Sunday, December 29, 2013

Would the Real Honest Character Please Stand Up?

Simple question here, and one that should be of utmost importance in a culture where everyone is really into authenticity and "being yourself:" Do you find out who people really are when they are under pressure, or when there is no pressure on them?

It's not a simple question. Look at the context in which we expect people to make decisions. We have pushed and pushed to create a cultural environment with no judgment against people who want something outside the norm, and we have pushed even harder to undermine judgment against people who don't maintain long-term contracts. Everything becomes unfair when the prices go up, the expectations too high, the costs too great, the effort needed for this game too intense. Divorcing wives and homosexuals both seem to find it important that society is not judging them as they find happiness in being who they are. Money seems to screw up everything, too, so we want people to avoid the pressures of having to respond to it. No one should have to do a job they hate just for the money, right? Remember Office Space: if you had a million dollars, what would you do? This kind of thinking is important to people. Their decisions must not be constrained by coercive elements like the threat of violence, ostracism or deprivation.

So think about what this means. It seems that only decisions made effectively in a void are actually legitimate decisions. Therefore, an individual is not expressing their true point of view if the power of the outside world is coercing them in any direction, a state which is a little difficult to create but intuitively desirable. Thus, we have the makings of oppression.

It's easy to see the mental workings behind the idea: if someone is making me choose something by threatening me if I make a wrong decision by some standard, then I'm going to be what the world wants me to be, not who I want me to be and therefore who I really am. So my real self is being buried by the pressures of a cruel universe.

These are the people who emphasize free will, a difference between persuasion and coercion, the rights of the individual, the necessity of choices provided, the moral illegitimacy of decisions made under duress. They have a hell of a time squaring all this with law and order, with the economic machine, with punishment, with responsibility, all the more so in a world increasingly more guiltless and godless. But we place an awful lot of stock in this idea.

But hold on a second:

I know lots of people, particularly men, who seem to think that we only really know what someone cares about by how much they prioritize it in the grand scheme of the world, not simply when the world holds no influence. Obviously if everything was free, you'd have more of whatever you had time and attention to consume, but what you decide to pursue despite being on a budget and having to accept the trade-offs is what's really important to you... right? I mean, you aren't making decisions with no sense of priorities in this world, are you?

Doesn't it say more about who you really are and what you really care about, that you are willing to pay?

It's a question worth asking: would you tolerate loss for something? For someone? Would you take risks for what you value? More to the point: is what you want worth pain? These questions are more aligned with a perspective based on economics and praxeology than Western liberation ethics, a discussion more involving cardinal and ordinal utility. From this point of view, it's about what you do, not what you say. We're talking revealed preferences. And doing right by other people or by the principles of your culture is only impressive if it comes with a price.

Helping your Dad fix his car when you have nothing better to do IS different than helping your Dad fix his car when you blow off other things you'd rather be doing or even need to do for your own sake. That's when you can really say something about how much you care about your father.

What does this say about people, when the prices seem to regulate their desires? Because it probably says more about the people making the decisions than about the prices themselves, or even the people setting the prices. If your understanding of a person's true character is who they would be if no one gave a shit what they did, if they had the Ring of Gyges and endless resources, then I have a funny feeling that people wouldn't look any better - assuming an honest evaluation, even by their non-standards - if they were allowed to be who they really are.

This kind of thinking is critical for understanding how much value someone places on something. It was seen as extremely important witness to faith in God that Jesus, and later the Apostles, preached their sermon despite threat of arrest, punishment, and even death. It has been seen as important to understanding their devotion that men work for years at jobs they don't like to care for their family. The other way to communicate to others how much you value something -just telling them you want it - becomes too easily a drama contest pitting people's rhetorical talents, their ability to scream and cry on command that is alien to a masculine ideal of stoic effort that does not intrude itself on others. Why would mad desire that comes out in passionate expression be a legitimate gauge of worthiness? That's a Western and extremely feminist notion; need becomes gauged by emotional intensity and not exchange value.

That goes hand in hand with welfarism. Doing good works for people is easy if it's free of cost or if you're rewarded for it; in the end, it means making someone else do it. If you're expecting some kind of exchange out of politeness, someone showing thanks by "giving" something back without ever having consented, then you've just thrust an exchange on them and it isn't really good works. But doing something for others at genuine cost to yourself... why must charities beg, anyway?

There is a reason - actual reason - that Christianity emphasizes sacrifice so much that their corporate logo is a guy getting himself literally crucified for the sake of other people.

So. Which is the real you? Are you what you see yourself as in your mind's eye, or are you how you respond to the world on its terms? Are you a private ideal or a public persona? Would your real, honest values, the real YOU, please stand up? Can we get a word from your true self?


One side looks at life innocently. They just want a life where their path is clear. The other looks at life strategically. And the arrogance necessary to believe that there is such a thing as innocence reflects the arrogance necessary to believe you deserve a state, as opposed to a deal. A strategist approaches the world on its terms. An innocent - or so they would call themselves - just wants what they've come to believe the world owes them.

Of course, this changes the moral calculus. You aren't a victim of the world: you're a part of it. Only a hermit could really live well without some control over people, some expectations realized and ideals conformed to. Without this we have no prerogative to judge and therefore no prerogative to condemn the prices others demand from us, so you can see the difficulty: suddenly, there's no such thing as oppression. And we have to believe in oppression, so oppression comes from high prices.

Assume the price tag to be a fact of life, and assume that any "just price" can only be a matter of perspective. If that's the case, then who are these people who regard justice to be a world where everything is all but free, in every sense of the world? Do we owe them Valhalla? Evidently we do. You've seen this perspective before, likely almost every day. It's the perspective of someone who lives with someone else paying the bills. It's the perspective of a child.

What child is happy to know that their most powerful dreams and desires can be reduced to coefficients in a demand function? And a demand function among many that form an aggregate demand function, at that. It makes our dreams seem so... irrelevant. Aren't we supposed to be more important than that?

It is the repression of the true self, only if you understand that the true self wants power and considers all obstacles to be unjust be definition. What we imagine we want if cost is no object - a free world - is not so much anything inborn, but some desire picked up due precisely to the pressures of the world. Of course we want what's out of reach, but I rarely hear of people truly desiring something that doesn't exist at all. People get their desires from the world, so I find it difficult to believe that desires are "inborn" and a "part of who we are" outside the context of our physical and social environment. Everything is power, remember, and it should never be surprising that someone wants something just because he can't have it. The entire philosophy doesn't just scream of rebellious reaction for its own sake but screams louder that all that can be right is solipsism.

Great men have made the world by building their visions, but they paid for it. If you want your world free, then good luck finding someone to sell it to you at that price.

If you meet someone who does something asinine and inconsiderate, then says, "look, I didn't want to do that, but I have bills to pay/cops to avoid/grades I need to get/potential sex partners to impress/a boss breathing down my neck/shit that needs to get done," then you should know what they're doing. They're selling themselves to you, lowering the cost of their failure by assuring you that, really, deep down, they aren't like that. And they aren't. If they had nothing to gain, they might not have done that. But they did have something to gain, and your irritation, pain, and inconvenience was worth the price to them. Remember: you have a price to others.

That doesn't make the world a tragic place to live. Instrumental value is all you can have to people who don't know you, and you don't really know that many people. It just shows the value of those who treat you better than that.

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