The Problem with Self-Satisfaction: Moral Development, Character and Authenticity

In many situations in which I have pointed out a flaw within myself people have told me that I should just accept that what I have perceived as a flaw is an inherent part of myself that should be valued, rather than denigrated. This attitude is common in post-industrial societies in which people are often told to be happy with who they are, and where people are mocked for feeling guilty about particular vices. While there is a grain of truth in this attitude it is deeply problematic as it encourages a great degree of self-satisfaction, and self-satisfaction discourages people from overcoming their vices. For the rest of this blog I will refer to the attitude suggest that we should value all elements of ourselves as the perspective of self-satisfaction.

The element of truth that the perspective of self-satisfaction expresses is that people must feel that they have worth and moral standing, regardless of their particular vices. In essence the perspective of self-satisfaction seems correct in so far as it recognize the necessity of self-respect for a well lived life. I cannot live a well lived life if I think I am worthless, and do not need to be respected by others, that is if I have no self-respect. But while self-respect requires one to see oneself as an object of value, it does not require one to see all of one’s traits as valuable. Consequently, we can be very cognizant of the importance of self-respect, while also being suspicious of self-satisfaction. For example, I see myself as a person who needs to be treated with respect, but nonetheless I still think that I suffer from the vice of timidity, and when I feel shame for having acted excessively timidly this shame is not a sign that I do see myself as having worth, but rather is a result of my failure to completely fulfill my goal of overcoming my timidity. Now, it should be noted I am not suggesting that timidity is a particularly terrible vice, but nonetheless it stands in the way of moral development by preventing a person from properly asserting themselves and pursuing their goals.

The problem with the perspective of self-satisfaction is that it discourages people from overcoming their vices or flaws. If I should be happy with who I am, then it seems that this means that I should be happy with any vices that are part of my character. Now, if I can convince myself to be happy with my vices, than I will certainly cease feeling ashamed of these vices. In this sense, the perspective of self-satisfaction may help us to alleviate our guilt and shame, but the cost of this alleviation of guilt and shame is that we do not overcome our vices. The perspective of self-satisfaction discourages us from overcoming our vices because if we become happy with the traits that were formerly regarded as vices, then we will do nothing to try to correct these vices and fully develop ourselves. Consequently, the perspective of self-satisfaction is problematic, for while it offers the promise of alleviating our guilt through putting at ease with our flaws, in so doing it will prevent us from developing and moving towards our own vision of what an admirable person is. This is particularly problematic because part of what gives humans their worth is that they can develop themselves and move towards a more admirable state of character. If humans lost their ability to develop themselves by moving towards their vision of what it means to be an excellent person, humanity would lose some of its value.

It seems that the perspective of self – satisfaction has gained its foothold within the culture of post-industrial societies because of its link to the notion of authenticity. Authenticity is simply the idea that we should be true to ourselves and pursue lives that we deem worth living and it is fundamental to the worldview of post-industrial societies. However, there are many pathologies of authenticity, and the perspective of self-satisfaction is one of them. The link between the perspective of self-satisfaction and lies in the fact that people interpret being to true oneself, as not trying to change oneself and just accepting all of one’s flaws. Consequently, they see striving to overcome vice as an inauthentic act that represents someone failing to be true to themselves. However, this viewpoint seems misguided as the person who recognizes a vice in themselves and acts to try to overcome is being true to themselves as they are acting from their own authentic judgment that they would be a better, more developed person if they overcame this vice. So, the person who overcomes a vice does not necessarily act inauthentically, and it is likely that in most cases they act authentically.

The perspective of self-satisfaction is particularly problematic, because it is attractive in its promise of helping us to escape guilt and shame. But the cost of this alleviation of guilt is the drastic diminishment of our standing, as people lose sight of the importance of overcoming vice to pursue excellence of character.

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