Reasonable Rhetoric

As children, we are often told to do whatever makes you happy, don’t think about anyone else! This is a seemingly harmless sentiment that we repeat to ourselves as we make choices about our futures. We all fall victim to this kind of rhetoric at one point or another.

Pursuing a degree in philosophy I have often comforted my existential crises by humming this mantra. However, doing whatever we want has everything to do with affirming our desires. When you think about the gravity of declaring all of your aspirations it becomes vastly more complicated than to just do whatever you want! Who has the privilege to do whatever makes them content? Who suffers because some people are pursuing their own happiness? Is it even moral to do whatever makes you joyful if it comes at the expense of another person? And finally, why would you be happy doing something that could be potentially harmful to others?

Nietzsche, the brilliant (racist, misogynistic) German philosopher, has a concept called the eternal recurrence. He claims to have modeled his life around this idea. Think of it like this: you live your life, you affirm all of your desires and consequently, you would not change a thing about your life. However, your life repeats itself over and over again without your knowledge but because you’ve proclaimed all your inclinations, you are the happiest you could possibly be and would not change a thing about your life even if you knew the eternal recurrence was occurring. Nietzsche calls this “the highest attainable formula for affirmation.” This puts Nietzsche under the impression that he is saying Yes to Life! And from what we knew about Nietzsche, we can tell he wasn’t a very empathetic guy, so maybe desire affirmation at the expense of others wouldn’t be a big deal for him.

This is when this sort of rhetoric becomes extremely dangerous! Saying “Yes to Life” shouldn’t be saying no to someone else’s life. In very extreme cases affirming your impulses could mean robbing someone of their life.

On the opposite side of this argument is a philosopher like Freud. Everyone who is familiar with Freud is familiar with his ideas of sublimation and repression. Freud thought that sublimation and repression were necessary for civilization to be built and maintained. Had Nietzsche been alive to read some of Freud’s philosophy, I can almost guarantee he would have argued that Freud’s philosophy was a kin to asceticism. Asceticism is the doctrine of self-denial. So, think about monks or priests who abstain from things typically to discourage greed and other sins. Nietzsche thought this was saying no to life, which lead him to the eternal recurrence.

In theory, yes, I would love to affirm all of my desires. I’d love to eat chocolate for every meal and go to a concert instead of doing course work and kiss the cute boy even if I know he has a significant other all because I want to, because I yearn to. But, I know from living life that desires have repercussions. If I eat chocolate for every meal, I’ll get sick. If I go to the concert instead of doing my coursework, I will inevitably fail. And if I kiss the cute boy even if I know he has a partner, I will be an accomplice in hurting a totally innocent third party.  So even on a very, very, very small scale affirming all our desires is harmful.

Some of these wants are already informed by privilege as well. I am a white, middle-class, cisgender woman. I have the class privilege to attend a great university so if I were to blow off my classes it would be a blatant display of that privilege.

And we see this on countless occasions. I’m white therefore I harbor white privilege so I can appropriate the cultures of others on a whim without even considering the struggles and oppressions that people of those cultures endure. I could be celebrated for wearing a traditional aboriginal headdress to a music festival without thinking about the fact that there are hundreds of missing aboriginal women who are missing because they are aboriginal women. Using privilege this way is so harmful and dangerous. I shouldn’t be able to affirm all of my desires and do whatever makes me happy if it comes at the expense of other people. Privilege is often blind and that’s why it’s privilege.

We know why Nietzsche could affirm all his desires (because he regarded any life that wasn’t white and male as worthless) and we know why Freud had to repress his (he totally wanted to sleep with his mother). So, unlike Nietzsche, I cannot commit to affirming all of my desires and, unlike Freud, I cannot commit to repressing them.

However, I can commit to something like the harm principle. In law, there is a principle called the harm principle. It entails that you can do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t harm others! This seems really wonderful but I would make one simple revision: You can do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t harm others OR yourself (it’s important to take care of you, too).

What I’ve been trying to say through this whole discussion of philosophy and privilege is that you cannot always do what makes you happy! But, what makes you blissful also shouldn’t harm others! So, check yourself. Make sure you’re affirming your desires in a realistic, respectful, and beneficial way.