Free Will and Identity

That Sen interview in the Bangladeshi paper.

Sen remains a strong exponent of free will as expressed in terms of freedom of choice, even if influenced by circumstances and constrained by what’s permissible and what one is capable of. By way of identity, for instance, he chooses to assert the identity of an economist or a philosopher (among other things) depending on what is relevant for that particular discussion. “These are choices, among others, open to me, as are similarly relevant choices for anyone else.” As are the positions he takes on issues of politics, parties, ideologies and so on. “When choices exist, and not to recognise they exist is an epistemic mistake and also a root of irresponsibility – if we attribute our choices to others.”

It’s the kind of epistemic mistake that can distort whole large territories of thought – such as assuming that people of certain kinds have no choice about what will matter to them most; such as assuming for instance that for all Muslims, being a Muslim is what matters most, and that there is no choice about it. That’s a strange thing to assume. We all know plenty of tepid-to-cool and nominal Catholics and Protestants and plenty of secular and atheist Jews; why assume that all Muslims are as if another species and unable to make similar choices? Why assume that all Muslims are ‘devout’ Muslims? Because to do otherwise seems assimilationist and oppressive and Eurocentric? Probably, but the overcorrection is pretty oppressive too.

If Sen’s book makes a proposition to the individual reader, it’s with a similar sense of clarity: choose your identity of your own free will. But it also says something to the current world order, as it were: don’t slap single-identity labels on people. As Sen elaborates, he may think it very important in some specific context to assert the identity of an economist, a professor and of somebody left-of-centre…but anyone trying to predict his choices on the basis of any one single description to the exclusion of others would be making an error. Further, “Nor is every moral argument an identity-based idea.” And trying to squeeze him into any of those discrete boxes would thus be futile, both because there are many identities a person has and also because a person is not guided only by identity. But even civilisations are being put into boxes these days, with scientific rationality itself coming to be portrayed as something of an “immaculate Western conception”, to use a term from the book.

A person is not guided only by identity – that’s such a crucial idea to hang onto, I think. Without it we’re just – stuck; we don’t get to change or expand or experiment or escape or learn or explore novelty.

To be continued.

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