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When we study non-Western cultures it is difficult to separate out the study of “philosophy” from the study of “religion”. Those of us who study the brilliant arguments of élite men are often told we should pay more attention to the lived culture, to what people there actually say and do. There are advantages and disadvantages to studying other cultures this way. But one of the things we often don’t do is turn that same gaze on our own.

What if, as philosophers in the West, we paid more attention to the ideas that actually underlie our everyday lives and cultures and arguments rather than to prestigious theories? As “religious studies” scholars do, in ways that do not and should not depend on the concept of “religion”? I think that if we approached contemporary Western philosophical culture in this way, we would discover how much of our ethical life is animated by an important ethical ideal that has not had a defender as philosophically rigorous and articulate as a Kant or a Rawls.

I’ve come to notice the importance of this ideal as part of my attempt to learn from a small number of traditions, rather than all of them, and to make these the traditions that choose me, whose truth claims make a claim on me. I’ve taken far too long to realize the importance and influence of the tradition that this particular ideal underlies. A major reason is that this tradition is so important to us as to be almost invisible, one whose influence is so pervasive we often fail to see it, as a fish does not know it is in water. The invisibility is such that I am not even sure there is a satisfactory name for it.

But I am convinced that this ideal is there and it is all around me and even in me, and probably you too. I think it provides the reasons underlying several of today’s most passionate social movements, especially the transgender movement but to a large extent the gay and lesbian movement as well. It sometimes seems to be expressed more often in pop songs than in philosophy – but it is expressed there over and over, over a long period of time. In the ’80s Sting closed “Englishman in New York” with the multiply repeated advice “Be yourself, no matter what they say”; in the ’90s Enigma sang “Don’t care what people say, just follow your own way”; in the ’00s Natasha Bedingfield added “No one else can say the words on your lips”; this decade we had Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go” proclaiming a liberation from expectations and the freedom to be oneself.

Notice that many of these songs are not merely refusing others’ constraints, but recommending an ideal for others to follow as well – not merely “I will be myself” but “Be yourself”. It is advice frequently given. At an educational-technology conference last year, the keynote speaker cited advice she’d once gotten from her teacher: “If you try to be me, who’s going to be you?” In her own projects of self-improvement, Gretchen Rubin needed to remind herself to “Be Gretchen”. Being one’s true or authentic self is taken in these various contexts as something worthy and normative, something we should do and are at risk of not doing. Charles Taylor, probably the best philosophical chronicler of this ideal, notes:

it is hard to find anyone we would consider as being in the mainstream of our Western societies who, faced with their own life choices, about career or relationships, gives no weight at all to something they would identify as fulfillment, or self-development, or realizing their potential, or for which they would find some other term from the range that has served to articulate this ideal. They may override these considerations in the name of other goods, but they feel their force. (The Malaise of Modernity 75)

As I understand this ideal, its individualism stands in contrast to being primarily defined by a group, a community, or especially biological characteristics. The spoken-word artist Prince Ea puts a version of the ideal forward in his video “I Am Not Black, You Are Not White”, with its refusal of racial and other “labels”.

It seems to me that in our everyday ways of thinking about what we should do or what we should be or how we should live, this ideal takes on more prominence than do the ideals of utilitarianism or of Kant that are typically taught in introductory ethics classes. It is, in that sense, a more prominent part of contemporary Western ethics, as it is lived, than are the philosophies that are more typically taught. Those courses tend to focus on “morality” in a narrow sense, which I do not think a wise approach. When we modern Westerners start trying to think about our so-called “intuitions” about ethics in a more general sense, we are likely going to find our way to the ideal that people should strive to be truly themselves.

Nor is this only a Western ideal anymore. While the ideal has its origins in the modern West, it can no longer be considered merely “a Western ideal” any more than Buddhism can be considered merely “an Indian tradition”. Consider the Indian Supreme Court’s recent decision of Navtej Singh Johar vs. Union of India, the case that struck down India’s laws against gay sex. The very opening words of the decision are as follows:

Not for nothing, the great German thinker, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, had said, “I am what I am, so take me as I am” and similarly, Arthur Schopenhauer had pronounced, “No one can escape from their individuality”. In this regard, it is profitable to quote a few lines from John Stuart Mill:- “But society has now fairly got the better of individuality; and the danger which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency of personal impulses and preferences.”
The emphasis on the unique being of an individual is the salt of his/her life. Denial of self-expression is inviting death. Irreplaceability of individuality and identity is grant of respect to self. This realization is one‘s signature and self-determined design. One defines oneself. That is the glorious form of individuality.

The decision continues to emphasize this ideal of individuality throughout its text. The Western origins of the ideal are hardly concealed here, opening with quotes from no less than three modern Western philosophers. Yet this decision is now the law of the land of India, as decided by Indian judges, in a way that overthrows a law (Section 377) imposed by Western colonialists in 1861. The ideal has become Indian, just as Buddhism became Japanese and Mongolian and Thai.

There is a lot to be said about this ideal, and this will be the first in a series of posts that explores the ideal in more detail. (You may have noticed, for example, that the ideal stands in some tension with a Buddhist view of non-self.) The first question to ask about the ideal is what to call it; even that question is tricky enough to merit a post of its own, and that will be my next post.