Social Identity, Moral Concern, and Moral Imagination

Some people are tired of identity politics and wish to identify only as “human”.

I have some sympathy with this.

However, I also realize that it’s easy for a relatively privileged person in a society to turn their nose up at identity politics. If my social categories rarely put me at risk of disadvantage, I will rarely feel a pressing need to band together with my fellow sufferers to seek a remedy.  I will therefore be relatively more  free to forget about group memberships when I interact with others, and endeavor to simply treat everyone as “human beings.”

Being free to identify as “merely human” could be seen as a benefit of social privilege. And, as such, if it is a good thing, then it is something to feel grateful for, and not necessarily something to feel superior about.

Now, with that said, I do think that the person who wishes to identify only as “human” is likely to be a better moral guide than the one who identifies strongly with only one sub-group of humanity, and does not extend moral concern to anyone outside the group. At least the former has a universal scope to their moral concern. And they are also very often willing to help level playing fields and undo the effects of past discrimination for others.

However, this person also tends to lack something important in moral discourse, namely, moral imagination, or the ability to really “get” what an issue looks like from different perspectives.

An even better moral guide is the one who not only identifies as “human”, but also identifies with several other sub-groups, some of which are in conflict with each other. That person has been forced by life into grappling with issues from many different perspectives, with concerns for everyone involved. That person had something on the line as they thought things through from many points of view. That person will tend to bring more to the table than the good-hearted person of privilege, because they have BOTH broad concern AND a very strong moral imagination.

In a nutshell, a good rule of thumb in controversial discussions is (as Nassim Taleb might say) to listen most closely to those who have had skin in the game on both sides of an issue.

It’s not that the person with less moral imagination always has the wrong views in maters of controversy. It’s just that they have more difficulty seeing from all the relevant points of view.

Personally, I try to have universal moral concern in all conflicts between groups. However, I have better moral imagination when dealing with some conflicts (religion/atheism, conservative/progressive) than in dealing with others (feminism/patriarchy, racial conflict). And I attribute that to the fact that I’ve had skin in the game on both sides in the former kinds of conflict, and not so much in the latter kinds. That doesn’t mean I can’t develop my moral imagination with respect to the latter issues. I can, and have, but the learning is slower when you don’t have skin in the game on both sides.