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Analytical Sketch of Life-Conduct

© 1997 Henry A. Flynt, Jr.

A. Introduction

B. Outline

C. Limitations

D. Debates

A. Introduction

My attitude to the word ‘ethics’ differs from my attitude to the word ‘spirituality’. I do not have a resonance with some common meaning of the word ‘ethics’ which gets belied when I see how my peers behave.

Personhood theory, as I formulated it in the early Eighties, was incomplete; it overlooked certain "collective psychological realities" which feed into a community’s moral proclamations. That meant that there were "human comportments" which personhood theory did not explore in any detail. The phenomena in question have nothing to do with "absolute right and wrong." I consider it indispensable to be able to conceive the constituents in question apart from ethics. On the other hand, these are phases of lived experience to which moral proclamations attach, and which moral doctrines interpret.

I offer here an analytical sketch of this realm. I cannot bring myself to call it ethics at all: because there is so much in life-conduct and the terms of life which not only does not entail absolute justice or absolute guilt, but whose natural or conventionalistic character cannot properly be understood in a context of justice and guilt. One may become a socially accepted drudge and yet stifle oneself; on another level, one may become a renowned person by acting against one’s inner needs. Happiness is not a moral result: it cannot be an act of obedience driven by a threat. The mission of morality is to constrain the mediocre or insubstantial person (except when he is not wanted to be restrained, on the battlefield). It cannot be criminal, to be mediocre or vapid or dreary or opportunistic. And yet to escape these conditions matters greatly to me.

The following lexicon affords an instant overview of the realm of life-conduct.

impulse desire compassion callousness cruelty boredom hope fear satisfaction regret entice control effort cognizance choice responsibility desired undesired expectation discipline development education suitability deferral conformity pursuit goal anticipate undertake power journey aimlessness ambition aspiration avenue realization fulfillment popularity esteem reverence mentor deference tractability reward reprisal threat blame fault penalty promise commitment compliance faithfulness solicitude benevolence gratitude hostility spite rancor resentment dereliction lie betrayal obligation sacrifice shame guilt

satisfaction self-doubt self-condemnation despair striving means value success failure criterion hypocracy equity utility worth gratification suffering readiness

The italicized terms are problematic because it’s dubious to explicate them outside of ethics and theology. My explications will not be so much independent reconstructions of the notions as attempts to identify the socio-psychological basis for their use.

I was late in developing this material for two reasons.

a. I had to learn to conceive this aggregate of constituents as a subject-matter without giving them a significance of "right and wrong."

b. The terms of life sketched here reflect a certain level of abstraction. They are terms of life that many or most people can recognize in their own existence:

empathy and callousness, dependence on other people, group esprit, the imperative of personal discipline, the imperative of personal development, mentors, pursuits, the esteem of others

Indeed, they concern expected sources of reward and expected gratification. It is unhygienic for somebody to have a fourth-grade personality at age twenty-five. It is unhygienic or socially pathological for an unimpaired youth to be told, before they have done anything, that they will never be permitted a legitimate social role. If the expected avenues of fulfillment fail catastrophically, or disappear, so that the individual is denied the expected opportunity of fulfillment, then we consider him or her to be trapped in a senselessly cruel or unhygienic situation. So the terms sketched here can legitimately be considered natural terms of life.

But there is a major reservation. I speak of "the expected" terms, of terms that most people can recognize in their own existence. But these terms are not absolutes, are not exhaustive. What eventuates at this level of abstraction may consist, in the last analysis, of truisms. Even after we wade through them, we may not be much closer to the life-quandaries which concern me. I address that matter in section C.

What I offer here is a beginning, unfolding at the level of the ostensible. It is journalism of the person-world.

B. Outline

1. Humans exist in a condition of collective consciousness: that is, a sociality which exchanges and shares ideas. All this is profoundly important for what follows, because rewards, penalties, etc. require the understanding that articulated criteria of behavior are at issue. A person who does not respond to reprisals or penalties is said to be intractable; or it is said that he or she "can’t take a hint," an idiom which reveals that the understanding that a conduct-criterion is at issue is all-important.

I have to assume that we are emotionally dependent on other people–but not always. We have spontaneous capacities for camaraderie, empathy (sensitivity), compassion; and for aggression and callousness. These impulses are molded profoundly during upbringing. Social codes require us to be selectively empathetic and selectively callous.

Cultures of torture: Because of boredom and the internalization of disapproval (as possible reasons), people choose to test themselves against annoyance and harm. The capacity for cruelty; the fascination with trauma and destruction occurring to other people. Gladiatorial entertainments.

There is a range of personal actuations called impulses: the sudden, spontaneous grasping. One who acts on every impulse risks not only disapproval and reprisal, but immediate injury. Thus, personal development is a long education in impulse-control.

What is more, we have impulses which seemingly we shouldn’t have, such as an ostensibly stable person’s impulse to jump when on a high precipice, or to crash the car he or she is driving. A mechanistic hedonism would find nowhere to put such an impulse. But it may be precisely one’s imposition of a tremendous discipline on oneself which elicits the impulse to abruptly end one’s life.

We are forced, and we force ourselves, to expend effort in an open-ended way. One has to drive oneself to expend effort for rewards far in the future (deferral). Something more counter-instinctual than the curbing of impulse is required. The word ‘discipline’ is used for both impulse-control and forced effort.

2. A "living community" will "already" have a group esprit. A community already has a group esprit and imposes on me accordingly, sometimes demanding sacrifice from me.

Conjointly with existing in conscious sociality, humans conceive conduct codes and engender systems of priestly, royal, and parental authority to inculcate and enforce those codes. Without selective punitiveness, society as we know it would not be possible. Dominant human aims require discipline, require the deferral of gratification.

Every individual passes through the stage of guided development, called education. To deny absolutely that the individual can judge his or her interests–as the Church or Stalinism may do–is unrealistic. But it is also unrealistic to say that the individual is at all times ready to be the best judge of his or her interests.

Yessenin-Volpin’s ethics does not deal with the question of personal inadequacy, with the reality of discipline and guided development. It makes the individual the locus of perfect rational judgment; and makes the individual the sole arbiter of his or her own interests. In disregarding the imperative of education or discipline, Yessenin-Volpin is naively atomistic and rationalistic.

The community imposes determinations as to when "fellow-feeling" must override self-interest. This, even when real conditions do not give the member an interest in common with the group. A high-school student is expected to root for the home team even though he or she may have no real interest in common with the team. The group imposes group-mindedness as a (final) end.

In the Fifties, America was swept by a new, corporate conduct-norm of "fitting in." It was a bizarre parallel to Communism’s "proletarian collectivism." Social critics reacted by denouncing the obligation of conforming. But like all fads, this analysis was shallow. The demand on the individual to support group esprit is a major psychological reality. Groups are endlessly inventive in spontaneously sanctioning the one who is out of step. Groups are also endlessly inventive in regard to emblems of membership, such as apparel and slang. The average person cannot opt out of group esprit any more than of biological reproduction or alimentation. Rather, higher criteria and higher disciplines may require that the group stifle its punishments of a certain nonconformity. (A grant of leeway; tolerance.)

To depart fundamentally from the discipline of the group as we know it is a visionary aspiration, falling in the remote zone of my most utopian thinking.

3. I have to understand effects produced by my actions, and I have to make choices. Therein lies the beginning of responsible action, which is the precondition for credit and blame. Deliberate or protracted behavior can be "good-willed" or hostile.

When it matters whether an individual acted or didn’t act, there is a factual judgment that the individual committed the action; this can be an obscure matter for many reasons. It also matters whether one was conatively knowledgeable (understood the consequences of one’s actions); and whether the act was a realized choice.

A deed which is worthy in some certified way is called a credit to a person, or gains a person credit. It may earn a person a benefit transferred in exchange, a reward. So it matters to ascribe the deed to the right person. If a deed offends me, or an interested group, we speak of the fault (misdeed) of the person who commits it. A code can designate faults explicitly. In assigning blame for a misdeed, it matters whether the person is conatively knowledgeable and responsible.

An interpersonally obtaining system of criteria of conduct is the "ground" of undertakings and judgments.

In collective and reciprocal endeavors, one person can make a promise to another. The promise can be kept or not kept. A dereliction may injure the disappointed party. The outcome of promises thus constitutes good will or ill will. A situation can imply promises which are customary. If those promises are not kept, one may speak of betrayal.

Promises and commitments are not only spontaneous undertakings between individuals; they may be formalized by a community’s codes. An unkept promise gets identified as a fault.

Even before there are certified credits and faults and promises, personal relationships unfold in egoic advances and retreats. Imposition, deference, submission, bonhomie, shyness, condescension, forwardness, familiarity, provocation. Some of it would be called moral etiquette, I suppose.

4. To say that we form pursuits and strive for goals presupposes arbitrary choice on the part of a stable person (as if I were to choose between being a collector of matchbook covers and a collector of canned food labels). It is a generic account abstracted from the imperative of personal development.

All through childhood, one necessarily contends with the notion of becoming a realized person; and there is far more to it than the "formation of a pursuit."

All through childhood and afterward, we develop, we change away from our present condition because we sense ourselves to be inadequate–because we are dependent, our capacities are not stretched, we have not reaped a full measure of respect. We seek to bring our circumstances within the scope of our choice; in other words, to mature into responsibility and power. That requires development–not just "activities."

That means that during much of life, we are expected to be on our way and are compelled to be on our way. Those who comprise our milieu force us to "travel." You may find a new abode or you may die in the street, but you are not permitted to remain where you were.

Being accepted, and being held in esteem, concern people as (final) ends; and concern people because lack of acceptance and lack of admiration quickly translate into being punished. The word for mere acceptance is popularity. Anticipating later considerations, I come to judge myself, to have one or another degree of esteem for myself. Then we get the more derived personal postures of self-importance and pride. I note them as givens–whether or not they are desirable.

5. We arrive at the more obscure or sensitive phenomenon of personal reverence. There is somebody who has the advantage of me, whom I depend on for assistance and guidance, who also exemplifies what I may hope to develop to, what I might aspire to be.

We should be aware of the paradoxical character of the formulations which have to be introduced here. I "have" an identity which is my "personality," which is correlative to the "vocation" or role which I may take on. It is my unique psychic-behavioral character, although correlative to my physique and my inherited statuses. This identity is at issue for me. I "have" it, but I also accede to it, and I direct that accession: so that beyond being myself, I must produce myself.

Returning to the mentor, he or she does not just do me a favor; he or she manifests a possible and desired outcome of my development. The importance of a mentor being similar to me, to demonstrate that what is presented as an outcome is suitable for someone of my nature. The English word ‘love’ covers the reverence that appears here (cf. "filial affection").–But it also covers parental affection, avuncular affection, romantic affection. The approval of a mentor is something beyond popularity. It is wisdom’s endorsement; it signifies success in the project which is the development or realization of oneself. What we will come to know as guilt is related to incurring the disapproval of a mentor.

The deference which is commanded toward persons of high public status is an echo at the boundary of this discussion, a forced and ritualized reverence.

6. My existence is not only a choice between this proffered option and that proffered option. The conception of life-conduct prevailing today has been profoundly conditioned by mechanistic hedonism; and by a cult of victimhood which makes passivity and helplessness the only human condition, which eclipses responsibility. It is appallingly unrealistic. For good or ill, people are inventive and willful; and if they cannot be, they are cripples. From the standpoint of mechanistic hedonism, the phenomenology gets stranger and stranger.

We are not privy to the contents of each other’s minds. Nor do we have the same center of feeling or willing. Moreover, the demands that others put on us cannot all be fulfilled; and one must keep one’s own counsel in arbitrating these demands. Moreover: I must be able to imagine the perspectives of other people–to assess objectively. I will be terribly reckless if I cannot comprehend others’ interests. But then that means that I must understand other peoples’ perceptions of me, to some extent.

I will be separated from other people by solitude, death, etc. I am born into groups distinguished from other groups.

We cannot expect everyone to take the same way in life. The wider community evinces a vast range of reciprocally dependent "vocations." Collective existence always has, and in the foreseeable future will, involve intricate reciprocities. We depend on others who do not make the same choices we do.

Again, people are expected to have a degree of imagination and invention, willfulness and persistence. People are not supposed to be confined to mimicry; are supposed to be capable of inventing aims and norms. Some individuals carry difference to another level; they can be aggressively original.

7. The community obliges the growing child to become realistic and cognizant; to become able to fend for self, to give something back. Moreover, it is not in everybody to be a pro basketball player, a mercenary soldier, a soloist with the N.Y. Philharmonic. (These are deliberately banal illustrations.) We are supposed to attain an equanimity–to mold our aspirations to what we might actually be able to do–to make a choice from the vast range of "vocations" which is suitable.

Again: You must go beyond yourself because you are naive and dependent and insecure and patronizable. (A proper word is callow.) What is more, you are required to find a more focused identity–and it is usual for a youth to want a more focused identity. (It is considered not so much malicious as unhygienic for a thirty-five year old to have no more direction than a fifteen-year old.) There is, indeed, a natural progression; there are natural terms of life.

Within this state of affairs, then, I have, within constraints of my nature, to produce my identity, my "character," to win it, to gain it. That emphatically is not an "activity"; its desired or undesired outcome is not a "success" or a "failure." It is not "an activity": to mature according to your nature. It is no "activity": to become who you ought to be. A favorable outcome can be called "realization," or "fulfillment."

When the outcome of self-development is not favorable, it means that we fail ourselves on the longitudinal, thematic "journey." What is that? To gain yourself or lose yourself.

A mechanistic hedonism would find nowhere to put such a state of existence.

8. A person’s future behavior can be influenced by rewards and reprisals; he or she is said to be tractable.

A reward is a benefit which one or more people transfer to another in exchange for the latter’s having fulfilled an explicit norm of behavior, for example. A reprisal may be an idiosyncratic action answering an injury with an injury. The phenomenon of the reprisal is not trivial. On the one hand, it constitutes spite. On the other hand, it is anticipatory, wanting to drive future behavior in a different direction. A sanction or penalty is a reprisal in the name of an explicit code. Linked to the explicit code, the sanction or penalty is said to constitute "retribution."

A sacrifice is an act in which one confers benefit on another or others by accepting an outcome markedly detrimental to oneself–by accepting suffering, in some cases. That distinguishes a sacrifice from a gift.

There are competing claims of individual gratification and group interest or well-being which get arbitrated. The group may punish the individual for putting self-interest above the group–as with desertion on the battlefield. The group pressures the individual to be self-sacrificing. The group in effect pre-empts negotiation by acting unilaterally as a coercive coalition, imposing values on the individual who is being educated or disciplined.

9. One is forced to try to characterize the theme of codes of conduct which are labelled as moral codes. As I routinely say, the ostensible principle is to prohibit selfish acts which injure another person–in particular, when the act has spreading consequences which harm the entire group. Screaming hypocracies surround this principle in the practice of a society; they cannot be my topic here. To continue abstractly, the prohibited selfish act is taken to be a failure of fellow-feeling. You are emotionally and materially dependent on other people, and yet you grossly take advantage of them.

We already saw that I must learn to register other people’s judgments. I become a proxy for the community which forms me–when sitting in judgment on myself, and enjoining myself to act in some way, on the basis of a learned code. One feels shame at one’s condition if it costs one the esteem of others. A teenager in a certain peer group could feel shame at not trying heroin, or not wearing a certain brand of gym shoes.

I mentioned at the beginning the problems of including guilt in this treatment. Like the notion of a just dispensation, the notion of guilt connotes an absoluteness which cannot be proved. As I proposed, I will limit myself here to an attempt to be psychologically realistic. Guilt has to do, evidently, with incurring the disapproval of a mentor; and with selfishly injuring someone else, with callous conduct. The disapproval becomes internalized, becomes joined with regret of one’s callousness.

It is possible to be more generous. We do not only have to talk about instilled obedience. We will see in §15 that one not only has a conduct-code, but can bail out of it. We could define conscience as self-discovered remorse (which has as its only instinctive source the natural terms of life). Conscience expresses a person’s ability to discover a personal hierarchy of aims–on the basis not only of instinct but of the alert processing of facts and implications.

Returning to guilt, sensitivity of guilt is one reason why I find ethics distasteful. The ethical realm involves expectations from others which, when not fulfilled, become accusations of dereliction and malice.

Cultivation of guilt as a modality is another reason why I find ethics distasteful. It lends itself to obsessiveness, irrationality, and personal constriction.

I wonder, by the way, if ignorance of guilt was the real fault of monsters such as Tamerlane. After all, their "constituency" receives their selfishness as understandable, admirable, and beneficial.

Football is a brutal sport, but it is not ignorance of guilt that causes the winning coach to win. Take the matter of asking your players to injure players on the other team. An average person might feel guilty doing this. But the pro football coach may have substituted for guilt a sense of appropriateness to his mission.

Guilt is entangled with hypocracy.

10. Returning to the imperative of personal development, because I can "guide" myself well or badly, it is possible for me to fail myself, to deform or stifle my character or identity. Again, a mechanistic hedonism would find nowhere to put such a state of existence.

If I suspect myself of failing myself in this sense, or if I suspect myself of being grossly callous, then I am said to doubt myself–a misleading locution. I am unable to resolve the moment of self-judgment in a favorable way. Obviously, vehement public disapproval can have devastating consequences for my judgment of myself. As well, there are moments in which I am profoundly individualized and autonomously judge myself. I am individualized when nobody else cares what I do, and yet I must judge myself. I am individualized when I am separately confronted with my contingency, or the prospect of annihilation. If I conclude at these moments that I fail myself, that I did lose myself, the judgment cannot be appealed, because it is autonomous.

Here we verge on the notion of despair. Despair, properly speaking, evinces itself neither as an impulse nor a choice. Nor is the word properly used for the depression which is appraised as a neurochemical imbalance. (Although it is suggestive that the latter is called a disease.) Despair, properly speaking, comes from a lucid cognizance that there is no hope. And yet it does not manifest as an assertion contemplated; it is a condition, a visceral "tone." It is not for nothing that it has been called a sickness.

There are diverse losses of hope. There is the despair of the person who realizes that conditions will eradicate him or her "prematurely." A victim of shipwreck clinging to driftwood; a person scheduled for immanent execution. The castaway’s loss of hope hastens death, since corporeal life can only be sustained by one’s aggressive effort. The person scheduled for execution, on the other hand, is not mortally endangered just by loss of hope.

The despair which this exposition has arrived at comes from the lucid realization that you failed yourself, that you did lose yourself. This despair doesn’t feel like a choice or an impulse; it may feel like a sickness. It is unbidden and visceral and chronic.

Continuing, there is the despair of the person who realizes that the milieu is not hygienic, that it does not cooperate in one’s reasonable self-realization: that it is determined to make one lose oneself. (I return to that in "Limitations.")

And plenty of people undergo a forced long-term lowering of expectations. Then we may more properly speak of a defeated person, perhaps a rancorous person.

11. Certain phenomena of my nature may oblige me–outside of my choosing to produce myself in a certain way. If I have vivid dreams, for example, and don’t wish to extinguish them, then I honor a nature which is unbidden. (Another reason for my distaste for ethics is that it abstracts from these considerations and focuses on governed choice-making–as if people could turn the former level off and live entirely on the latter level.)

We have to get beyond assuming that our selves are just the propositions we entertain. We also are "tones," moods, states of morale, visceral conditions. To acknowledge these tones for what they are is a crucial sort of understanding. A full view finds the influences to be circular. Lucid cognizance, following on perception, will occasion my accession to a different tone. An inconsolable loss.

Having mentioned the "tone" which a life may have over an extended period of time, I continue by observing that the individual is not the sole arbiter of what that tone will be. Something from outside can activate a tone in yourself which you had no name for. One may not know what one needs. And that outside occurrence need not be an assertion contemplated. Again, we do not only live in a field of contemplated propositions.

The ability to be gratified at being alive, the relish of life, may depend on what befalls one. It’s palpable, because sometimes I feel it and sometimes I don’t. You have to be ready, and you acquire a tone which you didn’t invent or do something to deserve. Readiness is one of the "psychic" capacities.

Let me return to self-importance and pride. We are ranked; and we rank ourselves; and some of the time we fight to defend our rank. We want control of our circumstances and we want respect. Sometimes the solution is to tell ourselves that we already have more than enough control and respect. As I said, we may not know what we need to ameliorate the tone of our lives. A door may be waiting to be opened whose name we do not know. Notwithstanding, some people evidently tell themselves that they and they alone are entirely in charge of their prospects of gratification. One makes, to oneself, a preposterous claim of autonomy.

It goes deeper. A person who cannot meet the natural needs anybody has, or the needs of an idiosyncratic nature–alternatively, an entire cohort which believes that it cannot meet its needs–is condemned to self-loss and humiliation. And yet one still fights for one’s pride. (Pride may be the most compelling of affections. To a mechanistic hedonism, of course, this in incomprehensible.) The state of existence is visceral, not just propositional–involving will and constancy. Pride, willfulness, and constancy are compatible with self-loss and humiliation: because the conditions spoken about here are not absolutes, are not exhaustive. It is possible to make a boast of disgrace; to impose it on others as a "value," a demanded sensibility or mystique.

I begin to connect up with the topics of "Whole Human Comportment"–but it would take me afield to pursue them here.

12. Let me pass to a level of abstraction which no longer assumes that the endeavors undertaken are socially obligatory; which allow the launching of an endeavor to be individual and voluntary. People individually or collectively engage in activities which have goals. "Striving." In the English language, the distinction is made between a means and a (final) end–for example. To achieve the goal is called success; not to achieve it is failure.

At the same time, many pursuits which are pictured as (final) ends are also commended as vehicles of improvement. Listening to classical music, or getting married, were depicted as self-rewarding, but also as "improving." Becoming a "complete," socially activated person.

Earlier, I sketched some constituents of collective and reciprocal activity, such as promises, commitments, credits, faults.

13. The word ‘value’ is a maddening one. Some meanings:

i. My pleasure or displeasure toward something.

ii. A criterion or goal for deeds; often intended for a group, often imposed by the group on the member as a command.

iii. Transferrable utility relative to a stated aim. The potential utility of a coat to millions of people who might wish to wear it.

iv. A commended sensibility or personal quality. Being mystical, pragmatic, ruthless, gentle. A mystique: machismo.

v. A "worth" which has disconnected from a particular valuer and subsists relative to a vast and obscure context. The "truth" of the Theory of Relativity. The market value of a coal deposit or a pair of leather boots.

There is the possibility of a conflict between (i) and (iii) which may be unsettling to the individual. A medicine which is good for you but has a horrible taste. The parent confronts the child continually with these conflicts.

Expanding on (ii) and (iv), a natural comportment, a natural quality of action, can be called a value. E.g. bravery. But then there commences a subtle argument that natural comportments are (or can be) discovered, not constructed–so long as one’s thinking or feeling is not somehow numbed. One finds the comportment spontaneously when it is called for–as when one risks oneself to rescue someone in danger.

Those who call integrity, honor, or dignity a "value" evidently envision a holistic quality which combines (iv) and (v). "Transpersonal worth specific to a sentient organism."


The categorematic terms of a language cut up phenomena in convoluted ways. This is especially so with the word ‘value’. There are indeed arguable analogies or dependencies among the modes for which the word is used. But it is just as arguable that this highly slippery word promotes a dangerous confusion; that we would be much better off without it.

The word fosters the confusion of a subjective attraction to something with an absolute worth, for example. And I don’t want that sort of legerdemain. To speak of a value which subsists outside of any context tends to be a category error.

How does the word slip between modes? In the case of the "values" proclaimed by groups (criteria or worths), it is not acceptable to the group that they are considered idiosyncratic. If we allowed a petulant child, or a petulant filling-station attendant, to be the judge of nuclear power plant safety, then millions might die. The worth of Virgil, Shakespeare, Beethoven was not measured by the adolescent’s subjectivity; Virgil, Shakespeare, Beethoven were hurdles which the adolescent was asked to vault if he or she wished promotion to the élite.

What I wish to do is to reverse the de-contextualization of "value." A "value," properly speaking, is a value for someone. The possibility of being experienced is a necessary condition for the presence of a value. (As it is for a headache.) A "value" issues from a center of feeling, from a sentient organism. Elementarily, "value" is parallel to anger in its subjectivity.

Value is by definition a relationship to a subject, to one who values. There could not be a dead universe in which a diamond had value the way we might imagine it to have inertia, or minerality. Value cannot be reified. What is more, what matters for this discussion in the first instance is not "values" but the capacity "valuing": my ability to value. There is something sterile about the abstractions value and valuing, but let us try to bear with the latter at least.

A value-phenomenon, when traced to its base, is subjective. Worths of things are imputations by a subject–or else they are chimeras. Value is inseparable from the "personalistic subjectivities" of a concrete subject.

Let me note, for later consideration, the claim of social-objectivism that objective social conditions instill values in individuals: as capitalism instills the entrepreneurial spirt. Part of a larger claim that subjectivity is socially instilled. American Indians and their culture of stoicism.

The art of Rembrandt or Brahms has no absolute value.

If someone says that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is "good for what it is," that might mean that it reliably conveys some sophisticated message to the intended audience. Art can function as a sort of "communication" in a regular, predictable way. It can "encode" a sensibility. This opens the possibility of appraising Beethoven’s methodology, of appraising the symphony as a sort of linguistic object, without admiring or supporting Beethoven. My treatise Against Participation is devoted to exploring both the exposé and the analytical lesson.

14. Further reflection finds that §13 was too facile in wanting to contract the meaning of value to a valuer’s feeling. The blurred use of the word is well established. In writings c. 1980, I spoke of the search for a new medium of transmission of cultural values.

D.b and D.c will observe that there are values which have the power to menace us because they are indeed cultural values. Modernism’s advocacy of abstract-generic moral and aesthetic values. The promulgation of self-depreciation as a value by Postmodernism’s "nasty culture." We already met this value at the end of §11.

Further examples of values of this sort become evident. Integrity of inquiry and judgment is a value prerequisite to the existence of a scientific community. (Says conventional wisdom. Again, the involvement of hypocracy is inescapable.)

The values we speak of here seem to be communicable mentalities, shared standards for entire domains of conduct. Clearly nearest to definition (iv), but with some reference to (ii). Also (v) in that there is an underlying cognitive position which is not formalized side-by-side with the value. E.g. integrity of inquiry and judgment presuppose that falsehood is identifiable. Abstract-generic moral and aesthetic values presuppose a privative metaphysics. The crusade for self-depreciation turns on the very understandings which I seek to formalize in this outline, since it is ritually spiteful toward these understandings.

15. At this point, when we recognize hierarchically systematized aims, those who claim that value is something more than a subjective approval or disapproval begin to win the argument. The individual embraces conduct-criteria which have a semblance of implicative organization. The system is proclaimed by many, and it is a passport to belonging. In other words, a community has a code of conduct-criteria which concerns promises, obligations, credits, rewards, faults, blame, reprisal.

One meaning of equity is that criteria should be the same for everybody, or should be applied in the same way to everybody. But then, when it is wanted for everyone to be able to participate, the notion of handicap comes into play. If two people are not equally able, standards may be set differently to afford both what is perceived as the same opportunity.

A possible meaning of the more pretentious word ‘justice’ is the balancing of a certified misdeed with retribution or reparation.

Individuals guide themselves by systematized and rationalized hierarchies of aims, sometimes called moral systems. Consequently one may have a "value hierarchy," a systematized and rationalized hierarchy of aims. I overcome my impulses in respect of some aim which has priority for me. Not just conditioned impulse-repression. Self-discipline in support of my higher aims. The person-world is directed or graded by comportments, goals, worths. There are dominant and subordinate aims within a single system. I often curb my own impulses for a reason which I could articulate if required to. The profound phenomenon of deploying my value hierarchy, curbing my impulses, driving myself toward a distant goal.

At some point, one assumes responsibility for the hierarchy of aims one complies with. Then one admires or despises oneself according to the dominant aims which one embraces.

Your body or psyche can make the ranking on its own. If you try to go forward with some proceeding about which you have doubts, you can be stopped by a headache, nausea, forgetfulness, etc. Intellect, aims, and soma are interdependent. Cognizance–which can be expressed in propositions contemplated–can elicit these visceral hindrances on proceedings.

Other people are natural sources of rewards to me. I and others are interdependent; I depend on what they can do for me. Thus, if they affiliate with what is contemptible, it bodes ill for me. That is why I may feel embarrassed for another person who behaves badly even when it is in no way my fault. Additionally, I understand that I am not so different from another person that I could never have made his or her mistake.

A person can come to a point in life in which he or she bails out of an entire conduct-code.

Like a physician, we must give the same attention to "utility" and "disutility." Junctures of defeat and disgrace have the most heuristic value in demonstrating the arena which life-conduct comprises–for some reason. People do not readily take joy and honor and self-acceptance seriously.

The idealism or romanticism of human valuing. We memorialize losers because the cause was good in which they suffered defeat. Talismanic behavior. Is it rational?

The personal overriding, the supervening value, may be the product of fear, of delusion. The up-tight suburbanite who sacrifices everything to presentability and propriety. The individual who supported the Soviet Union in spite of his doubts because he thought it factually had a monopoly of the future.

16. Above, I spoke at length about the imperative of personal development, mentioning that in this connection, a favorable outcome of personal development is properly called realization or fulfillment.

When one’s socially mandatory development is completed–one reaches majority, or the age of discretion–life continues as an unrolling, and in particular, continues to consist of activities undertaken. One’s projects express one’s longitudinal thematic identity, to one or another degree. And since a metaphor of journeys and destinations seems to be unavoidable, we must also acknowledge the possibilities of wandering and of marking time.

All the while, many of the events in one’s journey, if I may say so, befall one without being striven for (in any obvious way). I already spoke of the tone which it may be beyond the individual’s power to produce. To continue, there can be a fulfillment broader than my contrivance of my own changes: it is called gratification. At the same time, misfortunes can befall me, those which I provoked and those which I didn’t provoke. Annoyances which I cannot will away are called suffering.


Certain fulfillments are worth specific mention.

i) A rare emotional depth or joy in the moment [ecstasy]

– the rare fulfillment.

ii) Fulfillments which come into play only because of themes of the self which extend far beyond the moment (referring to the longitudinal identity) – the structured fulfillment.

The satisfaction of persisting, and completing an undertaking which I originated–so that I am not confined within brainstorms and hints and gleams in the eye. And the "crisis," stress, of making the self-supporting choice, in uncertainty, when an obstacle is suddenly imposed from outside in the course of my pursuit.

• • •

C. Limitations

We have to be clear on the limitations of the foregoing outline. The considerations just reviewed are meant to be realistic and recognizable in anyone’s life. They are entitled to be called natural terms of life. All the same, these truisms leave room for immense slippage, because of the instability of the imposed norms, and outright conflicts among pre-established norms. (Tensions between distinguishable communities. Emergence of genuine novelty.) The larger world is a diffuseness of incentives or occasions. Life is diffuse. One interacts with others on many levels and for many reasons.

It goes without saying that this treatment did not find a most gratifying channel for life. Much less did it command the reader to enter any such channel. As was said, we depend on others who do not make the same choices we do. The abolition of mediocrity or dreariness is not to be contemplated outside of utopian speculation.

It is non-trivial: that there can be an account of life-conduct which is exhaustive at some level of abstraction, and which does not falsify, and yet which does not comprehend the diffuseness, the slippage. And beyond that, the account did not reach what I regard as the depth of personal sensitization and orientation. We saw, at the chosen level of abstraction, a pathos or poignancy of life which anyone might recognize–which was generic. But I have to insist that the sensitization of emotion and sensibility is not explained by such generic considerations. Emotional texture and profundity are prepared by specific traditions; that involves "ringing the visceral tones."

Similarly, as I already noted, the terms of life in question–configured around alert goal-seeking–disregard the importance of dreaming, intoxication, etc. as content-sources.

Evidently, the stated abstract-generic terms of life do not do justice to the few who take paths of exceptional nobility. Then we have the question whether the ordinary person possesses the same sensitivity or possibility of conduct as the person of exceptional nobility, and somehow allows it to be stifled; or whether the ordinary person has a different inventory of capacities from birth. And if the latter, is it a matter of other capacities or less capacities? When a person does take a path of exceptional nobility, it simply is not credible that it is a matter of a choice open to anyone. To ponder these issues is the mission of my 1996 essay "Whole Human Comportment and Inspiration," and related research.

Along with there being a higher subject-matter which this study does not get at, there are lower subject-matters which this study does not get at. Critical analysis of systems of conduct-norms which are important merely because they are in play socially and because they claim logical coherence. This subject-matter is lower, because these systems of norms are merely codes dominant at one locale or another. The so-called philosophy of justice is an example: the logico-sociological analysis of constitutional entitlements. I consider it important enough to write about; but it only addresses a sort of sociologically enabled popularity.

Then, as I already mentioned, there is the possibility of a social pathology or unhygienic situation which ruthlessly thwarts anyone’s attempt to win oneself as naturally envisioned. The outline was Pollyanna or goody-two-shoes: because it assumed that what I have called the natural terms of life cooperate in a thorough-going way. In fact, the natural rewards may fail completely or disappear, so that the individual is denied the expected opportunity of fulfillment. We say that the individual is trapped in a senselessly cruel or unhygienic situation.

The higher grotesquerie and garishness of social existence. The likelihood of achievement which is acclaimed and rewarded, but which a solitary self-judgment (as in §10) must find contemptible. What if I happen to live in a society in which the average person must be judged a criminal or a monster? What if live in a society whose highest accolades go to deficient or vile performance? I discover that to serve my own sense of honor, I have to radically disentangle myself from other people. Honor is utterly divorced from camaraderie and admiration and reciprocity. The natural sources of fulfillment are extinguished. Then a meaningful fulfillment is literally impossible.

Hennix has begun to insist that there cannot be a single philosophical anthropology for ourselves and for those who are ostensibly our peers. The case for that position begins to be evident here. It’s a terrible difficulty. After all, we cannot disregard that the achievement of a Pandit Pran Nath is predicated on his continuity with other people, his ability to elicit something latent in them. And yet other people neither would have, nor could have, chosen, or found, his path of nobility.

• • •

D. Debates

a. Absolute value of the person?

NRS concludes from the survey of life-conduct that humans have a value beyond any value they can willfully create. The capacities of the psyche and "the terms of life" comprise our worth.

First, I do not invent moral nobility, it finds me–as with impulsive bravery.

Secondly, the very fact that humans exist in the dimensionalities of empathy and good-will, and exchanged and shared ideas, and conscious self-creation, is intrinsically precious.

The first obvious objection is that this proposal is anthropocentric; that it absolutizes our human hardware, our species-equilibrium. What if there were Martians so superior to us that they regarded us with the same condescension we direct to apes?

The second obvious objection is that this proposal has not found a center of feeling other than ourselves to whom this "worth" matters.

Continuing, this proposal assumes that every person is morally switched on. In praising humanity as a totality, it necessarily admires the bad with the good (since they are inseparable in history). Both of these hypotheses or judgments are unproved and unprovable.


b. Europe’s method of abstraction and the generic psyche

Europe arrived at a need to escape tradition because tradition was oppressive or superstitious. But the endeavor went the route of constructing an individual who is wholly stripped of baggage or customary significance, and who has an entirely generic psychology. In ethics, slogans are brandished – such as individualism, authenticity, responsibility, engagement, collectivism, growth, realization. These slogans have been found to be so empty as to be dangerous, or at least conducive to pettiness.

Modern art has created an approach which brandishes the banner of the generic, which proposes to combine arbitrary elements in a way free of all inherited rules. Modern art said that it had escaped from all tradition; or that it could draw on tradition at random. The artist was going to express himself with arbitrary elements, combined without regard to inherited rules, to embody or realize generic aims. Malevich’s White on White. Duchamp’s ready-mades.

Modern art conceived the fantasy, extending from Malevich to Cage or Wolff, of an art which combines traditionless elements in ways free of all customary rules. The wholly artificial object supposed to confront the audience as a thing of nature. The only sort of emotional impact is from mechanical provocation, as with music that is loud or soft, chaotic or monotonous–so that it compels a reaction mechanically.

Sartre thought he could state the conditions of human fulfillment in terms of certain affections of the individual, stripped of the superstitions and tribal themes through which those affections were originally posited. Let me be more rigorous. Ultimate fulfillment was defined in categories. These categories were moral affections which Sartre's so-called philosophy purported to deduce from personal affections.

Existentialism presents, as conditions of spiritual worth, abstract moral affections such as authenticity! and commitment! These abstract moral affections fail; they are vapid or burnt out. There is nothing substantial in them. They can be filled with silliness, with posturing.

The debacle of these abstract-generic moral and aesthetic values needs to be explored separately; it is beyond the scope of this essay.


c. Roots of ritual defilement

In some important sense, we live in a time in which being deformed and stifled in a certain way is typical; and I’m referring firstly to those who define themselves as the cognoscenti. People in a degraded situation act to make it worse: they stomach it by defining degradation to be a virtue, salving their egos, entering a competition to be the best rotter. They embrace continuous self-depreciation as a way of stomaching the feeling of being tormented by "societal forces."

In this era, ambitious individuals seek to matter socially by campaigning for fame and money as professional public defilers.

What was said in §§10-11 about the interaction of despair with pride and self-importance provides the beginning of an analysis.

The rise of punk rock as the West’s classic culture exemplifies the situation. We find society lionizing just the impulses which wisdom says have to be curbed–as theater. (What if a form of entertainment enjoyed acclaim which paid people to commit crimes? We already have musical performers who are more valuable, more admired, because they concurrently engage in criminal rackets.)

Punk rock is not pleasure (in the sense of the saccharine); neither is it service. In its case, being applauded, and being installed as a classic, derives from doing what is abusive and self-destructive–as theater, as entertainment.