Law in Contemporary Society
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Give Up Our Vanity and Be Truly Free

-- By KevinChang - 23 May 2009 The comment made by Professor Moglen that Karpinski from Transactional is a free man made me realize that vanity is a key factor preventing people from being free. In addition to the lack of independent thinking and strong will that I discussed in my first paper, vanity interferes with the conversation between people and their hearts—making them prisoners of their own desires for wealth, material comfort, and power. Just as Veblen commented in The Theory of the Leisure Class, vanity may be part of the nature of humans and might be one of the key bases on which society is wholly built. Therefore, in order to be a person who is truly free, one has to fight against her own nature and find her real wants.

People Tend to Make Choices out of Vanity

Vanity originates from people’s need to show their talents, demonstrate their achievements, and prove their own existence through displaying the wealth and power they possess. This proposition, in my personal view, is more likely to be true among smart, ambitious, and capable people. For instance, bright, young, ambitious students in top schools would normally target as career goals “prestigious” positions such successful lawyers, doctors, businessmen, and politicians. It is likely that they would say that only by pursuing this level of careers can they become leaders of society and make their share of contribution that is “appropriate” for them. However, just as Veblen stated in his book, some “lower status” work could be even more fundamental to the whole of society. For example, a Chief Executive Officer of a top investment bank could certainly make his share of contribution to the country. However, would a dedicated elementary school teacher’s work be any less valuable to society as a whole? Although people would not say it explicitly, people would somehow think that the kind of contribution made by an elementary school teacher should not be the kind of contribution that is made by elites in top schools. Since it is hard to say that the value to society of a teacher is less than that of a CEO of an investment bank, a reasonable, and highly probable, reason might be that those elites need to show their talents and achievements though careers that bring wealth and power, which would normally be respected by other people.

Vanity Is Rooted In Human Nature

Vanity may be part of human nature. It may derive from mating competition, which needs some standard to distinguish the strong from the weak. For instance, an individual more capable of engaging in conspicuous consumption and leisure would probably be more capable of providing resources for raising children. In my view, it has developed to be a necessity for any individual, organization, or country to make a statement of success and prosperity essential to making people trust and believe in that individual, organization, or country. For instance, a lawyer looking for an associate position may really hesitate to join a firm that focuses on utility so much that it has no “proper” lobby at all. This is also why government officials and leaders of countries all around the world need to engage in some form of waste and vicarious leisure to show that the country is strong and prosperous and is worth putting faith in.

People Lose Freedom Because of Vanity

On one level, people lose their freedom because many of them feel compelled to bow to, or at least respect, those who can demonstrate power or wealth, or to join organizations that can allow them to demonstrate conspicuous or vicarious leisure because that is what draws people’s belief. For example, even the smart and ambitious ones are sometimes urged to impress or even truckle to those who are apparently in power. Or if we look at the job hunting season, many graduates compete fiercely with each other to get into the big, prestigious institutions without even asking themselves whether those institutions are the right ones for them. Both kinds of blindness arise from human nature—appealed by what is shown extrinsically instead of inquiring into what really lies intrinsically.

On another, deeper level, people lose their freedom even more seriously when they are striving to become people who can also show off wealth and power and enjoy all kinds of leisure. This is not true, of course, when one’s true passion lies in pursuing wealth or power. However, it would certainly be a tragedy if one’s passion lies somewhere else but, driven by his own vanity, decides to pursue wealth and power. For instance, some doctors end up being walking dead bodies doing research in prestigious academic medical centers because they were drawn by the expensive golf-club membership, high salary, and splendors of being a member of some famous institution. Many of them entered medical school with the dreams of bringing medical care to remote areas of the world and providing long-term care for individuals they truly know. Although they can still fulfill these dreams anytime, they are so imprisoned by their own vanity that this makes it almost impossible for their dreams to come true. Therefore, they lose their freedom by becoming a prisoner of their own vanity.

Know What We Really Want and Be Free

Many people, maybe bright and ambitious ones particularly, are not free people because they are constrained by a thirst for a type of quite commonly defined success—that is, the wealth, fame, and power one possesses. This drive, just like the unitary personality I mentioned in my first paper, is deeply rooted in our human nature and is imperceptibly barring us from fulfilling our true selves. Therefore, maybe just as Hemingway used to say, understanding “how few the real wants of humanity are” is one of the best ways for us to be truly free.

  • Your "vanity" here is the Buddhist's "egotism," the need to assert one's own importance that turns the wheel of suffering. But your argument tries to push it so far down the stack, into the evolutionary psychology, apparently for the purpose of demonstrating that it cannot be changed. Near-sightedness is biologically based and might be evolutionarily a selected-for bad outcome, too, without being therefore immutable: cultural evolution grinds lenses of glass or polycarbonate, and the problem is solved at once. Proposing that we regard as substantially inevitable that "bright, young, ambitious" people are going to behave like idiots seems to me an unnecessarily determinist view. Perhaps in revision, you could address why you think we can't just teach people to think more about their own conditions and less about the bullshit in the advertisements.

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r3 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:42:44 - IanSullivan
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