Who Are You ‘Really’? Traits, Dispositions, And Vanishing Autonomy

Let’s get one thing straight.

I am the most interesting thing in the universe.

And so are you.

So let’s think about who we are.

I used to be doubtful about ‘who we are’ — about personality — as an overarching thing ‘over and above’ consistent regularities in behavior:

“I am all these behavioral tendencies — to argue when I’m annoyed, drunk or tired and to disavow arguing when I’m in a better mood; to talk a lot when I’m with friends and to be in the background when I’m with people I don’t know — and the pursuit to integrate them all in a bigger self or personality is unnecessary.”

It seems like there’s no room for an additional self ‘behind’ behavioral dispositions.

After all, given that these behavioral tendencies suffice to explain behavior across time and situations, it seems redundant to postulate an extra entity like a ‘self’.

I no longer believe that this is not the right way to think about who we are.

Personality: traits and dispositions

We need to understand the concept of ‘personality’.

Psychologists define it in terms of ‘traits’.

When you gather a lot of data related to personality, you find that people vary on five different scales. Psychologists call this the Five-Factor Model.

The Five-Factor Model of Personality (Wikimedia Commons)

Your personality is your score on the ‘Big Five’ personality traits.

So what are ‘traits’?

Traits are clusters of dispositions. For example, ‘extraversion’ includescharacteristics like gregariousness, assertiveness, and warmth. On average, extraverts are disposed to act in gregarious, assertive and warm ways.

What, in turn, are ‘dispositions’?

According to Google, they are “a person’s inherent qualities of mind and character”.

Thanks, Google. We already granted that, but that doesn’t tell us what a disposition is.

In philosophy, a disposition is “a property which is characterized in terms of the causal difference that its instantiation makes”.

Salt, for example, has the dispositional property of ‘solubility’. Accordingly, when in liquid (input), the property is instantiated — activated — and salt dissolves (output).

Dispositions involve implicit reference to the stimulus side: the property is only instantiated under certain conditions. ‘Solubility’ only makes a difference when the molecule that has this property is in liquid.

Back to our theme of personalities, we could say that dispositions are tendencies to behave in a certain way under certain conditions.

If ‘personality’ is a collection of dispositional properties, a personality is basically a sum of code lines: if A (input), a person with disposition B, does C (output).

Take a look at this excerpt again:

“I am all these behavioral tendencies — to argue [output] when I’m annoyed, drunk or tired [inputs] and to disavow arguing [output] when I’m in a better mood [input]; to talk a lot [output] when I’m with friends [input] and to be in the background [output] when I’m with people I don’t know [input].”

Notice the if-then structure that I used in defining ‘who I am’. Every person has his or her unique input → output functions, and ‘self’ is a umbrella-term for the sum of all these functions, and that’s it.

This is what I used to think, but there has to be something wrong with this.

What makes you, you?

To see the problem, start with the idea that you do what you do because of who you are.

Then, ask yourself where you got these dispositions: why am like this?

Glad you asked.

Factor one: genetics.

Factor two: your first five years.

Now, let’s say that you set out to change this character of yours.

In that case, two things can happen: you can succeed, or you can fail.

Remember that we assumed that you do what you do because of who you are.

It follows that, if you succeed, you’re already lucky to be the kind of person who’d succeed if they did try to change themselves and if you fail, you’re unlucky in that respect.

If ‘you’ are a collection of dispositions, you can’t get back behind yourself in such a way as to — completely ‘neutral’ — harness the dispositions. These dispositions aren’t yours, they are you!

You succeed or fail because who you already are, not because of anything you do.

If ‘you’ break in, where in the chain can you do so?

The danger of objectivity

My doing of an act seems to disappear when we think of ‘who I am’ objectively. It looks as if never really contribute anything.

When I contemplate the world as a whole I see my actions as part of the course of nature: input → output.

The view of people and their actions as events and as subject to causal explanation, makes actions seem no longer assignable to individual agents assources. It’s not clear how a complete specification of how the agent is and the circumstances of the action would leave anything further for the agent to contribute to the outcome — anything that he could contribute as a source, rather than merely as the scene of the outcome.

An objective view of actions as events in the natural order produces a sense of futility with respect to what we do ourselves; a sense that we are just carried along by the universe.

This collides with our ordinary conception of autonomy. We have the belief that antecedent circumstances, including personalities, leave some of the things we will do undetermined. Our actions are governed by our choices, which are explicable but not causally determined:

“Although many of the external and internal conditions of choice are inevitably fixed by the world and not under my control, some range of open possibilities is generally presented to me on an occasion of action — and when by acting I make one of these possibilities actual, the final explanation of this (once the background which defines the possibilities has been taken into account) is given by the intentional explanation of my own action, which is comprehensible only through my point of view.” — Thomas Nagel, The View From Nowhere

When I decide what to have for dinner tonight, I feel like I genuinely choose to cook pasta. My choice, not something else, was the reason why I did what I did.

For that to be true, there cannot be a complete causal explanation of my action: a free action should not be determined by antecedent conditions (including my personality).

Have you seen my autonomy?

By contrast, an objective view of myself and the world seems wipes out such autonomy because it wipes out any other explanation for why something happened than causal explanation.

When someone makes an autonomous choice such as whether to accept a job, and there are reasons on both sides of the issue, we are supposed to be able to explain why he did what he did by pointing to his reasons for accepting it. But we could equally have explained his refusing the job, if he had refused, by referring to the reasons on the other side — and he could have refused for those other reasons.

Intentional, non-causal explanation can explain either choice in terms of reasons, but it cannot explain why the person accepted the job for the reasons in favor instead of refusing it for the reasons against.

Such explanations come to an end when all available reasons have been given. But this, I believe, means that an autonomous intentional explanation cannot explain precisely what it is supposed to explain, namely why I did what I did rather than the alternative that was also open to me.

It says I did it for certain reasons, but does not explain why I didn’t decide not to do it for other reasons.

We say that someone’s self and values are revealed by the choices he makes in such circumstances, but one’s character and values too must either (1) have or (2) lack an explanation.

The latter possibility implies that the question why I did what I did has no ultimate answer:

PRESERVING MY FREEDOM, I CANNOT FULLY EXPLAIN WHY MY REASONS WERE REASONS FOR ME. Asked why I acted, I give my reasons. Asked why I chose to accept them as reasons, I can only say: ‘I just did’.” — John Lucas, The Freedom of the Will (capitals mine)

Alternatively, on possibility (1), if the ultimate grounds of our actions also have a causal explanation, the explanation of why I did what I did takes us out of the domain of subjective reasons for action and into the domain of formative causes.

I choose that Budapest position because I’m just an adventurous kind of guy. My decision is not really something that I did, but is merely a consequence of my personality.

This idea that I’m a slave of my dispositions is quite unnerving because I want to be able to stand back from the motives and reasons and values that influence my ychoices, and submit to them only if they are acceptable, but if my judgments of acceptability are similarly determined by my dispositions, what do ‘I’ add?

Where do ‘I’ come in?


Either the dispositional theory of personality is false, or I don’t really have autonomy.

In the earlier piece, I asked:

“And what is someone’s personality if not the sum of someone’s behavioral tendencies?”

I don’t know what the answer could be, but there has to be one.

Otherwise, our free actions do not originate with ‘us’.

Perhaps what we have here is an subjective-objective conflict that’s impossible to solve. When we view certain things — like values or actions or selves — from an external standpoint, some of their most important features seem to vanish.

In constructing an objective conception of a ‘self’, we found that it can’t be harmoniously combined with the subjective idea we still have of it.

When we take this objective idea seriously, it undermines certain self-conceptions that I find very difficult to give up: I cannot come to regard my idea of my own agency as a mere impression.

What now?

Lend me your thoughts, please.

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