Philosophy Ph.D. Dissertations


Alienation and Identification

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Christian Coons (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Steven Cady (Other)

Third Advisor

Brandon Warmke (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Sara Worley (Committee Member)


Consider your love for something you believe valuable, perhaps a friend or your child. Contrast this love with the kind of hate that drug addicts typically have toward their addiction. Some philosophers would call your desire for your friend's or child's wellbeing, an identified-with attitude, and the addict’s desire for their drug, an alien attitude. Many use identification and alienation as standards for, among other things, moral responsibility and autonomy, arguing that identifying with an attitude that leads one to act is sufficient (or necessary) for moral responsibility for and autonomy in that act, whereas being alienated from the attitude that leads to action is sufficient (or necessary) for not being morally responsible for nor autonomous in the act. Even non-philosophers seem to use alienation and identification; often we use them as standards for “living our best lives”—our best lives fit with what we really believe and want, that is, attitudes we identify with. The problem is, extant and natural theories of alienation and identification are almost universally recognized as deeply problematic. I argue for new theories of both alienation and identification that, I also argue solve these problems. The first chapter starts with the idea that the concepts of alienation and identification mutually exclude each other. If an attitude is alien, we cannot think it is identified-with, and if an attitude is identified-with, we cannot think it is alien. I ask the question, which relation between alienation and identification most plausibly secures their mutual exclusivity? Beside the answer being interesting, it will ensure that our theories of alienation and identification do not allow for the impossible alien identified-with attitude, and it may help us develop a theory of one from the other—for example, if alienation were merely not identifying with an attitude, then once we have a theory of identification, we immediately have one of alienation. The relation that I argue most plausibly secures their mutual exclusivity is a certain kind of opposition which allows for neutral attitudes, attitudes that we neither identify with nor are alienated from. The next chapter begins by explaining certain deep, apparently intractable problems for extant and natural theories of alienation. Very roughly, the main problems are that none of the views can handle cases in which we manipulate you into alienation—they all imply that alienation can be the result of manipulation—nor can they provide a principled reason why the attitudes they point to as those constituting our alienation are of the right kind—are special enough—to ground our alienation, for example, a rejection of another attitude doesn’t seem to have any particularly special features allowing it to constitute our alienation with another attitude. The view I argue for that I also argue solves these problems is roughly, an attitude is alien just when and because the relevant negative attitude toward it makes sense in light of all of our attitudes collectively. The rough argument for this view is that an attitude is alien just when and because our rejection of it reflects our view, and this happens just when and because the rejection makes sense to us. The thesis of the next chapter naturally follows if the first two are right: an attitude is identified-with just and because the relevant pro-attitude toward it makes sense in light of our attitudes collectively. For example, when your, say, endorsement of your desire for your friend or child’s wellbeing makes sense in light of your other attitudes collectively—when your full, actual self rationalizes the endorsement, then, and only then, is your desire identified with. Not surprisingly, I argue for this view in roughly the same way I argue for the alienation view of the previous paper.