my self, your self, ourselves

Thesis: I have a vocabulary for describing my own behavior that’s full of words about motives, goals, and principles. “Why did I raise my hand? Because I wanted to answer your question. Why did I give that answer? Because I knew it was the truth and I was obliged to say it.” This is a valid way of thinking, because each claim is subject to being tested and can be refuted. (Maybe I raised my hand to show off, or because I misheard you, or to reach for a light switch.) It’s morally important that I think this way about myself, because it reminds me that I am responsible for my actions and must strive to apply the best principles. It’s also morally important that I envision you in the same terms. That is necessary for recognizing your dignity and equality, and it reminds me that I should help you to make your own choices wisely. I should strive to remove obstacles and enhance your freedom.

Antithesis: We have a vocabulary for describing any action in nature that’s all about causes and effects. “Why did he raise his hand? Because an electrical signal traveled along a nerve to a muscle. Why did that signal happen? Because a synapse fired in his brain.” This is the only scientific way to think about life, because science is defined as a third-person account of nature that sets aside the subjective perspective. It’s morally valuable to think this way about other people because then we realize that they are caught in a web of causality and cannot escape suffering; it makes us compassionate. And it’s important that I apply this way of thinking to my own case, viewing my own first-person talk of goals and principles as kind of myth. Then I can escape an overweening attachment to myself that makes me selfish, self-important, and fearful.

Synthesis: There are two ways of thinking about sentient action, the first-person and the third-person mode, and each has its own norms of validity and tests of truth. We are nowhere near being able to make these two perspectives cohere, if we ever will. But we must treat one another right. We’re in this together, and we’re all we’ve got. That requires holding several ideas in our minds at once. 1) I am responsible for what I do and should strive to do right by you. But 2) The condition of my self is of no great consequence to the world and is fundamentally a matter of luck. 3) You face choices and can strive to do right, and I ought to help you. But 4) The condition of your self is a matter of luck; often you will be a in a state of unease or even suffering; and I have compassion for you.

See also: Hegel and the Buddhathree truths and a question about happiness; and on philosophy as a way of life.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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