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Stories are omnipresent. Our lives present themselves to us in the shape of a narrative, in which we are the hero and which guide us in our actions. Not only do we live our lives according to the storylines we create, these stories also turn us into moral beings. They enable us to reflect, to accountability to virtue. Moreover, the moral ideal of individual autonomy is little more than the ability to construct your own narrative. This ideal, in turn, is at odds with our tendency to also create collective narratives that lead us to believe in an independent group identity. But such collective narratives also have an important moral role, they provide solidarity and empathy. The point is that we should not start from singular, but from a plurality of collective narratives, so that we can be both autonomous as individuals and solidary with others.
Humans are the only species that acts on the basis of what she thinks she is. For example, a cat does not think long about what to do: it looks for a warm place to lie down, because that is what cats do. A human, on the other hand, invents an identity for herself and is guided in her choices and actions by this idea of what she is.
This difference between humans and other animals will likely be due to our linguistic abilities. With language we can make up narratives, stories in which we figure as the protagonist.
In fact, all narratives have the same structure: it concerns the ‘hero’, a person with clearly recognizable character traits who is confronted with a situation and who has to deal with this situation. Then the narrative unfolds: something has become clear to the hero about herself and her life.
Most of our lives are not interesting enough for Hollywood movies, but we are constantly looking to find out ‘who’ we are, what our character is. We do this by constructing storylines, by inventing situations and by examining how we would act if such a situation arises.
Constantly inventing storylines gives us an idea of who and what we are. An image that is increasingly taking shape and that will increasingly determine our daily actions.
Someone who thinks he is funny will often make jokes. It is clear that this self-image is by no means always correct, as everyone knows, many jokers are far from funny. But what matters is that we have an idea of ourselves, a story that unfolds itself and that motivate our actions.
That concerns all walks of life. The study you have chosen, the music you like, the clothing you wear, the child or parent you are. We look for a coherent idea that describes what we think we are so that we can meet our own expectations. In doing so, we are constantly looking, and uncritically so, for confirmation of those expectations, because the story has to be right.
We do not only make a narrative of episodes of our life or of certain character traits, we plot our entire life as a story: a start, an end, and things that happen in the middle and that can be reduced to just a few characteristics. Just read the obituaries: the lives of people who have breathed, felt, thought and acted for almost a century can be dismissed as ‘nice’, ‘happy’ or ‘heavy’.
I find it fascinating: you became who you are because you thought you were who you were. But the role of narratives goes much further that that: they determine not only who we are ourselves, but also how we want to relate to others. Above all, the stories that we tell about ourselves make us moral beings.
First, it allows reflection and empathy. After all, we can tell more than just stories about the events in which we figured. We can also propose other kinds of stories, stories of what could have been. We can also see ourselves as if we were someone else. This allows us to distance ourselves from ourselves, we can see the choices we made as just one of many possible actions that could have been made. We can judge ourselves as if we were someone else, but we can also judge others as if we were them.
It is this ability that makes us responsible beings. If we couldn’t tell our life as a story, we wouldn’t be able to explain to others why we did something. In addition, it would become difficult to properly assess the actions and motivations of others.
The second moral aspect of narratives concerns the autonomy of the individual, the basic principle of modern morality. It is good to realize that stories don’t just arise in our own heads. They are formed by what we think others expect of us. We constantly receive social cues and we have to constantly process these cues as part of our own story. Moreover, our self-narratives are articulated in a language that we did not create ourselves. The vehicle of our thoughts, our musings and worries are the words and meanings given to us by the people around us (who have not invented this language either). The meanings that our stories carry have a social origin. What we think about ourselves is never entirely ours.
But that does not mean that individual autonomy should be denied. On the contrary, it is not about being in charge of our language, but about being in charge of our own story. Key here is that the story we tell about ourselves is not based on the expectations of others.
This is also the cause of the most subtle, but also persistent forms of racism or sexism in which individuals are forced to first understand themselves as black or as women, which bereaves them from have the opportunity to create their own story. Individuals who should be autonomous are defined in a ‘heteronomous’ way. This form of heteronomous suppression is often ignored because of the absence of bad intentions. If you ask a black friend what he thinks about Black Lives Matter, it is not out of a sense of superiority, but it does mean that this friend has to answer for an identity that he has not formed himself, he is forced to see himself as part of a larger group. If this happens time and time again, he will lose his autonomy.
We not only make up stories about who we are as a person, but we also make up stories about who we are as a group. The bond people have within a community is based on an imaginary, that captures the essence of that group.
In such stories the protagonist is the group itself. Also this hero has a character and also this hero has to overcome obstacles. Obstacles which are often formed by other groups.
Such a shared narrative can be dangerous. Not only is it at odds with the ideal of an autonomous individual above outlined, above all, it creates a distinction between those who are part of the story and those who are not and who are easily seen as enemies.
You hear sometimes voices that pleas that also such collective stories should live up to the ideal of autonomy. That ‘we’ are in charge of the story ‘we’ tell, that we are ‘sovereign’ as a community, nation, or people. But not only does it fundamentally clash with the moral requirement of individual autonomy – it first makes us members of a group and only then individuals – but above all, this view clashes with the idea that all individuals are equal. And without this equality, there could be no question of individual autonomy to start with.
Yet such a shared story also has moral values, because without such a story there is no emotional connection, no solidarity and no empathy. Our moral intuitions are largely shaped by the feeling that we share an identity, a story, with others. It seems to be a paradox: we need the group story to create moral behavior, but if that story becomes too strong, it leads to immoral behavior.
But this seeming paradox does not really exist. We are not part of a single group, but of many groups which constantly change in character and composition. We are dealing with a plurality of stories and it is of the utmost importance that we recognize that we are part of not one story, but of many. That recognition makes us resilient to the lure of a single group identity, we can show solidarity with all the groups we could possibly belong to – to everybody, in fact. Moreover, this recognition helps us to shape our individual autonomy: as individuals we can relate to different stories, we can choose, we can go back and forth, the plurality of stories forms a magic box that allows us to be who we want to be.
Finally, we must remember that we can make up futures. Futures that harbor danger or futures that are peaceful. Our time horizon is far beyond that of any animal. We even think about our story after we die. This allows us to develop a moral sensitivity that goes beyond our own life, the groups we belong to do not only include those people who live now, but also those who will live in the future. This makes it possible to reflect on human history in terms of moral progress, by making choices that far transcend the here and now and by developing the right moral frameworks for future generations.