On self-deception

In the quest for self-improvement and knowledge, it is easy to think of self-deception as your worst enemy. In my own case, I would think that I should always remain vigilant for the 'bad' or 'weak' parts of myself that could be guiding my behavior without my awareness, and this was all part of what it means to live an examined life. But I'm beginning to wonder if this thought is itself a self-deception, one that takes advantage of a one-sided view of things in order to avoid the complexity of life. In fact, I believe the right kind of self-deception may be essential, not just for our ordinary lives, but for living a fulfilling, happy life.

Suppose I have a deep-rooted need of validation from others about my ideas (just hypothetically, of course). It is conceivable that I would avoid this fact about myself in a variety of ways; perhaps I would start a blog and tell myself it's a product of intrinsic motivation to write better and make my ideas clearer, and any external validation would be nice but ultimately irrelevant. Is this good or bad? Maybe without that self-deception, I wouldn't write at all. I might have become paralyzed by inaction, my need for validation causing me to quit from fear of criticism or lack of any attention. Here self-deception could be ultimately useful: I would continue writing until the need for the illusion dissipates, and true intrinsic motivation is found through habit.

I would even go so far as to speculate that the most successful people are masters of self-delusion. A brilliant artist needs to deceive themself into thinking the world will appreciate their art, an innovative entrepreneur needs to believe in their idea for a business against all odds, and so on. Likewise, it is useful for self-improvement to believe you can achieve a desired transformation. No matter how realistic, a goal becomes much more probable the more you believe in it. Think too of a lawyer trying to bring a jury over to his side: how much more effective he would be if he brought himself to genuinely believe in his position. Someone fully aware of all the ways they could go wrong is much more likely to falter. Our best decisions, just like our most skillful moments, likely have more to do with instinct than we think.

This is where I start to sound like an annoying life coach: action is key, and the more you are aware of how pointless it is to do anything, the less you will be able to act. But this self-help turns dark. For there are many reasons not to act; the meaninglessness of life is always lurking beneath the surface. On this basis, it may not be enough to knowingly pretend, the way an actor prepares for a role. While it may sometimes be effective, real self-deception is safer as it prevents any hidden or suppressed nihilism from emerging to sabotage your goals.

There is a psychological hypothesis, called depressive realism, which holds that depressed individuals tend to have a more realistic view of the world, down to literally making more accurate inferences. The theory makes sense according to this line of thought: someone more keenly aware of the suffering and emptiness around them is likely to be closer to the truth of things than a happy, self-deluded individual. This creates an unfortunate dichotomy between unhappiness, nihilism, and truth on the one hand, and happiness, meaning, and untruth on the other.

It seems probable that we are constantly deceiving ourselves on a very basic level in order to avoid that pit of nihilism, to the extent that it becomes necessary and inevitable for our day-to-day lives. Let's take personal identity as an example. A lot of our identity is influenced by society: I identify with my role in a community, my job. This promotes social cohesion as everybody feels their lives are meaningful when adopting these roles. Identity statements like "I am a father", "I am a student", etc., are social constructions, and they prevent us from questioning too much what we 'really' are or should be doing. And this is a good thing, for if everyone were to doubt their roles, a large void of meaning would emerge. It may even lead to doubting the very notion of personal identity itself, or the reality of others, which might present problems for a society based on the simple premise that people exist, that they're worth something, and there are things worth doing.

So it is important for societies to promote a certain level of self-deception in the interest of social cohesion, but of course too much of it becomes totalitarian and undesirable. This dynamic is mirrored in the individual as well, whose will to deceive is often authoritarian if allowed to dominate. There are many example of self-deceptions we would all agree are clearly harmful, for instance, an alcoholic insisting he only drinks socially and can stop anytime as a justification to continue. On a societal level, this same will could lead a population to justify themselves in committing a horrible atrocity. These are wills to self-deceive which most of us would agree are too authoritarian, fostering an unhealthy amount of deception which would be incapable listening to anything else. But what is the basis by which we can distinguish good from bad self-deceptions? What are the principles we operate under such that this picture of a deluded alcoholic is clearly bad, but believing in yourself against all the evidence of reality is good?

One immediate candidate is our values. From the most lofty, like human dignity, liberty, or happiness, down to the most basic, like survival, these primary principles are an essential part of our being. They determine most of our feeling-responses to whether something is good or bad, and thus following them is absolutely necessary for human flourishing. These values may not be the same for everyone, and even if they were, they need not be in the same hierarchical order. I am reminded of a reflection by Nikos Kazantzakis:

"Every integral man has inside him, in his heart of hearts, a mystic center around which all else revolves. This mystic whirling lends unity to his thoughts and actions; it helps him find or invent the cosmic harmony. For some this center is love, for others kindness or beauty, others the thirst for knowledge or the longing for gold and power. They examine the relative value of all else and subordinate it to this central passion. Alas for the man who does not feel himself governed inside by an absolute monarch. His ungoverned, incoherent life is scattered to the four winds."

Kazantzakis is here describing the necessity of a central passion for a meaningful life, and his description is remarkably similar to the way I described good self-deception, stemming from adherence to values. In fact, it could be that passion is the ultimate life-affirming self-deception: submitting yourself to the highest value that's meaningful to you. This is a leap of faith; one taken by the devoted scientist, the religious monk, and the intense athlete alike - all governed by a central passion that, if thought about too much, may just crumble into nothing.

This leaves me with a moral dilemma: if there's something to this line of thought, isn't it unethical to publish this? And doesn't it ruin my own chances of using self-deception appropriately? Maybe. But I think I can justify myself (or delude myself - perhaps the same thing after all): for people who are already appropriately deceiving themselves, this could indeed be harmful and potentially cause a paralyzing existential crisis. But such people are unlikely to read this, and not just because hardly anyone is going to read this, but also because most people interested in ideas are living some kind of examined life. And so they are more likely, as I was, to already be paralyzed by questioning, to make an enemy of deception in the search for truth. So I hope that awareness of the fundamental role of self-deception is enough to create more openness in individuals to take leaps of faith, and that passion is strong enough to supersede this cold and rational speech. In the spirit of Hume:

“I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty. Most fortunately it happens, that since Reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, Nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends. And when, after three or four hours' amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.”
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