On Philosophy

July 24, 2008

7: The Unknown Are Also Vain

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 12:00 am

1. Interpretation: To remain unknown is also a kind of vanity, or at least it can result from the same kind of mindset that motivates vain actions. Of course the person who wishes to remain unknown instead of being recognized for some great work or great action probably does not think of themselves as vain. Instead they congratulate themselves for being so humble and not demanding that recognition. But therein lies the problem; they are busy congratulating themselves for being especially humble. Choosing to remain unknown, like attaching your name to something magnificent, is a way to set yourself apart from everyone else. It isn’t a case of outward vanity, but it is an example of inward vanity, a course of action we choose to take to prove to ourselves how awesome we are. A truly humble person doesn’t think about the credit they will or won’t receive and so ends up taking credit for their accomplishments because that is the normal thing to do; they don’t spend enough time thinking about the credit to worry about escaping it.

Evaluation: This is not to say that there aren’t legitimate reasons to remain unknown. An informant, for example, may wish to remain unknown for their own safety. And if Einstein had published poetry he would probably have had to do so anonymously, otherwise his fame as a scientist would have prevented an honest evaluation of his non-scientific work. And it would go too far to accuse everyone who goes anonymous without a special reason of being secretly vain. No generalization of this sort can hope to include absolutely everybody. Still, it includes a fair number of people, because what are the advantages of being unknown? Certainly if you really are a humble person then praise won’t change that. Indeed praise is the best test, and demonstration, of a person’s humility, since it is easy to be humble when no one is trying to raise you up. So perhaps they wish to remain unknown because they think of themselves as humble now, and fear that praise might change that. But if they would lose their humility in the face of praise are they really humble now? Certainly a person who doesn’t do evil simply because they lack the opportunity isn’t a good person. Similarly a person who only acts humble because they haven’t been praised doesn’t really have humility.

2. Interpretation: Perhaps a more direct reading of the saying is take it as asserting that even people unknown because they have done nothing worth being known for are vain. This is simply a comment on the nature of the human ego, which can puff itself up without reason. Many people who have yet to do anything significant, and who are unknown for that reason, believe that they should be praised for their work. They believe that the right people haven’t looked at it yet, or that they are ahead of their time and can’t be understood properly by their contemporaries. And thus they come to think of themselves as actually better than those who are praised.

Evaluation: Of course the reasoning of these unknown but vain people isn’t completely wrong. Some people do great work and aren’t recognized for it. However, it is much more likely that they haven’t done anything worthy of being praised for and have an inflated sense of self worth. Perhaps then this interpretation aims to deflate their egos. But should we deflate their egos? Granted, vanity isn’t an admirable quality, but sometimes vanity motivates someone who hasn’t produced anything significant yet to keep pushing forward until they do create something noteworthy. We might reason that, since their vanity hurts no one but themselves, from the point of view of the rest of us it is better the let them be vain, in the hope that they eventually will do something useful. On the other hand, vanity can also serve as an impediment to making a breakthrough. Consider a painter who has developed their own unique style and which thinks so highly of themselves that they keep painting even though no one likes their work. The reason no one likes their work is because the unique style that they have developed is awful. Now in one sense their vanity is useful because it keeps them painting, but it also keeps them from trying a different style because they are too vain to accept that their invention may not be working. Thus what is needed may be just the right amount of vanity. Enough that they keep working, but not so much that they get stuck in a rut. But I know of no advice that can produce just that level.

3. Interpretation: Interpretation 1 could easily be extended beyond vanity and humility to good acts in general. Often people take good actions explicitly to do good or to be good. But, as with remaining unknown, that is an attitude that does not suit those actions. To do good because it is good is again to display a kind of inward vanity, as you congratulate yourself for doing the right thing. It also displays a kind of selfishness. Obviously the person who does good for these reasons wants to be good. But if you do something good because you want to be good then really you are doing it for yourself.

Evaluation: This interpretation raises the question: how is it possible to be a good person? Clearly we can’t be a good person if we don’t do good things. But, on the other hand, we can’t consciously choose to do good things, because in making that choice we would be choosing it because it is good (assuming we don’t have other impure motives) and thus would be choosing it for our own sake. But in presenting the puzzle in this way the answer also presents itself. The key is to do good things without having to make the conscious choice to do something good. In other words, become the kind of person who does good spontaneously without thinking about it; then you will really be a good person. Doing good acts because they are good might be a way to train the right habits, but it doesn’t make a person a good person.
This interpretation, and the above response to it, assumes that being good also requires the correct intentions, specifically those that are not in any way selfish. That assumption is not shared by everyone. There are some who argue that when it comes to good and evil all that matter is what actually happens, and that people should be judged by what they do and not by what goes on in their heads. That it is so hard to be a genuinely good person when intentions matter may make us sympathetic to this suggestion.

4. Interpretation: In a less literal sense this saying could also be read as expressing the idea that the unknown truth, or us the unknown in general, is vain. Of course an unknown truth does not have a personality, and thus cannot literally be vain. However, if it did have a personality how could it help but be vain, given how much we care about the unknown and how little we care about the known, in comparison. But perhaps that is an intellectual mistake on our part. If there are two boxes, one which is open and can be seen to contain four balls, and one which is closed and contains an unknown number of balls, why should the number of balls in the closed box be any more interesting than the fact that there are four balls in the open box?

Evaluation: This interpretation seems to be giving bad advice. Curiosity is an extremely important human characteristic. We find out unknown things because it is possible that we can use that new knowledge to make our lives better after we have exhausted all the possibilities for building upon what we do know. But there also is a sense in which this interpretation is entirely correct. It is entirely irrelevant how many balls are in the closed box. But what’s the harm is a little curiosity about irrelevant matters? None, as far as I can see. It is possible though for curiosity to be taken too far. A person who could never be satisfied with unknowns would never be satisfied, since it is impossible to know everything. So while curiosity is an important driving force it is sometimes necessary to be satisfied with not knowing. Indeed the not-knowing of strategic facts is essential to being a good neighbor.

5. Interpretation: The unknown are vain, in the sense of useless. Under this reading the saying would be making the claim that all that matters are a few important individuals, while everyone else is unimportant and largely replaceable.

Evaluation: The sentiment in this interpretation is hard to agree with because it reeks of elitism. However, unappealing as it is, there is a grain of truth in it. It is not true that everyone else could be gotten rid of; the world is built upon unknown individuals. But it is true that, from the perspective of society, one unknown individual is much like any other and can probably fulfill the same role. What are we to make of that knowledge? Should we strive desperately to be important and irreplaceable in the eyes of society? Or should we pretend that what really matters are the people we are close to, to whom we aren’t replaceable? Neither, I think, is the correct response. To strive to be recognized by and be irreplaceable to society is likely to be futile, and thinking only that mattered is likely to make you a very unhappy person. But valuing the perspective of the people who know you, rather than the perspective of society as a whole, is simply intellectually dishonest. The perspective of someone who knows you is no more important than the perspective of someone who doesn’t, by an objective standard. Thus the best response to this realization is to accept that being important or irreplaceable is irrelevant when it comes to living a good life. If you accept that being important doesn’t matter then the fact that the world doesn’t find you to be important won’t bother you.

6. Interpretation: As interpretation 4, but instead taking the unknowable, rather than the unknown, to be vain. The unknowable receives far more praise than the merely unknown. Because it lies in some way outside the human intellect mystics of all sorts have latched onto the idea of the unknowable as encompassing a domain of special or ultimate truths, which the mystic usually promises access to by transcending the intellectual. However, it is foolish to suppose that the unknowable is special just because it is unknowable; that would be to suppose that the human intellect is so special that everything outside it must be special as well.

Evaluation: Is anything actually unknowable? It’s hard to define precisely what is unknowable, because that would approach knowing it. However, it is possible to give a few examples of things that are unknowable. The decimal expansion of pi, or any irrational number, cannot be known beyond a certain point, simply because the universe doesn’t contain enough energy to carry the computation any further. There also may be regions of space-time that are inaccessible to us, such as the inside of a black hole or a region sufficiently far away. There does not appear to be anything special about these examples of the unknowable. Certainly they don’t appear candidates for anything like an ultimate truth. And so this interpretation appears to be on track in its recommendation not to treat the unknowable as anything inherently special.

7. Interpretation: The unknown, collectively, are vain. Consider how the unknown masses often demand democratic representation. A democratic system presupposes that the unknown masses are better judges of a politician’s quality than any expert or any objective measure. What could be more vain than that?

Evaluation: To be honest it is hard to find examples of the unknown masses acting vain collectively. At times it seems that almost every member of them is vain to some extent, and yet as a group they are surprisingly humble. How can that be? Well generally vanity takes the form of an inflated ego, and an inflated ego involves thinking that you are better than everyone else. So consider what would happen if you put four people with inflated egos in the same room. Each would believe that the other three were relatively incompetent. Thus, when they do something collectively, each believes that the group is only moderately competent, since their singular brilliance is outweighed by the other three idiots, and so as a group they tend not to express vanity. Thus in this case acting collectively results in a group that is better than the individual. I would also argue that a demand for a democratic system is not a rare expression of vanity in a group, rather it is a reflection of their fear of being exploited by others who might manipulate the system.


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