The Indictment of Potential: Obligation and Self-Interest

There’s a concept I’ve been playing with for a bit that I call the Indictment of Potential. To put it simply, this is the burden that having ideals, goals, and the possibility of success places on the individual, as it represents some sort of inherent insufficiency in the present that must be overcome. Today, we’re going to be exploring that concept, as well as the nature of obligation in the individual, and what obligation a man may have to society. Along the way, we’re going to talk about self-interest in the modern world and what we can do to start building a better world.

Let’s get it.

We’ll start with the nature of the Indictment of Potential in the individual before we move into society. At its most basic level, the Indictment is the result of realizing the troubling fact that believing that you could be better also means believing you’re not good enough right now. Let’s clarify what I mean by that- if you want to be the best downhill mountain bike rider in the world (and you’re not) then you have to accept both that you’re not the best and that the desire to be the best imposes a heavy burden on you.

A counter-example: mostly everyone says they want to be rich, but they don’t take any action towards being rich. This indicates either that people don’t actually want to be rich (which is unlikely) or that they don’t want to do the things required to be rich (more likely). There’s also probably a degree of not understanding how, but someone who genuinely wants it and is willing to do the things required will learn how as a result.

Mostly everyone wants mostly everything- this is why the Buddha says desire is the root of suffering, because to want is to lack. (That’s an oversimplification of the Buddha’s actual position but for the sake of this article it suffices.) However, unlike the Buddha, I’m not anti-suffering in the slightest, so that’s not a problem in my eyes.

Or is it?

This brings up a fundamental division between two types of people. The first sort, more akin to the Buddha’s position, would rather learn not to desire (or be attached to desire) to avoid the suffering/unsatisfactory nature of desiring. The second camp (myself included) would rather accept the suffering inherent (a component of the Indictment) in the striving towards something, even if we fail to attain it.

I personally believe that the former is a coward’s position- “I might fail so I won’t try,” or perhaps even “we’re doomed to fail/victory is fleeting and unsatisfactory, so why try?” This is bullshit and I cannot endorse it. One of the fundamental properties of the human experience is the presence of suffering, as well as the nature of the hedonic treadmill– you’re going to suffer more than not, and your successes are going to be short-lived before it’s back to the climb. However, this isn’t a problem if you cease focusing on the outcome and begin to appreciate the struggle in and of itself. Doing the opposite is like loving your birthday so much you ignore the rest of the year- clearly missing the point of living.

So long as we accept that this cyclical suffering is inevitable if we choose to live, it ceases to be some dread terror to flee from and becomes a pretty decent motivating mechanism. However, the average person isn’t likely to simply say, “alright, lay it on me, I can take the weight of the world,” not without a good reason at least.

This is where the ideal arises.

Everyone, in some form or another, has some ideal in their head at some point. A lot of people, however, don’t grow up with good role models or other guiding figures, so they may choose whoever seems to be the best able to survive in their scenario- poor kids in bad neighborhoods often idolize drug dealers because they have money and the trappings of success. Those who feel powerless often idolize politicians as the presumed source of power in society, and also as a means to achieve some power themselves (through voting and legislation).

On a less pessimistic note, it’s also possible to construct an ideal. In the most basic sense, the ideal is a template for action in the world- Christianity succeeded in providing this with the whole idea of “WWJD,” but it’s hard to imagine what Jesus thinks about the ethics of shopping from Amazon or what kind of politician we should vote for. (Maybe it’s not hard to imagine, but the abundance of people doing that shit anyway leads me to believe it’s not as obvious as one would think.) In some sense, all religions are ideal-system templates, providing both an understanding of the world as well as the ideal way to operate in the world. It’s not a far road from external ideals to externalized idols, though, and just like idols are man-made, often we choose interpretations of these idols that suit the way we already are rather than guide us towards change and growth.

As a template for action, the ideal is a desired outcome with a set of instructions/behaviors that are meant to get one there from the present. This can be as simple as “if we want to have a good birthday party, I better buy the cake in advance and get some candles,” or as complex as “if I’m going to go to Mars, we’re going to have to sort out the necessary conditions for a small band of settlers to live in a way that will prevent the emergence of sectarian infighting and weird Martian cults.”

Here’s where things get interesting.

For a long time, I was an advocate for an ideal-state of individualism in which the individual had no obligations to society and was effectively left to his own devices. However, it doesn’t seem like that works in the long run, but I’m still a die hard individualist and couldn’t figure out how to rectify the two positions.

What I realized is that our ideals do not exist in a vacuum, just as no man is an island. I think a large portion of the problem with the state of things today arises from the fact that we thought we could pursue a naive concept of individualism that meant we weren’t responsible for those around us in any way, and as a result we’ve developed wonderfully manipulative things like marketing, sales techniques, political propaganda, and so on. The naive individualist defaults to the notion that “marketing is ethical because everyone is responsible for their own choices,” and while everyone is responsible for their own choices, the nature of living in a system with other people means that we (despite believing ourselves islands) end up impacted by those choices as well.

This is especially true of bad choices.

Now, those of you who lean Objectivist or liberarian are almost certainly fuming at this point, assuming you haven’t stopped reading by now. If you’re still here, don’t worry, I’m not making an argument for collectivism or against individualism- the problem is naive self-interest, not self-interest itself.

The failure of Marxist thought is fundamentally rooted in the demonstrably false idea that people can consistently/should act against their own self-interest. The failure of naive individualism is in the belief that the scope of self-interest is limited exclusively to the individual themselves. One of my complaints against Rand’s stories (which are magnificent, so don’t pretend like I’m aiming to willfully misinterpret them here) is the fact that the primary characters do not live in a way that’s sustainable beyond a single lifetime. None of the protagonists have kids or a normal family situation, and neither did Rand herself.

“But Garrett, you’re saying that everyone has to have a family!” No, no I’m not. Everyone probably should, maybe, but that’s not really my call to make. One of my primary points of differing from Rand’s Objectivism, however, is that I believe that to choose to live properly also means to choose to reproduce, and my system of philosophy is based fundamentally around this. I remember in my time as an Objectivist years ago that a hugely common question in the community was “what about kids?”- and this was never adequately answered. How could it be? Rand’s notion of individualism couldn’t deal with something she herself had no interest or experience in having.

Unfortunately, in this case, reproduction is a fundamental requirement if we assume that life is worth living and worth continuing. Once you make this distinction, it becomes a lot harder to justify a great many things that can be justified in the name of naive individualism, so we’re forced to change our perspective a bit. This brings us to a concept that I’ve termed as “no separation,” which is a statement about the nature of the Self being larger than we initially think.

An example of this is (one of my favorite of all characters in literature), Howard Roark from Rand’s The Fountainhead (one of my favorite books)- Roark is effectively an impossible person (which is often the nature of pure ideals), since he’s an orphan who is also a self-teaching supergenius that effectively doesn’t noticeably change as a character throughout the book. Now, this is part of the reason I like him, because he represents the pure masculine- unshakeable, self-created, all that. The issue (and I get that we’re not supposed to literalize this as a goal person, duh) is that while in the context of the book, Roark is this thing that’s immune to society completely, in reality, he’d at best be in opposition to it.

Rand believed in a perfectly tabula rasa (blank slate) person at birth (which speaks to her lack of actual psychological knowledge versus her keen observational skills), which is all well and good but isn’t exactly right, since, despite not being born knowing stuff, we still have genetic predispositions and some form of instinctual underpinnings. Beyond that, the nature of the individual’s self-concept is implicitly formed as a result of the interaction between the self and others, barring extreme forms of solipsism like autism.

Now, here’s the thing- I’m still a diehard individualist, despite knowing all this. The core difference is that in my philosophy, we have to move from the naive self-interest to what I call expanded self-interest, which comes from a notion in the No Separation article I call the “expanded self.” On a fundamental level, part of the basis for naive self-interest is due to the fact that we tend to think of our individual selves as simply people and our identities are as those singular people.

However, we’re more than simply people, we’re the product of an immensely long biological process of DNA mutating and reproducing for billions of years. Our belief that we’re simply individuals untethered from any larger system is the failure to reckon our true nature, and when you understand that your true nature is as the avatar of these self-replicating chains of amino acids, you have to accept that part of this nature is to continue it. This basis in the fundamental biological reality allows us to accomplish what Rand tried (but didn’t completely succeed in doing- plus, as far as genetics is concerned, she herself was a failure and her line died out) to do:

The construction of a complete system of philosophy based on the foundations of reality itself.

This brings us back to ideals and potential, in a roundabout way- if we intend to reproduce (and to do so sustainably over the long term), we have a massive obligation to the world because we have to make it better for our kids, their kids, and future generations. This ties into my concept of “A Philosophy for Eternity” a bit, because we have to plan as far in advance as is feasibly possible.

This is the antidote to one of the core emergent problems of naive self-interest, the “tragedy of the commons.” The Tragedy is usually explained that there are 10 farmers with 10 sheep grazing sustainably on a patch of grass, and suddenly one farmer adds another sheep. This makes the balance unsustainable, so the other farmers all add sheep until the field is barren.

Obviously, if you gave a shit about your kids eventually inheriting the field, you don’t do this. More interestingly, if you and the other people working the field give a shit about your kids, you can team up to deal with the person that’s going out of their way to ruin it for your kids by acting out of naive self-interest.

See, part of the problem is that we’re so concerned about getting ours that we’re willing to ignore the fact that things are getting steadily worse- the incessant progression of political overreach and bureaucracy is inevitably going to make your kids’ lives worse, but we don’t do anything about it, just like we ignore the fact that we let strangers use manipulative marketing techniques to brainwash them into becoming placated, dull consumers.

It’s easy to not object to this if you yourself don’t plan on having kids, and it’s a great opportunity for hypocrisy if you do, like how big tech company execs don’t let their kids use the social media services or devices they create. It’s easy to justify this sort of thing when you don’t feel any sort of responsibility to make the world genuinely better, and it’s that sort of attitude that naive individualism breeds so well.

Just like I believe that potential is an indictment for the individual to improve, I believe that an in-depth understanding of the nature of the Self and how it pertains to society is an indictment for individuals to begin to take responsibility for the state of the world. The child doesn’t know about responsibility, and the adolescent rejects it and rebels, but it is the nature of the mature adult to accept, embrace, and welcome the burden of responsibility that the world presents. We operate under the delusion that there is an Atlas who should shrug, when in reality the world was dropped long ago, and it waits for someone to come pick it up.

The strong men, those of nobility and ideals long since past, have all but gone from the world. We’re left with an abundance of children and half-adults, running around in the clothes of their parents, pretending to be mature while lacking any sort of maturity. The strong prey on the weak, and we feel no obligation to do anything because we ourselves have become weak. In our powerlessness, we’ve invited wolves into our home and are surprised when they turn to devour us.

This cannot go on.

The structure of modernity is fundamentally one of abdication.

We’ve abdicated our rights to “leaders” who do not merit the title.

We’ve abdicated our privacy to people who think so little as to sell your information.

We’ve abdicated our children’s minds to marketers and bureaucrats.

We’ve abdicated our pursuit of Truth to old books and dogma.

We’ve abdicated our ideals entirely because of the finger they point at us, saying,

“You can be more than this. You could be better- why aren’t you?”

We run from the obligations that our innate talent and potential cast before us, and we hide in dead end jobs and unhappy relationships as a way to place the blame anywhere but on ourselves. Then, we tell our kids that this is just the way the world is, it’s not our fault that life is suffering, and hey, maybe if you vote for this guy, he’ll make it better.

This is despicable.

All the billions of generations of life in this universe have culminated in you, and you are the tip of the spear of destiny stretching across the vast stretches of eternity. You’re the most perfect thing ever conceived by evolution, you’re the pinnacle of all life, and what do you do with it? Waste it arguing in the YouTube comments section, or watching reruns on Netflix again?

Reject this.

Become more than you are, accept the burden of your inner capacity to be great, and stare down the indictment of potential for what it is, the force that will make you better than you are, because as much as you want to pretend it isn’t the case, you are better than you are, and can be better, and most importantly, must be better.

If not you, who?

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