More on self-alienation

Self-alienation is incompatible with a sense of having a biographical life of one’s own; such a sense is necessary for seeing one’s own life as meaningful. This is perhaps why sometimes a person who sees his life as meaningless would express his dim view by saying “I don’t even have a life”. Obviously he has a life, a biographical life; it is just that he has no identities at all that he identifies himself with. This is why a person might not see his life as meaningful even if he is, as Susan Wolf puts it, “actively and at least somewhat successfully engaged in a project (or projects) of positive value” (“The Meanings of Lives”, p.65), for he may still alienate himself from the project (or, from his identity as the person who has that project) even if he pursues it actively in some way.

It is not unimaginable that a person would alienate himself from a project of his which he is being actively and successfully engaged in and which has positive value in the eyes of others. Let us consider the case of Tolstoy. For most people, his identity as a great novelist, or more specifically, as the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, certainly had positive value, but the following is how Tolstoy himself thought about this identity in A Confession:

During this time I began to write out of vanity, self-interest and pride. In my writings I did the same as I did in life. In order to achieve the fame and money for which I wrote I had to conceal what was good in myself and display what was bad. And this is what I did. Time and again I would contrive in my writing to conceal under the guise of indifference, or even of light-heartedness, those strivings for goodness which lent meaning to my life. And I succeeded and was praised.
Or thinking about the fame my own writing brought me, I would say to myself, “Well fine, so you will be more famous than Gogol, Pushkin, Shakespeare, Molière, more famous than all the writers in the world, and so what?”

It is clear that Tolstoy himself, at least when he was writing A Confession, did not think his life was meaningful by virtue of his identity as a respected and famous novelist. It did not matter to him what others thought; even if everyone else thought his life was meaningful by virtue of his identity as a greater writer, he did not think so because he did not identify himself with that identity ¾ he did not think this is what he really was or what he wanted himself to be.

If it is not clear enough from the above quoted passages that Tolstoy alienated himself from his identity as a novelist, a writer, or an artist, the following passage should make it clear:

‘Art, poetry …’ For a long time, under the influence of success and praise from others, I had persuaded myself that this was a thing that could be done, […] But I quickly realized that this too was a delusion. It was clear to me that art is an adornment and embellishment of life. But it had lost its charm for me, so how could I charm others? While I was not living my own life but was being carried along on the crest of another life, as long as I believed that life had meaning even if I could not express it, the reflection of life in poetry and in art of all kinds gave me joy and I enjoyed watching life through the mirror of art. But when I began to search for the meaning of life, when I began to feel the necessity of living, I found this mirror either unnecessary, superfluous and ridiculous, or tormenting.

It is also clear from what Tolstoy said about his identity as a writer that he did not value this identity even though it was (and would be) valued by others. This suggests that a person cannot value an identity of hers without identifying herself with that identity. Some may think that since a person can identify herself with an identity that she does not value (such as in the case of a Dalit), she can also value an identity which she in fact has but which she does not identify herself with. Let me explain why the latter is not true. To identify oneself with one’s identity as x is to see x as part of what one really is, while to value one’s identity as x is to see x as what one wants to be or what one should be. It is possible for a person to believe that she really is x without wanting to be x or believing that she should be x ¾ it is possible for her to identify herself with x without valuing x. Now if a person wants to be x or believes that she should be x, and if she indeed is x and is aware that x is one of her identities, then it does not make sense for her to deny that she really is x. Indeed, given that she wants to be x, she cannot consistently refuse to embrace her identity as x ¾ she cannot consistently value x without identifying herself with x.



Consider a woman who has a phenomenal talent for music, who always wants to be a cellist, but who decided to pursue a medical career because that was what her parents very much wanted her, and pressured her, to do. She has finally become a top brain surgeon after years of study and hard work, but this has never been what she really wants herself to be. Suppose someone congratulates her on her achievement; if she responds by saying "Thank you, but that's my parents' achievement, not mine", she will be saying something that is in a clear sense true. Since being a brain surgeon is not what she wants herself to be ¾ since she alienates herself from her identity as a brain surgeon, she cannot address positively her concern about who she is by answering "I am a brain surgeon" even if she can annex something positive to it such as "who helps people in a big way". The problem is that, for her, the "I am" is misplaced in such an answer.

We all have some identities that we do not identify ourselves with; this is just normal, for a person can have a strong and stable sense of who he is only if there are not too many things that he thinks he is, that he thinks define who he is. It would not be a problem if a person alienates himself from some, or even many, of his identities, but it would be a serious problem if he alienates himself from all of his identities. When a person has no identities that he identifies himself with, he is alienating himself from his whole biographical life. In that case, he is indeed alienating himself from himself, for some of his identities must define who he is in order for him to be the person who is living the biographical life that he is living, to be the I who would own the first-person version of his biography, i.e., his autobiography. As Camus so vividly and penetratingly portrays it in L’Étranger,* the life of a person who alienates himself not only from the world around him, but also from himself, is a meaningless life to the person himself.

* “Étranger” in French means either "foreigner", "outsider", or "stranger". Some English translations use the title The Stranger, some the title The Outsider. The protagonist Meursault is a stranger, a foreigner, or an outsider not only to people around him, but also to himself.


Harmless sexual immorality?

Are there harmless sexual activities that are immoral? If all harmless activities are morally permissible, the answer is obviously "no" --- as long as an activity is harmless, it is not immoral, whether sexual or not (people may understand "harmless" differently, but that does not affect the point).

But suppose a harmless activity may still be immoral, and suppose some sexual activities are harmless. On these suppositions, the question whether there are harmless sexual activities that are immoral does not have a clear answer. However, for those who are interested in the question and think it is important to have an answer to it, there are two views they need to distinguish:

(S)  If there are harmless sexual activities that are immoral, they are immoral by virtue of their sexual aspects.
(N)  If there are harmless sexual activities that are immoral, they are immoral by virtue of some non-sexual aspects of the activities; it just happens to be the case that these are sexual activities.

People who believe that sexual activities in themselves are amoral (i.e. neither moral nor immoral) cannot consistently accept (S). That is, they should accept (N). But accepting (N) implies seeing the sexual aspects of the activities as irrelevant to their being immoral or not. For them, if there are harmless activities that are immoral, it should not make any moral difference whether the activities are sexual or not, just as it should not make any moral difference whether the activities involved people who wear glasses or not.

Thus, to see the question whether there are harmless sexual activities that are immoral as a morally significant question, one has to accept (S). And to consistently accept (S), one has to believe that at least some sexual activities are not amoral --- they are in themselves either moral or immoral. Now unless people who believe that at least some sexual activities are not amoral also believe that all those sexual activities are moral, they already have an answer to the question whether there are harmless sexual activities that are immoral, namely, "yes".

It seems to be the case that people who are interested in the question whether there are harmless sexual activities that are immoral usually think it is a morally significant question, and it also seems to be the case that these people usually answer (or are inclined to answer) "yes" to the question. Given the above analysis, this should not be surprising at all.