Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Self-Conceptions are Often Just Self-Deceptions

I discovered that I can download podcasts of Fresh Air from iTunes and this has been my savior on mega walks with daughter. I was listening to Terry's interview with Jeffrey Toobin about his new book, The Nine. The book sounds utterly fascinating, especially to someone like me who is obsessed with the direction of the Supreme Court. But, this is not really what I want to write about. What really got me thinking was something he said in his long discussion of Sandra Day O'Connor. He suggested that after she cast her vote in the Gore v. Bush case, on the side of Bush, that the public outcry really challenged her self-conception. O'Connor, Toobin argues, prided herself on her "fairness" which the public outcry really pushed her to look at honestly.

The idea that our self-conceptions are often self-deceptions really stuck with me for the rest of the day and into the night. I kept thinking about how much of our political and ethical judgments are both an expression of and justified by what we think our self-conception is. I think this insight is really the key to understanding those who seem so full of shit to us. We listen to people whose politics couldn't be more widely divergent from our own and they say things that seem so wholly disingenuous when you compare them to what they actually do--what causes they support, who they vote for, and how they live their lives and treat others--that it is hard to make sense of them. The problem is always assuming that what they say about themselves--how they fashion their self-conception--is in fact true or, better yet, honest.

As someone who has spent many years teaching both ethics and feminism, I have heard a lot of bullshit in the classroom. I have listen to young women talk about themselves as tough, empowered, and independent, while they wore the uniform of their sorority, giggled like flirty school girls when a man spoke up and said something inane, and put themselves in risky and dangerous sexual situations. I have also listened to students champion the "boot straps" myth of selfhood and success, while knowing full well that everything they currently have was a gift from very rich and indulgent parents. I witness a lot of self-deception in students' self-conception.

And for me, what you really need to do to teach ethics or political philosophy well, is get at peoples' self-conceptions and get them to be honest with themselves. This is not only ridiculously hard work, but it is downright draining. No one likes to have a mirror held up to them and the defenses against taking a good look are mighty powerful. But, this is what good teaching is. I reject any notion that the idea behind teaching philosophy--especially ethics--is to help students clarify the right principles and apply them consistently. This is just a game and doesn't really get at the more important question: what kind of person am I? What do I really value? And, how do my actions match those values? This is a lot tougher and not something that can easily be achieved in a semester or even four years for that matter.

I am constantly evaluating my self--wondering how credible criticisms against me are and taking them too painfully to heart. I am sure that I am not a good example of what you should do to achieve intellectual honesty. But, I will say that I try damn hard to keep it real.

And yet, what really haunts me about the powerful ways that our self-conceptions are really self-deceptions is that we are unable to ever fully be honest about who we are. In fact, I wonder if we could really live without a lot of self-delusions; perhaps they are even healthy? But, if it is the case that we can't be fully honest about who we are, then to what extent can we ever live without hypocrisy?