Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Why are our selves demeaned?

Tibor R. Machan

If there is a common theme among nearly all political factions here or abroad it is that selfishness is bad, unselfishness is good. Yet, at the same time, no one can fully live up to this idea. We wake up and endeavor to take care of ourselves and those we love, not our neighbors, let alone strangers. As the poet W. H. Auden pointed up this paradox, "We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don't know."

One plausible explanation is that the human self had suffered from a very bad reputation via the theological doctrine of original sin. If we are corrupt at birth, we should reject ourselves and care for others most. We aren't worthy of being benefited except to the extend necessary for us to serve others. Yet this is odd, just as Auden noted, because why are others worthy of all the care we ought to give them when we aren't?

In addition to the original sin besmirching of the human ego, there was also the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes's very influential idea that the human self is a bundle of unruly passions, mostly vicious or psychologically troubled. Hobbes argued that all of us live in fear of death, mainly, from which all our other motivation flows. Only by means of an absolute monarch will we behave peacefully toward one another.

With such a pedigree, which went against the ancient Greek idea that human beings are rational animals and their emotions are shaped by their good or bad thinking--which is up to them to initiate--no wonder opinions about the human self or ego became nearly all negative. But for the control over us by the government, we could all turn out like the Marquis de Sade! What a prospect!

To mitigate this, nearly all subsequent moral philosophy, especially the influential system developed by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, advanced ideas that meant to tame us, to contain us, to make us more sociable and direct us away from selfishness (which meant something insidious). Of course, if the self is so bad, then the selves of those who were to tame us couldn't be so nice either, so government slowly became something to be feared, too. But that fear is now subsiding and intellectuals and even most of the general population is putting its faith in government again, in the chief of state, essentially, who knows best. Sure, there is democracy but how could the population keep a check on the huge Leviathan effectively? So government is getting out of hand. But anyone who points this out is branded selfish and greedy and insensitive and all because of the ego's bruised reputation over the last several hundred years.

Too bad because, in fact, people are innately neither good nor bad but free to become either or somewhere in between (like most are). And such people fare best in a fully free society, not in one the bullies run pretending that they can do so well and wisely. If the human ego's reputation could be improved, the belief that people need to be regimented, regulated, nudged and so forth might change. (Yet, of course, even with its current undeserved bad reputation, there is no justification for all the regimenting since those who would do this job must also, then, have corrupt egos.)

One option that is being floated by some people is that no self or ego exists at all, that it is all a myth, that what we are is cells in the body of humanity or society, not in any respect independent, sovereign individuals. This will not work for one reason, among many, namely that those who are advancing the idea are also individuals and pitted against, in this view, many other individuals. Human nature is individualistic, although by no means anti-social--our egos are both social and individual. We have wills of our own but we flourish best among others like us.

If only this constant badgering of the human self ended, there would be hope for much better relations among us.

No comments: