Is There A Better Alternative For The Self In Culture Today?

Dear Concerned Citizen,

Between the “diminishing self” and the “imperial self” there is a third alternative: the “responsible self.” This is the Christian alternative, but its relevance is not confined to Christians. Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and secular people of goodwill can embrace the responsible self and thus make themselves better, and society better.

The problem with the “diminishing self,” as proclaimed by science, is that it reduces man to a being fundamentally indistinguishable from the rest of creation. In Darwin’s view man is on a continuum with the animals, but even this view is far too optimistic for many modern physicists, who declare that man is simply a thing made up of chemicals and molecules. In this view man is not fundamentally different from a tree, or a stone.

Since man is viewed as a material object responding, as trees and stones do, to immutable physical laws, the “self” loses its claim to unity, to identity, to free choice, and to moral responsibility. All those things become illusions.

Recognizing the moral chaos and nihilism that this view implies, many in our society today ignore the findings of modern science and cling to what they hope is an enduring alternative: “the imperial self.” The imperial self is based on the notion that morality is ultimately grounded in the voice of nature in us. External sources of morality are rejected in favor of a sovereign self that decides by itself and for itself. Rousseau, who was perhaps the founder of the imperial self, praised self-determination in this sense as a form of being “true to oneself.”

One problem with the imperial self is that it is the self that cannot give an account of its origins. Who put it there? The imperial self has no answer to this question. Moreover, although intended as an alternative to the diminishing self, the imperial self is allied with the diminishing self in its rejection of an external moral order. In addition, the imperial self is always in danger of pride and selfishness. Following Rousseau’s lead, it presumes the inherent goodness of human nature—the incorruptibility of the “voice within”—but it forgets that the passions of greed, lust, and ambition can easily conspire to promote selfishness in the name of morality. “Yes, I am leaving my wife and children to live with my girlfriend, but that doesn’t make me a selfish jerk. Rather, I have to do this, I feel called to do this, because my life would be a waste if I didn’t.” Am I responding to the inner voice of conscience, or only to a certain stiffness in my pants?

We would do well to reject the diminishing self and the imperial self in favor of the responsible self. The responsible self is the self that is cognizant of itself, that understands that it cannot be reduced to molecules, that possesses (and knows that it possesses) free will, that can make decisions, and that takes responsibility for those decisions.

The responsible self is not vulnerable to the scientific critique because part of its operations (such as free will and freedom of action) are not susceptible to the laws of science. Quite literally, they are outside the physical world.

Here’s what I mean by this. Everything that science knows is restricted to the physical world and obeys physical laws. But if I throw a ball, while the arc at which it flies can be determined by physical laws, my decision to throw the ball or not to throw it is not determined by physical laws. Whatever the scientists say, looking at me from the outside, I know that I am “free to choose.” I know this because, unlike the outside observers, I have “inside information.” I am the only being that understands myself “from within.” One of the most remarkable feature of my life is that it has a dimension that escapes scientific or material necessity.

At the same time, the responsible self resists the arrogant temptation to proclaim its absolute sovereignty. It refuses to be an imperial self because it knows that it did not create itself. When we listen to the “voice of nature” in us we are listening to a voice that is “in us” but we are also listening to a voice that we didn’t put there. The church father Augustine, who agreed with Rousseau about the importance of the “inner voice,” disagreed with him about the source of that voice. Augustine insisted that the inner voice is the voice of the divine. It is God who is the lamp that illuminates our soul.

But one doesn’t have to be a Christian to appreciate that the responsible self is the “good citizen,” i.e. the self that views itself not in isolation but in community. We develop our identity in relationship with others. We flourish best through our relationships with nature and family and community. In other words, the responsible self recognizes that it is an embedded self, and it derives its significance in large part from the way in which it coexists with, and affirms, the natural and moral ecosystem in which it thrives.

“Self fulfillment” is an important and legitimate goal, but we find the highest fulfillment when we exercise responsibility: both individual responsibility and social responsibility. It is responsibility that validates the secret aspiration of the self to be more than a self, to rise “above” the self, to foster the good and to experience the sublime. By striving to have responsible selves, we can live fully in the modern world while rejecting the basest and least ennobling aspects of modernity.