Thursday, June 9, 2011

Your Desire, Your Self

Who are you? Are you who you love or are you what you want? Are you what you think in your moments of greatest lucidity or are you what you do when you lose control?

How can you know who you are? Should you undertake a great introspective voyage into your heart of hearts, the better to discover your true Self?

But then, what happens if you set off in search of your Self and find that there is no there there. That’s what David Hume found. Or better, to be more precise, Hume found a bundle of sensations. He could not say that those were his true Self.

This does not mean that there is no such thing as your true Self. It may only mean that you are not going to find it in the depths of your soul.

Any serious philosophical discussion of true Selfhood will add that once you discover your true Self-- assuming that you do not believe Hume-- then you are obliged to express it, openly and honestly with the world outside.

And yet, if your true Self is yours and yours alone, if it is the ultimate in private property, why should you show it off to the world. Why not keep it to yourself?

So asks Yale professor Joshua Knobe in a recent New York Times Opinionator column.

To use Knobe’s example, let’s examine the case of Jim. And let’s posit, with Knobe, that Jim has homosexual longings. I suppose that it’s possible that Jim is homosexual; but then again, finding a member of your sex attractive does not make you a homosexual.

Let’s imagine, further, that Jim refuses to acknowledge his longings, and therefore does not act on them. Is he then being true to himself? What if he acknolwedges his longings and still refuses to act on them? What if he has no real homosexual longings and engages in homosexual acts?

You can see that there is a sociocultural dimension to this argument. You can also see that defining Self in terms of desire leads to a variety of complications.

Knobe asks whether Jim's true Self is the one that lusts after boys or the one that represses the one that lusts after boys.

Personally, I don’t know Jim. I will tell you that his battle with his lust is really none of my business. It probably isn’t any of your business either.

I might be missing something, but the discussion, as Knobe presents it, does not make a lot of sense to me.

What if Jim sometimes desires men and sometimes desires women and sometimes desires watermelon. Would he then become different people when his desires change. Most of us, I trust, would still see him as Jim.

Jim is still Jim, no matter what he wants. His private, personal feelings and tastes and idiosyncracies do not make him Jim and do not make him not-Jim.

So I find the issue confused, and we have not even gotten to the question of what Jim should do with the longings that may or may not be his, but that are probably not him.

If Self is unique to you, if it makes you a unique individual, in the sense that your Self us not the same as Jim’s, then you cannot define yourself in terms of desires that are hardly unique to you.

There is nothing uniquely identifying about a desire, whether it is a desire for men or a desire for endives.

If there is some part of you, an essence, that does not change, that is unique to you, regardless of your desires, then perhaps that would be more like a true Self.

If you ask how you identify yourself as a unique individual, then the answer must be that you do so through your proper name.

We are not going to get very excited over the question of proper names. It is surely less compelling than Jim’s sexual predilections.

If it feels unsatisfying to say that you are designated by your name, and if we set out in search of something about you, as a living, breathing human being that is sufficiently unique to identify you, then the answer would have to be: your face.

It is not an accident that Chinese culture defines identity in terms of face.

David Hume notwithstanding, Western thinking about Self prescribes something like a process of internal self-discovery, thus introspection. Chinese thinking identifies you according to the way others see you, know you, and recognize you.

The difference is major. Clearly, there is some debate over whether you discover yourself when you figure out what you really want. This information is privy only to you; it is private property.

Your face, however, is the ultimate in public property. In truth, you are the only person who can never see your face directly. When you go out in the world, you know you are you because other people recognize you and acknowledge.

You might think that there is an internal state of self-awareness whereby you always know who you, regardless of how you look to others. Yet, if no one else recognizes you or acknowledges that you are who you think you are, you will quickly lose your certainty about who you are.

Don’t try this at home.

Obviously, you would have a more firmly grounded sense of Self, as I am using the term, if you are surrounded by people who know who you are. If your are surrounded by strangers you will suffer for it.

None of this has anything fundamentally to do with your sexual preferences. It has nothing to do with your heart’s desires.

If your Self is defined in terms of your social being, it is also defined as uniquely yours. You have one and only one face. It is not considered to be proper ethical conduct to be two-faced or to hide your face behind a mask.

Just as your name refers to you uniquely, so should your words correspond strictly to your actions. You gain a sense of the uniqueness and singularity of your Self when you are consistently good to your word.

When people have dealings with you, do they always have the sense that they are dealing with the same person? Are you consistent or erratic?

What you do with your private parts is nobody’s business, unless you decide to display them in public.

When you go back on your word, other people are justified in thinking that they no longer know whom they are dealing with. Are you the man who promised to meet at the restaurant at 7:30 or the man who did not show up?

If no one is sure who you are, which is the real you, then you cannot know either.

As for sexual preference or sexual activity or the appearance of the external genitalia, these do not enter the equation. If you want to assert that they identify you, this makes you appear to value private over public duty, to be more loyal to your sexuality than to your public face.

It’s not your desires that are the most fundamental thing about you. Who you love, how you lust, when and why you have sexual pleasures... these are not the most important thing about you.

Your character is. People you interact with need to know how much they can trust you, how much they can rely on you, whether your actions will correspond to your words and whether your actions will promote the general good.

Most of the people you deal with on a daily basis do not really care and do not need to know your sexual preferences. Sometimes it might feel appropriate to reveal some piece of private information about yourself, but there is no moral imperative to, as the saying goes, out yourself.

What might be useful for some can be bad for others.

1 comment:

Retriever said...

Well done. I thought you did a particularly good job of separating out desires, aspirations, character, etc. without demonizing desire. We are not beasts (despite the example of certain celebrities) but we don't have to be dried up old mummies either (fortunately for our spouses).