The modern world tells us that everything is fungible, nothing is of real value, everything can and should be replaced—our spouse, our culture, our religion, our history, our sexual nature, our race, everything. It is the view of atomistic liberal man, forever creating himself out of his preferences, not dependent on any larger world of which he is a part.
I've been reading the Times of India a bit lately, in fascination and dismay at how quickly India is picking up the modernist disease.
The paper even has a "new age" section which recently featured a short article titled "Be what you want to be". I found it interesting as it was a summary of ideas that are commonly held in the West.
According to the article, what matters in life is a freedom and power to be ourselves:
True freedom means the power to be really you. Every one of us is unique, with our own basic personality, wants, desires, likes and dislikes. The sum total of all these makes us what we are. However, few of us are lucky enough to be in control of internal and external circumstances to be able to express our true selves. So we could end up being what we’re not.
The core idea here is that we are the sum of our preferences. We are a bundle of wants and likes, so that what matters is the freedom to "express our true self" by following our desires.
The worst thing then is to be impeded by some external force in following our uniquely desiring "true" self:
Family and society, friends and colleagues create circumstances – albeit perhaps with good intentions -- that condition us, often forcing us to do or become what we are not. Invariably, it suits many of us too, to be what others want us to be, rather than to be ourselves.
Sounds nice, but remember what "being ourselves" is thought to mean. Our self is understood to be the "sum total" of our preferences, so being our authentic self means nothing more than following through with our self-generated desires rather than external ones that "force" us to be something else. Humans are being defined here by wants, likes and desires.
Once you accept this definition, other consequences follow. For instance, who knows better what we want than ourselves? It therefore will seem logical that the individual should be made as autonomous as possible, as there is no point for the individual to accept direction from any other source. What other source can tell me what my unique wants or desires are?
Note as well that if we follow this idea that our "self" is a unique combination of likes and desires that if we do something we dislike we are thought to lose our very self. There's not a very strong basis for the concept of duty here, of acting for the right or the common good rather than acting to fulfil a personal desire.
What happens if we are blocked in following our own wants? According to the article we become stressed and this leads to disease. The suggested cure is this:
So let’s give ourselves absolute or total freedom, to think, to speak and to do what we really want to.
Total freedom to do what we really want to? What if we want to spend our children's inheritance in a bar? The article cautions us as follows:
This does not mean becoming selfish or license to cause injury to others. On the contrary, a person who values his freedom will immediately realise the value of others’ freedom. Absolute freedom means freedom for all. It means giving up controlling ourselves and controlling others.
That sounds like Millsian liberalism. I don't see that it's necessarily true. If my purpose in life is to make sure that my desires are unimpeded, then what is to stop me taking the attitude that the fulfilment of my own desires should come before those of others? And even if I do choose to value the freedom of others to pursue their own desires that does not make me unselfish. I'm still just doing my own thing for myself, I'm not acting for others.
Nor is it the case that this formula, in which we are each supposed to act for ourselves but respect the rights of others to do the same, leads in practice to a happy mindset of mutual freedom. In the West, what it has led to is the breaking apart of the natural solidarity of a traditional society. If what matters is the power to define and follow our desires, then there will be a sharp focus on which group is thought to hold a controlling influence, thereby holding back all the rest from a genuinely human status. Western society has been riven by a focus on hierarchies of dominance, privilege and oppression.
And what about the idea, expressed in the quote above, that we should give up controlling ourselves? That makes sense if life is simply a matter of following our individual desires. If that is true, then we can simply move from one desire to another - control will be thought of as a block. The problem, though, is that we all learn soon enough that if we pursue our wants in an uncontrolled way that we end up harming ourselves. And we are more likely to live a lesser, rather than a greater, life.
As I suggested earlier, it seems to me that this "free to be me" view of life is a common assumption of modernist liberalism. It has the advantage of being a clear and simple way to view things; all we have to accept is that we are unique in our desires and preferences and that life therefore becomes a matter of individual preference satisfaction and "tolerance," "respect" and "non-discrimination" when it comes to the preference satisfaction of others.
(Here's something else about this system of thought. If you were not to respect a preference or want of someone else it would mean that you were not just rejecting the preference or want but their very personhood, as they are defined as a person by their wants.)
Why should we reject the "free to be me" ideas as set out in the Times of India article? First, it doesn't even work on its own terms. Many of our deepest wants require a social setting. If, for instance, I deeply want to marry a feminine and family-oriented woman, then I need a society in which such women exist in numbers. If I want to live in a community which respects moral virtue, then I need a society in which individuals maintain such standards. If I like my own ethnic tradition and want to see it continue, then I need for that aim to exist at something larger than an individual level.
How can I maintain such conditions of society if the understanding of what it means to be human is so radically individualistic? The "free to be me" philosophy emphasises that my wants are unique and that I fulfil them simply by not controlling myself or others. So how then am I supposed to uphold the social conditions that are necessary for the fulfilment of my deepest wants and preferences? What is likely over time is that my wants will become increasingly trivial; they will be limited to what is possible within the system.
The second reason for rejecting the "free to be me" philosophy is that it is a false statement of what it means to be human. We are not just a bundle of random preferences. We are creatures with a definite nature to be fulfilled and able to recognise a common good and a moral right existing over and above our fleeting desires.