Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Ethics of Self-Expression

You've heard it before: "X is important because it's an opportunity for self-expression". What does it mean for something to be important? "Marked by or indicative of significant worth or consequence: valuable in content or relationship", so reads the definition courtesy of Merriam-Webster. Anyone with a remote understanding of human life also understands that consequences follow from self-expression. But what is to be said about the moral implications of those consequences? To say that self-expression is 'important', I suspect, is not at all to suggest the linear idea rendered by the definition of the word, but rather, is to implicitly replace the term with 'virtuous'.

But is this replacement successful? The simple answer is no, the replacement is not successful. Why not? The replacement fails because the term 'important' solely deals with fecundity. The term 'virtuous', on the other hand, transcends fecundity and has to do with a particular moral status, in this case, moral goodness. Because of this fact, the statement of something being important merely due to its encouragement of self-expression becomes questionable.

Is it virtuous for an alcoholic to express their intoxication by means of violence? Is it virtuous for a thief to express their coveting by means of stealing their neighbor's property? Is it virtuous for a murderer to express their disdain for the other by means of the revolver? I think most would agree with me that none of these consequences are worth being expressed, are not virtuous, and are therefore not important (here referring to the imposter sense of the term that was included in sentence one - forgive the pleonasm).

At this point I think it is apt to take a short detour into a common problem of self-expression as it occurs in the arts, what I shall call the freeze-frame dilemma. Though it's not often seen as a problem, this dilemma ought not be overlooked. To be clear, most exemplars of art utilize the freeze-frame approach. A painting remains in its frame, a song is four minutes worth of sound and will never be anything more, a drawing remains on its page, and so forth. What I intend to refer to with the freeze-frame dilemma is something more particular, that is, the expression of one's problem(s) through any artistic medium. While many remain content to praise freeze-frames of this sort for the perceived artistic freedom they provide from personal burdens, it is not without its flaws. The problem with expressing one's problem(s) through art is that such expression becomes recorded. This means that it can be referred to in the future, making an individual vulnerable to repeatedly studying an archetype of their woes (or, what the psychologist might consider rumination). What is intended to rid someone of their problem(s) can easily turn into a constant reminder of their problem(s).

No, self-expression is not necessarily important if what we mean here is that it is virtuous. Importance and virtuousness are not one and the same. Not all self-expression has good consequences. The importance (in the true sense of the term) of self-expression says nothing of a certain consequence's moral goodness, but only the degree to which self-expression has impact. The sentiment of self-expression being virtuous in itself is meaningless dross disguised as being yet another golden rule.

Works Cited
"Important." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 23 May 2016.

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