Tuesday, April 10, 2007

On perfectionist ideals, markets, recognition, and self-knowledge

Let us try to put together these four ideas. First of all, perfectionist values. There are different conceptions of perfectionist values. The most "conservative" conception, we may say, considers perfectionist values as values connected with realizing an entity's true nature, where the true nature of the entity is already given in virtue of some deep metaphysical or supernatural fact (i.e. metaphysical essences, the will of a god.)

But I believe that perfectionist values can be given more space than the space we would give them if we thought them according to the "conservative" model.

An important perfectionist idea, one that, I believe, makes sense even to people who do not believe in metaphysical essences and the existence of God, divine plans and the like, is the idea of fulfilling one's talents.

What is a talent? A talent is part of a person's nature and identity, meaning one of the important characteristics which give a man or woman an individual identity. (That make it distinguishable from others). But whether something counts as a talent is a social fact. As we have all learned by Rawls and others, it is extremely hard to think about "merits" or "natural abilities" outside the context of a basic social structure which establishes what count as a merit or as an ability.

Progressive perfectionist thinking does not find that this is a problem. It can be part of the concept of a talent that it has to be publicly recognized. An important perfectionist idea is that of an obligation to care about and develop a talent or ability that one may have.

Let us try to understand this perfectionist perspective about value. First of all it is a value grounding what we may call an obligation towards oneself (call it moral, or not, does not matter, in so far as I find this labelling issue entiretly stupid). This obligation is not different, in a sense, from the obligation of fulfilling a promise: you realize that there is a fact giving you a reason to act a certain way, a reason which does not derive from what you happen to desire.

Many people, I believe, would not reject the intuition that people who have a certain talent have some sort of obligation to develop it. In common language, we express this thought by saying things like that a person that has certain talent should not waste it. I believe we are all familiar with this type of evaluation. We are also familiar with the idea that developing a talent requires sacrifices. And, as Dworkin writes
"Is is in fact a cliché that great artists often work, not out of enjoyment (even in the widest sense of enjoyment), but rather in constant misery simply because it is not possible for them simply not to write poetry or music or paint. A poet who says this may well think that a life he spent in any other way would be, in tthe most fundamental sense, a failure. But he might well think that the conspiracy of talents and beliefs that made this true was bad for him, meaning only that his life would be more enjoyable if he lacked these talents or did not have the belief, which he could not however shake, that a life of creating poetry in misery and despair was al things considered the msot valuable life for him to lead." (Sovereign Virtue, p. 34)

This cliché sounds true to me. And it is part of the perfectionist idea that one that discovers to have certain talent, e.g. for creating art, and has a full grasp of why a certain ability is a talent, i.e. of the value which she is able to create, ought to care about developing it, even if one may have a less enjoyable life as a result

One of the questions that naturally arise is whether by saying that people with a special talent should not waste them we are regarding the "good" of developing these talents as a good from the point of these peopleor as a good for other people..
It would be of course a good things, for other people, if people with a talent for music or art develop them, but would it be good for the person with the talent? I believe that we can understand the "duty" to care about and develop one's talents as a duty that comes from within, not as a duty to others.

This idea makes best sense of the point of view expressed by the people in Dworkin's example. The person who has a an artistic talent feels that failing to realize that talent because of lack of effort, or fear, or unwillingness to make certain sacrifices would deprive his or her life of value, of what is valuable from her point of view.
This value is not the sort of moral value that derives from the obligation of making the life of other people happy if one can. The idea that one ought to care and develop one's talents, if one has some expresses a demand of reason, the sort of demand we express by saying that one should try to do something valuable with one's life, of responding in the best way to the sort of "luck" one has.
Now I know that certain people do not find any meaning in these sort of ideas, because they believe that one can be obligated only towards others and there are no "categorical" injunctions (meaning, valid apart from what one desires) about how one should live. I believe this idea is mistaken. The idea that one ought, meaning, has reasons to, develop a talent one has is an idea many people have, and a typically perfectionist one.

Now let us consider the application of perfectionist values to our decisions.
Many people's decisions about what to do are derived from ideals rather than calculation of utility. Many people decide their future not mainly in terms of prospects of acquisition of objective (instrumental) goods like income, but mainly in terms of judgments about what has value. If what we said about perfectionist values is true, one aspects of these judgments should be the goal to develop those talents that one discovers to have.

This may ring true especially to people who try to make a career in philosophy or involved in other "vocational" training. (Playing piano, etc...). Such a person may think that he or she has additional reasons to pursue certain careers, beside the fact that he or she has good chances to succeed beside alternative careers, or that it would help others most to do so, etc....

One important aspects of such choices is how to develop knowledge about one's talents. Intelligent choices about one's talents may be difficult to make for a variety of reasons. The first one is bias coming from the ideas of one's set and uncritical views about what has value. It is a common experience to find people trapped in a career which does not suit them, for example because they do not have the right mentality for it, or the required abilities, because of some values that they have, which are not really authentic.

For example I had a cousin who was unsuccessful in the high school (now he is doing pretty well at the university.) He chose the wrong sort of high school, including a lot of humanities, mainly because he was concerned with matters of social status (his reason was the fact that humanistic high school education is associated with a higher social status, in his idea, than a technical one.)

This ended up costing his parents a lot of money (about 10000 euros) for private educational support and in him getting his diploma four years later than he should have. If he had chosen a different type of education he would have probably entered the university three or four years before and spare his parents a lot of money, as shown by the fact that he is now a quite successful student of engineering, only because he can see the point of learning maths and physics.

Now this is clearly an example of a person's choice dictated by unreflective prudential reasoning and especially a criticizable conformist and elitist attitude. This is quite an extreme case of a very general phenomenon. Richard Brand ("a theory of the good and the right") thought that a lot of our preferences are formed by spontaneous psychological processes which produce irrational desires and aversions. He quoted several sources of such biases, all deriving from the fact that our experiences shape our desires in a way which escapes our rational control, and the experiences which elicit our reactions tend to produce profiles of responses which we would not endorse if we reflected critically about them.

Brandt believed that having rational desires was mainly a matter of freeing oneself from such biases. He developed the idea of "cognitive psychotherapy" to define what counts as a rational desire. A rational desire is one that would survive if one "repeatedly brought to mind, with full belief and maximal vividness, all the knowable facts that would tend either to weaken or to strenghten the desire or aversion". (See Richard Brandt Rationality, Egoism, and Morality (in Symposium: Ethical Egoism) The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 69, No. 20)

I do not agree with Brand's view that the notion of a person's good can be defined in terms of informed preference, but I believe that something like cognitive psycho-therapy makes a lot of sense in the light of the problem they were supposed to solve: namely that people's feelings in favor or against a certain career are often influenced by irrational sources, such as ideological indoctrination, the desire to please one's parents. As Brandt realized, people's views about what activities have value and what don't are often the reflection of parochial prejudices. And a person's ideas about which activities have value are likely to shape her ideas about which talents one has.

But the idea of cognitive psychotherapy has various problems. For one, cognitive psycho-therapy cannot guarantee that a person would cease to have a certain desire, e.g. staying in a certain school because of the status connected with being a student of that school. Maybe a person does cognitive psycho-therapy cannot free herself from the desire of social status.

Here is where the ideas of recognition of one's talents through the market enter our discourse. Entering market transactions provides something similar to cognitive psycho-therapy, in so far as the market provides incentives to develop the talents which one really have, and disincentive to invest on careers for which one has little talent. In this way, it strongly motivates people to discover their strong and weak points, and to be earnest with themselves in assessing one's abilities. The process of discovering one's real talents works similarly to cognitive psycho-therapy, because it gives an incentive avoid self-deception and those believes which derive from cultural indoctrination.

In this way, entering a market foster self-knowledge and an earnest picture of the self, even when this goes against culturally acquired prejudices. We can call this process "market - driven self-knowledge." Market - driven self-knowledge is an important process, because we all tend to lie to ourselves about out talents and abilities as compared to those of other people, since these are often very significant aspects of our psychological identity. We tend to regard as good for us only those activities which our parents and the people around us believe to be valuable, and this often means that we prefer a career that fits with those value judgments at an unreasonable cost.

Now let us introduce recognition. The self-knowledge which arises from interacting with the market, as opposed to cognitive psycho-therapy, represents a form of recognition by the other. Market interactions, at least when they takes place on the background of fair institutions, represent voluntary exchanges of valued goods. In order to stay in the market, you must develop the ability to produce something other people can appreciate. A person who deceives herself into thinking that she has great acting skill cannot survive in the market, because nobody would be ready to pay to assist to her poor performances.

For this reason, self-knowledge through the market is connected to a process of recognition which, I believe, has some intrinsic value. This intrinsic value derives from the fact that people recognize your talent when they are ready to pay you to exercize it. This form of self-knowledge seems superior to self-knowledge based upon the idea of cognitive psycho-therapy, because it is less arbitrary and allows an expansion of a person's values.

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