"But Would That Still Be Me?" Anthony Appiah's Thought Experiment On the Metaphysics of Personal Identity
Would you still be you if you were born as a boy instead of a girl, or as a girl instead of a boy? That is, if your sex assignation were different that it was when you were born, would that change the essence of who you are today?
This is the question with which Anthony Appiah's thought experiment on the metaphysics of raced and gendered personal identity begins. His answer is that no, it would not be him but another child, a girl child, who would have emerged into the world. The reason he gives is because in this case another egg and sperm would have met (actually, it would have been the same egg) and, in his estimation, this would make the essential difference.
What if he was born as the boy that he is but were raised as a girl, as was the case with David Reimer who was assigned the male sex at birth but who, due to a botched circumcision, was raised as a girl and later underwent sex reassignment surguries? Would an "Antonia" Appiah be the same as the person currently known as Anthony Appiah? He says yes, and he references an underlying "sex" identity as that which is essential for him to remain as himself, regardless of his socialization.
The final example having to do with sex/gender identity is a transgender scenario: Appiah asks, if "he" were assigned the male sex at birth but identified as a girl and underwent a transition to become a woman, would that still be him? Although he recognizes that a transgender person would likely say that they were never "male" and become who they have been all along (so for a transgender person, that would always already be them), for Appiah who is not transgender and who identifies (strongly, me thinks) as a man, he says that he could not have become that transgender woman.
In other words, the only case for which Appiah would still be Anthony is that in which his idea of sex is preserved - and here, Appiah shows that his conception of sex/gender is pretty standard. For him, sex the the essential, natural, biological basis out of which gender, the social interpretation, is extrapolated. There is good reason to doubt this causal model for sex/gender (see, for example, Anne Fausto-Sterling's "The Five Sexes," Jennifer Terry's An American Obsession, and Judith Butler's Gender Trouble), but let's carry on with the thought experiment for now and see how his analysis of race/ethnicity compares.
He begins this part of the experiment by noting that where it comes to race, matters are more complicated because there is no biological basis for "race," and any such basis has long been eschewed by the sciences. (There is an excellent, three part PBS documentary on this topic called Race, The Power of An Illusion.) Also, at this point he takes some distance from the thought experiment, no longer taking himself as the subject for transformation but enlisting an African-American female avatar instead.
Say that this African-American woman were able to get rid of all the "morphological markers" of her racialized identity, would this person that emerges post skin-whitening, hair-straightening, blue-eye-contact-wearing, and surgically-altering her appearance, by any and all means possible and imagined, would she still be the same woman?
Appiah says yes, because her racialized identity (unlike her "sex" identity, for Appiah) is not a matter of body or morphology alone, but the essence of this identity lies with history, with the woman's ancestral past. For Appiah, it seems, racialized identity is more like ethinicity, to which he next runs: what if an African-American woman - say that she is the pre-transformation woman in the example above and let's call her "Antonia" - what if Antonia refuses to identify as African American? That is, she does not pass as "white" and yet eschews her past? Appiah believes that Antonia is still both African-American and Antonia, but is inauthentically taking up her identity, and being dishonest about her true self to others and herself. (This is how Appiah believes such a disavowal would be received; it is less clear that this is his own belief.) If Antonia originally passed as "white," then she would simply be charged with inauthenticity, and not with the additional charge of dishonesty.
Appiah concludes that we construct our ethical identities (our social selves) on the basis of false beliefs about the metaphysics of identity, especially where it comes to racialized identities.
Arguably, this experiment raises more questions than it answers regarding how our identities work. I want to raise just three questions/scenarios that emerge from my own reading: Lets start with the last part of the experiment (on race/ethnicity) and see if this could function as a counter example: Antonia has the morphological marks associated with African-Americans, but does not identify culturally or personally as such on the basis of her known past. Perhaps she was adopted by white parents and raised in a more or less homogeneously white environment. Perhaps Antonia is African (or Haitian-American, or Cuban, or French-Algerian) and although she "looks" African-American in the American context in which she lives, she knows nothing or very little about this ethnicity. There could be many reasons for which Antonia does not identify as African-American, and not all reasons are socially or metaphysically equal. Does her insistence that she is not African-American make a liar of her? I think not.
Now take the first case of our adopted-Antonia, she is not sure about her ancestry, but nothing in her experience prepares her for life as an African-American in the U.S. context, so she undergoes several procedures to look more like herself, the person that she knows herself to be. Maybe finally passing as white is a relief to her, and allows her to fit in, which is important for her. What should we say about racialized identites in this case? Is it now very similar to the transgender case above, or is it still different?
Appiah understands the historical embedded-ness of racialized identities at the social but not the individual level. And yet, he cannot see this same context is at play for sex/gender identities. Allow me to explain by flipping an example from above: imagine that you were raised as a girl named Antonia only to discover, as a young adult, that you were actually assigned the male sex at birth. Would you and could you immediately change your identity to that of a man? At the very least, this would take some time, some rearranging of one's personal narrative and memories; and I think it is fair to say that whatever identity you settle on, this will be a matter of a process of coming to identify as such. It may not be the same for everyone.
This is what I would want to say about identity: that it is a process that is never and finally done, but ongoing, and more or less stable at different times for different people and groups of people. The most stable and enduring of meanings are codified, and sometimes naturalized, as essential natures, but even essential natures inevitably change over time. I bet you that Antonia, the transgender woman Appiah may have become in another, parallel universe, would answer his question differently for him, and thus would his mind be changed. A truly intersexed Appiah would not consider his given identity as "male" to be very authentic; and adopted-Antonia may just as easily come to embrace an African-American ancestral past she never knew and that would be impossible for her to recover, except as an extremely important, creative, imaginative labor. Who is to the judge the authenticity of her identity as an African-American woman?
Finally, I want to make a broader claim about Appiah's assumptions, assumptions that allow him to see history and personal choice in the case of race/ethnicity but not in the case of sex/gender: Appiah seems to assume that sex identity is ahistorical because he imagines it to be biologically based, essential and fixed. And the converse is true: it is because he understands that race is not biologically based but is a concept with a history that he sees this identity as based in "ancestry." This assumes that these are mutually exclusive, but recent work in science studies shows that even if you take "sex" to be biologically based, you may still acknowledge that the concept itself has a history and that what counts as sex has changed over time (much as in the case of "race," and in fact along very similar lines). Sex-based identities are not ahistorical either at the social or individual levels. In other words, sex has a history, one that Appiah fails to acknowledge.