, there is something off about my saying it even if it is completely true .... When I say it, I am sort of abdicating my agency, by going into this mode of self-understanding. Now, somebody like Sartre saw this, but he made too much of it and called the whole regime of psychoanalysis which seeks self-understanding a kind of systematic form of bad faith. But, in that essay, I was rather concerned that Muslims were increasingly far too prone to asserting: “Don’t you see, we are like this, we have formed this subjective identity and have landed in this fundamentalist, Islamist outlook and behaviour to cope with our colonial past and present.” And what I was pointing out was that what was wrong with it was not that it was false. In fact, in that essay, I was saying that it was true, as you yourself observed. What was wrong with Muslims themselves saying it rather was that it was abdicating their agency to say it. It was making them uncritical of their own jehadi Islamist tendencies. This is the curious asymmetry between a truth being said from different locations carrying a quite different moral psychology. Others saying that truth about Muslims is fine; for them to say it of themselves is what is problematic.

It is this general sort of point that also makes me uneasy about all this recent philosophical talk about “recognition”. The term recognition goes quite far back in political philosophy, but in earlier philosophers like Rousseau and [Georg Wilhelm Friedrich] Hegel, it has a rather abstract point: the very idea of self is formed by the recognition of and by the other. That is a very abstract notion of recognition. It is not a psychologised notion of recognition. In Rousseau and Hegel, recognition is a condition for the possibility of having a self at all. But in the more psychologised idea of recognition as you find it in the politics of recognition, it comes across as : “Please recognise us.” And that, I think, is a surrender of one’s agency. I think there is not a trace of this bleating form of the politics of recognition in Marx’s framework for politics. Marx was completely focussed on agency, on praxis, on mobilisations of solidarities, and so on. So this politics of recognition is a very un-Marxist development in political philosophy. And it has the same fault line as the focus on self-understanding of the conditions that give rise to subjective identity as a turning away from one’s own agency.

Thank you, all these points you have made about subjective identity help to bring out why moral psychology is so important to politics.

Jipson John and Jitheesh P.M. contribute to various national and international publications, including

The Hindu, The Car avan and Monthly Review.

+ SEE all Stories
Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment