Self-Identity and Libertarian Politics

There is at least one thing upon which both Libertarians and I agree, and which people in general don’t quite seem to get, and that’s the nature of the self.

Several years ago, I was reading a history of psychosurgery in which the origins and initial reaction to the prefrontal lobotomy were discussed. (That’s another topic and will be addressed another day.) One anecdote in particular caught my attention – a woman who was exceptionally proud of her curly bangs was frightened that they’d be cut off to facilitate the surgery. The doctor reassured her they’d be left untouched. Of course, they were not. But by then she no longer cared.

What struck me was that this woman identified with her curls – saw them as important and intrinsically part of her self – more than she did her brain, the removal of a large part of which wasn’t nearly as important to her. And once she lost the ability to handle complex abstract thought, she lost that identification. She lost her selfness.

I later read of a peculiar (and unrelated) incident in which a movie showing the serious injury and attempted surgical repair of a person’s hands was observed to cause distress among artists and craftsmen much more frequently and severely than in the general audience. In some cases, people fainted dead away. Experiments based on this chance observation suggested that even the idea of injury to parts of the body closely involved with activities and roles that people cared about deeply could cause distress much greater than mere empathy with the suffering of others could. It wasn’t just that they were affected by blood or the sight of surgery in general – but reacting to certain, specific losses and injuries was deeply traumatic.

Genuine love has famously been defined as caring more for someone else’s well-being than you do for your own. I don’t think that’s quite true, though. We can consider ourselves to be far more than the bodies in which we reside – even disregarding them completely. Objects, other people, organizations, abstract states, even ideas can become part of our self-defined identities. In the case of love, such as the love of a parent for a child for example, the well-being of the child can be of higher priority than the continued life of the parent – not because the parent is selfless, or self-less, but because a lesser part of the self is lost to preserve the greater part.

This understanding is key to the recognition that altruism, as the concept is commonly understood, does not exist. No one ever acts selflessly. We merely prioritize and choose between different parts of the self, sometimes sacrificing the lesser to preserve the greater.

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2 Responses to “Self-Identity and Libertarian Politics”

  1. >We can consider ourselves to be far more than the bodies in which we reside – even disregarding them completely.

    Absolutely! This idea is central to any decent version of ethical egoism, but is unfortunately not widely noticed. Though contra many transhumanists, I value my body quite a bit.

    >This understanding is key to the recognition that altruism, as the concept is commonly understood, does not exist.

    I’m not sure you need to go that far. Surely it’s possible in principle to be altruistic, and I’d expect that, since the idea has some currency, a good number of folks are truly altruistic. But I’d consider that a case of being mistaken about what’s good.

    • Surely it’s possible in principle to be altruistic,

      No, not in the sense that people use the word. The concept they refer to as ‘altruism’ is incoherent.

      The real-life behaviors that they call altruistic are merely examples of body-and-basic-identity schemas being eschewed in favor of long-term, abstract, and not-body-based identity packages.

      When an athlete “takes one for the team” and gets themselves injured in order that his teammates can gain an advantage, he’s not sacrificing his self. He’s simply choosing forms of self-image that prioritize identification with the group and the role of “effective teammate”, possibly involving the respect and good opinion of others and a desiring for the abstract state of “victory” and “having won the game”.

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