Saturday, 6 July 2013

The Polonius Virtue

or, Are These All the Foundations They Could Think of?
A Moral Foundations Post

When I took the test and got my results, I was a little surprised because I thought two concepts were missing: freedom and authenticity.

Freedom's absence was conspicuous because I had expected to have a fairly high ranking in freedom (or whatever concept they had to oppose oppression). Further, freedom--whether articulated as liberation, choice, agency, or anarchy--is a pretty common trope for political speeches and actions, everything from liberation theology to pro-choice advocacy to justifications of foreign and domestic military violence (which is grossly ironic). As it turns out (according to Wikipedia, anyway), liberty/oppression is actually a concept in Moral Foundations Theory, but it hasn't migrated over to any of the tests I have done. Does anyone know why this might be?

What I really want to talk about is a moral foundation that I suspect does exist but is missing from Moral Foundations Theory: authenticity.

Authenticity's absence was also fairly conspicuous to me, but for a different reason: I was expecting to have a low score in this measure. I tend to think of authenticity as the Polonius virtue: "This above all: to thine own self be true, / And it must follow, as the night the day, / Thou canst not then be false to any man." Of course calling it the Polonius virtue isn't really a compliment: I think we have changable and contextually-informed identities and that we have no complete internal identity to which we owe some kind of allegiance. In other words, I think authenticity, naively imagined, is generally meaningless. (As we'll see, I think some people have made it more robust, at which point I become much more sympathetic.) However, I know that a lot of people do have certain sentiments that could be organized under this concept and aren't especially clearly organized under concepts that already exist in the Moral Foundations quiz I took. For this reason, I suspect that a good study would find people operating on this assumption. Let's ennumerate some.

1. Some people--a lot of people--value truth very highly. Including the desire for truth here may well be a sort of equivocation; the dogged pursuit of the truth of the world might not be especially similar to the dogged pursuit of the truth of oneself. Similarly, semantic honesty--never make false claims about the world--is not the same as emotional self-disclosure. Of the examples I'm going to list, truth-seeking and -telling seems least connected to authenticity. But I'm not sure truth fits well under the other concepts, either.

2. Existentialism values authenticity very highly. In fact, this is likely its highest (or only) value, though it would understand the term much more like #1's articulation than Polonius's. Is this a moral sentiment of existentialism's own, though, or an extension of #1's, or a philosophical system entirely disjointed from moral foundations?

3. Somewhat more brutally than existentialism, there are some who seem to think that genetics are destiny. You should act in certain ways (for instance, men should sexually pursue multiple women; women should seek to raise children) because these behaviours are genetically encoded. This might fit here? It seems a recycled version of straw Freudian psychoanalysis, which also seems to value a kind of authenticity.

4. Taoism also values authenticity in much the way Polonius does, but with a metaphysics to support it. In my understanding, Taoism does tend to pair authenticity with freedom, but it's worth pointing out that the Taoist sort of freedom and the Taoist sort of authenticity don't look quite so undisciplined or spontaneous as we might imagine. According to Stephen Prothero, Taoists would say that we've been severed from our true natures; Taoist practises require discipline and, well, practise, but eventually the practitioner would become authentic. (If there's a version of authenticity that I find plausible, it would be this one. Of course, I would be using a different metaphysics.)

5. Taoism might appeal very much to those who Walter Truett Anderson calls neo-romantics (see this post for a definition), though the practices of New Agers and radical environmentalists might not be recognizable to a traditional Taoist. (Though maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it would be recognizable.) There's a certain stereotype of people who talk about being yourself and getting back to nature, an idea that human action should be grounded in a certain human nature. I'd like to see if this stereotype would bear out empirically; are there many people who take such a line seriously? (I'm not being judgemental; I just want to be sure that I'm characterizing this position correctly.) I suspect this bears some relation to the common contemporary exhortation to honest self-expression, to letting people (or friends, anyway) know what you're really feeling. Although this concept bears a striking structural similarity to genetic determinism (truth to an intrinsic nature), I think it's far more innocuous. (I suspect the structural similarity comes from the fact that they share pop psychoanalysis as a common ancestor.)

Could these five (or six, I guess, since I put psychoanalysis in with genetic determinism) groupings constitute an empirically supportable concept, in the way of personality test indicators? My suspicion is that it does represent an existing moral sentiment, but I would like to see the evidence. I would like to hear your opinions on it.

I also notice that the there's a bit of equivocation in the concept of nature under authenticity (especially in #4 and #5): according to the stereotype, environmentalism might sometimes correlate with authenticity (but, again, I'd like empirical studies on this). One must be true to oneself, to maintain ones true self, in much the same way that we wish to keep nature (the environment) true to its nature. And this made me think more about the moral sentiments behind environmentalism. I think there's a lot of harm/care behind environmentalism, at least for me, but on a gut level a lot of people, when they're talking about the environment's authenticity (is this really the wild?) seem to being talking about the environment's purity. And purity is already one of the moral foundations.

I'll save purity for another post and I'll end with the reminder that I'm speculating and that what I really want is empirical evidence for all of this, but I'm also wondering aloud whether authenticity, while paired with freedom sometimes (ie. spontaneity and self-expression) and honesty at other times, might also bear some relation to purity.

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