Esteem, Authenticity and the Good

Often it is said that those who are driven by the desire for esteem of others are superficial in that they focus on what others think of them, rather than what they think of themselves. Alternatively, it is sometimes suggested that being driven by this force is psychologically unhealthy as it reflects a problematic dependence of the agent’s sense of self-esteem on the opinion of others. While I think there is some truth lurking behind these thoughts, I will argue that under many conditions the drive to be esteemed and recognized by others is not a defect, but rather an aspect of and reflection of, the quest to authentically develop one’s self.

It should be noted that for the purpose of this blog when I refer to self-esteem and recognition I am focusing on the dynamic by which we understand ourselves to be more or less admirable, excellent or good. I am not focusing on the dynamic by which we get a basic sense of ourselves as agents worthy of decent treatment and respect. This is why I use the language of esteem, rather than respect. To be respected by others merely means that others treat me decently; I am treated humanely. But to be esteemed means that others see my particular character and life as admirable or good in some fundamental area. One can have negative self-esteem and still have self-respect in the sense of a sense of my value as an agent who because of his humanity demands a particular form of treatment. In this sense esteem is a matter of more or less and focuses on the particular aspects of an agent such as their character, whereas respect focuses on the universal aspects of humanity like rational agency, or ability to suffer. I have made the decision to bracket off the issue of respect because it is clear that if one needs the validation of others to feel that one is worthy of humane treatment than this is a severe problem as it means you thinks you are fundamentally worthless unless you are in actuality respected by others.

The rationale behind the negative perception of the drive for esteem reflects the proper intuition that one should not desire to be admired by the others, if this means doing things that are degrading or contemptible in your own eyes. Engaging in such actions would mean that you care more about the admiring gaze of the other than you do about how you see your concrete actions. In which case you are analogous to the shameless greedy person who will do anything for money. The only difference is that your object is the esteem of others rather than money.

However, this critique assumes that the drive for esteem is necessarily and always in contradiction with the dictates of integrity and conscience. Whereas in fact this critique only shows that the desire for esteem from others should not be pursued if that means engaging in activities that you find reprehensible. But the desire for esteem also plays a large role in the activities we pursue that are connected with our sense of what it means to a live meaningful, just or good life. An author who produces a work of fiction does so, of course, as an act of self-expression, but this act of self-expression is typically an attempt to create something that is valued by the community of authors and readers who the author respects. The exercise of publishing cannot be disentangled from the fact that an object is being presented to an audience for their judgment, and that at least a part of the point of the activity is directed at getting respect and recognition for the value of your work from those you admire. Now, it is true that publishing is heavily tied to the context of judgment of the value of a work by a creator. And therefore, this example might be problematic as a representative example of the harmless, if not salutary, role of the desire for esteem in human activities. However, I think most other activities can be interpreted as necessarily related to the desire for the esteem of a specific audience. The reason for this is that our pursuits are always related to social forms and practises with socially identified conceptions of excellence. We can reject elements of these conceptions of excellence, in order to innovate and come up with something novel, but the novel conception that emerges is an outgrowth of the already constituted social form, and therefore reflects a desire to measure up to aspects of the already existing conception of excellence. If it didn’t it would be an utterly unintelligible act. As a result the desire for esteem seems to be built into the relation of individual agency and participation in social forms. Before moving on to the completion of my piece I would like to say a bit more about the audience of esteem.

On the standard view, the desire for esteem is undifferentiated. The person who wants to be esteemed just wants people in general to admire or appreciate them. The agent does not care if those who esteem them are admirable or respectable esteem they just want their admiration as if it were a commodity. But this is an inaccurate description of human activity and the human desire for esteem. To begin the desire for esteem is typically the desire to be seen positively by a particular group of others who the agent admires or respects. The desire for esteem in this sense is about proving your value within a specific area, art or practise to those whom you admire. This audience may be an actually existing community of agents, or an internalized representation of the admirable audience in the mind of the agent. A committed Catholic is not just driven by the esteem of the currently existing Catholics and others whom he or she respects, but also by an internalized other that represents the collection of values, judgments and characteristics the agent admires. This internalized other is something that the agent is trying to live up to. The other defines the horizon of what is worthwhile or admirable.

It should be noted that at this point in the argument I have added the assertion that the drive for esteem can be bound up with an internalized other as opposed to an actually existing historical community of others. Some might say that I am stretching the concept of esteem here because if it is an internalized other that I am trying to measure up to, then isn’t it better to frame this as trying to live up to my own self-image with integrity as opposed to a drive for esteem by an other.

In response to this I would argue that the description of trying to live up to my own self-image is an accurate one in a sense, but it conceals elements that the description that I am trying to provide of gaining esteem from an internalized other reveals. It is certainly true that the internalized other is part of who I am, but to posit that this internalized other is my self-image conceals the way in which the internalized other is not just my self-image but an image I am forever trying to measure up to. The concept of self-image is far too broad in this regard as it once consists of how I think about myself as I actually am currently, and the being that I desire to develop into and measure up to. Therefore, the concept of self-image fails to capture the dynamic of trying to measure up to something that is at once part of who I am, but not simply identical with myself.

On the conception of the drive for esteem I’ve elaborated the drive for esteem is not necessarily a negative trait that reflects an other-directed need to be admired by anyone and everyone. Instead, it reflects the fact that we admire particular values, characteristics and people and want to measure up to them. This fact about our ethical psychology and inherent spiritual situation is what allows us to develop ourselves fully and authentically, as it is this desire to achieve the heights set by the other that embodies our aspirations that directs us to strive towards the goal of self-development. Thus, while the desire for esteem can be perverted and be directed against conscience and integrity it is also a reflection of an agent’s authentic quest to fully develop him or herself.

In this light, the typical opposition drawn between the drive for esteem via an external locus, and the desire for self-esteem is overly simplistic. These two aspects can be opposed, but they also coincide in a healthy desire for authentic self-development. Put slightly differently, to have self-esteem is not merely to value yourself and your particularity, but rather having positive self-esteem is constituted by progressing towards measuring up to those things you admire. A person who had strong self-esteem but had no sense of measuring up to anything that they valued would be a pathological narcissist. So, we cannot disentangle the desire for self-esteem with the desire to fully develop one’s self. The consequence of this is that the expectation that all people will have high self-esteem is ludicrous as many are not successful in measuring up the values and goals that they aspire to. Making space for authentic self-development means making space for failure in that development.

Socrates on Virtue and Knowledge

I have always been more drawn to Aristotle than Plato, but over the past several months I have been rereading some Platonic dialogues with a few friends and have come to a greater appreciation of his works. One perennial topic of discussion among our group that has brought this greater appreciation out is Socrates’ seemingly perplexing claim that virtue is knowledge, and that it is impossible for one to know the good, and willingly do something bad.

At first blush this position on virtue and knowing the good seems absurd. Most who have committed wrongs would acknowledge that their actions were wrong, and that they knew that they were wrong while they committed them. Socrates’ claim seems to deny the reality of the experience of most of us.

So this leads to the question of what Socrates is getting at? Is Socrates just providing a nonsensical explanation that flies in the face of the obvious existential situation of human beings? Or is he trying to say something that eludes us because what Socrates means by knowledge is something entirely different from what most think of knowledge as? I tend to think that it is the latter rather than the former, and will argue that Socrates and Plato capture an interesting element of knowledge that tends to be missed when we think of knowledge in terms of intellectually being able to recall particular set of facts.

If I know that theft is wrong, but steal something, what is causing me to steal? One explanation is that my desire for the thing overpowered my knowledge that theft is wrong. But this leads to the question of what it means for desire to overpower knowledge. When I stole something did this occur as an automatic reflex that I was not cognitively aware of because my desire had overpowered my knowledge? That seems unlikely, and does not fit with our actual experience of doing something that we know is wrong. Instead the desire speaks and convinces that what we are doing makes sense in some way. When the desire speaks it might say even though theft is wrong I really need this thing and I can’t afford it at the moment. Thus, the opposition that is posed between desire and knowledge is not between a mere noncognitive state of wanting something, and knowledge of particular moral facts. Instead, despite its seeming childishness, a more appropriate image is of the angel and devil on the shoulders. Each of these figures holds different things to be true and desires those different things, but the beliefs and desires of the inherently oppositional figures are not compatible. So, we see that when we are considering what leads us to do something that we “know” is wrong it is not as if we react like automatons to some foreign desire, but rather that aspects of ourselves that say certain things about what is valuable convince us, albeit temporarily, to take action because in some sense that aspect of ourselves sees this as the best course of action possible at the time.

Now, what does the preceding discussion tell us about knowledge? It seems to me that it rejects the idea of knowledge as merely being able to recall certain facts and being convinced abstractly of the truth of particular propositions. Instead it seems to suggest to me that ethical knowledge, at the very least, is always already linked to character and valuation. This seems plausible in that what we believe in the ethical realm cannot be disconnected from the values and goods we are drawn to realize in the world. If I think that the pious life of the mind is and this is real knowledge for me than this is not just something that I believe and has no impact on my life; instead my actions will be linked with these beliefs. It is implausible to say that someone has ethical knowledge of the value of the life of the mind, if they do not find themselves called or drawn to pursue this life. This distinction between naturalistic fact and evaluative claims was not part of the lexicon of Socrates or any other Ancient Greek thinker, but it has significant weight for us, and thus I think we can recognize the truth of Socrates’ thought in the ethical realm, while finding it more implausible in the naturalistc realm.

But if our ethical knowledge is based on our fundamental commitments why do we do things that we know our wrong? In essence, the answer is that our selves, or souls, as Socrates would say are disordered, rather than properly ordered. We have deep commitments to many things that often come into conflict in life. I may really care about being healthy, but I also am drawn to the sensuous enjoyment of pizza. It is not as though I realize eating pizza is unhealthy and thus bad from the perspective of health, but am overpowered by my a noncognitive desire for pizza. Instead, the part of myself that is deeply enamoured with the sensuous momentarily takes the reins, to use a Platonic image, even though another part of myself is speaking against this action. In this sense there is not a single homogeneous self that has commitments, but rather different elements of myself have different commitments, and at times one element of the self will be stronger than another. In the classic Platonic understanding of the soul we have the appetitive part that desires sensuous pleasure, the spirited which desires honour and recognition, and the rational part of the soul which seems to desire knowledge.

At first the Platonic of moral agency may seem to say little about knowledge, as you can easily combine a moral psychology that combines a view of knowledge as naturalistic facts with the idea that in the ethical realm our selves are disordered and our desires come into a conflict with one another. However, while this explanation seems intuitive it really does not hold up. If I think it is bad to steal and this is part of my ethical knowledge, the “I” that knows this cannot disappear when another element of the self, or another “I” within me puts forward the claim that it is okay to steal as long as it from affluent people. If this was the case I would not really have ethical knowledge, instead a part of myself as a whole might have ethical knowledge that stealing is wrong, but taken in my entirety “I” do not have this knowledge, because the constituents of myself do not possess a harmonious ethical vision. But rather each constituent of myself represents a dissonant and oppositional claim of knowledge. If I actually had ethical knowledge than the entirety of myself would be acting and thinking in line with the same, as opposed to divergent ethical notions. Knowledge, on this interpretation of Plato is always already fused with practical activity, for to have ethical knowledge is to be able to act consistently according to a proper understanding of the good while recognizing why one is taking these actions. In this case, it is not that I have knowledge and then choose to apply it because I commit to being ethical, but that right action constitutes right knowledge and right reason.

I am not sure if I completely agree with this Platonic image, but is a powerful image and one that confronts us with a moral psychology that is very different from our own, and consequently something that we can learn from.

Two Modes of Criticism of Technological Mastery

Within the popular imagination technological progress is typically viewed as a defining mark of the value of North American and Western European civilization. However, there are many vocal critics of the project of limitless technological progress and so called technological mastery. Some of these critics are deeply religious and motivated by their faith, while others are motivated by a more secular set of concerns. The objection that all of these critics have in common is not that we should not develop technology to help deal with certain problems, but that there is something problematic about a way of life that is dominated by forms of technological power that allows us to create or achieve anything that we desire. I want to look at two tradition that are critical of technological mastery. One is a rule based approach, and the other is virtue centred approach. I will argue that the latter is superior as it better captures our intuitions and is able to give a stronger account of what makes technological mastery problematic.

The rule based tradition lays out a whole catalogue of prohibitions against use of technology in certain areas of life, and in that sense can be said to provide a relatively comprehensive account of how technology ought to be used and developed. For example, within certain Christian circles this rule based approach dominates especially in the area of sexual and reproductive ethics. A whole set of rules are set out regarding which forms of procreation and sex are legitimate and which are not. For example, for some, reproduction using artificial means like artificial insemination, IVF and surrogacy are prohibited forms of reproduction. However, these rules are often just asserted as the word of God, or in the case of non-religious varieties of this approach, the voice of Reason or Nature. No account is given of why following these rules would help us to lead better lives. Furthermore, sometimes the argument is made within this tradition that we should not use unnatural or artificial techniques to achieve certain ends. But this account too does not justify itself, because in this context people are typically working with a teleological, or at least normative, conception of nature, which states that are certain ways of being in the world that are not justifiable because they are contrary to nature. However, this raises the question of why this conception of nature accurately captures our essence and how we ought to live, so until this question is answered the rule remains as an empty prohibition. So, this account does not really explain why technological mastery is problematic; it merely asserts it.

On the other hand, there is a virtue centred critique of technological mastery. The main thrust of this approach is that the problem with technological mastery is that it can inhibit the development of particular virtues such as temperance, moderation, patience and justice, among others. If our technological power allows us to get whatever we want by relatively effortlessly deploying some kind of instrument or technique then we are able to get more of what we want without having to engage in certain practises that are instrumental to and constitutive of the development of virtue. For example, imagine I can take a pill that gives me the body that I have always wanted; this pill requires no exercise or changes in diets for its results. Ordinarily, in order to develop the body that I want, I would have required discipline, patience, prudence and moderation so that I can properly alter my life to ensure that I exercise often enough and eat properly. Furthermore, perhaps even at the end I may have not gotten the body that I wanted, as it turned out to be an unachievable phantasm, in which case this development would help me to learn the virtue of acceptance of what is not in my control. While, this is but one example, it shows how if we have the technological power to get whatever we desire we are tempted into not engaging in practises that develop particular virtues. In essence, under conditions of technological mastery we are tempted to become beings dominated by will and desire who can get whatever they want. While getting whatever we want may seem attractive if this is done at the expense of development of virtue we become vacuous shells who simply will, desire and consume, and part of the dignity of humanity is that he is not merely a willing, desiring, consuming being, but a being who can develop certain qualities in himself such as courage, patience, generosity and compassion. Would humans be that valuable if we just willed, desired, and consumed, and never showed courage, generosity or love? Consequently, the project of technological mastery can threaten the development of virtue if we are tempted to pursue all of our goals through merely technological means that effortlessly allow us to get what we want, rather than practises that not only instrumentally develop virtues, but also form part of a way of life that is constitutive of a life of virtue.

What I mean by practises is recognizably influenced by the work of MacIntyre in After Virtue, although different from it, and can be best clarified if we look at something like a sport. Often people who play sports do so to win, and for the recognition, and honour they will achieve for winning, but sports require certain virtues in order to be played well whose point is not to win, but to play the game excellently. A good hockey player is not just one that scores lots of goals, but one that is a team player, is responsible in all parts of the game, and works hard under every circumstance. This is why a lot of people frown upon Phil Kessel, as while he scores many goals he does not exemplify the teamwork, defensive responsibility and industriousness that is constitutive of what it means to be a good hockey player. Many of the practises that ordinarily we engage in not only instrumentally help us to achieve certain admirable qualities (virtues), but constitute a part of a form of life that is valuable, at least in part, because it involves the practise of those virtues. Consequently, because virtues can only be realized through their practised, if practises that develop and involve the presence of particular virtues are replaced with an effortless technological solution that do not require these virtues we are in danger of losing the element of a good life that is constituted by the practise of virtue.

We can now see that what makes this virtue centred approach better than the rule based approach as it provides us with an image of what it means to be a well-developed person, and shows the way in which technology can threaten this. It does not just say this technological practise is bad, it points to the way in which it can harm our development and lives.

However, some followers of the rule based approach might point out that their rules imply a conception of virtue and that conception of virtue is what underlies the rules. Thus, the rules are only guides for how to become virtuous, they are not a replacement for a conception of virtue. While this is a coherent and intelligible response, it is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, it makes rules derivative of virtue, and thus accepts the case that virtue is what is most fundamental in the critique of technological mastery. Furthermore this argument most would not support the conclusions that most followers of the rule based approach want to pursue, as typically they want quite specific rules about how to use technology, rather than an overarching approach of how to ensure that we avoid being tempted into not engaging in practises that develop and constitute the practise of the virtues. For example, those who have a moral prohibition against IVF, artificial insemination, and commercial surrogacy often do not have a problem with many other technologies that make our lives much more effortless and tend to eliminate other valuable practises. Their approach is thus inherently moralistic and code oriented. For them the evil is the use of technology itself in a certain area of life, not that the advent of technological solutions can threaten the existence of certain valuable practises.

Consequently, it seems that the virtue centred approach offers a much more compelling critique of technological mastery as it shows what goods are threatened by technological mastery, and how technological mastery threatens these good.

Some thoughts on free speech, the public sphere, inclusion and virtue

Often, when someone is ridiculed for publicly saying something that others deem offensive, the person who made the initial statement claims that they have freedom of speech and thus are being unduly criticized for their statements. The response to this is typically that while people have freedom of speech they are not free from criticism and ridicule for what they say. This final response reflects the libertarian conception of free speech in which each is free to speak freely, but must deal with the fact that others can criticize them for their speech.

The libertarian conception of free speech is very intuitive in that it suggests that each should have equal liberty to express themselves, while allowing a similar liberty for others.  But if we think about what a public sphere looks like that operates according to this libertarian conception we will see that the public sphere will never be a space where everyone will feel free to express all of their beliefs. If I hold beliefs that I know others find offensive I will not feel free to express these publicly in a public sphere operating according to the libertarian conception of free speech for fear of offending people and any further consequences that flow from that offense such as diminished career opportunities. This means that creating a public sphere that allows each to speak their mind freely will not necessarily create a public sphere in which each feels free to express their beliefs.

Now of course this does not mean that the libertarian conception of free speech is problematic; it just means that societal inclusion will not be completely fostered by adopting a libertarian conception of free speech as some will always fear condemnation from the majority, at least as long there is diversity of belief. The result of this is that it seems impossible to create a public sphere that is free in the sense that each can speak their mind without legal condemnation and one in which people feel free to speak their minds.  But there seems to be a yearning for a space in which we feel completely free to express ourselves. If the public sphere cannot provide this what space or spaces will?

My provisional answer is that the public sphere is not meant to be a space where we feel free to express our deepest convictions, but instead friendships, romantic relationships and other smaller communities, such as book clubs, sports teams and political associations, form these spaces. Having people who we can talk to about our deepest beliefs without fear of judgment is deeply important as it allows us to open up to others and have authentic, genuine conversations where we fully connect with another. But, the public sphere cannot provide this space to people as the diversity of opinion within the public sphere means that being fully open about one’s beliefs will always be a challenge for some.

However, while the public sphere cannot offer a space where all can feel free to express themselves, fear of the judgment and censure of others can negatively affect the public sphere, and the political community as a whole. if people are deeply afraid to express their beliefs,  because they fear they will be ostracized or isolated ,they will not feel included in the society, and will consequently be marginalized to some extent.  So we cannot just pretend that the idea that the private sphere offers the space in which we can feel free to express ourselves is completely adequate, as this would mean that we would be condoning marginalization and exclusion within the public sphere. To my mind the solution to this issue is not to try to limit speech as this would destroy the very core of freedom of speech. Instead, one strategy that allows us to limit the pernicious effects of fear of condemnation, isolation, and ostracism for the things that one says is the encouragement of particular virtues and the discouragement of particular vices in the citizenry as a whole.

The main virtues that need to be encouraged to deal with this issue are free spiritedness and courage. Free spiritedness allows us to see that our beliefs do not need the approval of others to be valid or valuable, and courage allows us to face our fears of condemnation. These two virtues thus allow us to more strongly speak up for what we believe in, rather than just trying to say what we know will please others, and a public sphere full of these kind of voices is better than one in which people avoid saying anything that may offend others.

Similarly, the vice that needs to be discouraged to deal with this issue of inclusion is fanaticism.  By fanaticism I mean the tendency to see your beliefs as the only reasonable set of beliefs that a person can hold, such that you wish to eliminate the influence and ostracize all of those who disagree with you. If this vice is avoided, or at the very least its influence is limited, this will allow people to feel more at ease expressing their deepest beliefs because while they know that others may deeply disagree with them, they do not have to fear being ostracized, or seen as someone whose influence is toxic to the public sphere. Even if fanaticism is discouraged and free spiritedness and courage are encouraged in this way this will not mean that people will feel entirely free to express their beliefs as some beliefs will undoubtedly offend many, but it should help to foster inclusion while still allowing all to freely express their opinions.

The Activism of William Marsden – Piety and Partiality

In many ways William Marsden was an average 25 year old man living in Vancouver. He had a girlfriend, a small circle of close friends and worked as an administrator for a non-profit organization that supported the homeless within Vancouver, but while William was charming he had the distinct ability to irritate those who he was close with, while being adored by those who barely knew him.

On March 12th 2014 it was William’s birthday and his friends took him out to a pub on West Broadway. His two closest friends, Zoe and Linus were there, along with his girlfriend Alex. While Linus knew that William became exasperated when he received gifts he had found a classic Rage Against the Machine t-shirt which brought him back to his early teenage years; he and William had bonded while listening to Rage’s Evil Empire.

About an hour after William arrived, Linus cornered William while he was getting a drink and handed him the shirt. William looked down at Linus’ hands in disgust and said “I don’t need more shirts. This money could have been better spent by providing funds to my charity or another good cause.”

Linus explained “I recognize that, but you are an important friend in my life, and I wanted to show that by giving something to you.”

William reluctantly took the shirt and said “I will take the shirt this time, because it means so much to you, but you should really consider how money can best be used when you are spending it.”

Linus had no reply as there was no point in arguing with William on this subject. He was just happy that William had eventually decided to take the shirt.

A little later in that year William was at his weekly Yoga class when he realized that he had to do something drastic in his life in order to meet his image of himself as a person who was devoted to the betterment of mankind.

That night he sat down with Alex and said “I am moving the Democratic Republic of the Congo, because my expertise as an administrator would be of far more value there than it is here in Vancouver. While the homeless in Vancouver are suffering my work would do far more good in the Congo. I want you to come with me so that we can share this enriching experience together.”

Alex knew that activism was important to William`s life but she was dumbstruck that the man she had spent nearly two years with could so nonchalantly ask her to give up her budding career as a lawyer, and leave all her friends to pursue activism in the Congo. She did not know what to say. All that she could manage to get out was “I don`t know what to make of this. I deeply care for you, but you are asking me to sacrifice all of my ties to support your commitment to a very specific cause.`

William responded `I was hoping you would understand, but I am afraid my suspicions were right and you just don`t get how important my going to the Congo is. Clearly you are no wiser than those fools who do not buy their shoes from TOMS. I will go without you if you are not willing to come.“

Alex replied “If you value your purity as an activist more than our relationship than this should have ended long ago.` Alex then stormed out of William`s apartment before he could say anything.

Without a second thought William began packing up his things for the Congo. He wondered where he would live in the Congo, but that was a challenge that he could figure out later. He had avoided the temptation of being distracted from his true quest by a romantic relationship, and for that he was proud.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………

After reading this story most people would come to have mixed feelings about William. He is clearly very pious and cares about making the world a better place, but these commitments prevent him from being a good friend or romantic partner. What are we to make of this? It seems to me there are a few things that we can take away from this.

One thing that we can take from this is the Berlinian point that the good of general benevolence towards the human race is at odds with the particular goods of romantic love and friendship, as William is unable to secure both goods in life, but ultimately must choose to place priority over one set over the other.

In addition one other point we might take away from this story is that there is something deeply problematic about failing to recognize that there exists numerous goods in the world that place commands on us. William’s action shows that he does not think that romantic relationships or friendships place a command on him, and the only God or good that he must serve is that of doing whatever he can to best help mankind.  This is made clear as William does not see his choice as one between competing and incompatible goods, but as a rather obvious choice. Consequently, William’s vice is that he does not recognize the wide range of goods that exist in the world and that call him. Instead he is so mesmerized by the good of efficient activism that he does not recognize that he is sacrificing all sorts of valuable goods for this one particular good.  One offshoot of this point is that we not only can we bewitched by evil, but we can also be so bewitched by the appeal of particular goods such that we fail to recognize the validity of the claims of other goods.

One further point we might take away from this story is that people who are moral saints like William may not be desirable as friends or lovers, even if in some overall sense they have a positive influence on humanity.  This is similar to the point that Susan Wolf makes in her essay “Moral Saints,” but I do not have a copy of that work on hand and it has been so long since I have read it that I cannot speak to the exact similarities and differences.

Please feel free to answer any or all of the following questions:

Do you agree with my assessment of William?

Do you find William admirable or contemptible?

Is there anything else we can take away from this story?

Problematizing the Pursuit of Career Success: Vice, Virtue and Post-Industrial Culture

The term “career success” brings to mind conflicting images. For many, career success means climbing the professional ladder so that one can get the best and most prestigious job possible. While, for some career success is more analogous to finding a career that is one’s calling. In an earlier entry, I criticized this latter conception of a career. In this entry I will critique the former conception. For the sake of this entry I will refer to the former conception of career success as “worldly career success.”

Worldly career success is valued extremely highly within post-industrial societies. For example, nearly every parent within these societies seems to want their child to have worldly career success, and children tend to internalize the desire for worldly career success and want to get an education and experience which will allow them to climb the corporate ladder and consequently achieve worldly career success. Furthermore, those who do not succeed in climbing the ladder of their profession and consequently do not achieve worldly career success are often called “losers” or “bums.” Thus, it seems that the culture of post-industrial societies puts a lot of value on worldly career success. Yet, I will contend that we should not value worldly career success without qualification, because in many contexts within post-industrial societies devotion to worldly career success will encourage the development of vices, as opposed to virtues.

On some level it seems that striving for worldly career success would reinforce virtues such as determination, and reliability, because in order to be successful within the work place one must ensure that one performs one’s assigned tasks, and does so, even if there are roadblocks to the completion of these tasks. Yet, at the same time striving for worldly career success often requires servility, and inauthenticity. Servility and inauthenticity are often required for worldly career success because in many institutions and firms it is necessary to be sycophantic and dishonest about how one feels and what one thinks in order to climb the professional ladder. For example, if I know that my boss has a stupid idea about something, but I also know that my boss is very sensitive to any criticism from people below him in the corporate chain, then if I am committed to worldly career success I will likely be dishonest and not say anything about my bosses’ idea just to ensure my chances of a promotion. So, it seems that in many contexts commitment to worldly career success could lead us to develop vices, because as we begin to act in a servile, inauthentic fashion within our working life to achieve worldly career success we will become habituated in acting in these ways and begin to become genuinely servile and inauthentic in the other areas of our lives. In such a situation one’s commitment to worldly career success has degraded one’s spirit and brought out the baser elements of one’s self. Consequently, we should not value worldly career success without qualification, because even if worldly career success has intrinsic value (which I doubt), it is still not something that we want to pursue at all costs, as an unconditional commitment to this value can to the development of particularly problematic vices.

Now it is true that post-industrial society does not explicitly tell people to be unconditionally committed to worldly career success, yet because the culture values worldly career success so highly it implicitly suggests that there is nothing inherently wrong with pursuing this value as an ultimate end. If those who do not achieve worldly career success are “losers,” then clearly there is something wrong with not achieving worldly career success, and if this is the case then it is reasonable to think that it is legitimate to pursue worldly career success without qualification. Thus, the culture of post-industrial societies does encourage people to pursue worldly career success without qualification, even if no one is explicitly telling people to do so. As a result, it seems that the way that the culture of post-industrial societies values worldly career success is deeply problematic as it encourages people to pursue worldly career success in a way that may lead to the development of vices that any free, self-respecting person would want to avoid at any cost. Therefore, it is necessary to try to change this culture, and the first step towards changing it is to begin truly reflecting on how we value worldly career success, so we can revise our valuation where this is necessary.

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.

Market Economy, Market Society and Economocentrism

In the video above Michael Sandel makes some poignant and insightful comments about how, over the last thirty years, within the post-industrial world, market thinking has begun to enter arenas that have traditionally operated according to non-market norms. Sandel laments this fact as he thinks this entry of market thinking into traditionally non-market oriented social practises has a tendency to corrupt certain social practises by crowding out intrinsic motivation. For example, he points out that some schools have started to pay students to read and this is troubling as it encourages students to read for money, rather than to read for the sheer enjoyment of it, or to learn as much as they can. I am largely in agreement with Sandel that the entry of market thinking into spheres such as education, love, and friendship is deeply problematic.

Furthermore, Sandel characterizes the shift that I have described above as a shift from a market economy to a market society. A market society uses markets as the predominant tool to generate economic growth, whereas a market society tends to see that everything operates according to market principles. Sandel may be right that the scope of market thinking has greatly expanded over the last thirty years in the post-industrial world, however, he seems to fail to adequately address the question of why there is such a tendency for the market to expand into arenas that have traditionally operated under non-market principles. I will argue that once we have a market economy and economocentrism there is a tendency towards for market logic to spread to all spheres of life.

Post –industrial societies tend to be intensely focused on economic growth. Within these societies aside from individual rights and equality, one of the things you cannot question in public life is the need to constantly increase economic growth. In this sense, post-industrial societies are economocentric. That is they are centred around economic growth and work, rather than some other value. Furthermore, for many post-industrial societies economocentrism is nothing particularly new. While writing in the 19th century Tocqueville noticed how dominant the focus on work and the economy was in the American mind. He notes that Americans tend to have little regard for those  who live the life of leisure and view the life of productivity and work as having a great deal of dignity. In this sense, 19th century America already was economocentric.                                                                                                                                                

Now within societies with market economies the focus on economic growth tends to encourage people to want to maximize the efficiency of practises that have not traditionally operated through the use of market incentives by applying market mechanisms to these practises. The idea being that just as market forces have spurred on technological innovation and material improvement in particular areas that now operate according to market mechanisms, so too will market forces be able to increase the efficiency of practises that have not traditionally operated according to market principles such as educational or healthcare practises. Consequently, we see the push to pay people to read as this would efficiently maximize the good of people reading.  As a result, within a society that has a market economy and is economocentric there is a natural tendency for the logic of the market to be applied to all arenas of social life.

 To put this slightly differently,  within a society that is economocentric and has a market economy, our desire to maximize the things we value leads us to use the tool at hand (market mechanisms) to maximize every good that exists, even if the use of markets to maximize that good compromises the meaning of the good in question.  In this sense the trouble with a market economy paired with economocentrism is that we are ever focused on economic growth and are always thinking in terms of market mechanisms, and thus we tend to lose our ability to think in terms of other forms of valuation and lose sight of the complex nature of non-market values like love, friendship and education. As we lose our ability to think in terms of other forms of valuation and lose sight of the complexity of non-market values we begin to apply market rationality to all spheres of life.

I  am not suggesting that people within post-industrial societies are generally unable to reflect and understand non-market values and non-market practises, but rather that in terms of pre-reflective everyday thinking, living within an economocentric market economy will tend to make us think in terms of market valuation and market mechanisms.  People are perfectly capable of understanding non-market values and appreciate practises that operate according to non-market norms when they live within a society that is economocentric and has a market economy, but if they do not reflect in such a situation they will begin to understand all values in terms of markets, and thus fail to appreciate non-market values.

Sandel is right to call attention to the way that market norms have spread to all spheres of life, but it is important to also notice that the very structure of the public culture in which we live tends to reinforce the spread of market mechanisms to all social arenas. This encroachment of market mechanisms into all spheres of life was not something that was simply imposed on us by elites, it is something that our own thinking and culture legitimates and reinforces.  Thus, if the culture of postindustrial societies continues on the path it is currently on the marketization of social practises will tend to continue.