On Philosophy

August 2, 2008

Putting Philosophy To Work: Dealing With Others

Filed under: The Good Life — Peter @ 10:19 pm

It is a mistake to think that other people have hidden inner selves in the same way that we have hidden inner selves. I have a hidden inner self that contains some ideas and attitudes that have never been revealed, and may never be revealed, along with many more ideas and attitudes that have found a reflection in my outer self. There is no such inner self in other people. Well, literally they probably do have such an inner self – it would be irrational to suppose that I am uniquely special in this way. However, there is no point in thinking of other people as having an inner self, and so in that sense we are better off pretending that they simply don’t have one.

The reason that contemplating the inner self of other people is pointless is that there is no way to get access to it. No matter what facet of the person we encounter, whether a snippet of causal conversation or a page from a hidden diary, it is always part of their outer self. We can try to guess at their inner self from these clues, but we will never have access to it. Even in a sci-fi scenario where reading minds is possible we don’t have access to the inner self – in that case technology has demolished the inner self and made all expressions of the person external. The inner self of other people is hidden from us by definition.

Believing that other people have an inner self can lead to a kind of paranoia. You will be led to wonder whether their outer self really reflects their inner self, of whether that inner self contains hidden attitudes and desires that are skillfully masked by the outer self they project. This is like worrying that secretly your wife married you for the money, even if she gives every indication that she didn’t. Such worries are pointless because they can never be confirmed – nor can we find evidence for or against them. Even if that person’s outer self radically changes in a way that apparently reflects all your worst fears about their secret inner self it is still no guarantee that you were right all along. This new outer self could be the false appearance.

Naturally this isn’t the only kind of paranoid musings about other people that we might entertain. We could also worry that someone will have a sudden and radical change in personality for no apparent reason. Our loving wife may suddenly just be interested in the money. But for some reason we tend not to dwell on such possibilities. Sure, they may happen, but we realize that they are unlikely enough that worrying about them simply isn’t productive. But the possibility that someone’s inner self is radically different from the outer self that they have been consistently projecting is equally unlikely. Indeed in most cases it isn’t even possible to tell the difference between someone who has had a radical change in personality versus someone expressing their hidden inner self for the first time. Both cases reveal themselves to us through essentially the same radical changes in the outer self.

If it is irrational to worry about sudden changes in personality then it is equally irrational to worry that someone has a hidden inner self that is unlike their outer self. But somehow we are unable to see things that way; we naturally tend to dwell on the possibility that something is being hidden from us, perhaps because of the aura of mystery it creates. Since that worrying is irrational, and no more or less justified than worrying about sudden changes in personality, it is productive to ignore the existence of the inner self in other people. Which is not to say that we should think of them as robots or automatons, but rather as conscious individuals who are simply unable to hide any aspect of their personality from outer expression. Once we embrace that way of thinking we are left only with worries that are productive or which we are able to rationally evaluate. For example, we could worry that there are aspects of their outer self that we are unaware of. At least with such worries we can put them to rest by finding or not finding those aspects.

Worrying about the unknowable inner selves of other people isn’t the only problem that can arise in our dealings with them. Previously how to avoid placing too much weight on the judgments other people pass on you (in the form of wealth, fame, and praise) was discussed. Just as we often place undue weight on what other people think about us there is a tendency to worry about what those people think about other people or what their opinions are on some matter.

Why we are inclined to care about what one person thinks of another, or what their opinions are, is hard to unravel. It could be a reflection of caring about what people think about us – namely we worry about what they think of other people because we worry about their judging them to be better than us. Or perhaps we are so in the habit of caring about the opinions of other people in relation to us that we unconsciously generalize from that and start caring about their opinions of people in general. Neither really constitutes a good reason for caring.

Of course, like valuing wealth of fame, it isn’t easy to simply stop caring about the opinions of other people once we are in the habit of doing so. Previously it was suggested that some bad habits could be resisted by reminding ourselves that we are ok with the person we are now, and thus were fine with being poor and unappreciated. I think the same remedy can be employed in this case as well. Whenever we find ourselves being bothered by what one person thinks of another, or thinking of how to change their opinions, we should remind ourselves that those opinions have no impact on us. What one person thinks is not going to change who we are in the least. And we are fine with who we are, so we should be fine no matter what opinions they develop.

We might find ourselves resisting that line of thinking. Maybe we worry that if the boss likes Alice so much that we will be passed over for a promotion. Or maybe if we don’t correct some fool’s opinion about what makes a good movie that opinion will propagate, affecting the opinions of other people and eventually what movies are made. In both these cases we are resisting letting go of caring what someone else thinks because we worry that somehow their opinion will affect us. But it isn’t really going to affect us. Wealth, fame, whether the majority of other people agree with us – none of those things change us, they change the world around us. And if we are ok with who we are we won’t stop being ok just because of those changes. (Now if the opinions of other people were going to lead to significant changes, such as genocide, then it is worth being bothered by them. But we have to keep these things in proportion.)

Another reason we might find ourselves caring about the opinions of other people is because of “sympathy” for them. If we think that their beliefs are in error then we may feel that correcting them would do them a favor. Thus our altruistic tendencies may compel us to care about the opinions of other people, inasmuch as we think they are wrong. Again, such tendencies are out of proportion to the real impact of those opinions. If someone is wrong about what makes a movie good they won’t be significantly harmed by that error; at worst they’ll watch more bad movies than they had to. Even substantial errors, such as denying the existence of evolution, often do little harm to the individual. Unless they are a biologist evolution is largely irrelevant to their lives. Now this might seem like bad advice. If we simply let people be wrong about evolution won’t that affect public policy, possibly suppressing valuable scientific research? Yes, it might, and so it is reasonable to worry about the belief of the population, in general, about evolution. But that doesn’t mean that it is reasonable to worry about the beliefs of a single person. If you find yourself trying to correct one single person then you are worrying about their opinion out of proportion. The strategies that are effective at influencing the beliefs of the population in general look nothing like those aimed at a single individual.

Or it might be possible that our opinions are wrong. And thus we should be motivated by self-interest to care about the opinions of other people, inasmuch as we might correct our own by thinking about them. But the same reasoning applied in the previous paragraph applies equally well to ourselves; in most cases it doesn’t matter that much if we turn out to be wrong.

Now if this advice is aimed at keeping our reactions to the opinions of other people in proportion it may seem like bad advice. Isn’t not caring still out of proportion? Yes, not caring may be caring too little. However, it is probably much closer to the amount we should care than the amount we normally tend to dwell on such things. And so I would ague that we are better off simply not caring about most of the opinions of other people, since it brings us significantly closer to where we should be. Furthermore it is much easier to adopt a perspective where those opinions are largely irrelevant than one where they matter in just the right amount. As soon as we acknowledge that they matter even a little bit then our natural tendencies lead us to take them too seriously.

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