Jay-Z pens what is one of my favourite songs; combining poignant and reflective lyrics with a haunting and dream like melody capturing the human struggle and pursuit for meaning, purpose, success, legacy and immortality in whatever guise it may be. A struggle that sets us apart from the whole cosmos and reveals our uniqueness in the play of life. Against a surreal and almost ominous musical landscape, he punctures the heavy bass with the opening words,

” Life is but a dream to me. I don’t wanna wake up Thirty odd years without having my cake up. So I’m all about my paper 24/7, 365, 366 in a leap year. I don’t know why we here. Since we gotta be here, Life is but a beach chair. Went from having shabby clothes to walking over abbey road. Here my angels singing to me – Are you happy Hov?”

I have always been haunted by the opening words of this song as I wrote a few years back. Why exactly I was captivated by these lyrics I could never articulate fully. As I listen to the song and read these lyrics – I find that it captures the picture of our modern culture, (a picture I once shared) on firstly what the form of a good life is; and secondly what constitutes happiness.

There is an apparent contradiction in Jay-Z’s train of thought as he says on the one hand  “I don’t know why we here…” but in the immediate preceding lines he admits that his life is “all about my paper” or that “life is but a beach chair”. Clearly then he knows precisely what his life is about, he knows why he is here – so how can he also say then he does not know why we are here.

I think the idea that he is expressing by saying “I don’t know why we here” is that there is no ultimate reason and purpose that is given as to why we are here – why the whole of humanity exists. There is no cosmic order, or meta-narrative revealing how each thing fits together. This is an important belief in what philosopher Charles Taylor calls the ethic of authenticity, the ethic of self-fulfillment espoused by our modern culture and articulated powerfully in this song. There is no transcendent and higher authority that has handed down the purpose of each life. There is no single universal framework which is uncontested and accepted as providing a legitimate answer to the question of why human beings exist and how they ought to live. Even if God exists, we certainly do not know with much certainty what his will and purpose is for human beings. In very broad terms we can state this first principle of what a good life is in the following manner : There is nothing external to you as an individual; whether society, laws, nature, or God that can determine what the aim of your life should be. In other words it is up to each individual to define for themselves what a noble, meaningful and good life is. Hence for Jay-Z, life is defined as a beach chair. Jay-Z articulates explicitly this ethic of authenticity in one of his most revealing lines in the song.

“No compass comes with this life just eyes. So to map it out you must look inside
Sure books can guide you – but your heart defines you”

No compass comes with this life; there is no pre-existing blueprint given which we must follow. The plan and purpose is generated by ourselves by following our heart and individual desires. Books, such as the Bible, provide guidance and wisdom, however the primary responsibility on how to define our lives and its purpose lies within us and never outside of it. By following our heart and desires, by being true to the inner voice we each have, we become authentic individuals; we achieve self-actualization – that is what a good life entails. Being true to your self means following your individual desires rather than external desires. As Charles Taylor puts it:

“Being true to myself means being true to my own originality, and that is something only I can articulate and discover. In articulating it, I am also defining myself. I am realizing a potentiality that is properly my own. This is the background understanding to the modern ideal of authenticity, and to the goals of self-fulfillment or self-realization in which it is usually couched”

The assumption behind this moral ideal is that a person who simply followed what society demanded and expected them to do, whether they desired it or not, would not be their own person. They would not be authentic individuals because the direction of their lives was not chosen by them but imposed on them by society and whatever is external to their desires. However, I find that the moral ideal of authenticity or self-fulfillment assumes a rather simplistic and naive view of the complex interaction between society and the individual, and desires and the individual.

The complexity of our desires

Let us imagine a person who grows up in a family of priests, and as the eldest son, he is expected to continue the family tradition of being priests in their community even though he has a desire to be a musician. The ethic of authenticity would interpret this person’s life as not being authentic because it is a choice that stems from family tradition and not the individual’s desire. However there is another equally plausible way to interpret this person’s life. And that is that their choice to continue the family tradition at great personal cost and sacrifice is made under the moral ideal that a great human being of character and virtue makes precisely these sort of choices. The fulfillment of their social obligations and duties, often comes at the expense of their other personal desires. On such a moral ideal – the good human being is one who is able to lay down their life for others. It is also difficult to see why such a choice would not be an authentic one if the person had a desire to fulfill their social obligations greater than fulfilling their other desires such as being a musician. The error in the ethic of authenticity is the assumption that human beings each have one single homogeneous desire and that following that specific desire is being true to yourself.

Going back to the illustration – one has a desire to be a musician but family tradition says be a priest. My one single internal desire is thwarted and an external desire is imposed on me. However the reality is a bit more nuanced. Yes one has a desire to be a musician, however one also has a desire to bring honour to the family by continuing its traditions and being part of a story larger than oneself. One has a desire to be a musician but also the desire to be a virtuous human being willing to make sacrifices for the good of his family and community.

This illustration raises a question which the ethic of authenticity view provides little answers for. If we have different competing desires – how do we know which one to follow in order to realize our authentic self? Is it following the strongest and most persistent one? The picture is complicated by the fact that over time our desires change. My desires as 5 year old, 18 year old and 30 year old are not only different but I judge my desires as a 30 year old to be better compared to my 18 year old self. This is a crucial fact that is left out of the ethic of authenticity model of human nature – we interpret, judge and evaluate our desires by standards that do not originate from the desire itself. 

We do not simply have a desire and act on it, the desire comes and we evaluate it (whether we should indeed have such a desire) and if so whether it is good to act on it then and not some other time.  I see a beautiful women and immediately the desire to sleep with her arises, should I act on it?  If I’m married I will judge such a desire to be wrong, and acting on it a grave moral failure. Suppose the beautiful women in question is my wife – then this desire I will judge not only to be proper but my duty to act on it. 

We are able to have first-order and second order desires. Human beings are unique among animals because of our rational capacity  which gives us the ability to make judgements about our desires and evaluate whether we want to be the sort of people with such desires. Think of someone with an addiction they desire to be free from. The first order desire is for a cigarette, but then we can have a second order desire which is the  rational desire, based on our rational judgement, to not actually desire the cigarette at all. 

What these features of our desires reveals is that our desires are not simply basic inner desires lying there waiting for us to introspect and discover them and then act on satisfying them. Rather they are always seen and judged through our intellect and beliefs about what is good for us in general and whether this particular desire at this time contributes to our general well-being and flourishing. It should also be noted that reasoning in this context does not necessarily refer to perfect reasoning without error; one could be misinformed, irrational, hasty, mistaken, and even unconscious of their reasoning. One’s reasons for acting can be implicit or explicit.

How our social imaginary forms our desires

An important and difficult question then is what is the source of our desires? On the ethic of authenticity view – following our inner desires is the mark of an authentic human being as opposed to one who follows what society, books, God or anything external to you says. I have already argued that this assumes a simplistic view of our desires and the picture is complicated further by the question of the source of our particular desires. Why do we desire the things we desire? Why those particular things and not others? The ethic of authenticity presupposes that our internal desires originate within ourselves and are not in any way influenced and determined by society. Otherwise if they are determined by society then they do not reflect our authentic true selves and so we become duplications of society. I find this claim problematic however for the following reasons.

Individuals are always embedded in what philosopher Charles Taylor calls the social imaginary – a kind of tacit knowledge and understanding of how reality is and what counts as meaningful, moral, significant, sacred and valuable. Social imaginary is different from social theory. Social Imaginary is more concrete whereas social theory is an abstraction of our social imaginary. What constitutes our social imaginary is stories, myths, legends, narratives that make up our social moral orders. Which in turn produce social institutions which become the stage where the social imaginary is conveyed and passed down by participating in social practices. We learn and internalize our social imaginary through participation in particular social practices that are set in certain social institutions. Tacit knowledge, or know-how is a kind of knowledge which cannot be articulated and conveyed in abstract propositions. Think of a doctor – studying the theory alone is insufficient for making you a good doctor. One needs experience – which is to say that  there is a kind of knowledge that is essential to being a doctor that can only be gained by participating in the practices of a doctor.

Knowledge of our culture’s social imaginary is concrete, embodied and conveyed in the practices themselves and therefore cannot be abstracted from them. The social imaginary conveys knowledge in a similar way. The narratives, images, visions implicit in the imaginary provide the moral horizons and frameworks through which we determine what is sacred, significant and valuable.

“The “social imaginary” is an affective, noncognitive understanding of the world. It is described as an imaginary (rather than a theory) because it is fueled by the stuff of the imagination rather than the intellect: it is made up of, and embedded in, stories, narratives, myths, and icons. These visions capture our hearts and imaginations by “lining” our imagination, as it were—providing us with frameworks of “meaning” by which we make sense of our world and our calling in it.” – James K.A. Smith

Charles Taylor in his lectures on the Modern Malaise offers the following illustration. I might be the only person with 457 hairs in my community however that is not a significant and meaningful trait with which I would define my life by. One chooses things that are already considered significant to define oneself by – there is an existing moral horizon. Things such as: a political cause, correcting an injustice, taking care of your family. One chooses among things that are already recognized as significant independently of my individual choice. It is not my choice that gives those things significance – rather I recognize their significance and then choose to define myself according to those things. Sociologist Christian Smith in his book, Moral believing animals, echoes this sentiment that individual preferences and values are meaningful and legitimatized by social moral orders (moral horizons) outside the particular individual.

“…preferences and valuings are typically and perhaps nearly always powerfully shaped by, if not derived from, larger systems of moral order. Preferences are not primarily self-referential inclinations. And values are not abstract, free-floating personal appraisals. Both preferences and values involve reference to discriminations between worthy and unworthy, good and bad, right and wrong, truth and falsehood, and so on. They are socially normative and evaluative dispositions.”

The way in which these preferences and desires come to be internalized is through our immersion in particular habits and social practices. Taylor and sociologist James Smith use the term imaginary to convey its affective aspect. Our imagination is less cognitive and more affective, passionate and emotional. Our imagination is able to structure our experiences as desirable or unappealing. Our desires are formed then through our habitual participation in social practices. We come to embody the narratives, images, pictures of our social imaginary through habits and social practices. As James Smith put it,

It is crucial for us to recognize that our ultimate loves, longings, desires, and cravings are learned. And because love is a habit, our hearts are calibrated through imitating exemplars and being immersed in practices that, over time, index our hearts to a certain end.

The take home point is that there is a complex dynamic relationship between intellect, beliefs, society and our individual desires which the ethic of authenticity/self-fulfillment ethic assumes a simple naïve view of. We do not simply introspect, find our desires and then act on that desire. We have a complex set of desires and must therefore choose which ones to follow and act on. We also have the ability to evaluate our desires as to whether we want to be the sort of persons with those particular desires. Individuals are always embedded in a social imaginary which provides the moral horizons, moral social orders, narratives, images, traditions which provides the background in which our desires are formed, and our life choices are made. Our social imaginary is internalized through social practices and habits which form our deep desires and habituate us towards certain ends and goods. The authentic self that obtains happiness by simply following their desires is a work of fiction; the human heart is far more complex.