Further below: Three vignettes, one on truthtelling, one on character and one on minor virtues

Is grief self-regarding?

This is my translation of an essay by my Hamburg-based friend Dr. Christiane Pohl, which was published in Philosophy Now in the 1990s.

The problem

Seldom are we so preoccupied with ourselves as when we grieve. Taking leave of someone close to you — whether the occasion is separation or death — can consume immense spiritual energy and last many years. Often grieving also acts as a catalyst, bringing to the fore an awareness of our own mortality and transience. The inner preoccupation with the loss is accompanied by intense reflection, awakening numerous memories and perhaps heralding the search for a new footing in life.

In view of this intense preoccupation with oneself, the question arises as to whether grief is an expression of egoism. This idea gains ground when we ask why someone should grieve. Let us take as an example here the loss through death of someone very close to us for, although there are countless other occasions for this kind of sorrow, it is our response to the death of someone we love that provides the clearest insight into the nature of grief.

Why do we weep for someone who has died? Because he or she can no longer participate in life? Is it that we would have wished this life to have continued for its own sake, i.e. independently of our own needs and desires? Or is it that, in grieving, we are lamenting the loss we ourselves have incurred? Do we maybe wish that the deceased person might have continued to live for our sake, i.e. for the satisfaction and enrichment of our own existence?

I believe that we must answer both these questions in the affirmative, albeit with more or less emphasis. No-one would wish a person they love death rather than life, least of all in the absence of adversity, such as severe illness. Thus one element in grieving is most certainly a lament for a life which has ended, perhaps much too early. Nonetheless, it is only one element, and in no way the underlying ground, for this lies concealed much deeper. We suffer principally from the fact that the deceased person is no longer accessible for us and can no more play an active part in our life. It is our own loss which stands in the foreground. Might one then not infer from this that mourning is motivated by egoism?

The meaning of the other

To find an answer we must first establish what sort of fundamental meaning other people have for us. Only then can it become clear why the loss of a dearly-loved friend or relative can be so devastating, and what egoistic or non-egoistic aspects may play a role in this. And of course we will also have to clarify what we might mean by egoism.

Let us turn first then to the role that others play for us. That is to say, what is the self for which others play a role?

Some of the most profound thoughts on this subject come from the Danish existentialist theologian, Kierkegaard. Let us take his reflections as a starting point for our own. The self, according to Kierkegaard, is a combination, a "synthesis" of various pairs of opposites, each of which are ever present in human beings — namely necessity and freedom, the infinite and finite, the individual and the general. It is this last aspect which is crucial for our problem. As an individual being, I am not yet a self, but become a self only in union with what is more general. The self is constituted by the synthesis between what is individual and the other; i.e. the self is not something which exists in isolation, but rather that emerges only within a conscious relationship between one's own individuality and the other. This is a consideration which many Continental philosophers since Kierkegaard have paid much attention to, for example, Sartre, Camus and Jaspers, but especially Mar­tin Buber, who argued that an "I" or "self" is only constituted in conjunction with a "you" (or "thou") that is addressed, i.e. spoken to, not about. An "I" in itself, a self which might arise without mutual communication is, for Buber, a nonsense: "If you observe the individual in himself, then you see of the person as it were only as much as we see of the moon; only the person with another person creates a rounded picture."

Keep in mind the point of these reflections on the nature of the self, namely to explore the roots of grief. When someone dies to whom we have had a very close relationship, it is like losing a part of our self. Or, as we might also say here, the loss of our sense of identity. Of course, Mrs M, who has lost her (beloved) husband, still sees herself as Mrs M., who is a secretary, who has a specific home, friends, hobbies, and her own personal story. All this remains as a constituent part of her identity. Nevertheless, an essential part of her sense of identity has been wounded, namely that area where she had constructed her sense of self through him, through his affection, through the moments they experienced together, the exchange of thoughts, and so on. The "I" is to be understood as a core of consciousness, as the logical point, to which all spiritual contents flow and can hence be understood as mine. This "I" remains all through our life — after all, we are the same person from childhood right through to old age. But our self-understanding changes. And we attain our sense of self essentially through interaction with other persons. When another person, who meant a lot to us, dies, the living exchange and with it our sense of self as it was come to an abrupt end. The response to this is grief.

For this reason, we grieve even though simultaneously relieved at the death of someone whose parting is a deliverance from long suffering. We may grieve, also, not for someone we loved but at the passing of someone who has been a scourge of our life, for their death too means a rupture in our sense of self. This is most evident in the case of married partners who have lived together unhappily for many years. Outsiders are then often bewildered at the sorrow of the surviving spouse. The reason for their sorrow may sometimes be that, in the process of grieving, the long-buried affection comes back to life. What is here much more important is that the surviving spouse has determined their self substantially through their rejection of the other or hate for them. Now that this antagonist is no longer there, they are in a similar situation to the grief-stricken mourner who loves: they too must create a new self-understanding. However, that will in most cases be a good deal easier.

Because of the connection of the sense of self with the other, death is experienced in a quite different manner than absence, and be it ever so long. If the person is only absent, vanished from my life or missing, then they remain a part of my sense of self, since I may still hope to be able to resume a relationship with them. The other who is alive is ever present to us, though this does not of course mean that we think of them continuously, but that they are present as a part of our self. And it is just this part of our self that is ruptured when they die.

Grief and egoistic behaviour

To establish to what extent grief may be connected with egoism, we must determine what we mean here by "egoism" and related concepts.

1.) Aggressive and naive egoism:

Egoistic behaviour that deliberately tramples on and disregards the interests of others might be called aggressive egoism, which is still aggressive in character even when it employs devious means to achieve its ends. Another variety of egoism is, in contrast, ingenuous. What happens here is not that a person consciously and recklessly seeks to impose their will, but that they do not even perceive the concerns of the other. Or, so preoccupied are they with themselves, that they see the other only when this other forces his or her presence on the subject. This form of egoism is common. I shall call this naive egoism

2.) Egoism as self-love:

I should like to describe self-love — understood here as a fundamentally affirmative relationship to oneself — separately to behaviour. An affirmative relationship to oneself will itself substantially fashion the way an individual behaves. This conduct might well still be (aggressively or naively) egoistic — but is not necessarily so. Precisely self-love can put someone in the position to act with consideration.

Let us turn first to Definition 1 and examine what relationship holds between grief and egoistic conduct.

It is clear that grief cannot be related to egoistic behaviour in de-facto terms since the other is irredeemably out of the reach of any present or future selfish actions we might undertake. The situation is somewhat different when we come to reflect on and maybe reassess the past. Confronted with the past, the meaning of our actions often gains in saliency. One indicator of this is the feeling of guilt which may arise when someone we know has died. Any reasons for harbouring a sense of guilt must have existed even during the life of the deceased. But now any possibility of making good is irredeemably lost. Precisely because now we are not subject to egoistic motives — the other is no longer there — we are able all the more clearly to discern the selfish traits in our past behaviour. It is as though the grief has stripped away a veil that concealed the other. Almost each of us is beset by memories of how we disregarded the other hurtfully. The loving word unsaid, the letter unwritten or the lack of appreciation for the predicament of the other: all this weighs heavy on the soul. Through the shock of loss, these feelings of guilt are exaggerated and put us in a darker light than is properly justified. For one has to accept that it is human — only too human — to live with the assumption of a future in which everything might be put arights again. If this future is suddenly cut off, our guilt remains without the possibility of rectification, and therefore it is, often, only now that it is actually experienced as guilt.

Grief and self-love

Many people speak repeatedly of the circumstances of death of a deceased relative or friend, and it is important for them that whoever listens should remain patient even when the story is being told for the umpteenth time. For this is nothing other than their working through what has happened and what has been by constantly bringing it to mind, and so eventually becoming able to put it behind them.

Not the circumstances of death alone, but almost everything is subjected to reflection: one's own life, the life of the deceased, and shared experiences. It is seldom that a person is so intensively occupied as now with questions of the meaning and value of life, about God, and death. Freud described this psychic process as a "labour of grief" and the process does indeed cost untold energy. For what is demanded of us is nothing less than that we should reconstruct our self anew without the other. If we think of human personhood as consisting of a relationship to a "thou", then it becomes clear how hard is the labour needed to overcome such a rupture.

In no way does coping with the loss successfully mean that we should erase the memory of the other from our life; what it does mean is that we should learn again to live normally without their living presence. In our memory they can be of the greatest importance for us, and the feeling of deep attachment may remain for the rest of our life.

This last point becomes clearer if we conceive of the self as a process. People who were once in close contact with us have participated in creating this self, and after they have left our life, the self must reconstitute itself in a continuous process.

But whence do we derive the drive or the strength to regenerate our self? It is here that the second kind of egoism enters the scene, namely self-love. Only when this form of egoism is present is it possible to again gradually come to terms with oneself and the world, The person who is not sustained by self-love will barely sense an impulse to heal themselves. Egoism in the shape of self-love is necessary for the process of grief to be taken up, worked through and eventually completed.

Grief is, then, not only a response to loss, but also a process mandated by self-love in order for the self to be able to regenerate itself. The means of regeneration is, for example, the relating of episodes from the life of the deceased and reflection. It is very helpful, if, the first shock past, the mourner looks for further forms of expression: in artistic creativity, in talking through things in a way that points the way ahead, in physical movement, too, for instance dance. The different nuances of the process of mourning can find expression in this way, for grief does not express itself in melancholy and pain alone. It knows also phases of indifference and impotent rage: Why did he, did she, not look after themselves better!

Even if it is true that such anger bears traces of egoism, it too points to the real roots of grief, namely the deep dislocation of the sense of self. Of course I grieve (and rage) about my loss, about the pain that has been inflicted on me. But that is a symptom not of outright egoism, but of the wounding of my spiritual integrity. We would not normally say of someone who complained of physical pain that they were conducting themselves egoistically. Whatever the area in which our integrity is wounded, mind or body, it is always a matter of reconstituting that integrity, in order again to be able to live fully. Without self-love, this difficult work of regeneration could not be taken up — i.e. the task of grief, namely to construct a new sense of self and so achieve again an inner stability, would be futile from the start. And before this phase of grief and the process of inner separation have been completed, it is not possible to embrace a new relationship. Preventing grief involves stopping the inner process of maturation. It means, moreover, that self-love is not given a chance to act as a regenerative force. The time needed for this process is dictated by the self and must be granted.

Unwholesome grief and egoism

We have already mentioned the idea of grief as a process. Now we should look at the important question of how the course of grief affects egoistic behaviour. There are basically two possibilities, which might be called the one-dimensional and the reflective kinds of grief.

First, one-dimensional grief. This is without scope for development and lacks the character of a process, remaining stifled, going round in circles. Freud called this form of grief melancholia, and it is met with in a psychiatric context in the form of depression. One of its hallmarks is an inner paralysis, which nonetheless may find expression in frenzied activity. This kind of grief cannot propel us forward, for it obstructs the inner flow of development. Repressed grief or grief which we forbid ourselves to dwell on can easily turn into depression, which may indeed be understood as a grief which has not been lived out, that is, as an unredeemed pain.

When grief is suppressed, this can have various effects on egoistic behaviour, the cause of which lies in dislocated self-love. The suppressed grief fails to perform its task of producing a new and acceptable relationship between the person concerned and the "world" at large. (The wound does not close.) From here it is now easy to see how one-dimensional grief encourages egoistic behaviour. For the grieving person does not become reconciled with their fate, and consequently recourse to one's own person is chosen as the only way of continuing to live. It is easy to see how an aggressive egoism can result from this. Such behaviour is of course no kind of solution for the inner drama of the individual concerned. The grief which has not been overcome remains in place as a continuing or else an intermittent anguish.

I suspect, however, that it is not the aggressive, but naive egoism which is the more common consequence of one-dimensional grief. For even though one might describe aggressive behaviour as depression turned outward, a more common phenomenon is melancholia. Naive egoism will correspondingly play the greater role. The unresolved rupture leads the grieving person to a continuous occupation with themselves, which may indeed be expressed in aggressive conduct, but which often leads simply to others being ignored. Relatives of depressed people will often complain of this. Indeed, when depressed people are perceived as egoistic, the cause of their selfishness may well lie in an unresolved grief. Such unfinished grief obstructs a mature and responsible relationship between oneself and others. Or, to put it another way: a deficiency of self-love, which makes it impossible to live out one's grief, can all too easily lead to egoistic behaviour.

Grief and temperantia

What is the relationship between reflective grief and egoism?

Here a concept taken from ancient and scholastic philosophy can help: temperantia. It is known generally as the virtue of self-discipline and measure or moderation, and is often ridiculed as old-fashioned. In its real meaning, however, it means "the way to realistic estimate of oneself and unpresumptiveness". Wholesome grieving is connected with this sense of balance or perspective. For the deep rupture in our life can only be healed by attending to this rupture. The precondition for this is — as we have said — self-love, which provides the driving force for reflection. Experience shows that this reflection is very comprehensive. Not only is the immediate loss brought to mind, also long-forgotten memories return, or else thoughts which one had suppressed take on a new light. The pain experienced ensures that this reflection does not proceed in a self-righteous or unrealistic manner. It protects against conceit and also from misconstruing reality, because we are aware more clearly than otherwise of our own finitude and the finiteness of all our relationships. Grief thereby trains the eye for what is essential. For instance, a person who grieves will find the world of material consumption intolerable. (The person who lives through their grief in an unwholesome manner, on the other hand, may veritably take refuge in this world and its insipid pleasures.) The process of reflective grief succeeds also in enabling the grieving person finally to say yes again, yes to themselves, yes to the world. For this reason, temperantia is the appropriate concept for what reflective grief achieves and a key concept in clarifying the effects of grief on behaviour.

The realistic measure which is attained through temperantia can avert the sheer failure to perceive the other. Temperantia makes it possible to produce a balanced relationship. Egoistic elements can certainly play a role in this, for without such elements life is scarcely conceivable. But what remains decisive is that, on the basis of the experience of loss, the regard is directed beyond the confines of the self in order to regain a footing by integration and interaction with the world. The person who fails to looks beyond these confines remains enclosed in their own world. Also something that seems to be the very opposite of egoistic behaviour is prevented by reflective grief: clinging to the other, or else the attempt to win love by performance, is inhibited by grief which is experienced this way. The person who has worked through their grief in this manner knows that our lives are accompanied by finitude and constant vulnerability to loss. To give oneself up entirely for the other means to close one's eyes to this reality — and at some time to have to experience it with less protection than ever.

It is this that reflective grief teaches. It is to be understood as a teleological, i.e. a goal-orientated process. But what is the goal? The ability to again affirm life and oneself. But also to overcome the rupture between oneself and the world, in order eventually to establish a new harmony. This form of grief, then, addresses not only the life-denying forces within a person, but also the life-affirming forces, which make possible the constitution of a new self. To this extent, grief is a process which must of necessity concentrate intensely on one's own person. Self-love, which we have described as a form of egoism, is a necessary precondition for a person to carry through the difficult labour of grief and finally also to overcome their loss. This kind of egoism must be alive in a person if they are to regain a footing in the world. Someone who has an encumbered, negative relationship to themselves can scarcely live through a positive process of grief, and this failure will inhibit them from entering fresh ties of friendship and love. In brief: Only when we love ourselves, are we capable of grieving. And only when we are capable of grieving, are we also able again to love others.


On when to tell the truth, and when not

900 words, 2007

Truth-telling and its pendant, lying, provide a telling vignette to illustrate the vagaries of ethics and rules. The default position is that the truth is told for the sake of the coherence of language and community. Not a few thinkers (including Kant) have held that one should always tell the truth, no matter what; or at least that lying should be reserved for only very extreme cases. Most people have recourse to the device of the white lie: whereas one should always tell the truth, a white lie is not only allowed, but imperative (to avoid an insult, a betrayal, or misleading with a subtlety the listener is ill-equipped to comprehend). But when is a potential lie indeed white? The habitual or occasional liar will be adept at the art of whitewash.

One might, for illustrative purposes, develop a list of examples, perhaps broken down by category, of seriously white lies. I propose a different approach. Focussing on the literal truthfulness or falsity of what is said directs our attention fatally away from the wider context, most importantly, from the recipient of the truth or the falsehood. (Advocates of resolute truth-telling, by contrast, like to focus not on the recipient, but on the integrity of the speaker, and any supposed harm to the speaker's character or reputation.) The issue, I submit, is what claim a person may have to receive a truth. A distinction may be drawn between whether they are being presented with an unsolicited untruth or whether they have posed (explicitly or implicitly) a question in expectation of a truthful answer.

The default position must be that a person should not be led astray by novel disinformation. The situation is already quite different when someone demands to know something. In the world of diplomacy and public relations, one response to an indiscreet question is of the sort "We never comment on this sort of matter." More commonly, the responses to an indiscreet question are a lie, a half-truth, an evasion or a redescription of the matter being enquired about. "Three questions, and give me a straight answer, if you will. Have you finally stopped masturbating? Is it true that your bank is in financial difficulties? And what do you really think of me anyway?" (The best weapon in polemics remains satire.)

I propose two principles for judging whether or the extent to which the truth should be told in a given situation.

1. Does the recipient of the truth or the untruth have a claim to be truthfully informed?

2. What respect does the speaker owe the specific person or group being addressed?

Note that you may be so respectful of another as to withhold the truth (the classic white lie: Auntie does not deserve to be told that, no, you didn't appreciate the cakes she baked); or you may justly have too little respect (e.g. when a criminal tries to trick or coerce you into providing information).

The issue in (1) of the claim or right of someone to be truthfully informed is a function of the relationship. Perhaps a spouse does have an entitlement to know about your possible masturbation. The finance minister may have a duty to enquire – and a right to be informed of the truth – regarding your bank's financial health, but not an ordinary investor or a journalist.

In the case of the third mock question, "What do you really think of me anyway?" merely asking let alone answering it is likely to alter fundamentally the nature of the relationship. This last scenario points to another aspect of the matter in hand, namely the subjective nature of much that is enquired about or proffered in relation to truth-telling. A person who is not much given to introspection or self-doubt will have less difficulty with speaking sincerely than a scrupulously honest introvert. It is also a matter of social practice. The person who qualifies – or is hesitant about – their response to an indiscreet question is likely to find their account discounted or discredited ("if he already admits this weakness, then the truth will be much worse") whereas another kind of character is so adept at self-deception, or has so little depth, that they will hardly register how blatantly false their reply is.

My advice here is to err on the side of simplification. Anyone who has read this far is likely already to take these matters much more thoughtfully and seriously than those they have dealings with. To arrive at substantial truth, a lengthy process of acquaintance and attention to detail is needed, and those unwilling to be so patient are also unworthy of knowing the exact circumstances of the matter in question. There is also the issue of collateral casualties. I may have to lie to one person who is undeserving of the lie in order to avoid revealing what must remain concealed from others. And remember this: In life it is futile to move too far from common practice. You can only be as truthful (or good) as the environment allows. You may try to change the environment, but that will require subtlety. Or you can move to another environment where you are more at ease or better accepted.


Notes on the Nature of Character

There is a crack in all things: that's where the light gets in.
340 words, 2010

Part of character is a set of propensities. In the case of a good character, it may involve a propensity (a habit) to err on the side of courage, patience, perseverance, generosity, etc. But a good character might equally err on the side of safety-first, caution, decisiveness and thrift. (It is no accident that there is no exact mirror-image here.).

Part of soundness of character is a degree of constancy. If your behaviour is all over the place in some respect you cannot be said to have the propensity or habit (characteristic) in question.

Character reflects the fact that we do not take most decisions, whether moral or other kinds of decision, on a case-by-case basis. It is not that we follow a rule necessarily, but an observer might be able to discern a pattern. One may take this line of thought further and say that it is not just a matter of fact (a fact about human nature) that we do not take decisions – everyday decisions – on a case-by-case basis. The decisions must be based on the perceptions and motives of a self that has a semblance of unity. If a character is wholly unpredictable, we are likely to consider it defective. (Some such people get locked up if the nature of their unpredictability is such as make them a danger to others.)

Moreover, many decisions need to be taken instantaneously. If your character is unformed, your decisions will be haphazard, or you will make decisions by default, i.e. by failing to act.

At the beginning, I described character as a propensity to err in a particular direction. If this is true of one person's character, the corollary is that some other persons will err in the other.

It might seem unfortunate that people should err, in whatever direction. But it is not only a somewhat obvious fact; it is, surely, a necessary fact given that we are social animals.


Minor virtues

APRIL 2010, 800 words

There are a number of minor virtues and, as corollary, vices, for some of which we do not have a traditional name because they pertain to the conditions of modern life.

One is that of time-keeping, by which I mean keeping a record of how much time one has spent on such & such a task, and how much on some other task. It is clearly important in a business context for purposes of invoicing or, at least, costing the various tasks. Likely not many people are good at it, and those that claim to be good at it are probably less good at getting the various tasks done well.

There are a number of other virtues and vices connected in different ways with time. One is punctuality, i.e. actually being at the appointed place at the agreed time. Obviously this far-from-universal virtue will be essential for some vocations, and less so for others.

Another is time-keeping in the other, distinct sense of allotting a predetermined amount of time to specific tasks and then keeping to that schedule.

Other virtues are more traditional, namely perseverance and patience. Here a great deal of judgement is required, too, for one may persevere too long, when all reasonable hope is gone, or be overly patient.

Connected with these are the vice of procrastination and its virtuous corollary, decisiveness. Here it is a matter of judgement whether justified hesitancy or unhurriedness amounts to procrastination, and subsequent events may turn any judgement on its head. Decisiveness degenerates into impulsiveness, and the lack of proper and extended reflection may be paid dearly.

A more minor virtue yet is remembering dates, birthdays and the like. Some do, some don't, and most do some of the time.

Apart from those connected with time there are virtues associated with appearance, though these may be counted aesthetic rather than moral virtues. Self-respect is often associated with a person's care of their personal appearance, regular grooming being supposed a sign that someone leads a well-ordered life. Yet excessive concern with one's looks may be frowned upon as much as scruffiness. In certain occupations, certainly, attention to one's appearance is essential, and in others it is nearly so. These are largely occupations connected with modernity and indeed with the media, or at least the effect of the mass media.

Another set of minor virtues are those connected with the ability to put people at ease or, indeed, in some functions with the ability to put people ill at ease or putting them off-guard. Think of interviewing for a variety of purposes, from a friendly media event to interrogating a suspect.

Discretion, i.e., the simple skill of not blurting out the wrong things to people they are best kept from, is a traditional virtue which is at odds with other virtues, namely those allied to openness, frankness, and sincerity. Secretiveness is mostly a vice, but occasionally a virtue.

Generosity in business life may be regarded as a vice or at least not much of a virtue. Generosity in business is justified if it is a devious means of acquiring more for less. The classic example is Henry Ford upping his workers' wages although under no pressure to do so, and doing so not from philanthropic motives but as a ploy to hire and retain the best-motivated workers. Otherwise generosity probably counts as an archetypal vice in business, though not, of course, outside of it. In order to be generous, or even spendthrift, in one domain, one must be parsimonious or indeed miserly in another.

Loyalty has the ring of being a virtue, but meantime we have noted the damage and harm done all-round by misplaced loyalties. It may or may not be associated with the passage of time, and with time loyalties must be renewed or replaced. Fidelity, in the author's view, is a degenerate form of loyalty, sustained by exclusion rather than by inclusiveness.

Patriotism is a virtue, and nationalism a vice, or so the liberal consensus would have it. Is this a virtue to be cultivated, if it does not grow of itself, or is the other a vice to be combatted?

Curiosity, when it is not prying, is mainly a virtue.

Attending to correspondence (replying to correspondence from acquaintances and friends), returning phone calls, visits indeed, seeking to keep in touch even in the face of unresponsiveness or inertia: such behaviour is surely virtuousness in search of a name.

Forgetfulness of wrongs suffered or imparted, a failure to keep up friendships – these too are qualities in search of a name, and good or unfortunate depending perhaps.