Friday, February 22, 2013
Character (part 2)
The only self-descriptive word that I seem to identify with is the word character. To me, character is the sum of choices that I've made, about myself and what I choose to say and do from day to day. Maybe other sociopaths don't do that sort of math, but I do. Maybe it's because I have one friend who lives life beautifully, and I think, why not me too? I make a thousand choices every day, why not give them some sort of theme? Some sense of cohesion aesthetic appeal?
I thought this Atlantic article made some good points about the upside of living life with character:
It has been estimated that the average American tells 11 lies per week. Is this bad for us? Suppose we knew that a lie would never be detected, nor would we be punished. Suppose we had some means of ensuring that the lie would never cause us any physical or psychological harm through loss of sleep or the like. Suppose even that telling the lie would actually redound to our benefit, at least in the sense that it would secure us the pleasure, status, wealth, or power that those fudging the truth commonly seek. Under these circumstances, would it still make sense to tell the truth? Or would lying becoming the prudent course of action?
In his 2005 runaway philosophy best seller, On Bullshit, Princeton University's Harry Frankfurt distinguishes between lying and what he called "bullshit." Though liars do not tell the truth, they care about it, while the bullshitter does not even care about the truth and seeks merely to impress. Liars tell deliberate untruths, while bullshitters merely do not admit when they do not know something. This is a particularly pervasive form of untruth in my own orbits, medicine and academia, where people wish others to believe that we know more than we do. So instead of saying, "I don't know," we make things up, merely giving the appearance of knowledge while actually saying nothing.
Perhaps the most powerful moral argument for honesty has to do with what the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called "bad faith." Liars deceive others, but in a sense, liars also deceive themselves. When we lie we tend to distort our own view of reality, and the more often we lie, the more habitual this distortion becomes. Over time, the habit of lying divorces us further and further from reality, so we see less and less clearly the choices before us and what is at stake in them. Eventually, we may find ourselves unable to see what we are really doing and how it is affecting others and ourselves. We end up leading inauthentic and irresponsible lives.
To tell the truth is to live authentically and responsibly, to really live. At times we may make honest mistakes, misperceiving what is really happening, failing to see things in appropriate context, or even operating unknowingly on deliberate untruths. Whenever possible, however, we should be honest with others and ourselves. When we are honest, we ground ourselves most completely in the world we actually inhabit, being as real as we can with others, and reducing as much as possible the distance between the way things seem to be and the way they really are. In the final analysis, honesty means avoiding illusion and unreality, instead keeping life as real as we possibly can.
Maybe it's because I grew up with a narcissist father that living a life of delusion does not appeal.