(You’ve definitely heard this one before if you’re poly): “I could never do that.”
Sometimes phrases like these are expressions of empowerment and boundary-setting: they’re saying, “I understand myself, what I’m good at and what I’m not, and I can own that without shame. I can’t be all things to all people, and I don’t feel pressure to try.”
Sometimes they’re expressions of insecurity, anxiety, and self-limiting: they’re saying, “I’m uncomfortable being on a learning curve, and I don’t have confidence in my ability to develop new skills and qualities. I’m going to stick with the areas that are familiar and comfortable to me.”
I do both things a lot. I’m very familiar with my skills and limitations. I’m also very protective of the qualities I value in myself: I want to invest most of my time in honing and developing the areas where I’m already strong, and I’m wary of letting go of some of my strengths in an attempt to shore up my weaknesses. This is where I find personality typing systems really valuable; they help me identify and articulate the areas where I’m naturally strong and naturally weak, and they help shape a vision of what it would be like to be the best version of myself, rather than trying to develop myself in all dimensions.
I’ve also done the other one, the self-limiting one. I hate being bad at things, I hate making rookie mistakes, I hate being fumbling and clueless and seeing that others are being patient with me. So I avoid the areas where I’m not already competent, and I set expectations very low when I’m not. I stay away from projects, goals, or activities that I know will call on skills I don’t have. As much as I love learning, in the sense of intellectual exploration and gathering new knowledge, I really kind of hate learning, in the sense of trying and failing and looking awkward and feeling helpless.
I really admire people who can learn gracefully; who can embrace their beginner status and accept instructions and false starts without getting all ego-prickly and sensitive. It’s a skill in and of itself, and it’s one I’ve been slowly working to develop for about ten years now. In ten years, I haven’t gotten very far with it: I still freeze up, panic, or want to run away if I don’t feel competent in a situation. I’ve developed to the point of being able to talk myself through the feelings and making a conscious decision about whether to pursue the new skill or give it up. Maybe not right in the moment, but afterward, when the panic dies down. (And the self-hatred, because for some reason not being awesome at something right off the bat fills me with shame and feelings that I don’t deserve to even be here: definitely in this moment doing this thing, and possibly anywhere doing anything. I know it’s nonsense, but in the moment it’s very persuasive nonsense.)
For me, the decision-making process involves these components:
Realistically, do I think I have the skills I’d need right now to learn this? Every new competency, whether it’s physical or emotional or intellectual, requires supporting skills. Physically, it might be particular muscle strengths or stamina or flexibility. Intellectually, it might be knowledge bases or language systems you need to be familiar with. Emotionally, it might be ability to trust or listen or express yourself. I have a tendency to want to jump straight at the cool big thing, assuming that I’ll pick up the supporting skills on the way. This works about as well as deciding to compete in a triathlon while barely being able to swim. Sometimes you have to step back and focus on one of the supporting skills before going for the big goal.
What is learning this going to do for me? Will it make me happier? Improve my relationships? Increase my financial stability? I imagine two versions of myself: one where I’ve developed this skill to a point of reasonable competence, and one where I’ve accepted that it’s not something I’m ever going to be able to do well. I look at what I gain in the first scenario, and what I lose in the second, and get a sense of what the new skill is actually worth to me.
What is learning this going to cost me? At the very least, being me, I know it’s likely to cost quite a few hours of the panic and self-hatred I described above. Beyond that, how much time is it going to take? What else could I be doing with that time? What else could I be doing with the emotional energy I’ll be spending on talking myself down from the anxieties? How much strain am I under already, and can I afford to take on some more? Will learning this risk losing other things that I like and value about myself?
Alongside the cost assessment, I consider my current situation. If I’m already embroiled in one or two challenging or emotionally difficult pursuits, maybe this isn’t a good time to take up another one.
I take all the information from these assessments, and then ask this:
Would pursuing this skill right now be a loving thing to do for myself?
When it comes to other people, people I love, I have a pretty good sense for the line between “this will be hard for you but it’ll be worth it” and “there’s no sense beating yourself up to make this work.” When it comes to someone else, my ego isn’t involved, so I don’t have the confounding factors of, “I hate the idea of never being competent at this” or “It’s going to be way too embarrassing or uncomfortable to struggle through the newbie phases of this.” In making the decision for myself, I try to get to that same attitude of loving detachment, to see what’s actually going to be the healthier choice. Then I stick with that decision — even when, snapped back into my own ego-bound perspective, everything in me cringes away from it.
Sometimes the loving thing to do is say, “Suck it up, girl… you want this, you can do it, embrace the hard stuff and push through because it’ll be worth it in the end.” Sometimes it’s, “You are already awesome at W, X, and Y… you can let Z go. That’s not you, and it doesn’t have to be.”
Communication style is my jam. Show me to a conversation about how we communicate with each other and how different people perceive the same words, gestures, and contexts, and I’ll happily yammer away all night with you. So many of the troubles and strife between people seems to me to come down to how we communicate with each other: I said this, and you interpreted it, and your interpretation and my intent don’t match up, and now we both believe things about the other’s point of view that aren’t true, and that’s going to color the rest of our interaction.
I’m not into figuring out which communication style is “best.” It’s just not an interesting argument to me. I’m much more interested in working with other people to make sure that what I say and what they hear match up as well as possible, and any solution that increases the amount of accurate understanding that happens is good to me. And one of the first steps to having these kinds of discussions productively is to deeply understand our own communication style. When I’m feeling this way, I express myself this way. When I hear this from a person, I tend to assume it means that. That kind of thing. Unearthing our own patterns of communication helps us check the assumptions we tend to make, and it lets us discuss our patterns and preferences with those close to us.
It’s not just about specific messages and interpretations, either. The medium in which we communicate is also a meaning-laden decision, and can have very different meanings to different people. Choosing to have an important, emotional conversation over chat or text rather than in person could mean, to one person, “This is not important enough to take time to discuss with you face-to-face” while to the other it means, “This is so important that I want to talk about it in a medium where both of us can choose our words carefully, and have a record of the conversation to go back to later.” Without meta-communication about that choice, the two people are going to misunderstand and be frustrated with each other.
The order in which to communicate two messages is also a meaning-laden decision. If you’re simultaneously angry with someone for how they hurt you, and sorry for how you’ve hurt them (surely I’m not the only one for whom this is a common combo!), you have to decide how to prioritize those messages. If you lead with either, “I’m angry” or “I’m sorry,” there’s a risk of the entire conversation becoming about that message (and thus, an implicit communication that one is much more important than the other). Sometimes that’s what you want, if you have a hard time facing up to your own guilt or your own anger. Sometimes, you genuinely meant to get around to the other half of it, but the conversation in the meantime has spiralled far away from a point where that makes sense to say. You can try putting both of them into the conversation right at the beginning: “I’m really mad about what happened, but also I’m sorry for how I treated you” or vice versa. That’s generally the preferable approach to me, but to some people it reads as if the apology is insincere. Same message, different approaches, different interpretations.
Even the decision to communicate a message at all is a meaning-laden decision. I’ve argued with Shaun about this before so let’s see if I can convince him here. By expressing a feeling to someone, I am not just saying, “This is how I feel.” I’m saying, “This is how I feel and I want you to know about it.” For a lot of people this might be a trivial distinction: I guess, people who generally always want people to know how they’re feeling, or don’t feel that they have the ability to conceal their feelings. For me, though? I have a lot of feelings I don’t express, for various reasons, so communicating a feeling is a very conscious and sometimes weighty decision. Communicating a feeling, to me, means either, 1) we’re on such intimate terms that I pretty much always want you to know how I feel (for me, there are about five people on this list, and I struggle to maintain that level of openness even with them), or 2) I believe my expression of feeling will have some kind of positive effect: on you, on me, on our relationship. I believe it will make you feel good… or I believe that it will benefit our relationship in the long run even if it makes you feel bad right now… or we have an instrumental relationship and I believe it will help me get what I want.
So, if I’m at a restaurant, and I’m getting really annoyed with the waiter’s service (the waiter/customer relationship is an example of what I mean by “instrumental relationship”), I may communicate my annoyance if I believe it’s likely to make the waiter move faster and pay more attention, or if I believe it will get me free dessert, or something like that. If I think it’s likely to make the waiter more nervous, avoid our table, or spit in my food, I won’t communicate that.
Maybe part of looking at things this way (besides a possibly-unhealthy level of emotional reserve) is due to being a writer. I’m used to analyzing interactions in terms of motivated action and consequence. If two characters are in a scene together, every line of dialogue — ideally — has a motivation and a result. Characters don’t just say whatever pops into their heads… that would be boring. They say things for a reason, and what they say has an effect (usually on the other character.) Dialogue is action, at least it should be.
But, sure, some people — some people who are married to me, even — are much less deliberate about what they say and when and to whom. I’ve been told (and I really am taking this on authority because it’s sort of incomprehensible to me) that a lot of people really do just say a thing because it popped into their head. So maybe communicating that thing didn’t have semantic content for that person; it did, however, have an effect of some kind. The listener now has knowledge that they didn’t have before. And the listener might assume that it was a more consciously motivated action: that there’s some specific effect the speaker wanted that message to have on them.
So, for example, if someone says, “I’m sexually attracted to you,” the message itself is pretty simple and not particularly liable to being misconstrued. But the act of saying that — what does that mean? Someone like me is going to assume that the speaker doesn’t go around telling everybody that they’re sexually attracted to. (Probably a correct assumption.) So why did they say it to me? I’m likely to further assume that they considered whether or not to say it, and decided that the effect it had was likely to be positive, by whatever standards they use. (Possibly an incorrect assumption: maybe I caught them in a moment of inhibition-free expressiveness.) Which means that they’ve decided the chance of my responding positively is high enough to outweigh the risk of causing me discomfort. Which could be because they think I’m very likely to respond positively. Or it could be because they don’t consider my discomfort to be much of a negative consequence. Or it could be because they want a level of closeness with me where feelings like that are openly expressed between us, even if the other one isn’t interested.
All these possibilities are going to flit through my head and I’m going to make a knee-jerk assessment of which one is most likely. And that’s going to impact how I view the speaker. Maybe they’re a person who’s correctly interpreted my signals of interest (in which case, bonage ahoy!) Maybe they’re a person who’s incorrectly interpreted my signals of non-sexual friendliness (in which case, some embarrassment for both of us follows.) Maybe they’re a person who doesn’t care about causing me discomfort if there’s any slight chance of getting something they want from me (in which case, bye asshole.) Or maybe it’s the open-vulnerable-friendship thing, in which case some lengthy and deep conversatin’ is likely to follow.
And if I know they have a pattern of uninhibited self-expression (occasionally known as foot-in-mouth syndrome), I’m going to interpret it still differently. Which takes us back to the beginning, where I view understanding communication patterns — our own and others’ — as vitally important. I know I’m prone to making the error of attributing too much importance to the fact that someone chose to say such-a-thing at such-a-time. I try to correct for that. The people I’m closest to know that when I communicate a feeling, it’s important and probably something I’ve carefully considered. Understanding how we individually communicate, and communicating about that with each other, is one of the most important steps to intimacy for me, and I think we’d all do better to be more conscious about it.
50 years ago Ayn Rand, a novelist and philosopher, wrote a book entitled The Virtue of Selfishness. I read this book many years ago, in addition to The Romantic Manifesto, Atlas Shrugged, and Anthem. I actually enjoyed some aspects of her writing, especially when it came to her novels. But I never was able to seriously accept her philosophical worldview, and her epistemologucal and ‘ethical’ thinking rubbed me the wrong way.
Ayn Rand called herself an Objectivist. Here, and in the following series of posts, I will not be addressing all of her Objectivist views, but will rather be focusing on the essays from this one work, The Virtue of Selfishness, and the related issues pertaining to ethical philosophy. In essence, I will be addressing her ‘ethical egoism.’
From the start, I will be clear that while I find some of what she says to be interesting and thought-provoking, I ultimately disagree with her. Vigorously. In re-reading this work I will be launching a criticism, but I hope it to be fair insofar as I represent her views accurately. That is, in arguing against selfishness as a moral foundation or value, I want to be aware that she uses the term in a different way, intentionally, in an attempt to deconstruct how selfishness has been demonized by our culture and the philosophical history which helped establish that culture. And while this deconstruction does unearth some assumptions about morality, in much the same way that Nietzsche’s views on ethics did, it is my opinion that her views on ethics are derived from an oversimplified caricature of the subject. Her dichotomy between altruism and selfishness (egoism) is sophomoric philosophy, and misses too much to be as influential as her thinking continues to be.
As a disclaimer, I view ethics as not based upon altruism (selflessness) or egoism (selfishness), and view the dichotomy, which Rand employs, between altruism and egoism as misguided as a means of thinking about ethics at a basic level. For me, ethics is based in the value of fairness, derived from freedom and its logical consequences. Further, while an analysis of ethical philosophy can start from consideration of selfish interests, so long as it remains there is never becomes a discussion about ethics at all (I know some people disagree with my on this point, and I’m willing to defend this view).
I, like Rand (as we shall see below), don’t want an ethic which sacrifices either the self or the other for their own sake. However, her solution is largely myopic and ignorant of many alternative solutions. Ignorance is not itself bad, but when millions of people follow a view which demonstrates such blatant ignorance, as a philosopher I become worried; especially when I see the same myopia reflected in people who are not ostensibly Rand followers.
Whether the person making the mistake of defending a similar form of ethical egoism is a fan of Ayn Rand or has antipathies towards her is irrelevant if they are making similar philosophical mistakes.
With that said, here’s some selections from the introduction, with commentary by myself, to start out the series.
The Virtue of Selfishness, by Ayn Rand (1964).
The title of this book may evoke the kind of question that I hear once in a while: “Why do you use the word ‘selfishness’ to denote virtuous qualities of character, when that word antagonizes so many people to whom it does not mean the things you mean?”
To those who ask it, my answer is: “For the reason that makes you afraid of it.”
Ayn Rand was not shy nor afraid to be blunt, as we can see from the start. However, there are more motivations than fear which would prompt such a question. In some ways, her reasons for choosing that term may be similar to my reasons for maintaining the label ‘atheist’ when another might be more palatable to people. If I were being snarky, I might respond with a similar answer that Rand gave here when asked why I maintain the ‘atheist’ label, so I won’t chastised her for her tone. Let’s continue to gain more context.
But there are others, who would not ask that question, sensing the moral cowardice it implies, yet who are unable to formulate my actual reason or to identify the profound moral issue involved. It is to them that I will give a more explicit answer. It is not a mere semantic issue nor a matter of arbitrary choice. The meaning ascribed in popular usage to the word “selfishness” is not merely wrong: it represents a devastating intellectual“package-deal,” which is responsible, more than any other single factor, for the arrested moral development of mankind.
That is quite a charge!
OK, so what’s clear here is that Ayn Rand thought that there was something wrong with how American/Western culture and its moral thinking was using the term “selfish,” and maybe the term needed some re-evaluation. Fair enough. Let’s see why she felt that way.
In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment. Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests. This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions.
OK, agreed…partially. This image of a brutish person would be included in the set of selfish people, but certainly it would not be an exhaustive list. There are other expressions of selfishness, Rand’s idealized one included, which may or may not be objectionable. My concern here is the hyperbolic nature of the example. This is a tactic that one sees when reading Ayn Rand; she sets up foils which create a caricature of the idea she is criticizing, and sets up her own perspective as an idealized picture. Surely, we all do this to some degree (I’m probably doing so in this very post), but one rarely sees it to the stark level as with Ayn Rand.
In her novels, a common theme is one where the immoral government schemes, through their love of altruism, attempts to prevent capable individuals from succeeding through enforcing taxation and other means of taking from producers and giving to those who don’t produce. Those arguing for the altruistic model, in her caricatures, are set up as sniveling and weak collectivists who de-value personal achievement and virtuous selfish interest. Her foils are never fleshed out as people with complex motivations, whether because Ayn Rand was incapable of comprehending their potential reasons or because she didn’t care to. In the end, it amounts to the same.
In short, Ayn Rand is quite good as setting up strong dichotomies which include the evil, morally regressive altruists and collectivists (who hate individual freedom and strength) against her heroes who strive for personal glory and achievement by bucking the system. Sort of like the ‘lamestream’ media versus ‘mavericks.’
Sound familiar? *cough*tea party*cough*. Also, Fox News.
Is there any surprise that many conservatives love Ayn Rand?
Anyway, when Rand eventually leaves behind the stark dichotomies and straw-men above, she addresses what selfishness is. The demonized ‘selfishness’ she is reacting against is not this monster she just created for the purpose of comparison, it’s something else; something virtuous and moral. Get used to this tactic when reading Ayn Rand. Her method is to contrast a caricatured monster of selfishness with her virtuous one, which ignores the reality that every day self-centered behavior has detrimental effects on all of us, including her own virtuous kind of selfishness (we’ll get to that).
But the contrast to the monstrous selfishness is an equally monstrous altruism, and with this her continuum and her ethical boundaries are painted.
The ethics of altruism has created the image of the brute, as its answer, in order to make men accept two inhuman tenets: (a) that any concern with one’s own interests is evil, regardless of what these interests might be, and (b) that the brute’s activities are in fact to one’s own interest (which altruism enjoins man to renounce for the sake of his neighbors).
This is a really excellent example of the straw man fallacy in action. There may, in fact, be people who argue for altruism in this sense, and certainly many ethical systems throughout history have emphasized the importance of forms of altruism which include some sacrifice of the self for the sake of others, but pure renunciation or asceticism is usually only regarded as virtuous within specific religious traditions, including many Catholic saints. That is, if Rand has issues with the altruism within those traditions, then she needs to stop arguing that this altruism is universal, rather than confined to certain small sections of culture and history. Rand’s altruistic monster is not a dominant ethical value, and so it makes me wonder who she’s arguing with, and why she is unable to wrestle with more nuanced ethical questions about fairness, rather than a caricature of such things.
Ayn Rand’s depiction of altruism is nowhere near the dominant value of ethical thinking, and there are many alternatives to the altruism/egoism dichotomy which she portrays. From reading Ayn Rand, one could get the impression that altruism and egoism are the primary values in conflict in ethical philosophy. That view would be very wrong, as there are many ways to address ethics which do not deal with this question of altruism or selfishness directly.
However, perhaps we need to see what she has to say about altruism, and its flaws, to understand how she’s thinking about this.
There are two moral questions which altruism lumps together into one “package-deal”: (1) What are values? (2) Who should be the beneficiary of values? Altruism substitutes the second for the first; it evades the task of defining a code of moral values, thus leaving man, in fact, without moral guidance.
So, in other words, others should be the beneficiary of our values, or actions. This, thinks Rand, is the altruistic value. This is either a terrible misunderstanding of how most people actually think about ethics (including many who talk about altruism specifically) or an intentional skewing of those whom she is arguing against. She continues.
Altruism declares that any action taken for the benefit of others is good, and any action taken for one’s own benefit is evil. Thus the beneficiary of an action is the only criterion of moral value—and so long as that beneficiary is anybody other than oneself, anything goes.
Hence the appalling immorality, the chronic injustice, the grotesque double standards the insoluble conflicts and contradictions that have characterized human relationships and human societies throughout history, under all the variants of the altruist ethics.
So, for those of you who are philosophically inclined, she’s claiming that altruism has an ethical principle of helping others, and from that point of view any selfish action is immoral. Now, some altruists might agree with the first part, but the second does not necessarily follow. In real life, not many people take such an absolutist approach to thinking about selfishness v. selflessness.
So, after reading those two paragraphs, I’m left with the resounding thought that this is–and there is no other way to put it worthy of the content–bullshit. That is, if this is an indictment of popular morality, in favor of a rationalistic ethics, it is a biased and parochial interpretation in order to make her own views look good in comparison to a straw-man version of altruism. It is making the other side look as bad as possible to make the ensuing ‘rational’ view seem reasonable by comparison. it’s a shameless and possibly dishonest method.
It is statements like those above which make many people cringe when calling Ayn Rand’s thinking “philosophy,” as it seems to be more about rationalizing her whims (which is exactly what she claims to be avoiding in being rational) than thinking carefully and with understanding about ethics. The fact that so many people take her views seriously is, well, baffling to me.
Real ethical philosophy is more nuanced than this. Even if altruism were a philosophy that concluded that so long as an act is done for other people it is permitted (it doesn’t make such conclusions, that I’m aware of), the simple fact is that this type of altruism is not the machine against which Rand rages. This, quite simply, is a massively shoddy straw-man which has few (if any) actual representatives, and therefore this introduction is impotent as a critique of popular morality. Also altruists, or at least those who value altruism as part of their ethical thinking, do not view anything done selfishly as evil. This drastic oversimplification is borderline absolutist and reactionary, not careful or insightful.
But it gets better.
Observe the indecency of what passes for moral judgments today. An industrialist who produces a fortune, and a gangster who robs a bank are regarded as equally immoral, since they both sought wealth for their own “selfish” benefit. A young man who gives up his career in order to support his parents and never rises beyond the rank of grocery clerk is regarded as morally superior to the young man who endures an excruciating struggle and achieves his personal ambition. A dictator is regarded as moral, since the unspeakable atrocities he committed were intended to benefit “the people,” not himself.
Right. No, I mean wrong. Sorry, her brain worm is eating my brain. Too much more of this I might start campaigning for Rand Paul.
Observe what this beneficiary-criterion of morality does to a man’s life. The first thing he learns is that morality is his enemy; he has nothing to gain from it, he can only lose; self-inflicted loss, self-inflicted pain and the gray, debilitating pall of an incomprehensible duty is all that he can expect. He may hope that others might occasionally sacrifice themselves for his benefit, as he grudgingly sacrifices himself for theirs, but he knows that the relationship will bring mutual resentment, not pleasure—and that, morally, their pursuit of values will be like an exchange of unwanted, unchosen Christmas presents, which neither is morally permitted to buy for himself. Apart from such times as he manages to perform some act of self-sacrifice, he possesses no moral significance: morality takes no cognizance of him and has nothing to say to him for guidance in the crucial issues of his life; it is only his own personal, private, “selfish” life and, as such, it is regarded either as evil or, at best, amoral.
That’s right folks. Look out for yourself because there is no guarantee that anyone else will. Don’t trust, or build interdependent communities where you have to be vulnerable to each other, or submit to any policies which seek to make you support the community as a whole. Make yourself self-sufficient and anyone else who can’t (or won’t) do so, well they’re entitled and immoral leeches upon you, and not worth your time.
I recognize this instinct. In my more selfish moments, I have thoughts that verge along this path. I feel its pull, and I can walk down this road in my mind. I resist this path. I don’t resist it because I feel guilty or because I’m supposed to resist it; I resist it because the behavior it induces are harmful to those around me, and I’m not as happy or fulfilled insofar as I walk that path. And if I were mostly focused on my own interests, I would miss many of the effects of my actions in this way, and I might agree with Rand in that case because I’d be oblivious, or perhaps callous, to those effects.
When I think in these terms, I’m more likely to be angry, reactionary, and less likely to be empathetic. I don’t like the person who walks that path, whether it is another or I who walks it. I have trouble understanding how someone can walk that path without understanding its pitfalls, but I know they exist. I suppose someone prone to selfishness and self-interest would be less likely to notice them, and that’s probably why so many people are drawn to this philosophy.
This screed by Rand, and all her pronouncements similar to it, are the lament of a person who is incapable, apparently, of comprehending or caring about the interests of others (except where they intersect with our own), especially how our actions affect those interests. In a room full of people with their individual interests, they must all equally matter or a contradiction is spawned; whatever argument any of them uses for why their interests are more important is automatically valid for anyone else, which implies that they are all equal from the start (the “original position”). Their individual interests are equal in comparison to each other. It is when they all realize that their interests aren’t superior to the interests of others that each individual is able to start thinking about what will be right to do. If they are all thinking about their own interests, the conversation about ethics can’t even get off the ground.
In light of all this, it seems that Ayn Rand would not have been a fan of John Rawls, whose 1971 book A Theory of Justice described what was called the “veil of ignorance,” which effectively shows the fundamental problem that many ethical systems have missed in trying to establish fairness, or care about fairness at all. Rawls’ view is, in some ways, antithetical to Rand’s. Where Rand seeks to emphasize individual interests, Rawls seems to minimize them, but Rawls was no altruist (which is not to say he was against selfless acts, just that his foundational principle was not that selfless acts were necessarily good, or that selfish ones were necessarily bad).
One of the implications of Rawls’ analysis, as well as that of the idea of power dynamics in general, is that our individual interests, whether rational or irrational, exist within a miasma of blindness, privilege, and lack of understanding of what it’s like to be other people. Rand wants us, as we will see, to consider our rational self interest in thinking about how to behave and what actions to take. She does not want us to merely follow our whims (our irrational self interests), but the problem is that this distinction between rational self interest and irrational self interest (her terms) may be impossible for us to make ourselves, because we may be blind to the processes which distinguish them.
In order to comprehend the differences between rational and irrational interests (whether self or other), we need to apply empathy, perspective, consider the interest of others (but not merely sacrifice ourselves to them), and put ourselves behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance. Otherwise, we may end up emulating some of that brutishness even when we think we’re being rational because we think our interests are rational when they are, in fact, irrational.
Rand seems to be unaware that we humans are largely incapable of determining whether our interests are rational or irrational, especially when we are acting primarily with deference to self-interest. Cognitive dissonance, bias, and the fact that we are generally blind to our own flaws are reasons enough to not utilize our self interest as the standard by which we start thinking about ethical behavior. We simply don’t know ourselves well enough to trust that our self interest is actually in our interest, let alone anyone else’s.
Ayn Rand then continues to address means of survival, since altruism is evil and will probably kill us.
Since nature does not provide man with an automatic form of survival, since he has to support his life by his own effort, the doctrine that concern with one’s own interests is evil means that man’s desire to live is evil—that man’s life, as such, is evil. No doctrine could be more evil than that.
Our own effort, but definitely not by our collective effort, is the means to moral behavior (says Rand). This continuation of a caricature of a self-hating, insecure, and completely anti-life demon should be getting on your nerves by now. I don’t know anyone who believes that our own interests are evil per se (well, maybe some Christians, but again Rand is not overtly criticizing religious morality, but supposedly altruism-based morality in general), even if they could be harmful or problematic sometimes. Similarly, acting on behalf of others is not good in itself, but it could be. The major flaw here is arguing that the base value of ethics has anything to do with either selfishness or altruism. Neither of those factors are sufficient to construct an ethical system.
The more one applies weight to the value of selfish motivations (whether reasonable or not), the farther away from ethical considerations one gets. One must have some consideration of the interests of others to be doing ethical thinking. This is not because selfishness is immoral per se (or because altruism is good per se), but because without the presence of others, or their interests, we are not even talking about ethics. Selfishness is not immoral because it makes us brutes (although it might do that as well), selfishness is amoral by definition. Our rational self interest is not ethics. It is one of the building blocks of ethics (potentially), but by itself it is nothing more than establishing what an individual wants, which is not an ethical question at all.
Individual interests are great to know for the sake of personal growth, therapy, and knowing how to spend time alone, but until the interests of others come into play a conversation about ethics is logically impossible. That is, until some level of giving of ourselves for the sake of others is admitted into consideration as ethically relevant, we are not talking about ethics at all. So when Rand argues that we should not be concerned with the interests of others at the expense of our own, she might be arguing that ethics are not worth our effort.
If it is true that what I mean by “selfishness” is not what is meant conventionally, then this is one of the worst indictments of altruism: it means that altruism permits no concept of a self-respecting, self-supporting man—a man who supports his life by his own effort and neither sacrifices himself nor others. It means that altruism permits no view of men except as sacrificial animals and profiteers-on-sacrifice, as victims and parasites—that it permits no concept of a benevolent co-existence among men—that it permits no concept of justice.
Altruism, even when portrayed this way, allows for the existence of such people, it just might look down upon them. But being that I am not coming from an altruistic point of view, this is not relevant to me or to most ethical thinkers.
But we do have other concepts of justice–John Rawls’ work was already alluded to, and there are others. Rand here is so blind to anything except her own interests that she can’t see that she is not being rational in her criticism of a moral system which is not only a straw-man, but ignores many other possible views. This myopia is common in Rand’s work, and seems to belie a general lack of understanding of ethical philosophy, especially that of her philosophical opponents.
If you wonder about the reasons behind the ugly mixture of cynicism and guilt in which most men spend their lives, these are the reasons: cynicism, because they neither practice nor accept the altruist morality—guilt, because they dare not reject it.
To rebel against so devastating an evil, one has to rebel against its basic premise. To redeem both man and morality, it is the concept of “selfishness” that one has to redeem.
So, there are some people who resent being repressed to act the way that they want, because what they want to do is considered immoral. The problem with this is that this could be true of all sorts of behaviors, whether actually immoral or not. Wherein popular morality has not caught up with what is rational, this is a battle cry for those who fight against the conservatism of our society. For atheists, polyamorous people, etc such ideas are important if we want to progress our culture morally, legally, and behaviorally.
But for others this could be used as an excuse to not consider the social and interpersonal effects of their behavior. There are times when we need to, morally, restrain our interests (even if we think those interests to be rational), when the effects of those interests harm others unnecessarily. And in more cases than not, this side of this battle cry seeks to preserve certain types of power structures and privileges which the individual, who considers their proclivities to be rational, is blind to (due to the nature of privilege and power).
It is no surprise that fans of Ayn Rand tend to side with business interests, free market capitalism, etc and view any form of socialism, communism, or any type of centrist criticism of Wall Street et al as problematic at best and down right un-American at worst. Anyone who has a problem with those things hates freedom, and seeks to take something from you which you earned rightfully. Any tax or sacrifice of any kind, which you earned, is immoral because it gives to someone who didn’t earn something.
The first step is to assert man’s right to a moral existence—that is: to recognize his need of a moral code to guide the course and the fulfillment of his own life.
For a brief outline of the nature and the validation of a rational morality, see my lecture on “The Objectivist Ethics” which follows. The reasons why man needs a moral code will tell you that the purpose of morality is to define man’s proper values and interests, that concern with his own interests is the essence of a moral existence, and that man must be the beneficiary of his own moral actions.
We will, in fact, dig into that very essay on a future date [edit: here’s part 1, part 2, and part 3]. I will leave further analysis of that concept until then.
Since all values have to be gained and/or kept by men’s actions, any breach between actor and beneficiary necessitates an injustice: the sacrifice of some men to others, of the actors to the nonactors, of the moral to the immoral. Nothing could ever justify such a breach, and no one ever has.
Yes, many have. Ayn Rand and her followers may not think it moral to get between you and your interest, but insofar as your interest is hurting other people, we have many tools to evaluate the worthiness of such a breach. While I would not advocate a strong altruism, this view of Rand’s, which calls itself rational, misses so many levels of reasonable consideration that it is almost laughably simplistic in its perspective.
One thing we have learned, since Rand’s time, is that our moral motivations are fundamentally emotional and instinctual, and then secondarily rational. Ethical philosophy, insofar as it attempts to be rational or divorced from our mere whims, is largely an illusion. By making a strong distinction between rationalism and emotional/instinctual concerns, Rand and anyone else who argues for a similar worldview of maintaining a purely reasonable or rational approach to ethics, is failing to understand a fundamental problem of human nature and behavior; most of our thinking is rationalized whims.
Ayn Rand does not seem to agree, which is fine because we discovered this after she formed her ideas. It may not be fine for those who continue to agree with Rand in this regard.
The Objectivist ethics holds that the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self-interest. But his right to do so is derived from his nature as man and from the function of moral values in human life—and, therefore, is applicable only in the context of a rational, objectively demonstrated and validated code of moral principles which define and determine his actual self-interest.
It is fair to emphasize that Rand’s views are not a license to just do whatever we want:
It is not a license “to do as he pleases” and it is not applicable to the altruists’ image of a “selfish” brute nor to any man motivated by irrational emotions, feelings, urges, wishes or whims.
This is said as a warning against the kind of “Nietzschean egoists” who, in fact, are a product of the altruist morality and represent the other side of the altruist coin: the men who believe that any action, regardless of its nature, is good if it is intended for one’s own benefit. Just as the satisfaction of the irrational desires of others is not a criterion of moral value, neither is the satisfaction of one’s own irrational desires. Morality is not a contest of whims.
No, morality should not be a contest of whims, but that is what most ethical philosophy ends up being; a contest of rationalized whims. Rand’s dichotomy between the altruist and the egoist is interesting as an analytical tool for deconstructing the nature of those two sets of values and behaviors, but as a means of discussing what seems to be meta-ethics, this is a flop. Altruism and egoism are not fundamental values, they are two conclusions. And if this is an attempt to analyze them as conclusions, all we have is a couple of straw-men and what is presented as a rational middle ground. I’m not convinced it is rational or reasonable.
Rand does not like the straw-man she creates for altruism, nor does she like the (also straw-man) Nietzschean egoist, but her rational solution is not any better. She believes that she is being rational and not following her mere whims, but I am skeptical of this belief. Here’s more:
Just as man cannot survive by any random means, but must discover and practice the principles which his survival requires, so man’s self-interest cannot be determined by blind desires or random whims, but must be discovered and achieved by the guidance of rational principles.
What moral principles? Well, we will have to wait for later to get the flesh, but the foundation is rational self interest:
This is why the Objectivist ethics is a morality of rational self-interest—or of rational selfishness. Since selfishness is “concern with one’s own interests,” the Objectivist ethics uses that concept in its exact and purest sense. It is not a concept that one can surrender to man’s enemies, nor to the unthinking misconceptions, distortions, prejudices and fears of the ignorant and the irrational. The attack on “selfishness” is an attack on man’s self-esteem; to surrender one, is to surrender the other.
No, to attack selfishness is not to attack self-esteem. One can be secure in themselves without being selfish, and one can be secure in oneself and be altruistic. This contradiction Rand thinks she sees is an illusion; a warped reflection in a dirty mirror. We may never be able to see others completely, or know their interests, but that does not mean we should merely concern ourselves with our own interests. That seems to me to be a rationalization of a lack of consideration or empathy.
Ethics does not necessarily ask us to surrender to the other, but sometimes it asks us to see the other as a mirror of ourselves. We have our interests, and so does the other. What do we do when confronted with this fact? By waving off the other and their interests, whether due to lack of interest, lack of understanding, or any other reason is to wave off any attempt at not only ethics but also community, intimacy, and the possibility of understanding through shared vulnerability. We don’t surrender to the other, we identify with them insofar as we can in order to not put our interests over theirs, because doing so is a contradiction of the commonality of our interests.
If we view the interests of the other as competing with our own, or we view them as incomprehensible because they are ultimately unknowable to us, or if we just think their interests will rob us of our own interests, we are missing out on a large part of humanity. To focus on our own interest so much seems too parochial and limiting. If I really want to be a great individual, I should give up some of myself just for the sake of self-improvement. By not wanting to give up any of ourselves or to understand the interests of others, we are much more likely to start idolizing the self and not change, which is bad for everyone around us. Especially ourselves.
Understanding of others is a key to self-improvement.
Ayn Rand gets into more meat in the essays themselves, and I we will dig into that when that time comes, but this short introduction (and this long analysis) will set the stage for how we think about her ideas.
Over the last several months, as I was looking for work, I kept limiting my searches to the Philadelphia area. In addition to the fact that I really love Philadelphia, the simple fact is that I have many connections here. And in addition to the various family and friends that are in the area, the majority of my lovers are local. Moving would, therefore, mean a shift in the nature of those local relationships. For me specifically, having a local relationship become a long-distant relationship would be a painful and unhappy transition. I very much like close physical proximity to my partners, as physical intimacy (and by that I don’t just mean sex) is very important to me in a relationship.
Therefore, I feel anchored to Philadelphia. The fact that this town has been my home for the vast majority of my life does not hurt either. The idea, then, of moving to another city (because I don’t want to be far from a major city for more than the time a vacation might take) fills me with sadness and anxiety. Thus, I have been limiting my searches to local opportunities, career-wise. What would i do if offered a really good job faraway? I don’t know. It would have to be a damned good offer. I wouldn’t mind a job that was partially travel, however. I think I would actually like that.
Monogamous couples may, therefore, have an advantage that many polyamorous people may not have. The nature of sharing, creating networks or families, and finding those people locally which is often common in polyamorous relationships means re-locating for a new job opportunity, or whatever else might cause a move to a new city or region, might be more difficult than it might be for a monogamous family. Leaving a place, when polyamorous, might also include leaving behind people.
That is, even if I did win the lottery and wanted to buy a house in Italy, I may have to leave behind people I’d rather see frequently. So, if I win the lottery, I guess I’m buying a large house in West Philly. Then spend a month of the worst of winter in Italy, or wherever. Because winter sucks. Seriously, go away winter! You suck. Also, I don’t play the lottery, so that’s not likely.
Now, there are many polyamorous people who have partners of various level of intimacy who live all over their country or the world. Some people are able to maintain long-distance relationships, where the people involved may only see each other a few times a year or less, while keeping some local relationships as well. Certainly, being polyamorous does not require that our partners be close to us, geographically. It just makes it easier, in many ways.
Certainly the ability to travel frequently will be a function of wealth, and while polyamory might seem to be dominated by relatively wealthy people, there are many people who are polyamorous for whom taking a plane, train, or automobile to visit someone 1000 miles away may not be realistic. Hell, I have a lover who lives less than 2 hours away (by car) who I may not see easily for a while. Timing and scheduling is also an issue, even if I have the money to make the trip.
But even in situations where one might have long-distance partners and lovers, any potential move might cause changes in the frequency of visits, especially as you move farther away from some and possibly closer to others.
Certainly, this implies that the more remote or spread out communities are, the more an issue location becomes. In major cities, such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc (yes, including Philadelphia), you will find a greater opportunity for creating larger networks, families, and communities of polyamorous people. Meetup groups, facebook pages, and other tools for interconnection make creating closer networks more possible, and will allow you to find like-minded people in your area. That is the major advantage of metropolitan living, and one of the reasons I think city-living is awesome. Of course, I just love cities, so I’m likely rationalizing, but not completely.
More remote locations, far away from cities, will have a harder time making connections to local people. Of course, as various types of non-monogamy spread in our culture, this problem may alleviate itself, assuming that all of the wierdos (and I love wierdos, so I’m not using that in a deroigatory manner) don’t move into the cities. Certainly, the phenomenon of wierdos moving to metropolitan areas, and out of the boonies, is a trend many of us have noticed. But there are still many of us wierd people out there in the sticks, and if they want like-minded companionship they may have to rely on the internet to communicate with them, unless they have already snagged those people in their web of sticky, booniness. Hopefully not without consent; there are enough stereotypes about wierd people in the boonies already.
Of course, the internet has been a huge boon to social connections of all kinds, and certainly the increased ability to communicate has helped the polyamorous as well as the atheist communities, and will continue to accelerate their growth in terms of exposure, understanding, and even the spreading of our good news (monogamy is not the only way! Tell your friends!). This tool of interconnection will allow people of all locations, boonies, suburbs, or city, to find people that may provide joy, growth, and intimacy to their lives. And then when we go out into the world for whatever reasons we do so, we might have a better idea of where to go.
In terms of actual physical closeness, insofar as that is a factor that matters to specific people, the interconnections we create may tend to anchor us to a specific region, city, or even neighborhood. And if those people in the boonies do want to move, they have the option of moving closer to other poeple that they want to be near. It makes me wonder how poly people compare to everyone else in terms of mobility; how often they move, how far they move, etc. I have no idea what those numbers would look like, and I don’t know if anyone else does either (if anyone is likely to know, Elisabeth Sheff is probably the person).
The other side of this issue of being anchored to a location by relationships is that I get to feel more at home where I am. Philadelphia, and the surrounding suburbs, is my home. If I’m in South Philly, I’m near home. I’f I’m north of Vine, I’m not far from one partner. If I’m over in South Jersey, I’m near another. The more connections I have nearby, the more it feels like home. And of course, if I’m in West Philly, downtown, or even out in the near suburbs, I feel at home. But, that’s always been the case for me. And now that I’m back in the city, I find that I’m really looking forward to long walks in warm weather. I’m so done with winter!
Each relationship is it’s own thing. Yes, when you date people who know each other, are friends, or who may also be lovers, there will be aspects of your relationships with them which overlap and interact, but each relationship needs to be its own entity, at least to some degree.
There are many levels of desired control, information, and involvement with metamours (partners of partners). Some people don’t need or want to know much, and they may never be close to your other partners. Some people really love the idea of closeness, friendship, and possibly more from metamours. There are all sorts of conversations about boundaries, rules, or possibly even vetoes that happen in the polyamorous community when it comes to the people our partners have relationships with. Some people set close guidelines, others do not.
My preference for how boundaries, rules, and even vetoes should be applied leans more towards relationship independence, while recognizing that our partners should be listened to, at very least, when it comes to the other people we develop intimacy with. The closer we are to a partner, the more their opinion should matter, but it should never be the only factor.
In some cases, the complicated inter-relations between multiple partners will create unique situations where 3, 4, or more people all mesh together in a special way, and the individual boundaries may disappear (to some degree, at least) and give way to shared intimacy. Insofar as this can and does occasionally happen, the one-on-one nature of intimacy starts to give way to some degree, and if this happens then it can be rewarding. But in most cases, whether with polyamory, monogamy, etc, each relationship will build up its own intimacy and boundaries, and those intimacies need to be respected.
That said, I’d like to address some thoughts about various factors that come into play when it comes to establishing guidelines, rules, and vetoes.
Obviously, the more people we are having sex with, and the more people those people are having sex with, increases the likelihood of STIs. Within a responsible community or network of people, this can be minimized by regular STI-testing, by creating a sort of firewall either through family fluid bonding or other methods of creating a physical boundary between you and the general population and other families/networks. But no matter how you address it, the reality of STI’s is usually an important factor for anyone who is sexually active with more than one person, whose partners are in the same situation. If your sexual network reaches outside of an enclosed group, and reaches the general population, STI’s can get in.
Some people are much more anxious about this than others. But whether you are one of those people who is more anxious about such a consideration or not, if someone you are involved with is, then it should become an important consideration for you. Setting guidelines or rules about safe sex sex is a legitimate request for a partner to make, because the consequences extend beyond the two people involved, and could possibly effect other partners. Assuming, of course, that an STI makes its way into your network, which can again be minimized by regular testing, maintaining good safe sex firewalls around your network/family, etc.
I’m of the opinion that the degree to which a partner is closed off from the greater network or population, sexually, the anxiety about STI’s should decrease, and the rules and guidelines around protections against STI infection should reflect that by being relaxed, assuming that everyone involved is comfortable with that. Being a person who is less anxious about those considerations, I realize I’m in a place of privilege here, and will not expound as to what degree people should attempt to overcome such anxieties.
Even in a world without the concern for unwanted STIs (and pregnancy, of course), there are still emotional considerations to take into account. In previous posts, I have argued that emotional concerns are the responsibility of the individual, and that other people are not responsible for how we feel about their relationships with other people. And while I agree that feelings of envy, jealousy, etc are ultimately our own responsibility, I believe that it is morally superior to take the attitude that how our actions with one partner affect our relationships with and the feelings of our other partners is relevant to us all. In short, we need to care about our partners, but we should at very least be aware of how our actions might emotionally affect their other partners.
The closer metamours are, in space or intimacy, the more it matters that consideration and care are accounted for. Depending on the closeness of metamours (especially if they cohabitate), there is a responsibility to consider the effects of their actions and relationships on others, as well as the effect on their immediate partners. So while I don’t think that a metamour is always responsible for how another feels, in general a metamour should be considerate and aware of how their behavior and attitude might affect those around them. They may not be responsible for the feelings, but they should at least attempt to be aware that those feelings exist and why.
Insofar as what a pair does in private, the emotional effects of those actions will depend on many factors, perhaps too many to diagram or parse out (so I won’t try). Outside of actions with health consequences, what people do in private should have little or nothing to do with what any of those people might do with other people or how those other people feel. Private intimacy is private (if you want it to be), and those relationships we have are important in their own right, even if another tangential relationship might have existed longer or may even be a marriage.
My partner going out and having a kind of sex that I might be envious or jealous of is my problem, not theirs. And while there may be specific examples where some moral responsibility comes into play in such cases, in general creating boundaries, rules, and even vetoes in terms of what your partner is allowed to do with other people is usually a means to protect our feelings, which are usually fears. And while those feelings matter, those feelings are not sufficient by themselves to create rules or vetoes about specific kinds of actions.
If my partner really wants to have sex with someone, and I’m uncomfortable with that, my demanding that they don’t do so is crossing a line in most cases. I may choose to have their decisions effect how I want to relate with them, but I should not demand that my feelings effect what actions they take elsewhere, assuming those decision will not expose me to physical risk. If I’m in a situation where their acting on desires will hurt me, I have some responsibility to find out why I’m being affected, not merely demand they don’t do the affecting thing. If that ‘why’ turns out to be that I don’t want to share, that’s different from a feeling of inadequacy or fear of my partner leaving me, and needs to be addressed by a different solution.
And while some temporary boundaries may be helpful for beginners, in the long run they merely address the symptoms (the feelings themselves) rather than the cause (insecurity concerning the strength of the relationship, for example). Those causes are not fixed or addressed with boundaries, they are addressed by dealing with them directly. That’s harder, but it’s also a means to a long-term strategy rather than the emotional triage which rules and guidelines seem to be designed to deal with. Triage may be a useful skill when shit gets hard, but they are temporary solutions at best. In the long term, the goal should be to deal with the fundamental causes, rather than the fears about this particular action or feeling.
The intimacy, love, and quality of activities I have with a partner are about that partner primarily. How my other partners feel about that does matter, but they are not always the primary considerations I have to be aware of in deciding how to continue or discontinue those activities. My relationship with person A has to be it’s own thing, and how much I involve other people in that relationship will depend on the desires and comfort of all involved. Sometimes, that involvement can be quite open. Sometimes, the boundaries between relationships melt away into transparency and shared intimacy.
Voyeurism and Sharing
There are times when the relationship we have with one person will open up or bleed into a relationship we have with another person. There are times when you can all hang out together, be intimate (whether emotionally or physically), or possibly even make commitments as a group. But even when these things are true, there will probably always be aspects of individual relationships that won’t be shared. There will be special inside jokes, ways you show affection, or even places you go that are special to that relationship. It is the idiosyncratic little bits of private moments, feelings, and times which set relationships apart from each other, and it is these things that we may miss most if the relationship ends.
In situations where groups of people decide to make their lives more intertwined, it is possible for the walls that separate the individual relationships to become more transparent. Whether people cohabitate, enter into group commitments, or merely spend lots of time with each other the likeliness of this happening increases. And once people get to theses stages of polyamorous intermingling of relationships, those walls usually do become thinner (both metaphorically and literally). Boundaries, in those cases, become a different animal because of the increased intimacy.
With increased closeness with metamours, come greater need for consideration and attention to how we interact with the world around us. And at this point the question becomes less about what our partners do with their other partners in private (although that may still be an issue), but also what they do in more open settings. The closer we are with the network of people we are involved with, the more we will see of the intimate moments between people we love and who they love. This can have rewards, but it can also expose areas of conflict. Boundaries, rules, and vetoes becomes a question of everyday, or at least frequent, attention. Where metamours might become family, all of the dynamics of family interaction and negotiation come into play.
And when polyamory becomes family, all the issues will surface. Your issues, their issues, and issues you may not have known existed. Issues may develop that never existed before. Respect, communication, and honesty with oneself are necessary if such a thing will succeed. Because as boundaries melt away, we remain exposed to each other in ways that we might not be prepared for. And when it falls apart, it can be devastating.
Many of us build walls around certain aspects of ourselves, for varying reasons. Sometimes, those walls surround us completely, sometimes we build them towards specific people, and sometimes we merely pull a person or two inside our walls and keep the rest away. Boundaries, rules, and vetoes are like walls.
Walls can be useful things. They keep out those who might harm us, they protect us from the cold outside world, and they help support the metaphorical roof over our head as well as define what is our space. There are harmful things in the world, and walls help keep them at bay, when they need to be kept away. Boundaries, when they are devised to protect us from physical harm, are an important tool to use, and when they seek to create safe spaces for ourselves and those close to us. They help keep us emotionally and mentally healthy.
But walls can also separate us when they don’t need to. Sometimes they only seem to protect us, rather than to unnecessarily push people away when letting more people in might bring us more perspective or positive relationships which we might bristle against at first. When we find those who we want to be within our walls, it is greatly beneficial to allow them inside, but it isn’t always obvious who those people will be before we let them in.
In practice, I tend to build walls to easily and end up keeping people further away than they need to be. It is a part of myself I seek to change, and this behavior has consequences for me and people close to me. Therefore, I worry about the impulse to keep people out as a default more than I worry about being too open. Those who have been hurt by being open (and I include myself in that category) may tend to be more cautious, for perhaps good reasons. And yet I worry whether that the reactionary nature of such wall/boundary building is problematic. I also worry that if I manage to heal my wounds and open up more, I might be equally reactionary in the opposite direction, in exposing myself too much to harm.
I worry about putting walls or relationship boundaries where they do more harm than good, or which are merely unnecessary. I worry about putting bricks in unnecessary walls. I also worry about being hurt when I take those walls down. I also worry that I worry too much. I never meta-worry I didn’t worry about, I suppose.
Our relationships, and the intimacy within them, are important and–dare I say it–sacred. The boundaries we make around them should not be about protection only, they should be more about creating the necessary space we desire to enjoy that intimacy. They should not be primarily about keeping others out, they should be primarily be about creating the desired space to let the person we are with in. And if that means keeping others out sometimes, then so be it. But we should, perhaps, error a bit on the side of letting other people in. That’s my bias, anyway.
I’m striving to let more people in. There’s lots of room inside the palatial walls I have built for myself.
Courtesy of two great conversations I had recently, I’m pondering the difference between having a feeling, expressing the feeling, and endorsing the feeling. And, specifically, how to operate all three when you’re having a feeling that you think (or suspect) is unjustified.
Having a feeling is, well, having a feeling. Whether you feel it as a surge of emotions, a pattern of thought or sensations in your body, the feeling is there. Feeling angry. Feeling scared. Feeling resentful. Feeling elated. Having the feeling is the strictly internal experience.
Expressing the feeling is making the feeling known to people outside yourself. That can be verbal and direct, (“I feel really angry,”) it can be nonverbal (punching a wall), or it can be verbal and indirect, (“That person sucks and I hate them!”) In both the nonverbal and verbal-indirect expressions, you don’t ever identify the feeling as anger, but it’s fairly evident to observers that anger is what you’re feeling. (Sometimes, it may be obvious that you’re feeling something but unclear what. Or you may express a feeling in a way that’s easily misinterpreted, such as someone who expresses anxiety by acting cold and standoffish, leading people to assume they’re feeling something like contempt instead.)
Endorsing the feeling is saying, implying, or believing that the feeling you have is justified and appropriate. Or, if you don’t like applying concepts like “just” and “appropriate” to feelings (I’m not sure I do either), it’s affirming that if you were the ideal version of yourself, you’d still have that feeling in response to the same circumstances. It may (but doesn’t necessarily) involve believing that you should continue to have that feeling, or that other people should share that feeling. It’s believing that the person you’re angry with really has done something wrong; believing that the person you’re giddily in love with really is the finest human specimen to walk the earth; believing that the people at the party you’re anxious about really are all judging and criticizing you behind their smiles.
Having vs. expressing
There’s a common trope around emotional management that goes something like, “Feelings aren’t bad or good, they just are; it’s what you do with them that’s bad or good.” In general I agree with that statement, but it really only deals with the gap between having a feeling and expressing the feeling (where “expressing” can be anything from, “I feel resentful toward you” to leaving flaming bags of dog-poop on their doorstep.) Bringing in the endorsement piece adds another dimension. So you’ve decided that a flaming poop-bomb isn’t the most beneficial way to express resentment in your situation; that still doesn’t address whether you feel that your resentment is, on the whole, justified.
Having vs. endorsing
The gap between, “I feel this” and “it is good or right for me to feel this” is an uncomfortable one, and a lot of people try to erase it. You can do this one of two ways: you can assert that any feeling you have is justified, that of course any right-thinking person in your situation would feel the same way. This gets in the way of critical thinking ability at a fundamental level. The most easily identified people who do this don’t use any kind of rationalist or justifying language, just state their feelings as if it’s self-evident that their feelings are justified: everybody they’re angry with is an asshole, everything they’re anxious about is a dire threat, everybody they love is awesome and wonderful. Those of us who are steeped in rationalist and critical thought principles, though, still do it: we just rationalize our feelings, and sometimes we do it so skillfully that even we don’t notice it’s happening. (I feel fairly confident that every human on earth does this to some extent, even those of us who tend to err more in the opposite direction.)
The other direction is to suppress and deny any feelings you have that aren’t in line with your ideal self or sense of justice. This is the direction I went (hi, religious upbringing!) and it’s pretty crippling. “I know that anger at this person would be unreasonable, therefore I’m not angry. The grinding in my teeth and obsessive-hashing-over of imaginary arguments with them must be something else.” It’s a quick road to completely blinding yourself to some of your emotions. Over time, it leaves you unable to interact sincerely and authentically with people, because everything you feel has to go through the justification-filter, and you will strenuously deny having any feelings that you don’t endorse.
Contrary to both these approaches is being able to acknowledge a feeling without endorsing it. “I’m really pissed at Ryan. I know what happened was both our faults and I might have done the same thing in his place, but I’m still angry.” Once you get past the cognitive dissonance, this is really liberating. The emotionally-reactive self and the critically-evaluative self are not good harness-mates: they have different jobs to do and yoking them together impairs both of them. Freed from the need to rationalize or suppress, it’s possible to process through emotions effectively while retaining your sense of justice and critical thought. (At least, this has been my limited experience so far. It’s still very much a work in progress.)
Expressing vs. endorsing
Once we’ve settled with ourselves that we can acknowledge a feeling without endorsing it, there comes the question of whether, and how, we express it to others. On the one hand, there’s the view that your feelings in the moment are what they are, and honesty demands openly acknowledging them even if you’re not necessarily proud of them. On the other, there’s the view that expressing a feeling is tantamount to endorsing it, so you don’t express anything that you don’t also endorse. This latter view makes sense if your natural tendency is to suppress or deny feelings you don’t endorse: if you struggle even to acknowledge it to yourself, of course you’re not going to admit it to others.
I think in general there’s a lot to be gained from openly expressing feelings, even if they demonstrate that you don’t meet your own standards. They’re a real part of you, and people close to you deserve to know the real you, not just the filtered, approval-stamped version of yourself. (I’m still working on this, and it’s hard.) Expressing these feelings aloud can also help you work through them and bring them into balance.
I also think there are pitfalls in doing this, especially when you don’t make it clear (to yourself or to others) that these are not feelings you endorse. Group consensus is a thing, and when you express a feeling you automatically make it easier for people to justify having that feeling themselves. If we’re not careful to demarcate the line between having/expressing a feeling, and endorsing it, we’re in danger of creating a social feedback loop where one person admits to feeling something (say, an unwarranted level of resentment toward someone), and others feel more justified in their feeling and voice that, leading the original person to begin letting go of the cognitive dissonance in favor of justifying their own feeling. And suddenly the resented person is the scum of the earth within that social group.
Expressing the feeling as well as to what extent you endorse it is a way around this. Saying something like, “I know X meant well and isn’t entirely to blame here, but I’m still furious and right now I’m not able to move past that” is a fuller and more accurate expression of your overall state of mind than just, “X hurt me and I’m pissed.” It also encourages your social circle to continue viewing the situation in a complicated light, rather than sliding towards, “I’m angry and therefore this person sucks.” To my view, it’s maximizing honesty and self-awareness, and people who express themselves this way tend to earn my respect.