Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas!

One of my favorite parts of the Christian mythos* is that God becomes one of us. Christianity can be—and in its most dualistic forms, usually is—extremely negative about the world and about the body. Nietzsche was right to see nihilism in the tendency to put all hope in another world, separate to and better than this world of sin, and to focus on the inner person—the soul, the spirit—in opposition to the outer person—the body physically present in this world.
The Christmas story, though, should be a story about God entering the world, becoming immanent, and making everything around us and every one of us, sacred. So, among the viewings of A Christmas Story, downing of rum balls (and cocktails), the meat pie we are trying for the first time, and the inevitable sadness-tinged foggy nostalgia, I'm going to try to remember that each one of us is pretty damned amazing—and worthy of dignity—and this world is a wonderful place—or I have an obligation to make it so.
So, Merry Christmas, all of you!

*Stories can have value whether they are true or not, so at least for the next few days, I'm not interested in whether this is just a myth or a true one.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A few thoughts about ownership and self-ownership

In the normal sense of "own," if own something I am able to sell it and once I sell it I no longer have any claim over it or how it can be used. Having sold it, I have no interest in it, since I sell my interest in it when I sell it.
There are strange sorts of cases where a piece of property cannot be sold, where it is limited by an entailment, and where the master or mistress of the property can only benefit from its production during his or her lifetime. Think of Pride and Prejudice or Downton Abbey. I think our intuitions about these kinds of cases are to say that no individual owns the property, but that it is owned by a family, held in trust by an individual. If I am wrong about what our intuitions are in these sorts of cases, I don't think I am wrong to say that they are not normal, standard cases of ownership.
Also, in the normal sense of "own," a person is one of the things—or the only one?—that I cannot be said to own. Of course, it took humans a long time to discover this, but that doesn't make it any less true.
Now, there is a special kind of ownership going back to at least John Locke in the Second Treatise and adopted by liberals and libertarians since, a notion of self-ownership. It is this idea that because I own myself and my labor, that I can come to own property. Self-ownership is supposed to be the foundation for all other sorts of ownership.
The problem I see is that self-ownership just isn't ownership. Or, at least, it doesn't share the essential characteristics of ownership. And, since it is not the same as the normal notion of ownership, it cannot serve as a basis for it.
Namely, I cannot sell myself. I can sell my labor. I can enter into contracts. But I cannot sell myself in such a way that I become wholly the property of another human being and cease to have any interest in myself. I cannot alienate myself in the same way that I can alienate any piece of genuine property. Having sold my labor or my time, I always and everywhere maintain rights over myself. If I own myself—or if I have a property in myself—it is not the normal sort of ownership or property.
And, if it is a general truth that a person cannot be owned, then a person cannot be owned, even by himself.
In other words, whatever we mean when we say that we own ourselves it is not what we mean when we say that we own a house—it might be close to what we mean when that house is an entailed property, all of whose benefits we enjoy, but which we cannot alienate and hold in trust. And, since the two notions of property ownership differ in their essentials, they cannot serve as grounds one for the other.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The narcissism of self-forgiveness

Students, friends, columns and essays I read talk about the need for people to forgive themselves. Sometimes this comes from a spiritual—though not religious—place. Sometimes it is parroting something heard in therapy or counseling. Sometimes it is repeating something remembered from a self-help book or an episode of Oprah or Dr Phil.
Wherever it comes from, it looks like it rests on an error, and a pernicious one. I will readily agree that people sometimes need to overcome their guilt. But, if it's true that you shouldn't feel guilty, then there is nothing to forgive. You don't need to be forgiven, you need to adjust your views. Similarly, people often need to learn not to feel shame about certain things. But, shame isn't overcome by forgiveness. It's overcome by changing what one thinks is worthy of shame. (And, there are things worthy of shame, just not a lot of the ones we grow up believing to be shameful.)
Forgiveness is something that can only be given by the person whom we have offended. And, it must be asked—begged—of them. 
There is something strange about saying that I have offended myself. How would I give offense to myself? There are times when I may have hurt myself, but even there the notion of self-forgiveness is mistaken. Or so it seems to me.
Forgiveness is a two-person relation and necessarily non-reflexive. It is also a relation tied to other relations I cannot bear to myself. If I've harmed myself, I need to resolve not to do it again, but I can't forgive myself just as I cannot carry out any kind of reparation to myself, simply because I am one person and not two. How would I beg forgiveness of myself? How would I apologize? How would I make it up to myself? What reparation to myself would I propose? 
Even so, I'm not so worried about people concerned about forgiving themselves when they have harmed themselves. This is because what people often mean in forgiving themselves is forgiving themselves for the offense they have given to others. As long as I can forgive myself, they think, it doesn't matter that I don't make it up to those I have offended. It doesn't matter that I don't apologize, that I don't have their forgiveness. All that really matters is that I have forgiven myself. 
I am able, they say, to absolve myself of all my faults. And, thus do even justified guilt and shame disappear. Because, at the end of the day, all that matters is that I can live with myself. 
There's as much narcissism here as in attempting to be one's own (best) friend.