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human flourishing implies a “Self” interested ethic
november 2009 / january 1, 2011


1.1 | No one would disagree that growth, self actualization, and the like, are part of good lives, part of living well. Yet, how does that relate to ethical concerns?

1.2 | I suppose for common senses of ethics that the relationship involves presuming that self interest likely becomes exclusive or exploitive, etc., so putting constraints on self interest is necessary to prevent it from being other-invalidating or narcissistic, because there’s an inherent tendency toward that. Such an attitude toward self interest is cyncial, though quite justified by history (but presuming a non-developmental sense of self—which could be called a low literacy of self interest). A question of the relationship of self and ethics arises from ethical concern—is anchored by ethical concern, rather than anchored by self interest, because it’s presumed that self interest isn’t inherently ethical. Self interest doesn’t concern itself with being ethical. Self interest doesn’t initiate the question.

1.3 | But does ethical concern normally concern itself with facilitating self development when the question of relationship arises? Or is ethical concern contained by need to constrain, organize, and control—and to what end? Whose ethics?

1.4 | The common sense preference for ethical concern over nondevelopmental self interest makes good sense. This is especially sensible if ethicality excludes a developmental sense of self interest in the first place, due to a cynical sense of self. Ethical life makes self interest supplementary to the rightly-prevailing importance of an ethicality that is not oriented by a low literacy of self interest. Self interest is at risk of unethicality—the story goes—because self interest is not at heart motivated by the interests of ethical life; so, self interest needs constraint and is compatible with ethical life inasmuch as it conforms to ethics.

1.5 | But I want to advocate a sense of self that not only accords with what common ethical sense requires, but may be a better way to ground ethics as such, because values of self development deserve to prevail for the sense of ethical importance that best serves the human interest, classically expressed through the humanities, humanism, humanitarianism, and, I would argue, also shown by our evolution (not to be shown here!), especially through creative lives we all find admirable.

1.6 | I want to advocate (way up the road, but suggest here) a sense of self development as creative engagement and make that exemplary for the sense of human interest that ethics serves, i.e., human interest in the best sense. High literacy of self interest is exemplified by creative lives, and this provides a basis for understanding what flourishing as a self interested ethic is best understood to be about. With a rich enough sense of self (resulting from broad engagement with actualizing a rich sense of self), self interest deserves to be prevalent in ethical life, due to the value of self actualization for anyone and everyone. Ethical life is then understood relative to its support for self actualization. All the concerns with interactive norms would be relative to a humanistic interest in promoting well-being all around. I want to advocate an admirable sense of self interest as the basis for ethical life.

2.1 | In order to discuss a sense of admirable self interest that deserves to be considered at least integral to ethical life, if not the prevailing value (which I also want to advocate), I want to first note that commonly in philosophy, ‘ethics’ is considered a synonym for ‘morality.’ But there’s good reason to distinguish the terms, relative to the difference between [1] living a life valuably and admirably over the years, in good conscience (ethics) and [2] conforming to standards of civil life (morality), which is merely part of ethically living a life well (whereas relatively-shallow civil life is usually a supplement to engaged lives: family, work, friendships, partnership, and preferred interests). Morality has general significance for a society, but is not about living one’s life altogether in accord with caring for and about the near-and-dear in one’s life and what may be most valuable (e.g., living fully or growing well). Distinguishing ethical and moral sense is warranted at least because we commonly differentiate [1] relating to intimates and kindreds (a matter of one’s own life) and [2] relating to strangers (an abstract matter of good society). This kind of difference is held by important philosophers in the so-called neo-Aristotelian tradition: theorists of an ethics of care (Michael Slote, Virginia Held, and others) or a modernized virtue ethics (Rosalind Hursthouse, Bernard Williams, Harry Frankfurt, and others).

2.2 | But ethical life is still, like morality, commonly regarded as primarily about interpersonal relations, but with special regard for those who are near-and-dear. Ethics is about values, norms, and decision standards relative to “our own.” (Expansive humanitarian empathy extends the range of near-and-dear into the normal range of morality.)

2.3 | Not as clearly “ethical” are such aspects of one’s life as fidelity to onself, one’s identity, or basic values related to what one’s life is about: (a) how one lives “with” oneself over time, e.g., regarding reflective fidelity to one’s interests. Living in fidelity to one’s Self identity—capped “Self”—is a matter of feeling one’s wholeness of being “I”—the living that I am, rather than merely keeping consistent an array of representations about “me” as myself. (This is an elusive but vitally important distinction that I will dwell with in detail later). Navigating the difference between I-being and “me”-to-myself—cohering truly—is like sustaining an interpersonal ethic among parts of one’s being or Self, staying true to who I am wholly. Non-capped ‘self’ is usefully for the vague mix of it all as “mine”: self images, interpersonal identities (including personae), values, memories, etc—representations of “the feeling of what happens” (A. Domasio, The Feeling of What Happens, 2000).

2.4 | On the one hand, we live with ourselves like an array of others, except that “I” is all of me, all facets of the “interpersonal” intraSelf. This is probably not obvious, at least because I’m becoming too abruptly conceptual, but also because I’m presuming the high sense of plural self that is a result of extensive self development, the “protean” self I mentioned earlier. Presently, I’m being synoptic of a complex that has interested me for many years.

2.5 | On the other hand, there is a converse to seeing self as, well, an intrapsychic manifold of senses of Self that interrelate like interpersonalness in outer-directed life—a mix of self-aspects attached to the mix of interpersonal engagements in one’s outer-directed life. The converse sense is to see real interpersonal life as a distributed Self or singular humanness we all embody and express as innumerably different ways of individuating from childhood onward (neverending, if we love lifelong learning). Indeed, some kind of singular humanity is what people are implying when they talk about a human “spirit” (like wanting to see total health as an integrating sense of mind, body, and spirit). But I’m going to put that aside. I would pursue “spirit” (everybody’s sense of that is different!) in terms of a rich sense of humanity, rather than looking to some specific sense of spirit to understand Self as an individuation, which I will do in my own way. (—via the work of many others. That is not to be about my inflating a highly-conceptualized sense of my own subjectivity into a generalizable sense of humanity, as was typical of German Idealism.)

2.6 | Either way—inner-directed Self as manifold or outer-directed interpersonal life as distributed Self, “ethic”ality comes into the mix as clearly about interpersonal matters (or other matters as if they are interpersonal: an intrapsychic neighborhood of self understandings), rather than as a sense of primary interest in development that is singular (possibly humanistic) and a possibly-singular basis for understanding oneself richly. Maybe I seem to be idealizing the world as an art school, but that’s just a convenient overtone for my interest in grounding ethics in the values of creative self development or idealizing a high humanism. “Worse” yet, my discursive dimension easily looks like I want to regard all the world as an endless seminar (or a research enterprise). No wonder, then, I carry around issues of mediation with others’ dailiness (to a sometimes-obscure degree). But it’s a guiding idealism that’s inclusive, not exclusive. I’m not short on generosity toward general human potential—which is vital to my entire project (as “student” of human development): an expansive good faith toward the potential of everyone.

But most people seem resigned to the lives they are.

3.1 | Common sociocentrism evinces and rewards outer-directed focus, such that inner-directed focus is regarded as supplementary, if not marginal. Sociocentrism even shuns inner-directed expressions of concerns, as matters “we” don’t easily consider. It’s private. You’re alone there (here). “Ethical” good sense is relativized to an outer-directed legacy of survival and reproduction which requires straightforward ensurances that keep systems going. It’s kept interpersonal due to a legacy of vital need for that. Issues of self understanding are “ethical” relative to one’s accountability to others, rather than accountability to one’s own life or sense of Self, which is traditionally a luxury of aristocrats dependent on the labor of others.

3.2 | The neo-Aristotelian tradition of contemporary ethical theory focuses on flourishing or living well to the best of one’s potential and opportunities; and includes such valuation in “ethical” conceptions (i.e., the tradition is overtly “ethical”; the Judeo-Latinate tradition is overtly “moral”). But even here (overtly ethical, in a contemporary sense), the lifeworld holism of that remains interpersonal; interpersonal relations are the model for understanding value. Contemporary issues of Self are commonly thought to belong to the arts (a leisure culture, especially literary “existential” interests) or psychology per se (mental health or clinical process), if not as more leisure culture (e.g., the “human potential” movement that became so much untenable “New Age”iness).

3.3 | One traditionally turns to Literature to find insight into the importance of issues of Self, which easily seem idiosyncratic (“such characters”) or otherwise sociological (e.g., Dickensonian or Austenian or Depression Era, etc.), if only because there’s just too much individuality involved for general theory to comprehend (as philosophy always aspires to accord with general theories). Exemplarity stays tied to the characters. Also, matters of one’s being don’t inhabit the common character of ethical life. (Historically, paternal religion took care of that for its subjects.) We all have enough to think about just by getting along productively or peaceably. Writing about Self gets either very technical (trying to represent generally what’s basically lived privately without articulation), or the consideration becomes very personal (idiosyncratic)—at best, broadly figurative, poetic—or so direct or private about individual feeling, imagination, lived dilemmas, etc., that it belongs to the arts.

3.4 | Normally living, it’s just “me” being; it’s felt well (or not; e.g., in chronic unhappiness). Life is present-centered, in fidelity to its past. Life ensures the validity of its past (on which we are thankfully dependent). But self understanding may be otherwise, like an art, freely composed: There, we live in our own terms, in light of what draws us forward, understanding our past relative to going forward, relative to what can be for one’s ownmost life. More complexly: A future-led cohering of a life’s time is composed by it interests, memories, etc., ideally as all mine, in an anticipated life, a life “going somewhere,” e.g., highly valuing self-actualization. The past is appreciated relative to the futurity it provides to a potentially-self-directed life. The autobiographical dimension of selfidentity highly values how “I” am authentically a result of my life going forward.

3.5 | Escape from oneself is easily sustained by the outer-directedness of nearly everyone (so attached to one another, if not desperately dependent on shared outer-directedness). Lack of feeling is considered mature. Anhedonia is what polite society rewards, masked as light-heartedness, where we are commonly “just joking.” And self neglect has all kinds of medications that the market eagerly helps one keep in mind: eating, passive entertainment, shopping.

3.6 | Of course, anyone would agree that the value of one’s life is more than the near-and-dear place of others in one’s life or the place of oneself in others’ lives. But that remains largely unspoken, commonly so neglected by the dependent character of attachmental life that it can hardly make sense to give Self some validly guiding role, because “we” are so idiosyncratic. Relative to the regime of the high commons (the radiant vanity fair which so much else is relativized to), one is a silo of marginality burdened with understanding other silos who are easily strangers to themselves. Psychoanalysis—the beginning of psychotherapeutics generally—was early-on called “the talking cure” because it brought the repressed, “illiterate”self into interpersonal relations, giving inner-directedness a voice of growth and for testing one’s growth, but relative to interpersonal life,“idealizing” adaptivity; idealizing creative individuation was—and remains—marginal. In all events, though, a psyche becomes at first written in all the avoided shadows, in the horizons implied by troubling images of loved others, auratic and numinous, wherethrough one discovers oneSelf wanting to outgrow all that was kept undeveloped. Time gains a balance of self and interpersonal life that was painfully lacking. For “normal” life, one’s own flourishing begins by becoming well-adapted.

3.7 | Flourishing, in a life-prevailing sense, is basically about one’s ownmost life, where even relations to intimates aren’t always the overriding factor, e.g., how one best integrates partnership, career, and pursuits outside of that (easily regarded as too self indulgent or as neglecting others’ needy attachments), including creative interests or values that preceded present life or that emerge from present life independently of other commitments. Ethically (in anyone’s sense of this), one rightly brings the near-and-dear into the integration of Self and interpersonal life as much as one can (which may be more than they can bear, so their resistance may secures a resigned distance). The overriding factors can be one’s own (e.g., special interests; or fearing that a happy elderhood is not yet truly likely) and, in any case, I am the only one living mySelf.

3.8 | Accordingly, it might seem obvious to regard ethical life as more than a matter of bridging one’s humanity (decency, fairness) with local, living care for and about near-and-dear others; but that’s not obvious to ethical theory itself, which easily reduces self interest to narcissism needing constraint. So, relative to that, I’m also presuming it’s not obvious that one might validly regard ethcal life as primarily originating from oneself rather than from others—as being about balancing care of Self—or high self valuation—with what’s commonly regarded as ethical (which is a “normal” mix—commonly minimal—of care enough and morality enough).

3.9 | But, for the sense of ethical life I’m sketching, Self interest is not about making an ordinary sense of self a prevailing value; that would be narcissistic. I’m anticipating a high sense of Self realization, relative to one’s common potential and humanity that enriches the basis of appreciation of others (that “ecstatic quotidian” as window into others) and enriches the scale of one’s empathy. Given a devotion to the value of self-actualization (not as accomplished position but as prevailing value), given a devotion to the value of understanding one’s own humanity, given a sense of high engagement, then giving prevalence of Self over common ethical considerations might be a very different matter; and, indeed, I do believe so. Such a sense of ethical life is centered in the living mediation of a devoted sense of Self with others, rather than centered in interpersonal life as given (sustaining a given system of attachments). But this seems to require boundaries of Self relative to the boundaries of others’ interpersonal lives that don’t want to enrich their boundaries. It becomes Self interest relating to interpersonal life, with interpersonal life, not based in that. “Ethical” life, relative to a high sense of Self interest, integrates [1] flourishing apart from sacred care for others (not despite others!), [2] a sacred care for and about others (within boundaries determined by interpersonal life), and [3] moral conformance (“good sense”) in all events.

3.10 | Maybe I seem to be overly conceptualizing something very simple, and any attempt to apply what I’m sketching to a real situation would be interpretable in simple term: There’s an easily-deserved acceptability to departing from a given way of life when the need for growth can’t be satisfactorily a part of given life. But much of what the above (and later) is about is a vocabulary for practical understanding that will engage with other’s work, which I’ll gradually discuss via this website.

4.1 | So, caring for others is obviously more than avoiding harm or unfairness (moral), as it’s primarily about supporting, enjoying, and promoting each other’s good, sharing, making a partnership flourish, etc. But how caring can one be for the other beyond the sense of appreciation that comes from understanding and caring for oneself? Living in fairness to oneself and with due regard for one’s own potential is the basis for making sense of what is fair to others and their potential. So, for the sake of others, care and appreciation has to originate from one’s ownmost comprehension of being alive.

4.2 | Considerations which override interpersonal responsibilities and commitments belong to a life duly deemed to be “ethical,” not as a matter of ignoring interpersonal responsibilities and commitments (let alone negating them or invalidating them). A life’s preferences can follow from overriding considerations of the “good” of one’s own overall well-being, as a matter of potential and interests, and long-term growth (given enough valuation of that—the crux of the matter—which follows from depth of Self valuation). Responsibility to oneself, commitment to the long-term value of one’s own life—a hallmark of feminism, by the way—can deserve to be overriding. So, I understand ethical life as basically about the bridging of one’s ownmost flourishing with interpersonal relations.

4.3 | Within Self interest, I distinguish between (a) a Self-reflective intersubjectivity that’s integral to a related sense of rich intimacy, I will dwell with later (I’m not proffering a solipsism of self—not a narcissism!) and (b) the interpersonality (or interpersonalness) that is generally part of caring for and with others in one’s life. Sharing a passion for mathematics calls for an intersubjectivity that requires its own kind of intimacy, nothing like sharing a passion for, say, hiking. The intimacy of poetic expression—an intimacy with the text—can be something found nowhere else in one’s experience, not even with one’s most loved. Potential intersubjectivity with a partner is not the same as intersubjectivity with one’s children, of course. (It’s relative to what one’s child can understand). Interpersonalness is also part of intimacies; so, how a differentiation between intersubjectivity and interpersonalness goes for a particular life, among various relationships, is not obvious. There is much to explore. Yet, the place of intersubjectivity in Self interest—the place of wholly feeling in shared appreciation—is as important as anything else, I feel, possibly most important for understanding what love can be, inasmuch as the feeling for Self deserves to flow as well as it can.

5.1 | So, how much of a compromise of one’s potential (or one’s humanity) in a given life situation is too unfair to oneself? Is compromising of one’s soul, so to speak, part of being “mature” because the society needs reproduction and economic productivity, such that others who can’t make sense of, say, the demands of time for an art will prevail economically and otherwise because it’s “good” for The Order of Things? So much of humanity is living a dull callousness, as if accepting a fate dealt, as if from providence.

5.2 | How can we better ensure that promise for flourishing is integral to child development via parenting? What kind of childhood flowers into genuine relationships and authentic loves? So many lives seem to have lost the promise. Usually, life does not gain much beyond reproduction of common sense, common ideals (house-and-children, typically), in a common world that is manifoldly undermining itself everywhere one looks—at least that seems to be in the faces of dulled reconciliation on commuter trains, on streets, in offices, etc. People plod on because that’s what one does, and no one near-and-dear knows how to manage change. What we should most value is much more than a matter of ethical conformance (but with all due respect for moral compliance). It’s a matter of one’s ownmost human interest that we might need to transgress common sense—at least it’s transgression (scandal!) to the majority of reproductive and economically-minded folks who think that their ownmost human interest is reproductive and economical (which the market and the Catholic Church, for example, love—while ever-increasing population is a hot issue for the Earth). The kingdom of compliance is only derivatively about avoiding jurisprudential damages. It’s bioeconomics.

5.3 | The simple point here is that living well is so much more than sustaining interpersonal life, family, and economy. A possibly troublesome claim here would be that sometimes the integrity of one’s life calls for giving overriding preference for values that are impractical or that call for major shifts of eras in one’s life, beyond common senses of meaningful life. This is not a matter of giving preference to what’s commonly unethical, but rather giving preference to what is simply not about commonly ethical considerations anymore, because it’s about a different scale of ethicality, based in the freedom or integrity of one’s own long-term well-being, beyond a present-centered economy of “commitments” or “responsibilities.”

5.4 | Too often, we tend to yield wholly to common “ethical” considerations (cherished other-orientedness) that result in “designing” lots of unhappiness, lack of long-term fulfillment, depression, chronic self-neglect that leads to bad health, and, really, lack of productivity, for the sake of an unhappy Order of Things. Too much moral-ethicality to the exclusion of flourishing-ethicality can implicitly map a kind of providence. I want to better understand how to manage the value of fidelity to oneself, relative to available resources, yet with all due care for others. It could be that Self interest deserves to prevail over other values more often than “responsible” life will allow. I hope to show convincingly how that does not imply underappreciating the responsibilities we authentically choose.

5.5 | Much of the direction I’ll take with the topic of living well (writing November, 2009) is to go my own way with it. My interest is basically conceptual (no surprise). I want to eventually frame value theory as an integrative domain of thinking, involving interplaying values—in complement, in tension, in conflict—but going my own way, in light of my own engagements. Ethical deliberation itself is a response to the appeal of multiple values. Which ones are to prevail for a mode of one’s life, as a matter of living clearly with oneself? I will speak for myself, presume I’m not idiosyncratic, and be grateful for whatever degree of interest you happen to silently sustain. I’m going to happily swim into the deep end, so to speak, going where I want to go for the first time.

5.6 | Actually, speaking for myself is advocating a body of literature in light of my netweave (an embodied mentality) of their views—an integrative discursivity— to be later appropriated or represented relative to topical interests. But the specifics of that will show a long way up the road.





  Be fair. © 2017, gary e. davis