April 2, I'll be a critic at a Pacific APA author-meets-critics session on Quassim Cassam's book Self-Knowledge for Humans. (Come!) In the last chapter of the book, Cassam argues that self-knowledge is not intrinsically valuable. It's only, he says, derivatively or instrumentally valuable -- valuable to the extent it helps deliver something else, like happiness.
1. The Argument from Addition and Subtraction.
Here's what I want you to do: Imaginatively subtract our self-knowledge from the world while keeping everything else as constant as possible, especially our happiness or subjective sense of well-being. Now ask yourself: Is something valuable missing?
Now imaginatively add lots of self-knowledge to the world while keeping everything else as constant as possible. Now ask: Has something valuable been gained?
Okay, I see two big problems with this method of philosophical discovery. Both problems are real, but they can be partly addressed.
Problem 1: The subtraction and addition are too vague to imagine. To do it right, you need to get into details, and the details are going to be tricky.
Reply 1: Fair enough! But still: We can give it a try and take our best guess where it's leading. Suppose I suddenly knew more about why I'm drawn to philosophy. Wouldn't that be good, independent of further consequences? Or subtract: I think of myself as a middling extravert. Suppose I lose this knowledge. Stipulate again: To the extent possible, no practical consequences. Wouldn't something valuable be lost?
Alternatively, consider an alien culture on the far side of the galaxy. What would I wish for it? Would I wish for a culture of happy beings with no self-knowledge? Or, if I imaginatively added substantial self-knowledge to this culture, would I be imagining a better state of affairs in the universe? I think the latter.
Contrast with a case where addition and subtraction leave us cold: seas of iron in the planet's core. Unless there are effects on the planetary inhabitants, I don't care. Add or subtract away, whatever.
Problem 2: What these exercises reveal is only that I regard self-knowledge as something that has intrinsic value. You might differ. You might think: happy aliens, no self-knowledge, great! They're not missing anything important. You might think that unless some practical purpose is served by knowing your personality, you might as well not know.
Reply 2: This is just the methodological problem that's at the root of all value inquiries. I can't rationally compel you to share my view, if you start far enough away in value space. I can just invite you to consider how your own values fit together, suggest that if you think about it, you'll find you already do share these values with me, more or less.
2. The Argument from Nearby Cases.
Suppose you agree that knowledge in general is intrinsically valuable. A world of unreflective bliss would lack something important that a world of bliss plus knowledge would possess. I want my alien world to be a world with inhabitants who know things, not just a bunch of ecstatic oysters.
Might self-knowledge be an exception to the general rule? Here's one reason to think not: Knowledge of the motivations and values and attitudes of your friends and family, specifically, is intrinsically good. Set this up with an Argument from Subtraction: Subtracting from the world people's psychological knowledge of people intimate to them would make the world a worse place. Now do the Nearby Cases step: You yourself are one of those people intimate to you! It would be weird if psychological knowledge of your friends were valuable but psychological knowledge of yourself were not.
Unless you're a hedonist -- and few people, when they really think about it, are -- you probably thinks that there's some intrinsic value in the rich flourishing of human intellectual and artistic capacities. It seems natural to suppose that self-knowledge would be an important part of that general flourishing.
3. The Argument from Identity.
Another way to argue that something has intrinsic value is to argue that it is in fact identical to something that we already agree has intrinsic value.
So what is self-knowledge? On my dispositional view (see here and here), to know some psychological fact about yourself is to possess a suite of dispositions or capacities with respect to your own psychology. An example:
What is it to know you're an extravert? It's in part the capacity to say, truly and sincerely, "I'm an extravert". It's in part the capacity to respond appropriately to party invitations, by accepting them in anticipation of the good time you'll have. It's in part to be unsurprised to find yourself smiling and laughing in the crowd. It's in part to be disposed to conclude that someone in the room is an extravert. Etc.
My thought is: Those kinds of dispositions or capacities are intrinsically valuable, central to living a rich, meaningful life. If we subtract them away, we impoverish ourselves. Human life wouldn't be the same without this kind of self-attunement or structured responsiveness to psychological facts about ourselves, even if we might experience as much pleasure. And self-knowledge is not just some further thing floating free of those dispositional patterns that could be subtracted without taking them away too. Self-knowledge isn't some independent representational entity contingently connected to those patterns; it is those patterns.
You might notice that this third argument creates some problems for the straightforward application of the Argument from Addition and Subtraction. Maybe in trying to imagine subtracting self-knowledge from the world while holding all else constant to the extent possible, you were imagining or trying to imagine holding constant all those dispositions I just mentioned, like the capacity to say yes appropriately to party invitations. If my view of knowledge is correct, you can't do that. What this shows is that the Argument from Addition and Subtraction isn't as straightforward as it might at first seem. It needs careful handling. But that doesn't mean it's a bad argument.
I'd go so far as to say this: Self-knowledge, when we have it (which, I agree with Cassam, is less commonly than we tend to think), is one of the most intrinsically valuable things in human life. The world is a richer place because pieces of it can gaze knowledgeably upon themselves and the others around them.