Authentic Desires and Excellence

Often within contemporary liberal democracies it is suggested that people should be authentic and only pursue goals that they endorse and they should also avoid refraining from satiating a desire, because society views that desire negatively.  The preceding is a popularly held conception of authenticity at its most basic level.  This conception of authenticity does not seem to be a problematic ideal, as it encourages integrity rather than gravelling servility, but the difficulty is that this conception of authenticity also tends to encourage self-satisfaction and can push people away from striving for excellence and developing their own potential as much as it can push people to develop their capabilities.

The difficulty is that some people may have a desire to excel, but they refrain from acting on this desire, because it would involve giving up the satiation of some other desire. In this case both desires are authentic desires in that they both are desires of the person, and they are not desires that the person wants to be rid of,  like the desire for alcohol that a recovering alcoholic has.  For example, I may feel a desire to excel by volunteering to promote literacy within my community, but due to the fact that I also have the desire to experience as much material comfort as possible I forgo the volunteer opportunity because it conflicts with the other desire, as volunteering involves giving up time that I could use to watch TV, play video games, or eat fine food.  In this case, both volunteering and experiencing material comfort are authentic decisions in that they are responses to authentic desires, but it seems like we would think less of the person who chooses to satiate the desire for material comfort over the one who pursues the desire to volunteer to promote literacy. We think that the person who pursues the desire to volunteer to promote literacy is somehow a more admirable person, because they correspond more strongly with the type of person that we aspire to become, than the person who chooses material comfort over volunteering to promote literacy. The one who chooses material comfort is certainly not a bad person; they may be perfectly humorous, genuine and nice, but they seem to have failed because they have chosen a fleeting experience of comfort over developing their character.

This example conveys two related yet distinct sets of desires. On one hand we have a desire for excellence.  That is we have a desire to become a certain sort of admirable person. On the other hand we have authentic desires to have certain kinds of experiences. These two elements are not unrelated as my character may influence the kinds of experiences I choose to pursue, but nonetheless they are distinct as the desire to see a concert is qualitatively distinct from my desire to be more courageous, generous or wise.

To get back to the preceding example we might say that we think less of those who let their desire for experiences of certain kinds prevent them from acting on their desire to excel, that is their desire to become a more excellent person. The reason for this is not an empty moralistic judgment that is the leftover of puritanical religions. Rather, the reason for this judgment is that ultimately people have to live with the fact that they have made certain choices to develop their character in particular ways, whereas the experiences that a person has are far less important. I may be upset that I have never got to see a band that I love perform, but if I pursue the authentic desire for notoriety at the expense of my authentic desire to be a good friend I have engaged in a much larger failing. Such an act reveals that I am weak-willed and have deeply problematic priorities and the same can be said of the person who lets their desire for material comfort prevent them from promoting literacy.

To get back to the issue of authenticity we have two sets of authentic desires. We have authentic desires for certain kinds of experiences, and authentic desires to excel, or put differently to become the kind of person we find most admirable. Ultimately, if we let our desire for certain kinds of experiences get in the way of our desire to excel we have failed in the task of living a fully developed human life. Those human lives that we esteem are admirable not because those who lived them had wonderful experiences, but because these people had admirable traits that lead them to do excellent things. Consequently, we need to prioritize the authentic desires we experience that are most important, and avoid letting trivial, but authentic, desires get in the way of fully developing our potential for excellence.




Love and Recognition

Steven Kruppe and Jasmine Walker were a couple deeply in love with one another.  They were similar in all relevant ways, yet their energies and personalities complemented each other to create a perfect whole. The most peculiar, yet admirable trait, that they held in common was that each did not care what any other thought of them. Neither person was bothered by negative reputation, nor did they feel shame if they did something that “society” deemed inappropriate. Jasmine was known to fart loudly in elevators rather than hold it in, as she was unconcerned with what others thought of her, and Steven would reveal any detail of his personal life at the drop of a hat if he felt so inclined. He once shared the details of his genital warts with a cashier that was ringing up his groceries. The cashier felt deeply uncomfortable, but in Steven’s mind he was just trying to warn the youngster about the dangers of unprotected sex.

Further, the fact that Jasmine and Steven did not care about what others thought of them was not confined to strangers; rather Steven and Jasmine had agreed that within their relationship, they should not do things that they did not enjoy just to please the other. Consequently, Steven would wash the dishes, not because Jasmine would appreciate such an act, but because washing the dishes was an activity that was truly fulfilling to Steven. The same principle applied to all of Jasmine’s activities; Jasmine cleaned the toilets twice a week, not because Steven was obsessed with cleanliness and she wanted to please him, but because her authentic calling in this area of her relationship was to clean toilets. In fact she only felt whole if she cleaned toilets.

One day Steven received a diagnosis that he had terminal cancer, and that he had only a couple of months to live. Unexpectedly this diagnosis was shocking and upsetting for Steven. At first Steven just thought about all the things that he would not be able to do in his life, but then he began to have a new concern, and a concern that he had not experienced in a long time; he began to worry about how he would be remembered by Jasmine. He now had an intense desire for Jasmine to remember him as a loving, honest, courageous man who deeply cared for her.

When Steven told Jasmine the news she was devastated. After finding her soul mate she was now bound to lose him; “how could she find somebody like Steven again?” However, she was perplexed by certain changes that began to occur in Steven’s behaviour. Steven began to do things that he did not enjoy doing, that Jasmine appreciated having done. At first she saw this as a betrayal of her and Steven’s philosophy. She thought to herself that “this diagnosis must be driving Steven insane as he has betrayed the very element of his lifestyle that formed a bond between us.” But over time she began to see that Steven’s “insane” acts were enhancing their bond, and she began doing things that she did not enjoy to in order to please Steven.  

Instrumentalism and the Love of Learning

Within industrialized countries usually when a child, or someone else for that matter, asks why it is important for them to do well in school, they are told that they should do well in school because this will help them get into a good university and get a good job so that they can support themselves in the future. This instance reflects a problematic attitude in industrialized societies that schooling is primarily the means by which citizens acquire the skills necessary to pursue a career. This attitude is troubling because it tends to stamp out an intrinsic love for learning, by encouraging people to think of any form of learning as merely a means to an end, rather than something that could have value on its own account.

We can see how deeply this attitude manifest itself within industrialized societies, because from a young age we are constantly told that the reason why we need to do well in school and learn things is so that we can get a good job. We are never told that the most admirable kind of human being, might be one who not only has a breadth of knowledge, but also someone who loves learning and is constantly drawn to develop a firmer grasp of the world and their place in it. This shows that members of industrialized societies are encouraged and habituated to think of learning as a tool external to themselves that will help them get the job that they desire, rather than an element of the best kind of life for a human being.

If we become habituated in thinking of learning as simply a means to career improvement our love of learning may be stamped out, as we will begin to only see learning as a means to an end. This is problematic as one thing that gives man his value is that he longs to understand the world and his place in it, not just so he can attain comfort through a career, but because understanding the world and his place in it is an intrinsically worthwhile activity. Therefore, if learning merely becomes a means to career improvement we will be clever beings with a variety of technical skills, but we will lack a fundamental element of what gives us our dignity                                                    

Furthermore, there is great freedom in the attempt to learn for its own sake, rather than to learn to attain some further end.  In such a case one is not doing something that is commanded by necessity. Consequently, learning to pursue a career is a less free activity, than learning because of the intrinsic value of such education. Thus, if we merely pursue learning as something that can help us get a good job, in a certain sense we will be less free than if we pursued learning as an intrinsically worthwhile activity.

Currently, the way that the value of education is framed tends to encourage people to merely think of learning as a means to a career, but at this point it does not seem that this framing has fully stamped out the understanding of the importance of pursuing learning for its own sake. A testament to this is that there are still many people who pursue degrees in the humanities and the social sciences, which have fairly minimal job prospects, because they see the activity of trying to understand what it means to be human as intrinsically valuable.  However, if industrialized societies continue down the path of framing education as merely a means to a good career, over time we may begin to fail to see the intrinsic value of learning, and this would be problematic for all of the reasons I have noted above.


The Fetishization of Quantification

The widespread use of programs like “Microsoft Project” indicates the degree to which the culture of advanced industrialized nations fetishizes quantification. In such nations as soon as something is quantified it becomes more reliable as a guide to judgment even if the process of quantification is absurd or arbitrary. For example, to return the example of “Microsoft Project,” it seems highly implausible to say that one can give an accurate percentage estimate of how far one has completed a particular task, or the percentage of Project A that are covered by Tasks X and Y. The use of these tools for planning is completely understandable as they provide a structure that enables people to more easily organize tasks, but the fact that these tools  are taken so seriously, and no one seems to question whether the quantification that is required by “Microsoft Project” can be performed in a non-arbitrary way reveals the fetishization of quantification. It begins to seem that as long as we quantify something, it is more reliable and less arbitrary than something that has not been quantified, no matter how absurd or arbitrary the process of quantification is.  

The question then arises as to why we have this attitude? One plausible explanation is that numbers taken in abstraction to how they have been gathered seem much more reliable than personal judgment. For example two bags of flour may seem equally heavy to me after I have lifted each one, but when I weigh them I realize that one is indeed far heavier than the other.  The problem with this attitude is that while there are certainly places where quantification is beneficial, quantification in and of itself does not separate us from personal judgment. Rather quantification throws personal judgment one step back into the background.  For example, when judging whether one can quantify something we always have to ask if we can reliably and non-arbitrarily translate this thing into a numeric value without missing something important about what is trying to be measured.  So even when quantification is prudent and sensible, quantification requires judgment, just as all human activities require personal judgment. So by quantifying something we do not necessarily increase our objectivity, or the reliability of the information that is being conveyed. 

It may be obvious to say that a quantified measurement involves as much judgment as a non-quantified judgment, but most people will react much more positively to something that is quantified, than something that is apparently a personal judgment of an individual, despite the fact that all quantification involves judgment, while being one step removed from that judgment. This indicates that many have a bias towards the quantified,   because it seems somehow more reliable than what is not quantified.  Consequently we seem to fetishize quantification as we seem to think that quantifying something somehow makes it more reliable while being unable to explain how it make something more reliable or non-arbitrary. Therefore, the problem with the fetishization of quantification is that it blinds us to the importance of the centrality of judgment to human life and if we are blinded to this facet of human life we will never understand ourselves or others, we will merely know facts. Of course we will be making judgments, but we will be doing so without a reflective consciousness of the fact that we are making such judgments.