In today’s article, I sketch an alternative to the expressive self discussed in part one. To give away the ending, what I call the “value-responsive self” seeks to honor and respond affirmatively to moral truth, while the expressive self has an ambivalent (and sometimes antagonistic) relationship to moral truth. The existence of value outside our own thoughts and feelings has immense worth in guiding our lives and shaping our happiness. I make some general points about this conception of the self in view of discussing the connection of these competing identity views to sex, gender, and sexual morality in the next parts of the series.
An alternative to authenticity unhinged. To recap the first essay, the expressive conception of the self claims to be a liberating vision of human existence and potential. In this view, the truth is found deep within, and the point of life is to live authentically in accordance with “your truth.” This self is also free and sovereign. It bows to no one and is limited only by the reach of its own ingenuity and imagination.
But, as we saw, the road to authenticity includes several major pitfalls for the expressive self. As Charles Taylor explains in The Ethics of Authenticity, “the contemporary culture of authenticity slides towards soft relativism.” Identifying the truth with one’s feelings and one’s duty with expressing them leads to subjectivism about value, which can ultimately and surprisingly undermine the possibility of being authentic.
So, where else can we turn? Perhaps it would be useful to revisit a central claim of the expressive self—that we should be free from any unchosen norms or values. Why would this be important? Presumably, because freedom has come to mean for many being able to do whatever we want. If there is something constraining, structuring, or restricting us that we did not choose, then we are fundamentally unfree, right? The self looks inward in order to look upward.
The self looks inward in order to look upward.
This is why I call the alternative to the expressive self the “value-responsive self.” The value-responsive self recognizes the importance of moral (and other) values and seeks to respond appropriately to them. The value-responsive self does not imagine that it ought to be the author of all the standards and values that apply to it—instead, it humbly accepts the givenness of the moral law and tries to follow it as well as it can. And in doing so, it gains a freedom that the expressive self lacks—the freedom to transcend itself towards moral goodness and truth.
Autonomy and authenticity reimagined. If moral truth—sometimes called “natural law” or “moral law”—is taken as a given, the importance of looking within, autonomy, and authenticity are all cast in a new light. None of them need be discarded, and each is transposed to a higher plane. Inwardness is important because the human mind and soul are structured to perceive and respond to moral truth. And our sincere and sometimes anguished reflections can help us better understand who we are and what we should do. Yet within this broader reframe, the point of such reflections is not merely to sort out one’s feelings or to “feel good” about one’s self, but instead to try to understand what one’s conscience demands—and for religious people, what God has called us to do and be. As in Augustine’s Confessions, the self looks inward in order to look upward.
The value-responsive self also retains a focus on autonomy, though understood differently from the expressive self. Within this conception, we accept the responsibility to live according to our own best understanding of the truth; and we seek to follow moral claims that we understand and can whole-heartedly endorse. In understanding the point and relevance of a moral truth and choosing to follow it, we are not submitting to some foreign influence that is imposing itself upon us. It is our own perception and appreciation of the truth that drives our commitment and action, and thus, in the most central sense, we are autonomous. As John Crosby writes in his excellent book, The Selfhood of the Human Person, “my action becomes entirely my own only when I act on the basis of my own understanding of the point of my action.” (Crosby explains how this view is compatible with some kinds of authority, but that is a discussion for another day.)
The value-responsive self also retains a focus on authenticity, but again, it is authenticity in a new key. In its pure form, the expressive self is largely indiscriminate about what it expresses—that is, whatever the self feels deeply and powerfully ought to be expressed. It is not the content but rather the strength of what one feels that determines expression. In contrast, the value-responsive self does not place all of its desires, thoughts, and feelings on an equal footing. It recognizes some as good and uplifting and others as base and degrading—or simply as untrue and misleading. Though all of them may be conceived as being part of the self, the value-responsive self seeks to align its will and character with the best desires, thoughts, and feelings. As Plato taught long ago, we should seek to bring all parts of the self under the rulership of the best part of the self. Authenticity means living in accordance with your best sense of what is good and true (which, to repeat, is your best sense of what is good and true, not something imposed on you without your understanding).
But why is this self any better than the exciting expressive version? Some readers might wonder why anyone would want to act as a value-responsive self. Perhaps they can’t shake the sense that the value-responsive self is a kind of self-righteous slave, acting according to the dictates of some unchosen and arbitrary moral code that makes life a chore and feeds feelings of moral superiority. Why would anyone sign up for this?
At a certain level, value cannot be demonstrated—it has to be experienced or perceived. Dietrich von Hildebrand, whose account of value I draw on heavily in what follows, writes that value belongs “to those ultimate data and notions such as being, truth, and knowledge, which can neither be defined nor denied without tacitly reintroducing them.” In other words, something like the concept of “truth” is a necessary part of any claim about reality, including the claim that there is no truth. Saying “there is no truth” is equivalent to saying “it is true that there is no truth,” which leaves the speaker without a leg to stand on. A similar logic applies to value in the sense used here. Value has to do with things or ideas that are intrinsically important and that merit a certain response from us. Even denying the existence of value presupposes that it is valuable to be aware of the way the world is, to “face the facts” about reality, etc. But this value presumably exists whether we recognize it or not, which means we have only let in the back door what we pushed out the front. But even if value cannot be grounded in something more fundamental, it is still possible to say something about what it is and how we are elevated by it.
First, value offers the possibility of transcendence. Imagine witnessing or becoming aware of an act of great courage—for example, Irena Sendler’s efforts to save Jewish children in Poland during World War II. Speaking of this kind of experience, Hildebrand writes that such an act “shines forth with the mark of importance, with the mark of something noble and precious. It moves us and engenders our admiration. We are not only aware that this act occurs, but that it is better that it occurs, better that [she] acted in this way rather than another. We are conscious that this act is something that ought to be, something important.”
When we encounter value, we have the sense of being in the presence of something higher, something of intrinsic importance. That importance issues a challenge to us: will we honor our own best sense of what this value calls us to do or be? If we answer the call affirmatively and align our hearts, minds, and actions with the value we perceive, we take a step out of the immanent confinement of our limited desires and thoughts and move upwards towards what is truly important and good. This transcendence, of course, does not undermine our deepest identity but instead helps us reach our full potential as moral and spiritual beings.
Second, value respects our freedom. This may come as a surprise, as many people cannot get over the fact that value issues a command. But this experience is far different from the way that other desires and urges impress themselves upon us. Hildebrand uses the term “subjectively satisfying” to refer to things we find pleasurable but which do not have the character of value—having a drink of water when thirsty or playing a trivial game. We may become extremely engrossed in a frivolous game and even take great pleasure in winning, but we certainly do not “owe” the game any positive response, and our pleasure in it often leaves us depleted and unsatisfied. Further, our desire to play it can be incessant and impair our better judgment. It would be hard to describe this distinction better than Hildebrand’s own elaboration:
The call of an authentic value for an adequate response addresses itself to us in a sovereign but non-intrusive, sober way. It appeals to our free spiritual center. The attraction of the subjectively satisfying, on the contrary, lulls us into a state where we yield to instinct; it tends to dethrone our free spiritual center. Its appeal is insistent, ofttimes assuming the character of a temptation, trying to sway and silence our conscience, taking hold of us in an obtrusive manner. Far different is the call of values: it has no obtrusive character; it speaks to us from above, and at a sober distance.
Third, value offers recollection. Imagine yourself faced with a situation in which some great injustice is about to be committed, and you feel called by your conscience to do something about it. In such a moment, perceiving the value that is about to be desecrated, one achieves a kind of clarity and self-presence—a proper understanding and orientation towards things and the world, a letting go of that which is trivial and unimportant—something John Crosby and others call “recollection.” This does not mean just remembrance, but “re-collection”—to be collected again, to come to one’s self, to be grounded and actualized as the self one is. Trivial or insignificant things can never offer this sense of grounded self-presence, for they do not engage us at the deepest level of our being. Only a part of us—and sometimes only a very small part—is required to deal with the trivial, but things of true value call to the core of who we are. And in responding to the call, we recover the center of our being.
Of course, recollection need not only occur in dramatic moments. We can live in recollection whenever we are oriented to things of value. The light of value calls us back to our deepest identity.
Fourth, everything other than value is ultimately unsatisfying. Value offers us a qualitatively different kind of joy or happiness than we can otherwise find. Imagine the joy you feel when a friend stops a self-destructive path, when you experience the repairing of a friendship that has soured through misunderstanding, or when you hear of or express sincere gratitude for a beneficial deed. In each case, the joy one feels has reference to a value that was either restored, protected, or instantiated; the light of value permeates the experience. On the other hand, when we buy another trendy outfit or watch another vapid but moderately amusing tv show, we may briefly feel a ping of excitement or pleasure, but it has nothing of the depth and nobility of value. It grows cold even before it is fully consumed, and we are left hungry and anxious, looking soon again for another hit of fleeting pleasure. The more one makes pleasure a goal, the less pleasure one actually finds.
The more one makes pleasure a goal, the less pleasure one actually finds.
Some final clarifications. This, then, is a brief introduction to the value-responsive self. I believe it incorporates everything valuable about the expressive self without falling into its self-contradictions and limitations. But before concluding, a few clarifications are in order: first, the expressive self and the value-responsive self are ideal types, and all of us are a mix of the two. Many people talk as expressive selves but then act as value-responsive selves in many parts of their lives. A concern for social justice, say, or other moral or social issues are incomprehensible without the notion of value. It is probably impossible to be an expressive self “all the way down.” But this is rarely noticed, for noticing it would reveal the limits of the expressive self.
Second, trying to follow value can go tragically wrong. People can be mistaken when they try to respond to value, and the results can be disastrous. But the solution to this problem is not, as some people seem to think, to get rid of the idea of value (John Lennon’s song “Imagine” comes to mind). This is another self-defeating move—without value, we wouldn’t be able to give an account of what it means for things to go “tragically wrong.” The notion of value is unavoidable, so we may as well own it.
Third, value can be difficult to perceive. Some matters of value are easy for most people to perceive, and others take a good deal of persistence, effort, humility, dedication, or love. It can be tempting to identify value with what we or our “tribe” has always believed, what we have become emotionally attached to, or what makes us feel comfortable. But the beauty and challenge of value are that it exists independent of our wishes, desires, beliefs, or actions. By existing independently of us, and by existing above us, value gives us something to aspire to.
As with yesterday’s essay, this is a vastly condensed account. I would recommend that readers interested in learning more read Hildebrand’s Ethics and Crosby’s The Selfhood of the Human Person. In parts III and IV, I’ll be exploring what relevance the distinction between the expressive self and the value-response self has for sex, gender, and sexual morality.