Monday, November 12, 2007

val(you), too.

it's been my experience that a person's best talents and worst flaws are often impossible for me to untangle, and the more extraordinary the person, the more true i've found it to be: her innovativeness and her inconsistency, his generosity and his imprudence, her wit and her cruelty . our greatest virtues and vices ultimately the same quality, played out in different circumstances, or maybe distinct qualities underwritten by some common or undisentagleable set of motives. it makes everything complicated, takes us in circles-- we break who we try to fix, or we come to be repulsed by just what initially attracted us.

some of the most brilliant philosophers have argued (are still arguing) that values must be like thoughts, not like feelings- beliefs, not desires- because we can value all sorts of things that we may fail to pursue or realize. i value equality, for example, even as i half-consciously participate in systems that generate inequality. i may value discression highly, but fail to behave discreetly, or make no effort to behave discreetly at all. the examples are practically infinite-- if we were always motivated to behave in strict accordance with our values, it would be a very different world. feelings, on the other hand, are the sorts of things that make a difference in the world-- they necessarily motivate our behavior in a host of ways, ranging from hardly discernable to painfully obvious [or, at least, those things we call "feelings" are our experience of certain brain processes-- the sorts of brain processes that move us around in the world]- not sometimes, but always. so if feelings provide motives, and we can be unmotivated to pursue what we value, then values can't be feelings. that's the general idea.

despite the arguments of some of the most brilliant philosophers, i think that values are like feelings. i don't think that you can value what you don't desire, what you are unmotivated to pursue. but as long as the best and the worst of us remain so shatteringly difficult to tease apart there'll be a clash of motives- of values- that result in some motives being thwarted. we may behave cruelly or imprudently or inconsistently even as we value kindness, prudence and integrity, and not just because we lack the time or resources to improve, but because while we are motivated to pursue those virtues, we are more strongly motivated to preserve ourselves-- and not merely out of some perverse attachment to our vices (although that is a common enough motive), but in an effort to preserve what is best or most satisfying in ourselves.


Boo said...

thanks to your brilliant post, i just realized that "preserve" and "perverse" are anagrams.

Lowry said...

To claim that I "value what I do not desire" seems like it could only amount to hypocrisy or self-deception.

The last part of your post reminds me of what an overriding motive it is (at least for me) to preserve personal integrity. An assault on personal integrity, real or perceived, seems sufficient to trigger the most life-or-death defense -- sometimes of the worst qualities of that self.