Overcoming Our Obsession With Identity

Aristotle defined ethics as the study of the nature of human well-being and the virtues that are central to a well-lived life, such as justice, courage, and temperance. He emphasised the practical importance of developing excellence of character, or virtue, as the way to achieve excellent conduct.[i] According to Aristotle, virtues are character dispositions or personality traits, and achieving good character is a process of clearing away the obstacles that stand in the way of the full efficacy of the soul.[ii] He believed that the virtuous person exhibits the joint excellence of reason and character, and that moral virtue is the only practical road to effective action.[iii] Aristotle’s ethics is built around the premise that people should achieve an excellent character as a pre-condition for attaining happiness or well-being, a concept he referred to as “eudaimonia“.[iv],[v] 

Aristotle defined character as a state that is neither a feeling nor a capacity, but rather a state of excellence of character, or virtue, that is developed through habit and upbringing.[vi] He believed that moral virtue, or excellence of character, is the disposition to act excellently, which a person develops partly as a result of upbringing, and partly as a result of habit of action.[vii] Aristotle’s concept of character is based on the idea that virtues are character dispositions or personality traits, and achieving good character is a process of clearing away the obstacles that stand in the way of the full efficacy of the soul.[viii] He argued that the virtuous person exhibits the joint excellence of reason and character, and that moral virtue is the only practical road to effective action.[ix]

Aristotle posited that virtue is not an inherent trait but a habit, developed through practice and reflection. It’s about making choices that align with the highest good, a concept deeply rooted in his Nicomachean Ethics. This process of becoming virtuous, according to Aristotle, is central to achieving eudaimonia – a state of being that is about flourishing and fulfilling one’s potential, rather than simply experiencing transient happiness.

In contemporary society, much of our collective focus is on our identity, which we are expected to manage as a malleable process of perception management.[x] The difference between identity and character lies in their focus and nature:

  • Identity refers to the characteristics, beliefs, and values that define who a person is.[xi] It encompasses aspects such as self-esteem, self-image, individuality, gender, race, religion, ethnicity, and occupation. Identity is how someone sees themselves and can be fluid or constant.[xii]
  • Character, on the other hand, refers to the moral and ethical qualities that make up a person’s personality.[xiii] It includes traits like honesty, integrity, and kindness. Character is the combination of mental characteristics and behaviour that distinguishes a person or group. It is developed through habit and upbringing and is associated with virtues and moral strength.[xiv]

While identity focuses on the individual’s self-concept and how they present themselves to the world, character is more concerned with moral and ethical qualities and behaviour that define a person’s personality.

Modern people are often concerned with identity rather than character due to a variety of factors, including the influence of social and cultural changes.[xv] Identity, which encompasses the various roles and relationships that individuals cultivate, has become a significant focus in the context of evolving societal norms and individual self-expression.[xvi] Additionally, the study of personal identity has become a prominent area of philosophical inquiry, with a focus on the nature of the self and its continuity over time.[xvii] This growing emphasis on identity may reflect a shift in focus from internal moral and ethical qualities, which are central to the concept of character, to a more outwardly oriented exploration of the self and its place in the world.[xviii] However, it’s important to note that the distinction between identity and character is not always clear-cut, and the two concepts are often interconnected in complex ways.[xix]

If we don’t attend to the development of character according to Aristotle, it can lead to a lack of moral virtue and ethical strength.[xx] Aristotle believed that character develops over time as one acquires habits from parents and the community, first through reward and punishment.[xxi] He argued that the full development of character requires rational reflection, and that the virtuous person can frame complex situations accurately.[xxii] Without the cultivation of good character, individuals may struggle to make ethical decisions and act in ways that lead to eudaimonia, or human flourishing, which Aristotle considered to be the ultimate goal of life.[xxiii] Therefore, neglecting the development of character, according to Aristotle, may result in a lack of moral wisdom and the inability to achieve a well-lived and virtuous life.[xxiv]

Aristotle proposed practical ways to develop character, emphasizing the role of habituation and rational reflection.[xxv] Here are some practical methods:

  • Habituation: Character develops through habit, so one should practice virtuous behaviour consistently. By repeatedly acting in accordance with virtues, such as honesty and courage, they become ingrained in one’s character.[xxvi]
  • Rational Reflection: Aristotle highlighted the importance of rational reflection in character development. By critically examining one’s actions and motivations, individuals can cultivate a deeper understanding of virtues and apply them more effectively in their lives.[xxvii]
  • Role Models and Environment: Surrounding oneself with virtuous individuals and a supportive environment can significantly influence character development. Observing and emulating positive role models can aid in the internalization of virtuous traits.[xxviii]
  • Education and Training: Engaging in ethical education and training, such as ethical discussions, case studies, and moral reasoning, can enhance one’s understanding of virtues and their application in various situations.
  • Consistent Practice: Just as one hones a skill through consistent practice, the development of character also requires ongoing effort and practice. Regularly exercising virtues in daily life contributes to their solidification within one’s character.[xxix]

According to Aristotle, the development of character involves a combination of habituation, rational reflection, environmental influences, education, and consistent practice in embodying virtuous traits. These methods can contribute to the cultivation of a strong and ethical character.

Aristotle’s perspective on ethics and the cultivation of a virtuous character stands as a beacon of clarity in today’s complex social landscape. In contrast to the prevalent focus on identity projection and persona management, as often advocated by modern communications professionals. Aristotle’s ethos calls for a more introspective and authentic approach to character development. This approach is not merely about curating an external image, but about nurturing intrinsic qualities that define one’s moral and ethical compass.

The contemporary emphasis on crafting and maintaining a certain persona, especially in the realm of social media and public relations, often focuses on the superficial aspects of identity. This approach can lead to a disconnection between one’s public image and authentic self, creating a dichotomy that Aristotle’s philosophy inherently challenges. His emphasis on virtue ethics invites individuals to look beyond the external portrayal of self, advocating for a life lived in accordance with virtues like courage, temperance, and justice.

In the context of metamodernism, a movement that seeks to transcend and incorporate elements of both modernism and postmodernism, revisiting Aristotle’s ideas on ethics offers a fresh perspective. Metamodernism recognizes the limitations of postmodernism’s deconstructive tendencies, which often lead to cynicism and a sense of meaninglessness. Aristotle’s focus on character and virtue provides a constructive pathway, offering a means of navigating the complexities of contemporary life with integrity and purpose.

This renewed focus on character, as advocated by Aristotle, aligns with the metamodern pursuit of authenticity and meaning. It challenges the postmodernist narrative by promoting a holistic view of the self that integrates ethical considerations into the fabric of everyday life. In doing so, it paves the way for a more grounded and fulfilling approach to personal and societal development. 

[i] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/

[ii] https://iep.utm.edu/aristotle-ethics/

[iii] https://ndpr.nd.edu/reviews/the-virtue-of-aristotle-s-ethics/

[iv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aristotelian_ethics

[v] https://open.library.okstate.edu/introphilosophy/chapter/virtue-ethics/

[vi] https://www.litcharts.com/lit/poetics/terms/character

[vii] https://link.springer.com/10.1007/978-94-007-1494-6_46

[viii] https://journals.openedition.org/phenomenology/368

[ix] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-character/

[x] https://wikidiff.com/character/identity

[xi] https://www.askdifference.com/character-vs-identity/

[xii] https://thecontentauthority.com/blog/character-vs-identity

[xiii] https://www.daytondailynews.com/news/opinion/identity-character/e96uRkyB5v30Vjsb7m2MvJ/

[xiv] https://upjourney.com/what-is-the-difference-between-identity-and-personality

[xv] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8319849/

[xvi] https://journals.openedition.org/phenomenology/368

[xvii] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/identity

[xviii] https://iep.utm.edu/person-i/

[xix] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity-personal/

[xx] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/290218502_Aristotle_on_Character_Formation

[xxi] https://link.springer.com/10.1007/978-94-007-1494-6_46

[xxii] https://www.litcharts.com/lit/poetics/terms/character

[xxiii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aristotelian_ethics

[xxiv] https://ndpr.nd.edu/reviews/from-natural-character-to-moral-virtue-in-aristotle/

[xxv] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/290218502_Aristotle_on_Character_Formation

[xxvi] https://link.springer.com/10.1007/978-94-007-1494-6_46

[xxvii] https://youtube.com/watch?v=cc2UJNE-8K4

[xxviii] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-character/

[xxix] https://ndpr.nd.edu/reviews/from-natural-character-to-moral-virtue-in-aristotle/

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