The Real Me

I am currently reading Happiness and the Good Life, by philosopher Mike W. Martin. This week, I was working on Chapter 4, “Authenticity.” As Martin notes, there is surely some connection between authenticity and happiness. It is important to us that the life we live is true to who we really are. The importance of authenticity is perhaps made most clear in its absence. Living a life that seems out of touch with who we really are is frustrating, constraining, and saddening. It’s like walking around in clothes that don’t fit. “Know thyself” was one of the pieces of advice carved into the Temple to Apollo at Delphi. “To thine ownself be true,” Polonius advises his son Laertes in Hamlet. (I’ll let some of the Shakespeare scholars out there discuss what we should make of the fact that this advice is given by Polonius.) So there are at least two challenges we have to face in order to live authentic lives: we need to figure out who we are, and we need to construct a life that aligns with our authentic self.

1. Knowing Oneself

What do we mean when we say talk about “who we really are”? How can I claim that the true me is out of step with how I’m actually living? Why shouldn’t my life as I actually live it have better claim on being the real me than some vision I might have of myself that isn’t being realized? Part of what might be at work here is that each of us comes equipped with a psyche abuzz with activity. We like to think we have a cohesive self, but we’re actually going about a dozen different directions at once. The search for the true self is partly a project of ordering and prioritizing all these different parts of us.

In Quadrophenia, the rock opera by the Who, the main character wrestles with this question. Jimmy is an adolescent trying to figure out who he his. He feels different versions of himself, or perhaps different parts of himself, crashing against each other within his psyche. He decides that he’s not just schizophrenic; he’s quadropenic. The second cut on the album, “The Real Me,” sets out what he’s facing.

Interestingly, a parallel dynamic was also at work in the band. All four members were strong, idiosyncratic performers. At their best, they fused these disparate elements into a cohesive whole. This is certainly at work in “The Real Me.” We get Townsend’s visceral power chords, Entwhistle’s amazing bass runs, Moon’s ferocious drumming, and Daltrey’s powerful vocal. This parallel dynamic is reflected in the cover art for the album, as the faces of the four band members are reflected in the mirrors of Jimmy’s mod scooter.

Thus, one way of thinking of the challenge of knowing ourselves is figuring out how we can pull as many strong parts of ourselves into a cohesive whole. And this might better be described as a project of construction, rather than a project of discovery. We put together the puzzle, trying to get as many pieces to fit as we can.

2. Living Authentically

One of the points that Martin makes in his book is that it’s not simply the case that authenticity is a guide to happiness. The relationship is more complex than that, he claims, since happiness can be a guide to authenticity. As we try on different masks, as we give different parts of ourselves more rein, we gain clues to our authentic self by the way in which our happiness is increased or frustrated.

A more unsettling possibility is that happiness and authenticity might pull apart. What should we do when our authentic self leads us along a path of chaos and unhappiness? Should we follow our true self, happiness be damned? Or should we say that authenticity is overrated and be willing to settle into a happier, less authentic life? Maybe these concepts are fuzzy enough that, without herculean effort we can convince ourselves that the chaotic path was not our true self anyway.

Negative Emotions

To have a virtue of character, according to Aristotle (see Book II, Chapter 6 of his Nicomachean Ethics), is to have an ingrained tendency to feel emotions and desires appropriately to the circumstances. On Aristotle’s view, having these virtues contributes to living a good life. This idea raises questions when we consider emotions that we regard as negative. Are negative emotions ever appropriate? How do these negative emotions contribute to good lives? Let’s consider some specific examples.


A. Fear

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

We’ll start with fear, since the positive value of this negative emotion is easy to identify (and since it’s Halloween!). When we are faced with danger, fear is often appropriate. The value of fear is that it primes us for action. There are physiological components of fear that prepare our flight-or-fight response. Our heart rate increases. We get a shot of adrenalin. Our pupils dilate.

These physiological components perhaps help explain why we sometimes (for instance, on Halloween!) use fear as entertainment. We watch horror movies. We sneak up behind friends and scare them. The adrenalin rush that comes along with fear may help us make sense of these common practices. We may even develop a more sophisticated account of how the arts allow us to wrestle with difficult fears in a more controlled setting.

Although we can be paralyzed by fear, although we can feel fear inappropriately, fear is pretty clearly a valuable survival mechanism. In a world with dangers, we would not want to get rid of our fear responses completely. In the “Virtue and the Warrior Spirit” FYI class that I am currently teaching with Dr. Bahr, we see various authors (including Aristotle) argue that courage should not be equated with fearlessness. Rather, it is best understood as proper management of one’s fear.


B. Hatred

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Hatred is often presented as the opposite of love. If love is good, this would seem to make hatred bad and so something to be avoided. We can ratchet up this concern with hatred by considering a commandment to love, a moral obligation to love. This concern gets ratcheted up even more if we are supposed to love everyone, even our enemies. If we’re morally required to love everyone, can it ever be appropriate to hate anyone? What legitimate contribution might hatred make to the good life?’

Clearly, various strategies for answering with these questions are available. One could reject the commandment to love everyone. Loving one’s abusers simply sets one up for further abuse, it might be claimed. It might be noted that, although hatred is typically regarded as a negative emotion, it’s often an enjoyable emotion. We sometimes nurse our hatred. We relish our hatred-fueled thoughts of the gruesome things that might happen to the one we hate. Alternatively, one could reject the Aristotelian approach when it comes to hatred. Hatred is never appropriate and should always be replaced with love, it might be claimed. This replacement, this growth of love in our lives, will always make our lives better. Another possible strategy would be to say that love and hate can co-exist and that sometimes they should. Though it is always required to love others, it is sometimes appropriate to add some hatred to that love.

What do you think? Are there other possible ways of wrestling with these questions? Which approach do you favor?


C. Jealousy

Some see jealousy as connected with love.


On this view, jealousy is an indicator of the strength of love. If someone feels no jealousy, we might wonder whether that person feels genuine love. Is it possible to feel deep, rich love without feeling jealousy? Or should we embrace a certain degree of jealousy as part of the heady brew of love?

Others question this connection between jealousy and love.

jealousy roche

On this view, if I am jealous that my loved one is made happy by someone else, I’m more focused on myself than on my loved one. Maybe there are related issues here about how selfless love should be, and whether our love is more tied up with selfishness than we would like to admit. Should we aim at ridding ourselves of this negative emotion as a way of deepening our love? Would our lives be better if jealousy never manifested itself in us? Would this be an indication that we had shed our insecurities, or would this be an indication that we had become too detached from those we profess to love?

Moral Victories


A common claim that I’ve heard in various post-game interviews with NFL players and coaches is “There are no moral victories in the NFL.” (See here, or here, or here.) As someone who teaches moral philosophy and who is a football fan, this claim intrigues me. What does this claim mean, and is it true?

In one narrow sense, it’s obviously true. The NFL does not keep track of moral victories. There are no moral victory standings. There are no playoffs for the teams with the most moral victories. There is no Moral Victory Super Bowl.

What is a moral victory? The term “moral” is derived from the Latin word for character. Moral victories are often discussed when good character is displayed, even though in a losing cause. In a paradigmatic example from the first week of this NFL season, the Cleveland Browns fell behind early to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 27-3. They battled back in the second half, and ended up losing 30-27. After the game, Browns Coach Mike Pettine said, “There are no moral victories in this league, but I was proud of the resolve and the character that showed up.” What message is Pettine trying to send with this comment? He does express pride in the character of his team. He is complimenting his team for their willingness to keep battling, even when the game looked lost. This character trait is clearly a good one, not only in the context of sports, but in many contexts throughout life. Why not simply compliment his team and leave it at that? I take it that the worry here–the worry that leads him to add the “no moral victories” claim to his comments–is that he doesn’t want his team to be satisfied with putting forward a strong effort. His point seems to be that whatever pride is taken in a strong effort needs to be tempered by the fact that the team lost. He is guarding against complacency, against losing sight of the goal of victory.

We need to consider this goal of victory. In his poem, “Alumnus Football,” noted sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote:

For when the One Great Scorer comes

To mark against your name,

He writes–not that you won or lost–

But how you played the Game.

Is the “no moral victories” claim simply a rejection of Rice’s claim? Is the idea that the only thing that matters in the NFL is winning and losing, character be damned? This is certainly a danger with sports and games in general and with professional sports where millions of dollars are at stake more specifically. The drive to win can swamp the concern with character. Is Pettine saying that a moral victory, a display of good character, does not matter in the NFL? Is he saying that winning is the only thing that matters in the NFL? If this is all that is going on with this sort of rhetoric, I would have a hard time continuing to be an NFL fan.

A different interpretation of the “no moral victories” claim is available however. To start with, I agree with Aristotle that a crucial part of a good life for us is developing and exercising our capacities. (See Book I, Chapter 7 of his Nicomachean Ethics.) A major contribution that sports and games can make to our living a good life is that they can help us develop and exercise our capacities. We are fascinated by sports because of the peak human performances that they contain. We watch highlights from games in slow motion because we marvel at the physical feats on display. Sports have the capacity to develop and display good character along with physical excellence, however. Participating in sports can help us develop perseverance, teamwork, and a variety of other virtues. “Commitment to Excellence” is not just a Raider slogan; we engage in sports because they help us develop our excellences–excellences of body and of intellect and of character. If this is right, if developing human excellence is a central purpose of sports, then moral victories–those times when excellence of character is displayed in the course of a sporting event–certainly should be part of the NFL. Perhaps the claim that there are no moral victories in the NFL is simply a warped, misguided perspective on the ultimate purpose and value of sports.

Things are a bit more complicated, however. Even if we agree that a central purpose of sports is to help us develop our capacities, we need to consider how they do this. And one way they do this is by getting us to focus on a goal internal to the activity, the goal of winning. We set out an arbitrary list of rules. Those rules set out an arbitrary way of assigning points to various events in the game, such as touchdowns and field goals and safeties and extra points. Winning then gets defined in this arbitrary way by the rules of the game. By playing the game, the players commit themselves to this arbitrarily constructed goal, but doing this promotes the development of the skills and character traits that we might regard as the true goal of the activity. Imagine a coach who sees his role as encouraging his players to develop their capacities, including their character. Such a coach might have a team which has displayed a great deal of character in a losing cause. Such a coach might ask his team to stay focused on the (lesser and arbitrary) goal of victory in order to promote the continued development of their capacities. Perhaps the goal of developing the virtue of perseverance is well served by focusing on the goal of victory. Perhaps the claim that there are no moral victories in the NFL is one way of keeping players focused on the continued development of their capacities, which is the ultimate moral victory.