The Problem of Self-Deception

Self-deception is a feature of the common life.

This is not to say that self-deception is simple or easily understood. Few features of the common life are. We can say, however, that what is identified by the concept 'self-deception' is within the reach of our linguistic resources and that the expression provides a conduit of intelligibility and serves to convey meaning. Persons employing the concept can be assumed to mean something by it when they use it, so there is significance in the fact, which is here noted, that they do actually use it.

We put the linguistic expression 'self-deception' to work to perform various kinds of meaning tasks. In our linguistic community, we use the concept to identify, describe or otherwise demarcate a phenomenon with which we claim familiarity. Ideally, we who use the expression ought to be able to explain why we used it the way we did; but even if we find ourselves unable to give a strict definition, we can assume that because it was used, this expression was deemed preferable to others, that it, in fact, said what was meant. We expect our language to work on our behalf to say what we mean, and this expectation holds for any concept that would claim to be a part of our common life, the life we share as members of a common linguistic community.

The language of 'self-deception' may not appear particularly difficult, and the assertion that self-deception is a feature of the common life may not appear controversial. We do, after all, use the language of self-deception in the common life, agreeing that that self-deception is not to be cultivated as a good of life; and if asked to say something about self-deception, most of us would remark that we would avoid self-deception if we could. 1 Despite this consensus about the meaning of the concept, even casual reflection on the idea of persons deceiving themselves raises the specter of misunderstanding, even unintelligibility. We would avoid self-deception, we say, but it is not immediately apparent that we can. Why? With that question we ask a question requiring deeper reflection, for now it looks as if self-deception is complex and that understanding it will require sustained attention and further thought.

Although the concept 'self-deception' is a feature of our common linguistic life and the phenomenon itself is all too familiar in our experience, deep, sometimes dark, uncertainty surrounds this topic. Various disputes have arisen about the meaning of self-deception; and since even the most casual reflection on the meaning of the concept can occasion a furrowed brow, let us ask: Why the perplexity? What might the problem of self-deception be?

We want to say, first of all, that self-deception poses a problem about description. If we hold to a certain model of deception, where one person, (a deceiver), who knows or believes something to be true, acts to mislead another person's beliefs (the deceived), it follows by analogy that a self-deceiver is one who believes and yet somehow does not-believe. In self-deception, the deceiver would be identical to the deceived: the deceiver who believes is one and the same person with the deceived whose belief has been mislead. But how can a person both believe something to be true and also not believe it to be true?

To reflect on the meaning of self-deception this ways leads one to the conclusion that self-deception involves a paradox, for it suggests that one person or consciousness can play two incompatible roles simultaneously. How can that be? To ask that question is to acknowledge that self-deception is difficult to describe without contradiction, which is to say that self-deception raises a philosophical problem. On first glance, it appears that if selfdeception does in fact refer us to such a contradictory state of affairs, it is an unintelligible and incoherent notion, a concept that cannot withstand the most superficial kind of philosophical scrutiny.

Yet the fact is that 'self-deception' is a meaningful linguistic feature of the common life. The fact is that persons who are linguistically endowed and initiated into the common life do have occasion to remark that "so-and-so is self-deceived." Rather than assuming that such a remark is itself incoherent or unintelligible, our assumption ought to be that this remark represents a meaningful communication that others, too, can and do understand. Furthermore, we can assume that using 'self-deception' this way identifies, describes or otherwise demarcates some feature of the common life--here a psychological feature, for 'self-deception' refers us to mental and behavioral characteristics of persons. How are we to reconcile the fact that 'self-deception' is employed as a meaningful cipher of communication with the prospect that the concept may be unintelligible? I do not propose to answer that question at this point. I only wish to suggest that this preliminary line of inquiry into the meaning of self-deception establishes that there is a philosophical problem here that needs to be addressed.

We could not proceed to further questions about self-deception if we did not first resolve the coherence and intelligibility problem. For a moment, however, let us assume that 'self-deception' is intelligible, our grounds being that persons actually use the concept to perform a variety of meaning tasks. Then we must consider another difficulty. Since self-deception is obviously related to deception, and 'deception' is subject to moral analysis and evaluation, as most of us would readily concede, should we not expect a moral issue to arise over 'self-deception'? Clearly, another kind of inquiry or philosophical task awaits one who would inquire into the meaning of selfdeception. If a self-deceiver is the agent of a deception, does the selfdeceiver qua agent warrant moral censure for that deceptive act? This, too, is a potentially complex issue, especially in light of the fact that there are cases of deception where no morally relevant consequences obtain, as in the misleading of belief occasioned by the magician or actor. And there is the not insignificant aspect of self-deception that makes the self-deceiver a "selfdeceived" victim of deception, further complicating moral matters.

It is reasonable to assume that because a self-deceiver is, or can be understood to be, the agent of a deception, there is at least the possibility of a moral problematic pressing itself into a discussion of the meaning of self-deception. For the moment, moral accountability, not the degree of it, is the issue. Does self-deception lend itself to inquiry aimed at ascertaining moral accountability?

Other questions arise beyond this. If self-deception be a feature of the common life, could there be yet other contexts of meaning, other realms of discourse beyond the philosophical and the ethical, where 'self-deception' has actually been put to use and accorded status as an authorized cipher of meaning? I would answer this question in the affirmative, noting that religious thinkers have often used 'self-deception' for theological purposes. Perhaps, then, we should be open to the possibility that religious discourse is another context that requires our attention. Would an employment of 'selfdeception' within such a context further our understanding of self-deception?

In order to respond positively to this last question, a case must be made that the concept of self-deception does lend itself to employment in other meaning contexts and that a religious context is indeed relevant. If 'selfdeception' has been used to perform meaning tasks in a religious or theological context, then the particularities of this employment must be examined since the religious setting could significantly affect our ability to understand the full extent of the concept's meaning.

I shall argue in these pages that the concept 'self-deception' does lend itself to use in various contexts of meaning and that the religious context is relevant to any thorough inquiry into the meaning of self-deception.

In these pages I shall hold to the position that "To understand a concept is not simply to be able to define it but to be able to do the proper things with it." 2 One of the proper things to do with the concept 'self-deception' might be to investigate its use in a religious context. Such an investigation would, as I just suggested, further our understanding of self-deception in general, although it would enable us to see how self-deception has been used to illuminate certain religious ideas (e.g., "sin") in particular. Although a religious employment may appear vague at the moment, I reiterate the fact that religious thinkers have actually used 'self-deception' to elucidate features of faith and human being. That use would suggest that those who employed the concept in a religious context intended to communicate thought that was meaningful and capable of being understood.

The problem of self-deception, then, is not one problem, or if we say that there is a general problem of intelligibility, we should say that it is not a one-dimensional problem. It is potentially several problems; and thinkers from diverse perspectives--philosophical, ethical and religious--have contributed to the debate about the meaning of a concept by bringing the resources of their perspectives to bear on this problem of the common life, the problem of self-deception. As we shall see, self-deception is not only a topic of concern to philosophers and psychologists; but moralists and religious thinkers, as well as poets, novelists and playwrights, have found in self-deception a topic worthy of their attention and consideration.

The philosophical problems of coherence and intelligibility require immediate attention. After all, if self-deception cannot withstand the coherence test and is shown to be a piece of conceptual non-sense, employment of the expression in other contexts of meaning can be expected to do nothing save compound the non-sense. On a fundamental level, 'self-deception' must be shown to be a meaningful cipher of communication, an expression that has rules for correct employment, a concept that identifies or expresses a "meaning complex" that we as members of a linguistic community can use and understand.

How are we to understand self-deception? What is it? How does it function? What are the conceptual issues involved? What are the empirical issues that might be raised if our employment of the concept implies that some actual behavioral phenomenon is described whenever we press 'self-deception' into service?

Self-deception requires conceptual clarification, but conceptual issues are not the only issues involved. There is an empirical issue at stake here, one related to a coherent description of the concept. After all, a concept that is shown to be unintelligible because it is self-contradictory can not be expected to provide empirical evidence to support the unintelligibility. On the contrary: If the concept 'self-deception' refers us to some fact about human behavior we should inquire into that issue to determine what evidence might support such a claim. In the end, we must resolve whether 'selfdeception' is an appropriate use of language. Does this linguistic expression perform its function well? Does it identify a particular behavioral phenomenon without distortion? Or is it a misleading linguistic indicator? Does our use of the expression 'self-deception' represent a mistake in our use of language?

All of these questions pose significant problems for one who would seek to understand the meaning of self-deception. These problems are essentially philosophical, but we must understand that philosophical investigation need not necessarily confine us to problems of contradiction and coherence. Philosophical investigation will lead us to consider the meaning of 'self-deception' as it is authorized in other realms of discourse and contexts of meaning, to meaning "beyond" analytic claims or reductionist commitments.

The purpose of this extended essay is to investigate and elucidate the concept 'self-deception.' The aim here is not only to address the philosophical issues that concern an apparent contradictoriness and the necessary requirements for intelligibility, but to sort out the moral complexities that attend the concept and to urge consideration of a religious perspective as a fitting and proper move warranted by actual use. At the outset, I must state

that the overriding interest of this essay is to advance an understanding of self-deception that will permit us to see the sense of a theological employment. It is already clear, however, that a concept that does not make sense when we scrutinize its claim to meaning in the context of everyday discourse is not going to be of much use elsewhere, in other, more specialized contexts, like the moral or religious. Having expressed a commitment to philosophical clarity, let me add that for the purposes of this essay, religious discourse will be assumed to be meaningful (contra A. J. Ayer). I mean by that remark that religious discourse is rule-governed discourse and that it stakes a claim on intelligibility. Therefore, if 'self-deception' is to play a role in religious thought, it can only do so on the basis of a prior determination that the concept is, indeed, intelligible. Religious language is language before it is religious.

Providing a justification for a religious employment is not my immediate concern. The first priority is to get at the meaning of the concept 'selfdeception' as it is used by persons who intend by their use to share an understanding and to communicate that understanding in a meaningful way. To achieve this requires that we first attend to the philosophical problems that not only threaten the concept's claim to intelligibility, but render its value in a linguistic community suspect.

It is my intention to undertake a philosophical investigation of the concept 'self-deception' so that we might come to understand more thoroughly how the concept is and can be employed meaningfully. Therefore, I shall further outline my proposal, the next order of business being to consider the methodological underpinnings that will restrict the scope of this inquiry while shaping its advance.

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