The moral struggle to be a self
Our most sacred modern myth is that we live "beyond good and evil" and selfishly choose all our values. That's also a value judgment, but nobody wants to talk about that part.
We find both difficulty and satisfaction in our jobs, our homes and families, our prospects for the future, even our leisure time and recreational activities. We find some aspects of hard work trying, but we relish its strengthening and invigorating effects, the focus it gives to activity, the interest and direction it gives to living. We enjoy taking things easy, but we don't like the boredom that laziness brings on, or its weakening and disintegrating effect.
Such self-contradictory complexes of experience have been called “ambiguous situations” by [Prescott] Lecky. It appears that being faced with ambiguous situations might almost be called the definitive human situation.
Raymond Rogers, Coming Into Existence
Do you have a self?
Of course you’re a self. Aren’t you?
Maybe you shouldn’t be so quick to answer.
The Self, suitably capitalized and nominalized, is not what you might think. You might think it counts among the noun-like parts of your personal being, in the way you’d say you have eyes, hands, a heart, and a Self, but matters are more complicated than that.
So writes Raymond Rogers in Coming Into Existence, an existential and scientific dive into the concept of the self. He’s not alone in this, mind you. Existentialists from Kierkegaard to Nietzsche to Heidegger have told us similar. Consider the following from Jose Ortega y Gasset, whom Rogers quotes:
Living in the world, man finds that the world surrounds him as an intricate net woven of both facilities and difficulties. Indeed, there are not many things in it which, potentially, are not both. … This fundamental phenomenon—perhaps the most fundamental of all—that we are surrounded by both facilities and difficulties gives to the reality called human life its peculiar ontological character.
Humans are animals, of course, but we are capable of as no other animal of stepping outside of animal nature. Unlike birds and bees, our existence confronts us with the problem of existence. This leads Rogers to a startling observation:
Thus we arrive tentatively at the somewhat surprising view that human life is inextricably bound up with, and even depends on, the difficulties that it meets—these very difficulties that we don’t like, that we're constantly trying to overcome and wipe out. We might put this even more strongly: that human living occurs only during the struggle against difficulty and hardship.
So much for that life of drinking margaritas at the beach. The ontological character of struggle arises due to a curious fact:
that human living is essentially a matter of self-activity as distinguished from passivity, a matter of spontaneity, of starting something, of attack, of taking initiative. In this view the possibility of living is the possibility of meeting difficulties and taking action toward them, of overcoming them or of making some use of them. It is the possibility of making something not only of our situations, but also of ourselves.
Our existential predicament has a serious moral and ethical consequence:
Our own behavior is often unavoidably ambiguous, just as our other experience is. Even our most carefully considered actions are frequently both “good” and “bad.”
The fraught human condition lies in its nature “beyond good and evil”. The resonance with Nietzsche’s famous saying and book title is not accidental. The ambivalence towards value and meaning is baked into the existentialist outlook.
The standard human virtues were identified long ago and are well known to almost everybody. It is easier to understand them than to practice them in specific situations, however, because the practice of one virtue is sometimes not consistent with the practice of another. This is the origin of some of our moral problems and, more broadly, some problems of psychic integrity.
Rogers identifies, but does not dwell on, one of the more fascinating and difficult problems facing any moral and ethical standards:
It seems unlikely that all the relevant virtues can be constructively applied here, or that the intrusion of some vices can be avoided. What you will probably have to settle for is the best creative blend of virtue and vice you can put together, excluding as many vices as possible. Living is lamentably complex!
Quite so. Let’s have a closer look at the amoral struggle for existence.
There are at least two problems that come into view here.
One we call the incommensurability of values. Values conflict. Outside of all but the simplest cases, the demands of virtue will leave us in a bind. Tell the truth and hurt feelings, or be kind with a white lie? Give to the needy against fairness, or live by justice with a cold heart? And what if we can only achieve great things by doing great evils?1
The other is known as the problem of moral motivation. Let’s agree that there are independent, objective standards of value. Knowledge of such would be like knowledge of the length of Jupiter’s orbit around the sun. Nice fact, but so what? What does it mean for my behavior? Why should I care?
Modern moral theories have a hard time with these problems. Built on universal concepts of duty or the rationality of expected outcomes, they have a hard time when different values conflict.
As I’ve written before, this wasn’t the case for ancient virtue-based ethics, such as found in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics.
One of the cardinal virtues is phronesis, or practical wisdom. Where intelligence can get you the solution to a problem, practical wisdom is the ability to tell the difference between the most worthy aims and ends from the least. Unlike modern theories of ethics, which begin by standing back from the situation and handing out neutral procedures for figuring out the right course of action, the virtue of practical wisdom manifests in an individual with good judgment.
When values conflict, we need the judgment of a virtuous person with fine sensitivity to the circumstances of each case as it comes. The ability to affirm the messy and chaotic reality of actual human situations is one reason Aristotelian ethics has always attracted me. You cannot be a spectator. There can be answers, though they cannot be fit into, nor arrived at, from a universal formula that disregards the facts of the situation.
The complexity of life revealed by the “ambiguous situations” is exactly what a virtue-ethical approach is uniquely fitted to handle. One is virtuous and vicious by degree, according to a balance of forces. No absolute code or system of principles can do the work.
Existentialists talk about choice and authenticity, but their self is an empty non-entity alone in a universe of chance and fate with no moral dimension. Aristotle and his successors were under no idealistic delusions about moral reality, but they did not take this pessimistic road.
What’s more surprising is that the same can be said for Plato. Although he’s often fit into a mold of a cold rationalist who discerns the Good in an immaterial, universal Form, this is a bad caricature.
John Dillon writes in The Middle Platonists that Plato in his later years
arrived at a system which involved a pair of opposed first principles, and a triple division of levels of Being, which latter doctrine gave a vital central and mediating role to the Soul, both World Soul and individual soul.
This came about due to an interest in a mathematical model of the universe, and here we do find the rudiments of a modern “rationalist” preoccupation with theories and models.
But there’s more going on here than a crude proto-scientific cosmology. Plato’s most influential dialogue in antiquity, the Timaeus, contains a creation myth which sets the groundwork for these two first principles, the One and the Indefinite Dyad:
The One is an active principle, imposing 'limit' (peras) on the formlessness (apeiron) of the opposite principle. The Dyad is regarded as a duality (also termed by him 'the great-and-small') as being infinitely extensible or divisible, being simultaneously infinitely large and infinitely small. The influence of the Dyad is to be seen all through Nature in the phenomena of continuous magnitudes, excess and defect in which has continually to be checked by the imposition of the correct measure.
The Dyad is what we might today call chaos. It acts by its own laws and resists the order of reason. It is the irrational part of the soul, and the physical stuff of the world. Fascinating that Plato recognized the unconscious mind many, many centuries before Freud “discovered” it.
The One, undivided and indivisible, acts on the Dyad and limits it. Unlike the attributes later assigned to God in Christian doctrine, the One is not an all-powerful creator. It neither created from of nothing — the Dyad was already there — nor has the power to fully enact its will over all of existence. The One acts (on some accounts it acts through the mediating divine intellect or nous) and meets true resistance from the Dyad.
Within this cosmic scheme the individual human soul is a microcosm of the greater whole, standing between the invisible intelligible realm and the visible physical realm. Soul is the active principle through which the Forms of reason bring about the creation of the world of appearance. Human creative activity mirrors divine creation. As above, so below.
The cosmology of the Timaeus has a moral dimension:
This process has an ethical aspect as well, since the virtues are to be seen as correct measures ('means') between extremes of excess and deficiency on a continuum.
Reader, this passage excites me. As a student of systems theory and complexity sciences, to learn that none other than Plato envisioned the universe as a balance of order and chaos is like the first beer on Christmas morning.
Let’s examine the picture painted so far. There’s a chaotic, shifting, dynamic field of tensions that creates the “ambiguous situations” we confront throughout ordinary life. Life happens within that dynamic field of tensions and ambiguous situations.
Yet there is an intelligible order which acts on the boundless chaos. Without ever taming it, the divine intellect manages to create islands of stability.
We humans are one such island, and we furthermore inherit the “limiting” power of the higher mind. Virtue is not an absolute moral principle so much as an edge where the intelligible order contacts the chaotic movements of irrational nature.
This tracks. No ancient Greek would be under any illusions about the stability or permanence of any part of human life. The best we can do is aim to eliminate or minimize the errors that confront us, and that is a ceaseless task.
Plato’s rationalism turns out to have a fine nuance. Like Aristotle, we find in the Timaeus the image of a thinking, acting person confronting an infinite universe manifesting in a perpetual struggle. Even so, there is a higher order at work, in the divine realm of intellect and within each of us.
No surprise that, for all these are called “rationalist” theories, such ethics rarely give direct advice on what to do so much as pointing out how to avoid screwing up on a case by case basis.
I’m making a leap here, but the cosmic and existential situation described in Plato’s creation myth sounds a great deal like the complex and ambiguous structure of reality which Rogers and Ortega locate in our struggle to be ourselves.
We each find ourselves in a boundless, unlimited reality that resists reason and acts according to its own laws. We find ourselves in that reality equipped with powers of reason — note that in Platonic terms reason (λόγος) indicates intelligible meaning rather than a mechanical ability to calculate — which we use to “limit” the boundless and thereby create the world of sense experience.
The creation myth of the Timaeus is perhaps not so alien to us after all.
True, in modern times we believe ourselves to be secular, having put aside notions of supernatural and transcendent orders. We don’t talk about notions like intelligibility beyond the bare movements of matter and our own subjective projections on to it. Cognitive science and existential struggles for the self, like that described by Rogers, share the same basic world-view. There is no meaning or value that is not created by human activity. Mechanism explains everything.
This belief is no more convincing in the hands of the existentialists than the cognitive psychologists. Assigning purpose and value to mere choice or perception in the conscious subject, or the evolved computing functions in the brain, is like studying sight by ripping the eye out of its socket.
Intelligible order must be assumed for science to even begin. If we’re fabricating it all from our brain activity, then the consequences for a science of objective reality would be ruinous. Scientific knowledge would have no claim to truth. It would be one more consensus hallucination.
This is no small part of why scientists who speak on such things come across as so confused. They’ll make grand pronouncements about the “ignorance” of science, gesture at the principle of falsification and how science doesn’t and can’t answer “why?” questions about meaning, value, or existence. The same person will then claim that science “knows” that mechanical causality is the basic principle of nature and the reason that science can establish reliable truths about nature. Which is it?
The public discussion is all very confused. But I don’t see that the major issue here concerns truth or combating skepticism. Skeptics are miserable cynics and they can be safely ignored. Epistemology is a distraction from the more urgent ethical issues.
The real problem is the gap between the impersonal forces and personal freedom. It doesn’t matter much if you’re Aristotle talking about human nature aiming at certain good ends, or an existentialist describing a struggle for being in an uncaring universe.
The basic pattern resolves into two competing, contradictory forces.
There is an objective, non-rational process pulling in one direction, and then there’s your subjective freedom to make your life. Freedom must be independent, spontaneous, and personal, opposed to the objective process. The divide is always there, no matter how you describe the two parts, always leaving an unanswered question.
This is the real horizon of the conflict of the self and moral goodness. I have thoughts on how this plays out, but they will have to wait for another time.
For the moment, here’s the key idea:
The tension between “freedom” and “reality” is positive and generative, and when the opposed elements are in the proper balance, we do well.
I want to end with this thought.
It’s striking how the cosmic and moral predicaments of the ancient Greek thinkers resemble our post-modern, post-scientific understanding of reality. Granting them a certain artistic license for the mode of expression, the general world-view of Plato, Aristotle, and later Neoplatonists starting with Plotinus wouldn’t be entirely out of place in our world described by modern physics.
Here, too, we find ourselves confronted with a deep tension between objective dynamic forces and processes that we can’t quite separate from our own mental activity.
That may sound strange to say given the matter of the supernatural and divine forces thought to be at work in the classical world, but given our own tendency to confuse the abstract for the real and assign models more reality than material existence, this probably shouldn’t bother us too much. We have our own gods and myths, even if they loudly proclaim that they aren’t gods.
What does this mean?
According to me, it means that the struggle to be a self does not, and cannot, place us “beyond good and evil”. None of us appears in a moral vacuum, without standards and a sense of what is worthy and desirable (and the opposite). Existence is already a moral task that requires a moral vision.
The bare struggle to be who we are cannot take place without a vision of the good, in a moral and spiritual sense.
Thanks for reading.
p.s. If you found this valuable, interesting, funny, or it made you upset that you had to use your mind for something besides infinite scrolling, I ask that you do me a favor and share it with just one person.
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This is one reason why the utilitarian and consequentialist obsession with “maximizing good” can never be a real-life morality. There is no single value by which to measure all goals and ends. True moral conflict and moral tragedy is not possible in their world. But to assert that all the various moral and non-moral goals are “really” a function of expected utility is to make a value judgment from outside of the theory.