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“Not Me.”

Some observations and questions on Self Deception

by David Foss

Can we carefully distinguish between mechanisms of selectivity and self-deception? There is the potential to see the problem of self-deception as located in its structural role, whether it be construed as a sort of democratization of self (where component “subsystems” don’t seem to see eye to eye) or a contradiction of the rational unity of self as agent. This polarity, as it is expressed by Améle Oksenberg Rorty, clearly captures the alternative conceptual contexts of self-deception, wherein the self as dynamically adaptive makes sense of the mechanisms of such activity as a natural component of personal survival, or as alternatively a static ordering of belief states and judgements wherein such a condition is logically impossible. But the picture ultimately cannot make significant headway toward capturing self-deception as a possible (indeed common) problem. Marcia Baron provides the missing conceptualization: that self-deception, although admittedly often natural (and even necessary) for Rorty’s dynamic complex-self, becomes specious when it becomes entrenched as an ordering principle of inner-disintegration, ultimately surrendering (or destroying) the agency of self.

1. Keeping in mind Mike W. Martin’s warning that self-deception is often used by psychological (and philosophical) theories of self to defeat potential counter-examples drawn from self-perception, what reasons might be available to show that the objective attitudes (where objectivity is considered as prior to normative evaluation) is essentially self-deceptive? It seems primary to the objective attitude that it involves the dismissal of all openly moral or valuative propositions as irrelevant (or frequently misguiding) while it rides on powerful currents of endorsement, inter-personal valuations, and ethical hierarchies. Is this a problem for the objective point of view? Can a humanly engaged, and discursive practice escape the implications of its essentially normative (i.e. moral) character? Is there any sense to talking about non-moral inter-personal practices, and to what degree would the conceptual contents of the discourse be infused by the normative roots of such practices? To what degree do we actively and intentionally conceal from ourselves the implausibility of value-neutral endorsements?

2. Rorty and Baron, while not exclusively, tend to direct most of their attention on conditions where the agent evades moral entanglement in spite of systemic acknowledgement of personal implication. The self-deceivers described are consistently those who are seeking to conceal demands which ought to be recognized and acted upon (often from within the general valuative framework of the agent herself). There seems, however, another interesting manifestation of the process of systematized refusal to admit morally relevant features of one’s situation: specifically in the case of one who wishes to over-involve oneself in blame and responsibility. A case would be something like the following:

Last night K was furious with herself. “It happened again. It seems to happen every time. I get into a relationship, and everything is going great. But the longer things go well, the more worried I become. Eventually, I am desperate for some sign of weakness, that I drive the relationship to ruin by capitalizing upon every hint of difficulty, making the slightest tension explode into monumental crises.”

This is the story she tells us (her closest friends) every time. She finds herself evil for this. To hear her say she destroys every friend she makes in this way, one might be drawn to accept this picture of her love life. In her self-frustration and self-effacement after such a fall, she does in fact become nearly intolerable to her friends, saying such things as, “I’m more trouble than I’m worth,” or “Why are you still my friend, when it’s so clear that I am such a burden?”

It looks as though she correctly recognizes this as a recurrent pattern of behavior (in terms of post break-up self-depreciation). She attributes primary blame to herself. But she over attributes such blame. In fact, as any of her close friends can see, her relationships disintegrate from a more pervasive pattern of victimization. Whether by bad luck, or selective attraction to qualities which seem naturally appropriate in ideal boyfriends, she has found herself repeatedly attached to men with whom she is likely to be dehumanized and burned. But she blames herself for the subsequent disintegration to being the object of such harsh treatment. She refuses to see herself as anything other than deserving (and even primarily responsible), although clearly feeling a fundamental sense of injustice. She is caught feeling blameworthy for the injustices she suffers, and the rejection it always culminates in, while struggling to distance herself from the apprehension of the role she does play in her own victimization: particularly, the feeling of needing this sort of man. Such an apprehension would involve two realizations she seems determined to conceal from herself. First, and most immediately recognizable to her in her current condition, she refuses to accept the possibility of prior responsibility as overwhelming her with blame unjustly. In fact, she may attribute her general feeling of injustice to the peripheral apprehension of such “additional” burdens of responsibility, rather than placing it firmly in the victimization itself. But secondly, she refuses to recognize herself as out of control, as victim, as one who’s agency has been violated. She may indeed have the (largely unwarranted, but nevertheless real) additional fear that upon close reflection such a violation could be justified on the basis of her “freely” initiating it (although this last point is hardly necessary, and will probably become salient only in the course of therapy or some process of psychoanalytical self discovery when the victimization is initially brought directly into view).

What makes K self deceptive is not that she wishes to avoid being responsible. She wishes to be responsible, under conditions where the self image of responsibility has been systematically undermined. She invents tales of behavioral tendencies which she insists she is working to correct, but which provide a basis from which she can assert participation in the violence perpetrated against her agency. She can claim its justice.

To what degree is K really self-deceptive? To what degree is she morally palpable for being in such a condition? Does the palpability arise from the fact that she fails to admit the role she does play in her own victimization, or in the stronger self-deception of over attributing her own responsibility? Does she have reason to fear the moral consequences of “further blame” implied by recognizing the full behavioral, social, and psychological context of her selection of lovers? What is the relative palpability of self-deception in the form of claiming greater (albeit distinct) scope of blameworthiness versus self-deception in the form of evading a wider scope of blameworthiness?

3. There are, interestingly, striking similarities between the distinctions made by Rorty, Baron, and Martin between self-authentic behaviors and self-deceptive behaviors, and the distinction often drawn in the philosophy of science (primarily growing out of the positivist project of identifying ‘good’ science) between science and pseudo-science. A line has often been drawn between self-authentic behavior and self-deceptive behavior to indicate that the latter owes its pejorative stature to the failure of a particular self-interpretative act in being adequately attentive to the (descriptively) salient moral “facts”. Likewise, the philosophy of science had until recently been afflicted with a similar stand which viewed any systematized failure to account for all the (relevantly) available data as unscientific. More realistic pictures have recently emerged, stretching from Thomas Kuhn and W.V.Quine through Willfred Sellars and Robert Brandom, to see systematic selectivity as essential to the enterprise. It is here that normative distinctions within the practice are made by looking to the rigidity with which we hold our selective structures. If they are too rigid, they loose their adaptive (and indeed, rational) utility. If they are too flexible, they ultimately fail to provide any durable core of belief from which pragmatic world-responses can be launched (with any degree of rationality). Is the project explicated by Rorty, and to some degree Baron, one of reorienting our attention with respect to the self, such that the question is no longer one of opacity or translucence, but one of flexibility? With respect to the parallel between the philosophy of science and notions of self-deception, are these two faces of a single phenomenon? Certainly we often talk about the suggestibility of data, and the unacknowledged coloring of studies due to the preconceptions and prejudices of the scientists involved. Are these scientists self-deceptive when thinking they are doing good science? Or are they simply mistaken? Or are they simply being rationally selective, given that some focusing scheme must be employed to render the world intelligible in the first place? These are not merely questions of good science, but of authenticity itself. How ought we distinguish between self-deception and simple selectivity of focus?

Moral Psychology
PHIL-720-01, Georgetown University
Spring 1992
(© David Foss, April 7, 1992)

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Last modified September 27, 1998

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