“I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.”
Foucault’s words remind me: if you want to understand yourself, you should focus not on who you are but on who you have and will become.
But focusing on the phenomenon of “becoming someone” invites many questions. For me, the question of moral responsibility seems to be the most pressing. Can I choose who I become, or is becoming someone else just something that happens to me? We don’t choose which talents, tendencies, and dispositions we’re born with; neither do we choose our parents, homes, and early childhood experiences. Since we have no choice in the matter, becoming a certain type of child seems to be something that just happens to us. It’s unclear when in our lives this determinism ends and true self-creation begins – if it begins at all. Although Foucault offers us no insight on the moral responsibility of becoming someone, other philosophers have been debating the topic for millennia. I want to talk about two of their arguments here.
In his Nicomachean Ethics, ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle insists that we are morally responsible not only for our actions (what we do) but also for our characters (who we are). Habituation in early childhood starts us off on a path, but, ultimately, we choose our characters by choosing to act justly or unjustly, courageously or cowardly. By doing certain kinds of actions (voluntary ones, done neither in ignorance nor by external force), we become someone whose character is colored by those actions. “If a person does what he knows will make him unjust, he will be unjust”. The unjust person in this example became who he is by choosing to act in a certain way – his unjustness is not something that happened to him.
Aristotle’s story of self-creation seems like a good guide for how to live life: regardless of your starting point, you can become someone else who you were not in the beginning by choosing to act in a certain way. But modern-day philosopher Galen Strawson sees a major flaw in this kind of story. While Aristotle claims we’re responsible for both our actions and our characters, Strawson claims we’re responsible for neither.
In his 1993 paper, “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility,” Strawson outlines what he calls the Basic Argument, an argument he claims is both intuitive and often ignored. The argument, in its simplest form, goes like this: (1) no one can be the cause of himself; (2) in order to be morally responsible, one must be the cause of himself; (3) therefore no one can be morally responsible.
Of course, Aristotle would disagree with premise (1). He says you can be the cause of yourself (you can choose who you become) by performing the actions that make yourself that way. But on Strawson’s view, Aristotle’s tells an absurd story of moral responsibility:
I’m responsible for how I act now because I’m responsible for the character I have now.
I’m responsible for my character now because I was responsible for how I acted in the past.
I was responsible for how I acted in the past because I was responsible for the character I had in the more distant past.
I was responsible for the character I had in the more distant past because I was responsible for how I acted as a child.
I was responsible for how I acted as a child because I was responsible for my character as a child…
But wait — I wasn’t responsible for my character as a child. I didn’t choose my talents or tendencies, my parents or my home. But according to Strawson, these things that I didn’t choose never stop being responsible for my behavior. Even if I feel as if I’m in charge, I’m not. All of my actions and my ever-changing character can be traced back to my early childhood experiences; I am responsible for none of them. As bleak as it sounds, it seems he has a point.
If I haven’t represented these philosophers’ complicated arguments perfectly, I hope I’ve at least said enough to make you think. There are countless other possible answers to the question of moral responsibility, supplied by professional and amateur philosophers alike.
But the way I see it, Foucault’s words cut through all of them. In his quote he takes no stance on how we become someone else that we were not in the beginning; he merely says it’s interesting. Whether we’re capable of molding our characters by choosing the right actions, or whether our every action, opinion, mood swing, and newfound passion is determined from birth; and whether we feel like we’re in charge of our destiny or like life is taking us for a ride; Foucault’s message is hopeful and reassuring. He reminds us that change is inevitable and interesting – the main interest in life, as a matter of fact.