Seeking self-consistency with integrity: an interdisciplinary approach to the ethics of self and memory

Russell Downham

1 Introduction

In “The Construction of Autobiographical Memories in the Self-Memory System”, Martin Conway and Christopher Pleydell-Pearce advance a model of autobiographical memory , the Self-Memory System (SMS), in which the person’s autobiographical knowledge base and working selves constrain and support each other through their dynamic interaction. Their project should be of interest to anyone interested in the ethics of memory and the self, because it assimilates research from across the spectrum of psychological sub-disciplines into an abstract functional model that translates naturally into philosophical discussion. Philosophical reflection on the dynamics of the SMS reveals how self-consistency and personal integrity can come into conflict. This is a problem because it is desirable both that a person’s various priorities are practically compatible (self-consistency), and also that those priorities reflect what deeply matters to the person (integrity). In this paper I discuss one way the SMS can tend to reinforce self-consistency at the expense of personal integrity. After identifying what is undesirable in this tendency of the SMS, I show how the tendency can be overcome.

In section 2, below, I outline what for my concerns is the most illuminating feature of Conway and Pleydell Pearce’s SMS model: its conception of the reciprocally constraining and supporting dynamic of autobiographical memory and self. In section 3 I speculate on one apparent implication of this model: if self and memory are reciprocally reinforcing as the model suggests, the self-memory dynamic will tend to naturally promote self-consistency at the expense of interests that conflict with those dominant goals. In section 4 I sketch some reasons for thinking that this reinforcement of self-consistency by the SMS, if unconstrained, can threaten personal integrity of the person. Finally, in section 5 I translate the philosophical claim of the fourth section back into the terms of the SMS model, extending the discussion to suggest one way in which the SMS might regulate itself in persons striving for integrity.

2 The Self-Memory System (SMS)

In devising the SMS model, Conway and Pleydell-Pearce (2000) have assimilated recent research from across the major psychological sub-disciplines on the dynamic interaction between autobiographical memory and the self. The model’s explanation of the reciprocally constraining and supporting roles of self and memory is its central feature, and is the reason why it is relevant to the ethics of self and memory. From this interaction arise some of the key internal challenges persons must deal with in promoting what matters most to them.

That said, since the authors’ theoretical interests are primarily those of the detached psychologist trying to model mental processes from the outside, it is important not to overly “personalise” the SMS model or its claims. In this model, the term “active self” or “working self” just means a “subset of working-memory control processes organized into interconnected goal hierarchies that function to constrain cognition, and ultimately behaviour, into effective ways of operating on the world” ( Conway and Pleydell-Pearce 2000: 261). Obviously the word “self” has other meanings in other discourses, but in the language of the SMS the active self is just one psychological process modulating others. It is not an agent, it is not a locus of consciousness, and it is not a person. It is a set of thematically related goals driven by a fundamental aspiration such as the desire for intimacy or achievement, a functional structure defined in the context of purportedly neutral psychological explanation . Employing the SMS model within its specialised domain doesn’t preclude us from also employing more personal or humanistic conceptions of the self where they are appropriate, so the model should not be seen as reductionist. To draw connections between this psychological notion of the self and ethical claims about integrity therefore requires an argument to show why the operationalised psychological notion is relevant to the discussion of integrity. I provide this argument below .

In the context of the SMS model, selves can be defined by the goals which constitute their structure. We can distinguish between different selves we might possess: academic-self, lover-self, parent-self, artist-self. (How numerous or sharply defined are these selves is an empirical matter which can be expected to vary between individuals.) Saying we have multiple “working selves” does not mean we have multiple identities. On the contrary, in section 4 I will argue that personal integrity demands that the multiplicity of working selves which reflect a person’s range of priorities together contribute to the perspective through which they live.

As we will see, one fact that turns out to matter a great deal is that while a person may have many “selves”, generally only a subset of these selves will be active at any given time. These active selves form a subset of working memory control processes which serve to modulate the encoding and retrieval of autobiographical self-knowledge, or knowledge pertaining to a person and their life history. Memories which are relevant to the goals of the active self will be more readily accessed, while the retrieval of memories which would distract the organism from the immediate present are generally suppressed or distorted. For example, concentrating on writing this paper requires that my SMS suppress a whole range of memories from my recent holiday that might otherwise interrupt my train of thought.

This relationship works both ways, as autobiographical memories can also function to “ground” the self, to borrow Conway’s term. There are some suggestions that key autobiographical memories may underpin selves for which they play the role of defining experiences. (When I want to activate the priorities that define my “academic philosopher-self” I sometimes try to remember the satisfaction I have previously experienced writing papers.) However, the research is clearer in showing the disconfirming role of autobiographical knowledge, which in non-pathological persons can undercut the viability of selves which are patently unrealistic or implausible given facts about our personal history (Conway and Pleydell-Pearce 2000). (Try as I might, I cannot activate a “professional athlete-self” because I strongly believe I have little potential for meaningful action in this area.

3 The incumbency effect of the Self-Memory System

This dynamic of internal checks and balances within the SMS becomes complicated when different selves have conflicting priorities, as may happen with, for example, achievement-centred and intimacy-centred goals. When asked to recall different types of experience, people who are predominantly achievement-focussed more readily recall experiences about success or frustration in personal achievement, like people more concerned with intimacy more readily recall experiences about success or frustration in relationships (Conway and Pleydell-Pearce 2000). Moreover, there can be quite compelling internal pressure to suppress or distort memories that conflict with the priorities of the active self. For example, a new mother who foregoes a prospective career as a surgeon in order to focus on parenthood may be unconsciously coerced, through the phenomenon known in psychology as “cognitive dissonance,” to suppress memories of just how much she used to relish her prospective medical career while she was doing the wards at med school. As a consequence, the surgeon-self, which is underpinned by those memories on the ward, and undercut by the knowledge that she is now happy carting off her kids to preschool (a memory which is in turn bolstered and brightened by her present active self), may gradually fade out of circulation.

What determines which selves are active in the first place? Surely there are countless factors, but external conditions must be a large part of the answer. A person’s projects and their social environment will elicit different selves. But when one self is often active, what we might call an “incumbency effect” may develop through a self-reinforcing cycle. Selves largely inactive over an extended period of time can thus come to lose influence altogether, without us ever really choosing this.

4 How the Self-Memory System can tend to undermine diachronic integrity

If self-reinforcing feedback loops naturally arise within the self-memory system, this can lead to the gradual marginalisation of selves whose goals share little overlap with those of the incumbent self. Is there anything objectionable about this process, which can be thought of as a narrowing of the diversity in a person’s active selves?

Some might think that the life and personality of someone with a narrower set of active selves would lack the richness of someone whose priorities were more diverse. In contemporary urban cultures of the west, juggling a variety of priorities is generally the norm and success in any one area (family, social, career, etc) is commonly held to be conditional on compatibility with success in the others. This is reflected in the efforts of feminists who have fought and continue to fight for the right to simultaneously pursue family, social, and career goals. To this way of thinking, the tendency of the self-memory system to narrow the range of potentially active selves might be seen as a threat from within to the person’s wider fulfilment.

However, as much as the idea of self-diversity might appeal to those who want to “have it all,” self-specialisation has unique advantages that should not be discounted. Without a diversity of potentially conflicting goals to manage, a person may undertake more consuming pursuits. Indeed it would surely be fair to say that the greatest achievements in many spheres of human endeavour can be largely attributed to the dedicated efforts of highly focussed individuals. Furthermore, although less “obsessive” types might feel that such individuals in some way lack “balance”, not everyone’s temperament fits a “well rounded” life, and some priorities may demand a person’s undivided concentration. Thus it is not clear that diversity ought to be generally preferred to specialisation.

On the contrary, since less diversity means less potential for internal conflict, there is some reason to think that self-specialisation may be generally preferable to self-diversity. Self-consistency is valuable to us, most simply, for the very practical reason that it is difficult to simultaneously pursue priorities that are at odds with each other. Indeed, as David Velleman observes, since pursuing one priority can undermine a person’s pursuit of other priorities, there are advantages to being a monomaniac (Velleman, 1989: 284). Since the actions of the monomaniac all ultimately stem from a single priority, the monomaniac is not burdened with the problems of reconciling contradictory priorities that face the rest of us. (Such a monomaniac might exemplify the ideal expressed in Plato’s Republic, for a person to bring their various internal elements “into a disciplined and harmonious whole, and so become fully one instead of many…” (Plato, 1955: 221)).

But if being a monomaniac might have advantages for achieving self-consistency, for most people becoming a monomaniac would be quite undesirable from where they stand now. As Velleman points out, while we could more easily make sense of our actions if we were not divided between potentially conflicting desires, assuming that we are divided, it will not make sense for us to simply disavow our conflicting desires (even if we could) (Velleman, 1989: 284). Most of us have a range of vital interests that cannot be together subsumed under any substantial monomanical desire. Simplifying this diversity of concerns in order to make ourselves more easily understandable would leave us in need of an explanation of why we had chosen to shed certain aspects of ourselves and not others.

Following this line of thought, I will argue that personal integrity is sometimes undermined by the tendency of the SMS to phase out of circulation selves with few connections to the prioritised memories of a person’s dominant active selves. At the same time, this phasing out, or self-attrition, is not always undermining. Memory can only be useful if we are also able to forget, for otherwise we would be overwhelmed by the past. As already noted, there are practical limitations to the variety of goals a person can realistically pursue at once; given that persons grow and take on new goals, some self-attrition will probably be necessary. Sometimes persons may want to concentrate their energies more exclusively, in which case the self-supporting feedback loops of the SMS may complement their conscious efforts to let go of distracting priorities (by deliberately refocussing their attentions, say). It is not in itself the tendency of the SMS to encourage self-attrition that threatens personal integrity, but the way it allows this to happen without reflection and understanding. So let us return to our example to see more clearly when and why self-attrition undermines personal integrity.

Mary was the medical student, let’s say, who put her ambition to be a successful surgeon “on hold” to have a child. Gradually she lost sight of her original ambitions in the daily dramas of parenthood. As things turned out, Mary lived a happy and fulfilling life as a mother of five – at least as happy and fulfilling as she could have reasonably hoped for if she had foregone remained faithful to her ambition to be a surgeon, let us say. Some of her old med school friends suspected that Mary’s apparent contentment hid a deep lack of fulfilment. But they were wrong. Mary really was happy. Contrary to her own prejudices and those of her med school friends, it turned out that Mary did not need a career to find fulfilment once her priorities shifted towards family concerns.

Did Mary lose anything with the attrition of her surgeon-self and its constitutive goals? Clearly she missed out on fulfilling those ambitions which once mattered greatly to her, but on the other hand, according to the story she developed new concerns in her career as a mother through which she found at least as much fulfilment as she would have gained through the medical profession. Given that in retrospect Mary’s change of career turned out to be fortuitous, is there anything about her case that might suggest a lack of personal integrity?

According to Nancy Schauber, the fact that Mary’s priorities have changed would not in itself undermine her personal integrity. Schauber argues that integrity is not at stake in whether or not a person continues to pursue previously held priorities, since priorities that cease to be compelling cannot be essential to the person they are now. Providing Mary’s surgical career did not involve her in any commitments to other people (an aspect of personal integrity discussed in more depth in Calhoun 1995), it would be insincere of Mary to make a forced effort on behalf of a project that is no longer true to her current priorities.

I agree with Schauber that if personal integrity has any value, it cannot consist in being true to what one was in precedence over what one is. But viewing the past and the present as separate from each other, and their relation as one of conformity or contradiction, leaves out the perspective from which past and present priorities belong to the same ongoing process of personal reflection. As Damien Cox, Marguerite Lacaze and Michael Levine point out in their collaborative response to Schauber ( Cox, LaCaze, & Levine 1999) , having personal integrity does not supply an answer to life’s hardest questions about whether or not to continue our previous projects, but is rather to be found in the posing of these questions to ourselves and in our ongoing attempts to answer them. They write ( 1999: 523):

What self-unifying integrity enables us to do is to consider choices concerning our future undertakings and current self-understandings in full view of our pasts. What self-unifying integrity does is to unify past, present, and future self.

On this conception, integrity does not entail obligations to act on past intentions but instead requires something more open-ended: a sincere and honest dialogue within a person engaged in an ongoing process of self-understanding and creation, we might say. Although Cox, La Caze and Levine call this “self-unifying integrity”, we do not need to conceive of the self as unified to value personal continuity through time and change. The thread running through a person’s life may for some people consist, not in unity or even consistency, but in a sustained attempt to understand the practical import of their own disunity and inconsistency. For this reason I prefer to talk of “diachronic integrity”, or integrity through time.

What diachronic integrity demands is not that we resist change, but that we become consciously involved in it. Whether or not Mary leaves her surgical ambitions behind is therefore not the central issue – the issue is whether or not the attrition of her surgeon-self is heard, and spoken to, in her reflective self-conversations between past and present, or whether it passes silent and unaddressed. Sometimes we may have no way of understanding our shifting priorities, but even if the only explanation we can offer ourselves is that we simply no longer care about the things that used to concern us, our consciousness of this as an explanatory gap – an awkward pause in our conversation with our past – is a requirement of our recognising our past. And recognising our past – owning it – is a requirement of our being a person with diachronic integrity.

When self-attrition occurs without recognition, I lose a part of who I am without even owning the loss and recognising its significance. For that reason I also suffer a loss of diachronic integrity. As memories specifically relevant to that self are also lost to spontaneous recall, it is almost as if a part of my life is retrospectively written out of the script.

As we have seen, the incumbency effect of the SMS tends to short circuit the recognition of priorities peripheral to the dominant active self. Fortunately, our awareness of this tendency can itself help us to break the cycle that leads to this unconscious narrowing of our perspective. In the next section I will show how the integrity-undermining tendencies of the SMS may be regulated from within.

5 How the Self-Memory System can regulate its own tendency to undermine diachronic integrity

We have seen how the dynamics of the SMS should tend to reinforce the influence of the active self at the cost of more peripheral selves, and we have seen why this process poses a threat to a person’s diachronic integrity. An implication of the SMS model is that when circumstances require a person to focus most of their attention on certain immediately relevant priorities, they will tend to lose sight of other priorities which may be no less important but which have little in common with those that define the presently dominant self. Selves not elicited by the person’s environment are much less likely to become active spontaneously if the memories that would normally support them are of little relevance to the active self. Thus these more peripheral selves may fall out of the loop. If this process of self-attrition occurs without our reflective involvement, it may present a threat to our diachronic integrity.

The good news is this narrowing tendency of the SMS can be regulated. Furthermore, the regulation required to maintain diachronic integrity is a natural outcome of holding diachronic integrity as a priority. What is required is an active self defined by the goal of integrating a person’s various other selves into some kind of reflective dialogue. If this integrating self is itself active enough, it will act as a check against default self-attrition since the memories spotlighted will be those that characterise the person’s various other selves.

The integrating self can never be a perfect check, if only because the other selves cannot simply be surveyed directly. Many of a person’s deepest concerns may be held unconsciously or cloaked in specific details which are not essential to their nature. Still, problems of self-interpretation aside, by setting an inclusive context for spontaneous recall within which the wide range of a person’s selves are relevant, the integrating self creates the opportunity for self-reflective dialogue which is essential to maintaining diachronic integrity. It is under these conditions that the ongoing task of seeking practical self-consistency can be undertaken with integrity.


Calhoun, Cheshire (1995). Standing for something. Journal of Philosophy XCII, 235-260.

Conway, M. A.; Pleydell-Pearce, C. W. (2000). The construction of autobiographical memories in the self-memory system. Psychological Review, 107.

Cox, Damian, La Caze, Marguerite, and Levine, Michael P. (1999). Should we strive for integrity? Journal of Value Inquiry Vol. 33, No. 4.

Plato (1955). The Republic. Translated by Desmond Lee. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Schauber, Nancy (1996) Integrity, commitment and the concept of a person. American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 1.

Velleman, J. D. (1989) Practical Reflection. Princeton: Princeton University Press.