Friday, August 10, 2012

Does actualization of potential take us beyond self-direction?

The main point I am making in the second chapter of the book I am writing is that the purpose of our lives is to flourish – to actualize our potential as individual humans - and that what flourishing means is ultimately a matter for each of us to discover for ourselves. As I see it, the reason we have to discover it for ourselves is that flourishing involves, among other things, developing skills in self-direction.

A correspondent has suggested to me that this formulation is excessively focused on individuals and does not recognize that individuals cannot flourish unless they see themselves as part of a community and are able to live harmoniously within it. My correspondent suggested that individual flourishing means transcending self-direction. She referred to Martin Seligman’s idea that living a meaningful life involves ‘belonging to and serving something bigger than the self’ (‘Flourish’, p 17). She also mentioned Jonathan Haidt’s view that we (human beings) are ‘conditional hive creatures’ with ‘the ability (under special circumstances) to transcend self-interest and lose ourselves (temporarily and ecstatically) in something larger than ourselves’ (‘The Righteous Mind’, p 244).

As it happens, I am a Seligman fan. I particularly like the final paragraph of ‘Authentic Happiness’:  
‘The good life consists of deriving happiness by using your signature strengths every day in the main realms of living. The meaningful life adds one more component, using these same strengths to forward knowledge, power, or goodness’ (p.260).

In the preceding paragraph, Seligman argues strongly that we get to choose the kinds of lives we live. His views are clearly consistent with self-direction. We might choose to serve goodness, for example, but we have to work out what this might mean in practical terms before we can do it.

I am also a Haidt fan. I accept that humans have evolved with a tendency to be groupish. As Haidt puts it:  
‘Hiving comes naturally, easily and joyfully to us. Its normal function is to bond dozens or at most hundreds of people together into communities of trust, cooperation, and even love’ (p 242).

I agree with Haidt that ‘a nation that is full of hives is a nation of happy and satisfied people’ and not a ‘promising target for takeover by a demagogue’. He is endorsing civil society. 

Jon Haidt's metaphor of the rider and the elephant, discussed in Chapter 3 of my book, suggest humans have some capacity for self-direction. Nevertheless, groupishness does appear to be somewhat in conflict with self-direction. If we obtain happiness and satisfaction from groups, does that not mean that we are surrendering autonomy?

bookjacketAt this point economics comes to the rescue – in the form of ‘identity economics’ - to provide a framework to consider whether groupishness trumps self-direction. The key idea of 'Identity Economics' - a book by George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton - is that people gain satisfaction when their actions conform to the norms and ideals of their identity, which is determined to a large extent by the groups to which they belong. (I have written about identity economics previously on this blog - here, for example.)

In the final chapter of their book Akerlof and Kranton have a brief discussion of choice of identity. The discussion covers the role of identity considerations in choices made by women to pursue careers, choices made by parents of whether to send children to private schools, and the choices of immigrants to integrate into their new countries.

It seems to me that the extent to which we are able to realize our potential depends to a large extent on the choices we make about the groups we belong to – choice of friends, further education, work, social groups, religious groups and so forth. We can choose to lose ourselves, waste ourselves, find ourselves, or whatever, in a range of different ways by bonding to different groups. The groups we join help determine our identities and our identities influence our future choices.

One of the wonderful things about modern society is that it provides ordinary people with a wide range of choice of groups to join, or not join, as they choose. We get to use our powers of self-direction to choose our identities by deciding which groups to join, or leave. I accept that actualization of potential requires us to transcend self-interest (as the term is normally understood) but, it seems to me, that it also requires ongoing development of skills in self-direction.

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