The Good, the Bad, and Self-Knowledge

There’s a podcast series that I listen to called The Partially Examined Life (link). I highly recommend the series, it is an excellent way to learn about philosophy in an accessible and relaxed format. I recently listened to an episode on Hanna Arendt, and there was one idea the podcast explored that really struck me. According to the episode, Arendt was very critical about aiming to ‘be good’ because there is a way in which someone who aims to be good must hide from themselves, because otherwise the act is not for the sake of goodness but rather for self-edification. Therefore the ‘good’ person must be a mystery to themselves in a perverse and anti-intellectual self-deceptive dance. The above is not Arendt verbatim, I should probably note, but rather my interpretation of the podcasters interpretation. My interpretation really struck a chord with me, however, because I can easily recollect times I’ve thought in the exact way that I’ve described. There are multiple instances I remember where I’ve contemplated doing some kind of good act (giving someone a spontaneous present, saying a kind word, arranging a party for someone), and a contributing factor to me not acting has been my concern that the act is somehow for my own edification. Indeed, I have historically reflected that there may be a spontaneously good character that cannot be cultivated but only unknowingly possessed. And now that I think about it, that thought is horrible. How could I, a believer in the pursuit of knowledge and of the good, fall prey to such an anti-intellectual naturalism? Why would I allow myself to be so turned against myself?

I think it likely that this perverse notion of good as necessitating self-ignorance is unfortunately widespread in western culture, and I’m inclined to trace its origins to Christian morality. Admittedly, this is just an intuition based on superficial observations and the words and reflections of other philosophers and thinkers that I’ve read. Through my philosophical development I believe I have become more intrigued and accepting of the notion that notions of god have a place in our intellectual and moral lives, but I see Christian notions of sin and purity as having had an overall harmful influence on western moral and mental health. For an easy interpretation at hand is to discover ourselves as drenched in sin: our impulses against Christian doctrine are evil, our impulses towards doctrine are prideful, and all that is left is absolution. I do not claim that this is what is preached, just that it seems to me that this is an unfortunate way that Christian morality can play out in practice.

This self-against-self arguably persists in western philosophy even when God is dropped from the picture. One highly influential model or concept of will and personhood comes from Frankfurt’s ‘Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person‘. The essence of Frankfurt’s proposal is that we have desires, and that we also have desires about how we should desire. For example, I may desire to eat a piece of cake, and I may also desire to be fit, and I may have a second order desire that my desire for fitness defeats my desire for cake. From this picture the perversity I have set out to describe should be clear: once again the self is turned against self. And also again emerges a structure where good seems contradictory to self-awareness: for if I am moved by a second order desire to be, I again cannot tell whether I am good, or whether I merely wish to be.

My current intuition, still in development, is that this sinful morality should be replaced with a developmental morality: our aim should be self-cultivation, and events and experience should be taken as lessons for the next act, rather than successes or failures.

Let me know what you think,


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