Archive for October 2015

A welling-up of the authentic self?

October 29th, 2015 — 3:42pm

According to the prevailing notion, to be free means to be free to satisfy one’s preferences. Preferences themselves are beyond rational scrutiny; they express the authentic core of a self whose freedom is realized when there are no encumbrances to its preference-satisfying behavior. Reason is in the service of this freedom, in a purely instrumental way; it is a person’s capacity to calculate the best means to satisfy his ends. About the ends themselves we are to maintain a principled silence, out of respect for the autonomy of the individual. To do otherwise would be to risk lapsing into paternalism. Thus does liberal agnosticism about the human good line up with the market ideal of “choice.” We invoke the latter as a content-free meta-good that bathes every actual choice made in the softly egalitarian, flattering light of autonomy.

This mutually reinforcing set of posits about freedom and rationality provides the basic framework for the discipline of economics, and for “liberal theory” in departments of political science. It is all wonderfully consistent, even beautiful.

But in surveying contemporary life, it is hard not to notice that this catechism doesn’t describe our situation very well. Especially the bit about our preferences expressing a welling-up of the authentic self. Those preferences have become the object of social engineering, conducted not by government bureaucrats but by mind-bogglingly wealthy corporations armed with big data. To continue to insist that preferences express the sovereign self and are for that reason sacred—unavailable for rational scrutiny— is to put one’s head in the sand. The resolutely individualistic understanding of freedom and rationality we have inherited from the liberal tradition disarms the critical faculties we need most in order to grapple with the large-scale societal pressures we now face.

(Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction)

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