The desire to distinguish oneself by being unique is highly regarded in the popular culture of post-industrial liberal democratic societies. It is repeatedly said that all people are unique and that they should be able to express their uniqueness. Consequently, this desire drives us to adopt our own unique personal lifestyle and tastes. Furthermore while this desire has taken on a particular form in post-industrial liberal democracies, it seems to be tied to the general human desire to distinguish oneself, whether it be through excellence or uniqueness. In this entry I will claim that the desire to distinguish oneself by being unique is at once something that moves us to live a more fully developed life, and at the same time is something that can drive us to lead a superficial, impoverished life.
This desire to distinguish oneself through uniqueness is at once a desire that is deeply problematic and something that pushes us to lead more fully developed lives. This desire allows us to live more fully developed lives because it drives us to engage in a richer set of practises, than the conformist engages in. The person who is driven to distinguish themselves by being unique will engage in many valuable practises that the conformist will not. This can help us to lead more fully developed lives because as someone engages in a wider set of practises they will develop greater self-knowledge than someone who merely conforms. This greater self-knowledge is intrinsically valuable, but it also equips someone to live a richer life as they begin to realize what is fundamentally important in the development of their life.
However, it should be noted that the desire to distinguish oneself by being unique can become problematic when someone lives their life as if the point of their life is merely to be unique. The desire to distinguish oneself by being unique is a valid desire, because the desire can often lead people to lead a fully developed life, as I explained above. But when someone begins to live life as though the point of life is to lead a unique life they are leading a deeply impoverished life. In such a case they are not focusing on living a life that embodies their reflective perception of the good life, they are focusing on being unique for its own sake. This is why everyone dislikes “hipsters.” “Hipsters” desire to distinguish themselves by being unique, but rather than putting value on leading a life that embodies their reflection of what the good life is, they try to lead a life that is unique even if it is impoverished. The elitism of the hipster is superficial, because they think they are better than others as their tastes are unique, which is a pretty terrible reason to think that one is better than others.
The preceding commentary reveals the way in which our desires to distinguish ourselves is at once something that can drive us towards the highest goods, but also something that can direct us to lead a life of petty elitism. Thus, we should not merely eschew the desire to distinguish ourselves, as it truly can help us to lead richer lives, but we must be mindful of the negative possibilities of this desire. Treading this middle path is full of hazards, but it is surely our best choice, as we often learn about the good through our desire to distinguish ourselves.