A cornerstone of ethics is our fundamental human need to be recognised for who we are and who we want to be.

When I was on the cusp of my teenage years, I discovered who I was. At least, I thought I did. For a middle-class white kid growing up on the north shore of Sydney in the late 1980s, I was surrounded by a homogeneous sameness to which I only belonged by default.  

I didn’t feel any strong connection to the dominant Anglo-Australian culture: I didn’t go to church; I didn’t participate in that other religion, sport; and I only begrudgingly watched Hey Hey It’s Saturday. There was nothing there that spoke to my desire to have some grounding that could tell me who I was, what made me different. 

And then I saw it, a documentary series produced by the BBC on the Celtic peoples. Despite my rather trivial genealogical association with the Celts – my ancestors originated from across the British Isles – I entirely lacked any cultural connection. Yet I had an overwhelming sense that these were ‘my people,’ and that I could connect myself to their history and culture, and share in their pride and tragedy.  

I hastily bought a Celtic cross pendant. I read folk tales of Lugh of the Long Arm and the Tuatha Dé Danann. And, most pretentiously, I started correcting people about my ethnicity, identifying not as Australian or Anglo, but as a proud Celt. I was insufferable. 

But this connection to a people and a culture stirred something within me. It satisfied a deep need to belong to something larger than myself, yet it was also something that set me apart from those around me. It gave me an identity. 

A few years later, when I was on the cusp of adulthood, I lost that Celtic cross in a field somewhere in Byron Bay, and the cringe that I felt about replacing it forced me to revisit my appropriated identity and ask whether this was really me. It prompted me to reflect on who I was and who I wanted to be, and sparked a journey to build a new identity – a journey that is ongoing. 

Identity crisis

Herein lies one of the great challenges of the modern world. Unlike our ancestors, who knew exactly who they were by virtue of the communities they were born (and died) in, the postmodern condition is that our identity is not handed to us: it’s left for us to discover – or to create. 

This is both liberating and a curse. It’s liberating because our ancestors had little power to challenge their identity, especially if it ran against the current of their cultural norms. Their free ticket to belong came with no refunds.  

The postmodern condition is a curse because we’re effectively dropped into the most diverse, fragmented and generally anxiety-inducing cultural morass in the long history of our species, and left to figure out how to piece together an identity without even a pamphlet to instruct us on how to do so.  

Adding to the challenge is the existence of countless religions, corporations, sub-cultures, grifters, conspiracy theorists and self-help book authors who are only too eager to recruit you into their ranks, whether it’s to your benefit or not. 

Yet build an identity we must. We are perhaps unique among the animals for having a reflective sense of who we are. We tell ourselves stories about ourselves, and these stories recursively influence who we are. Despite thinkers from the Buddha to David Hume arguing – quite persuasively, in my opinion – that there is no stable ‘self’ at the core of our identity, it’s almost impossible to live without some narrative that explains who we are and directs us towards who we want to be. 

The ethics of recognition

Our identity doesn’t just play a descriptive role, explaining who we are, it plays a normative role too. It’s the seat of our dignity, the home of our values and defines what, and who, we stand for.

This is why identity is of central importance to ethics. Indeed, some thinkers, such as Georg Hegel, and Francis Fukuyama after him, have argued that a key feature of ethics is a fundamental desire for recognition. Both draw on the Ancient Greek concept of thymos, a term borrowed from Plato, which represents the spirited part of human nature that seeks recognition of its dignity.  

They argue that our desire to be recognised as authentic human beings, with desires, values, rights and an inherent sense of pride based on the identity we choose for ourselves, is one of the driving forces of history, not least politics. Fukuyama famously argued that the arc of history bent towards liberal democracy, rather than any other political ideology, because it best satisfies our desire for recognition.  

Yet our desire for recognition is not limited to our personal identity; it also applies to our group identities. This is behind the rise of so-called ‘identity politics,’ where individuals vote on behalf of the groups to which they belong rather than purely for their own self-interest. After all, you can’t truly understand who someone is without also understanding all the groups to which they belong. 

Identity is powerful, which is why The Ethics Centre is exploring its ethical dimensions in this special series of articles. We’ve invited philosophers and commentators to tease out how identity influences our ethical views, looking at how the search for recognition is shaping the modern world and how it’s proving to be a liberating force but also a stifling one. We’ll be examining issues across politics race, culture, gender, sexual identity, and more.  

We don’t assume we’ll be able to solve these issues here, but what we can do is help reveal how so many of the seemingly disparate ethical challenges of our time are grounded in one driving force: our desire to know ourselves. 


This article is part of our Why identity matters series.