The Problem with People

Okay, so I was really trying not to put any significant opinion pieces on this blog, but I feel I need to get this off my chest.

First, some context. I study philosophy, and I’m particularly interested and compelled by the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist. One thing Sartre writes extensively about is the idea of authenticity. Authenticity, for Sartre, is a means by which one might judge their own actions, and the actions of others. In order to get clear about this, let’s talk about morality. Morality is a very sticky subject, it’s hard to pin down, and even harder to make normative statements about. We’d like to think that killing a person is simply wrong, but the fact is some people don’t think it’s wrong, and most people think it’s justifiable in some context (eg. war or self-defense). It is certainly not straight-forward that anyone can make a justified, universal, normative moral judgement of anything. At best, we can be sure of our own subjective moral systems, but this doesn’t give us a particularly stable platform to make prescriptive judgements of others. “I don’t like watermelons” is not sufficient for “no-one should eat watermelons”.

This is where the idea of authenticity comes in. A person who is authentic is someone who understands and accepts their situation, their freedom, their past, and the potentiality of their future, all without contradiction. An example of an inauthentic person could be someone who refuses to leave university in order to pursue their dream of busking, reasoning that once you have joined a university, you must see it through to the end. Another, more topical example would be the man who believes capitalism is wrong, but continues to live in a capitalist state and shop at Tesco and Primark and HMV, even if what they’re buying consists of Che Guevara t-shirts (made by child labourers in India) and indie records (on labels like Sony BMG). These people resist the fact they have a choice. The student can leave, and the anti-capitalist can move to a more socialist state, or refuse the comforts capitalism brings and join a revolutionary cadre, or they can do what they probably should and just accept that for all its faults, capitalism makes life pretty fucking good. Anyway, an authentic person, by contrast, does accept all of their choices, understands their freedom and the consequences of their beliefs, and acts in accordance with all of this. This is something, I think most people would agree, you can admire. Being authentic in and of itself is something admirable. The actions of authentic people aren’t always something we agree with, like the person who genuinely believes random killing is acceptable, and so does. But that is a different (and more complicated) matter. What we are focusing on here is the idea of authenticity, an acceptance and commitment to one’s freedom and thought. Authenticity gives us a means by which we can make prescriptive judgements, at least in a more coherent fashion than we might achieve through moral evaluation. We want to say the man who acts enthusiastically on his ambition to become a famous musician is more admirable than the man who claims his social background limits him to a mediocre life, even if both men end up living rather mediocre lives in the end.

Of course, no-one can be authentic all of the time. The mind is just too complex to organise everything you think and everything you do into a single coherent, non-contradictory stream. But that is still something people should aspire to, and the way to do that is to accept your hypocrisy, and just do your best to eliminate it wherever you can. Don’t make excuses to yourself or to others. Do consider all of your options. Every once in a while, remember that at any given time you could walk out of all your commitments and start a radically different life. I’m not saying that is what you should do. I’m just saying that you should realise it’s an option,  and think about it.  Then if it seems to you like the best option, there’s no reason not to act on it. But that’s up to you.

So now I get to the problem with people. Everyone is living an inauthentic life. Every day I see countless examples of people who are either imposing limits on themselves to excuse their lack of ambition, or making grand claims they refuse to act upon. Nowhere is this more rife than amongst students.


“I can’t get up before 12pm, my body just says no.”

“I can’t get up later than 9am, it’s just a waste of time.”

“If I’d had a better education, I could have made something of my life”

And one of my personal bugbears, which I’m glad no-one I know uses:

“I can’t achieve <blah>, I have depression/emotional issues because of <event>/ADHD”

This last example is possibly the worst because not only is it lying to oneself, it is perpetuating the very condition which is being used as an excuse. It is, as they say, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

All of this has led to what I think of as an “excuse culture”, where every deficiency has a totally logical and plausible excuse. The fact is there is no excuse, only self-determined reasons why anyone should not do their best to achieve what they desire, and face up to the consequences of their beliefs. Since it’s not so straight-forward to be critical of others on moral grounds, I choose to judge people by their authenticity.

So. I guess the message is “sort it out”.

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