The author has been trying to follow this somewhat buddhist maxim sometimes: no expectations, no attachments, no judgements. But setting aside the coolness of trying to transgress the human condition, is there any value in such self-shaping? Let’s have a bit of research.

This question arose after reading the Dan Ariely’s book “Predictably Irrational”:

The brilliant satirist Alexander Pope once wrote: “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”1 To me, it seems that Pope’s advice is the best way to live an objective life. Clearly, it is also very helpful in eliminating the effects of negative expectations. But what about positive expectations? If I listen to Joshua Bell with no expectations, the experience is not going to be nearly as satisfying or pleasurable as if I listen to him and say to myself, “My god, how lucky I am to be listening to Joshua Bell play live in front of me.” My knowledge that Bell is one of the best players in the world contributes immeasurably to my pleasure. As it turns out, positive expectations allow us to enjoy things more and improve our perception of the world around us. The danger of expecting nothing is that, in the end, it might be all we’ll get.

The rest of this post is a quote from Rick Anthony Furtak’s review of Anthony Rudd’s “Self, Value, and Narrative: A Kierkegaardian Approach”:

Opposing various critics of narrative self-understanding as a moral ideal, Rudd explains that character or personality is always being shaped as we engage with others. This ought to be uncontroversial. More significant is his claim that the self is not an entity to be studied by natural science, but a process: something that is always a work in progress, never finished. It is a “work” in the sense that we can “step back” from our feelings or commitments and ask ourselves whether to endorse them, whether they are appropriate or justified. We can also use this reflective space to consider how our desires, feelings, or dispositions may or may not “hang together” as parts of a coherent personality (231). What we find might include habits of mind that we would like to overcome, or even an unconscious yearning for a higher good – for instance, a neglected possibility that we wish to pursue. And yet, the story of becoming oneself is not rightly seen as a project of self-constitution merely: there is also an element of “givenness,” or facticity, and we must work out our relation to this as well (42-43). Rudd takes Sartre and Christine Korsgaard to task for overemphasizing self-choice – the former almost to the exclusion of all else.

On the other hand, some accounts put stress on everything that is not established by our free decision, and Rudd rejects this kind of fatalism as well. It is Kierkegaard most of all who “helped me to understand the tension between the sense that we are responsible for shaping or authoring our own lives, and the sense that there is something . . . definite about ourselves that has to be accepted as simply given” (3). Rudd agrees with other Kierkegaardians such as Edward Mooney that this tension is clarified in the two volumes of Either/Or.2 In this text, a young man commonly known as the “aesthete” refuses to commit himself to any of the possibilities that he longs to realize, while at the same time refusing to identify with anything concrete about his own history. He “cannot respond to the real, intrinsic value of things,” nor can he regard the determinate aspects of his past “as a basis for the conscious shaping of [a] future,” and this is why he suffers from a sense that his life is incoherent and meaningless (168-170). Such a person lacks any non-arbitrary criteria for orienting himself in the world, because nothing appears significant to him in an unambiguous or sustained way – and this confusion about what is of value corresponds to a structural failing on the part of the subject.

In truth, Rudd explains, we are neither only our concrete facticity nor only our capacity for transcendence, and yet the difficulty in appreciating how we can be both at once gives rise to a tension in our thinking. Frankfurt, on his view, is inconsistent on this question, sounding at one time like a believer in acquiescent self-acceptance and at another like a believer in free self-shaping. In The Sickness unto Death, a notoriously dense text, Rudd finds – quite rightly, in my opinion – a more adequate conception of the human being as negotiating this tension. The capacity to step back and evaluate our commitments or desires might sound more tame than the dizzying sense of possibility that Kierkegaard portrays, but overall Rudd puts to good use the categories that he adopts from this psychological work of Kierkegaard’s. Selfhood, he contends, consists in the conscious effort to shape oneself in accordance with one’s values while also being mindful of all the unchosen conditions that place limits upon that shaping. It is comparable to how a wood sculptor is not imposing his or her vision on utterly amorphous material, but working “with the grain” (and sometimes against it). As Rudd argues, a person must ideally relate to what she has been and what she might be while also relating to pursuits that have real, intrinsic value. Frankfurt’s notion of “final ends,” or Bernard Williams’s “ground projects,” are pointing in the right direction, since they note the importance of unconditional commitment (44-45). However, Rudd thinks that we still need to be more specific about what it is to which one is committed. Invoking a Kierkegaardian work that is perhaps the most important of all for his own purposes, Rudd claims that “purity of heart” – or, as Frankfurt would say, wholeheartedness – “is to will one thing” (46). And he hastens to add that it is not sufficient to will just anything in order to develop a coherent identity (or, a unified self) and thus to live meaningfully. Rather, one must will the Good.

Since Rudd thinks of the Good as “an ultimate source of value,” which “is itself of absolute value” (149, 160), would it not seem hubristic to entertain the thought that the Good could perhaps be comprehensively known by any one of us, or by all of us collectively? After all, by virtue of being finite we cannot appreciate the distinctive worth of each and every person, place, activity, or abstract ideal, as it seems Rudd would wish to agree (132-134). This alone suggests that some aspects of the Good will remain veiled from any one of us. As for appreciating more of the Good collectively, this would be possible only insofar as our affinities differ, that is, insofar as each self responds to different aspects of the Good. And Rudd speaks of the importance of each person finding what aspects of the Good he or she has an “affinity for” (136-137, 248), which is in keeping with Kierkegaard’s notion of each human being having a unique purpose. At the same time, Rudd sees “pluralism” as a threat to value realism (137, 144), and wishes to assert “the unity of value” in opposition to more pluralistic views (156-157). But if a moral agent ought to ask herself if her values are “the right ones” or “the true values,” what room is there for a variety of moral agents to appreciate various aspects of the Good? For it is a vast and multifaceted Good that my imagined value realist has in mind, and the reality of goodness or value need not be compromised on such a view. This would represent an alternative form of moral realism to what Rudd considers the only option that gives value a solid ontological status.

  1. Fatalistic Signalman cannot agree. “His moustache is stained with nicotine. His Isambard Line uniform is neatly pressed. He always expects the worst, confident in the knowledge that he will still be disappointed.” ↩︎

  2. See especially Chapter 2, “Self-Choice or Self-Reception,” of Mooney’s Selves in Discord and Resolve (Routledge, 1996). Rudd’s interpretation of Either/Or is also predominantly in line with the reading developed in Chapters 6 & 7 of Wisdom in Love by Rick Anthony Furtak (Notre Dame, 2005). ↩︎