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Altruism, Authenticity, and Identity

January 26, 2007

If a person follows the crowd, do they have identity?  Can they be happy?  Does a person who ‘lives to serve’ have identity?  Do we have a duty to be altrusitic?

Introduction

People are always searching for who they are.  They try to find their place in the world, what to do with themselves, and how to spend their time.  They search for friends and environments where they can feel comfortable being them, expressing who they are.  They attempt relationships, hoping to find someone who will love them, without having to put on airs.

We’ve all heard conversations by people, looking down on others because they follow the crowd.  We see people whose identities are shaped by peer and other social pressures.  People work jobs so they can appear successful to others, even though they are unhappy working that job.  They become lawyers, doctors, or some other profession, even though they are not fitted to that type of job.  Some people are religious, not because they believe in the faith themselves, but simply because all their friends, family, and community believe in it.  They want to fit in and not rock the boat.

There’s always people working the jobs that pay good, and do not pursue things that fulfill their innermost desires – unhappy, yet outwardly successful.

What are we to think of this?  Do these people lack identity?  Could we go so far as say they’re living life the wrong way?  Will these people find happiness and fulfillment in life?

Definition of Identity

What is a person?  What is that distinctive quality that makes someone himself or herself?

The question can be a daunting one.  In fact, everything from psychology, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, neuroscience, biology, chemistry… all these subjects come with varying perspectives on what a person is, and how that fits in the overall social dynamic.

I’ve found one thing in common with all science based definitions of identity.  They all, in one way or another, identity the self in terms of observation of the person’s past.  Whether they identify you as a chunk of meat, structured as such and such, or your mental attributes, such as personality profile (past decisions) – it’s all based on the past.

I myself do not like such an idea.  I will acknowledge the person is in a body, but I see the ‘self’ as something controlling the body.  The body is not them, only what they choose to do with it (with some extreme considerations excluded).

I believe how a person wears their hair shows an aspect of the self.  It’s not the hair per se that defines the self, but how they’ve decided to wear their hair.  The self was manifested in their decisions, not their physical existence.  The self chose to style an object (the hair) in such and such a manner.  This hairstyle is a past expression of the self.  Notice, I said PAST expression.  I’ve heard philosophers define the self in terms of past decisions.  No, that was simply past manifestations of the self choosing various things.

I really do not like identities in terms of brain waves, nervous systems, and the like.  Studying such things makes me think of diving into the mechanics of some complex machine, without first examining the what it can do, and what we want out of it.  This same line of thinking appears in William James when he lost interest in this “nasty little subject; all one cares to know lies outside it.” (Speaking of Psychology)

If you do not define a person in terms of their body, all that seems left to study is their behavior, and other mental attributes.  This, by neccessity, focuses on their past.  Defining the self in terms of the past may be useful, but makes me question the idea of its ethics.  People begin to think they are such and such, when really, the more accurate case seems to be that they’ve chosen to be such and such.  A person is not ruled by their past, they can make whatever future they desire.  Therefore, because of its grave implications – leaving the person fated to their past decisions – I cannot accept any definition of the self based on observation of behavior, and or, personality profiling.

In short, I believe the self to be infinitely moldable.  A person can form any reality they wish for themselves.  The self, seems to me, to be the same thing as what is typically associated with free will.  The self is an entity capable of making decisions.

A person’s mindset, which represents the will’s decision on a particular reality the self desires, will be what the person comes to experience as their reality.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A man is what he thinks about all day long.”  I think he meant this quite literally.

Authenticity

The subject of authenticity comes from existentialist philosophy.  Philosophers who speak on the subject range from Soren Kierkegaard (who called it “being an individual”), to Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

What is it exactly?  Authenticity comes into play when a person makes a decision for no reason, other than that they want to make a particular decision. An authentic decision is a decision someone makes because they desire it as a goal in and of itself.  Existential authenticity shares a lot of similarity to my views on pursuit of your innermost desires — your bliss.  An authentic decision has no reason, other than the self, their will, chose to do it.

Martin Heidegger talked on how each of us acquires an initial identity from our situation.  Some people’s identities are heavily formed by their upbringing.  I have no doubts about this.  Say a person is brought up in a Buddhist home.  A lot of people are simply passive, and uncritically absorb whatever identity is around them.  They become a Buddhist because their family was Buddhistic.  They dress a certain way because everyone around them dresses that way.  They talk a certain way, because everyone around them talks that way.  These people are ‘inauthentic’ in the existential sense.

It’s only when a person loses this apathy, cares about their life, their identity, and where they’re going, and actually makes a decision to become something, do they become authentic.  A lot of people’s identities are formed by whatever it is around them, and they never come to form their own unique contribution to life, by making their own decisions and choosing a reality.

Whoever formed that reality initially – that social environment, the ‘in’ fashion, the ‘pop’ music — these people are authentic.  The people who just absorb the things around them, are inauthentic.  There are many people who would dress completely differently if the social herd was dressing differently.  They really don’t care about their dress. They care just enough about their dress not to draw attention to it.  They are inauthentic in respect to their clothing.

Authenticity is basically – I have an opinion on such and such an area of life, and care about it.  I have prefences and wants in respect to this area of life.

A person can have an identity (a self), yet contribute nothing unique to reality.  They have bodies, they’re moving around, they’re talking, they’re doing stuff — but there’s nothing unique there.  Nothing interesting.  Authenticity, for the most part, leads to uniqueness and diversity.  However, a person does not neccessarily have to be unique in order to be authentic.

There are always those who try to make a statement.  There are those who dye their hair strange colors, spike it, and mohawk it into ugly and strange things.  They pierce their bodies in every conceivable location and cover themselves with tattoos.  If these people actually are fashioning their hair this way because they like that hairstyle over more ‘normal’ styles, then they are authentic.  If they are doing so in order to demonstrate something, trying to get attention, have something to prove, trying to make some sort of statement that they’re ‘free’ to the world, then they are exhibiting inauthentic behavior.  They’re not doing such actions because they necessarily want to. These acts of hairstyles and bodypiecings are not goals in and of themselves – they are a means to something else.  Most of the time, they’re doing so to show the rest of us we’re all lacking something.  Sure, it’s a decision, but what was their reasoning behind the decision?  There may be some people, who do such crazy things, that have true authenticity, but I’m guessing it to be very rare.  I say the word guess, because the only person who can know your authenticity is yourself.  Authenticity is unknowable from the outside.

Uniqueness is not neccessarily authenticity.  My Mom enjoys 70’s music.  That was her era in time and she likes that music.  She would listen to 70’s music whether or not I, or anyone else had an opinion on it.  There are also countless others out there who also enjoy 70’s music.  If you’re listening to the music because you want to, and for no other reason, you are authentic in respect to music.

The more someone trys to fit in with the crowd, concerns themselves with what others are doing, and the like: the more they will lack authenticity.  Everyone has varying degrees of authenticity, but always has at least some degree of inauthenticity.  No one has chosen, and formed opinions toward every aspect of their life.  There’s always at least some degree of uncritical acceptance of various areas of life.

Altrusitic Authenticity And Other “Virtuous Vices” In Extreme

Greg, just the other day, said I should write a short story about a small world where people take various virtues to the extreme.  Some of the featured “virtuous vices” include: Altruism, contentment, scepticism, trust, and toleration.

One of the first stops begins at a home of two extreme altruists, who happen to be brothers.  Sitting across from each other in a small room, in a small home, one brother asks the other, “What would you like to do brother?”  His brother replies, “What I want is of no importance brother.  What would you like to do?”  To this his brother replies, “What I desire is of no importance.  What am I?  Why does it matter what I want?  What you want is much more important than what I want.  What would you like to do, brother?”

The main character walks in the room and marvels as the two brothers, for hours sit, wasting energy, in complete indecision.  The point to show is that altruism, in its most extreme state, leads to complete inactivity.  There’s no doubt these two men are morally virtuous, but if morals are taken to precede the purpose of morals (happiness, pleasure, etc), you seem to be left at a standstill.  Complete inactivity.  Only will and decision move action.

I’ve been considering also having the main character speak with the altruists, and having the brothers follow the main character in a ‘live to serve’ fashion.  The point, though slightly to show the stupidity of extreme altruism, is more so to show that the identity and reality of the brothers becomes the reality of the main character because the main character actually made a decision to do something.  This hopefully will bring up the question if the mind of the reader: “Is self-centered behavior as bad as it’s made out to be?” … “Is altrusitic ‘live to serve’ all it’s made out to be?”

The story is not to say, “Life is all about me.” (egoism) or the opposite, “Life is all about you.”  (altruism).  It’s to say that life is about all involved, and all are equal.

I’d like to take the story to a far extreme.  I’d like the main character to be near apathetic whether the brothers are there or not, as he goes about his business and adventures.  He’s a little happy they are there with him, but would be almost near as happy even without them.  They’re adding little benefit and pleasure by their accompaniment.  On the other hand, I’d like to have the brothers, selflessly enduring the entire journey in extreme misery, for the small gain in pleasure of the main character.  Would this selfless servitude of the brothers be the utmost possible virtue of a man?  After all, this universe only includes the three of them, and what greater virtue is there than complete self sacrifice for the will of someone else?

I’m not saying the abandon altruism completely; at times it is a good thing, but you can’t forget about yourself.  I want to hopefully show that the happiness of the two brothers is just as important as the main character.

Next on the list comes the content man.  The main character comes to another small home, where resides a small old man, petting his cat, rocking in a rocking chair.  As the main character walks in he is greeted with, “Come in young man, come in.  Let me tell you the secret of life.”

The young man, full of interest sits down to listen to the meaning of life from a seeming old sage.  The old man begins with, “There’s one secret you must learn and that is this.  You must learn to be content with but little.  If you can learn to be happy with but little things, you will have achieved the greatest of all rewards under the sun.”

The young man replies, “So if I can just sit in a rocking chair, and pet a cat, and do nothing else, and am filled with complete joy as I do so, I am the greatest a man can be?”

“Oh yes young one.  If you can do this, you will be well in soul.”

“But what if I wish to explore our world?  What if I wish to learn about all under the sun?  What if I wish to learn about all the beasts and taste the fruits of every tree?  What if I wish to learn the sciences of the sages and learn to tame the world to my bidding?   Would not the best man be the one whom has experienced the most good things and spends the majority of his time acquiring such pleasures?”

The old man replies, “You must let go of pleasure and desire.  You will find pleasure when you learn to desire little.”

If you don’t happen to know my opinion on the matter, I tend to agree with the main character.  Just because sometimes acquiring things in life can be “difficult” (I don’t agree with that word either) does not make the things to be attained in themselves evil and not worth pursuing.  If you are keen in mind there is always a way to acquire what you want, without intruding on the rights of others, without violating God’s laws, and enjoying life during the pursuit.

I wonder myself about contentment.  When the power went off the other day, I sat in bed, completely bored with nothing to do.  I then wondered if it’s possible to be content, regardless of circumstances.  I pictured myself thrown in a medieval prison down in the depths.  I’m trapped in a small room, impentrable stone all around me.  Horrible food is shoved through a small hole 3 times a day and I’m left there basically to rot.  Once a year the guards come, strap me to a table and beat me with whips to give me a sense of time.  After my beating, I’m thrown a bloody mess back into my rock cubby to continue to rot. Can I be  content and joyous in such a state of being?  Hard to say.  Such a state of being does not seem to accord well with my nature.  Human beings seem to desire space to move about, do things, and learn new things.  They desire social interaction, friends, procreation.  None of this in found in this cell.

I’m of the opinion that one is happy when his reality accords with his nature.  Full contentment seems to think you don’t need to have a reality which accords with your nature to be happy.  If you’re chained, hanging from the wall in the dungeon, covered in leeches, it doesn’t seem to matter.  If you can only just change how you think on that reality and have the correct mindset, they say you can be happy.  I highly doubt this is possible.

A Christian may be able to claim he can be happy in such a state of being.  I don’t believe him however.  He may have hopes that God will deliver him one day — either free him from the prison, or be freed upon death and enter Heaven — but he is not happy in the dungeon.  The dungeon is miserable, no way of getting around it.  His real joy, if any, is coming from his belief that he will not experience that reality forever.  If he was immortal, and death could not save him from such a fate; if he was trapped there and not even God himself could get him out… I can only think of the words of my old friend Matt Miller, who used to tell Ryan Qian (who we called ‘Q’): “sucks to be Q”.

Greg and I talk about mindsets frequently.  Contentment and Altruism have been talked about a lot lately.  We’ve noticed a common trend among a lot of mindsets when taken to their extremes.  What do you find?  Indecision, nothingness, and idlness. You find lack of all movement, lack of goals, and lack of improvement in the life of the person holding the view.  The content man, the more content he becomes, the less he ends up doing with himself.  Strangely afterward, as he sits idle, inactivive, and in complete lack of vitality, he ends up glorifying the state as a virtue.  The altrusitic man, when he completely forgets about himself, finds inactivity.  If there is no one to be altrusitic to, he has nothing to do with himself.  He no longer has his own identity, nor produces an exciting, wonderful, unique, individual to contribute to life’s vast experience.

People with altrustic mindsets tend to condemn those who are “selfish” and do what “they want”, but fail to recognize that if they were truly completely altrusitic and the all others did so as well, the world would literally stop at a standstill as nothing would happen.

Speaking of mindsets that lead to complete inactivity, you find scepticism.  Greg envisoned the sceptic in a room with a coffee pot heating on a hot plate.  The sceptic sticks his finger in coffee and it begins to burn his finger.  As the pain rushes through his hand the main character rushes in to try to save him.  As the main character tries to pull his hand out of the pot the sceptic screams, “Leave me be young man!  There is no way of knowing whether the coffee will continue to burn my finger!  There’s no logical reason why the pain must persist!”

The main character stays and watches as the sceptic burns his finger for literal eternity.  If the sceptic is not satisfied that his past experiences of burning offer sufficient reason that the coffee burns his finger, he will literally be left to sit idle for all eternity.  I suppose eventually the sensation of the coffee could change to a tingling sensation or any other change, but after that change, would he continue to sit idle to see if that sensation persists?  What is the goal?

Life is about what you want – not certainity or knowledge.  If there is no decision and purpose behind something, you’re left idle.  If you have no reason nor benefit to whether the coffee burns your finger or not, what are you going after?  If you have no goal in mind, but simply wish to determine what will happen  (knowledge for no purpose), you are left to sit idle indefinitely.

Archimedes, I believe, used to say to pursue knowledge as a goal in and of itself.  I think I remember reading that Plato used to throw people out of the academy if they were wanting to learn philosophy for some purpose other than simply pursuing knowledge for itself.  The consequence?  Knowledge for no purpose eventually leads to idleness, which is what you see of many philosophers who hold such views.  They sit in their room, read books, and do nothing.

At one time I held the ‘knowledge for no purpose’ view, and eventually it seemed to lead me to the conclusion that I no longer desired a body, as it was just some thing that got in the way.  Eating, drinking, going to the bathroom — these things kept me from my pursuit of knowledge.  I wanted to become a mental entity that could perceive books, read and flip the pages and fly around the world observing and had no desire ever to interact with anything.  This seems to be the eventual ideal and full conclusion of those who hold this view or the view of scepticism without purpose.

I’ve long since abandoned this mindset.  I can barely watch a movie these days without wanting to jump in the screen and strangle people for being stupid.  Interaction is superior to mere observation.

Trust And Toleration share similarties with altruism.  What do they have in common?  When taken to their fullest extreme, your future and reality become based on the will of someone else.  You don’t neccessarily become idle, but you become powerless to everyone else.

The completely trusting individual, exhibiting the ideal credulity, will believe anything he’s told.  If a person is told the ideal life is to sit in this corner and stare at the wall, he’ll end up doing so.  If, as he’s sitting there, staring at the wall, he does not trust his own perceptions which tell him that staring at the wall is of no value, and he really is not experiencing any ideal worth having — he’ll sit there forever, or at least, until someone tells him that something else is the ideal.

The point is, the senses are a nice guide to see whether or not a mindset is worth having.  Contentment and altruism however, tell you not to trust the senses – they’re not trustworthy.  If you don’t trust the senses, you’re left to trust literally every logical possibility the mind can conceive — though it seems what you will end up experiencing (since the world is not so variable) is not likely to be in your best interest.  Contentment says the pleasures of the senses are deceitful.  Altruism says it doesn’t matter about your pleasure, only think of others, even when it hurts and leaves you in displeasure.

Toleration is similar to trust.  If a person decides to throw you on the ground and pound on your body with a baseball bat, and refuses to stop — why would you sit and take it forever?  This is toleration in the extreme.  Rather ridiculous.  Toleration of displeasure from another being indefintely is what this results in.  You can have an entire universe with billions of infinitely tolerant individuals and yet one evil man who wishes the billions line up in a line as he bashes them in the face with his baseball bat, one by one.  They’d all have to stand idle and let him do so.  The desire of one man comes to rule the lives of all.

So of all the “virtuous vices” examined – Altruism, contentment, scepticism, trust, and toleration – when taken to extremes lead either to inactivity and idleness, or leave the holder of the view powerless to the wills of the others around them.

Other views have the same consequences — religious faith on a text contrary to perceived evidence, faith in things contrary to evidence, “life is hard”, determinism and fatalism, fame and impressing others, introversion, and blind obedience.  The list is certainly larger, but this is what I can think of.

My next conquest to tackle will be the examination of the ‘Complete Lack Of The Virtuous Vices’.

V. Lack of the “Virtuous Vices”

In order to be fair, we cannot just examine the “virtuous vices” from the extreme point of view.  What are the consequences of a complete lack of altruism, contentment, scepticism, trust, and toleration?

You may think I have answers on this, but in reality, I think a person thinking in terms of vice/virtue dipole dualities is thinking incorrectly.  It’s really, as Greg and I frequently say, “bad basis” thinking.  It has a flawed foundation.  The real foundation, as far as I can tell, is ‘what do you want’.

The world, if everyone would just treat everyone equally, including themselves – respectful, decent, etc – we’d have, in an overwhelming majority of cases, no need of altruism.  There are those who are mentally retarded, who still have feelings and desires, and someone should care to these people and see that they live a quality life.  Same with the sick man, who needs medical help and cannot take care of himself.  These are the kinds of exceptions I’m referring to.

What I’m all about is people living quality lives.  This whole mindset which is so prevalent today, of the ‘sacrifice yourself for your country’, ‘sacrifice yourself for your family’, ‘sacrifice yourself for your faith’ — this stuff is ridiculous.  Life is not about sacrifice.  Life is about living in abundance.  Life is about people being free to create their bliss, and for people to join together and work together on that bliss.

Parents tend to think they need to be altruistic to their children.  They work a job they hate, struggle to get by, and spend the majority of their lives doing things they hate — for what?  So they can give their children a boost.  Then their children acquire this same mindset, and the cycle repeats ad infinitum.  Nobody lives that bliss.

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