Do “you” really exist?

This discussion can be found at this TouchCast link… Keep in mind that if you view this in Google Chrome, you can actually interact with the links and images I place in this video. http://www.touchcast.com/thrasymachus/Do-U-Exist—A-Thought-Experiment

The following is an outline of a political philosophy centered discussion I have with my students at the beginning of the year just before we dive into the Declaration, NW Ordinance, and Constitution. I use this Prezi to help bring home the point and focus the discussion.  The Prezi, this blog, and the video above all say about the same thing concerning this thought experiment.

I use this right before I jump into Natural Law and Natural Rights.

Who are “you”? It appears to be a simple question, doesn’t it?

In a democracy it would seem that we have more liberty to “create” ourselves than in any other regime. We experience this or evaluate that and add another layer to the core we started with. Every thought or action presumably adds another stroke to the canvas that is our self creation. As artists of ourselves, we should be the foremost experts of who we are and why we are. That old Socratic adage “Know thyself” really speaks to this project.

Freedom is the hallmark of the way we do things and it allows us to put ourselves together or, once we’ve created ourselves, freedom allows us to rearrange aspects of who we are. However, Is this really the case?

Let’s take a closer look at the central focus of this train of though. If you really are this self created work, then you should be able to give others an idea of what makes you an “original”.  Who are “you”?

Make a list of 5 aspects (characteristics, skills, likes, dislikes, anything) that you believe are original to you.  I’ll give you a few minutes.

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Did you write down a sport?  How is that original?  Wasn’t it invented before you were born?  Aren’t you more of a by stander if you’re simply a fan?  If you actually play the game, I’m sure you didn’t invent the game or its rules.

Did you write down a trait like “I’m funny” or “I inspire others”.  How is that original to you?  To be funny you must play off of others ideas of what is funny and what isn’t.  To inspire an audience, you must have an audience, right?

Did you write down “I persevere” or “I’m determined in my goals”.  Aren’t plenty of other people also this?  Again, what is original about you?

Will you reply with “I’m original in that I am a unique combination of unoriginal traits.”  As that old saying goes, if you’re 1 in a million in the United States then there are at least 310 others just like you.  But even if you are original in your combination of traits, how much control did you have over those combinations?

Let me clarify…

Did you choose your sex? If you believe that men and women are viewed differently by society, then being born one or the other sex will effect how you see world based on how your part of the world sees you.  So something as simple as whether you’re a guy or girl and which part of the country you live in will determine how you’re viewed and what expectations others have for you.

Did you choose your parents or surroundings? Again, being born to white southern parents versus African American New Yorker parents will effect how you see “things” and how you are seen.

Did you choose the time period you were born into? Same issues. If you were born to a Chinese family in the 1300s would you see the world in the same way as you do now?  Skin color, sex, lineage, religion, language or dialect, education…all of this “stuff” that makes you “you” seems to be forced on to you by sheer chance.  The same goes for your parents and grandparents.

Can you think of one thing you actually had control over? Are you really the artist or is chance? If society/chance actually created you then aren’t “you” simply a momentary echo of impersonal forces? If government better organizes these forces than you ever could, why not hand more power to the government? If having freedom also means having the freedom to make uneducated or catastrophic decisions, why not allow the government and her experts to make more refined decisions for you?

This particular approach to explaining our “being” (as opposed to “Being”) is known as structuralism. The idea that the structure matters more than the pieces of that structure is its hallmark. To put it another way, in a structuralists approach to existence the pieces get their meaning via the structure.

The American Founders saw it differently and posited a term that is anathema to the structuralism view: Natural Rights.

The Natural Rights view posits that people come before government and are, therefore, fundamental. Government gets its meaning from the “parts” or, at least, was solely created to better protect the “pieces”than if the “pieces” were at it on their own. These “pieces”, us, are atomic (from the Greek indivisible) , in a sense, but, just like atoms, can bond to form larger molecules or “communities” (Reminding us of Aristotle’s claim that man is a social animal). We exist, one can discern from reading the Declaration of Independence, Northwest Ordinance, and the U.S. Constitution, prior to government. Since we are primary it makes sense that we are born with some sort of attribute or collection of atributes that government should be made to respect (ie. Inalienable Rights). Government’s job, then, is to ensure, as much as is possible, that these rights are protected.

In turn, this suggests that “you” are not simply a social construct.  If man existed before the Leviathan of government then government would do well to tread carefully when modifying those elements that make it what it is.  There an be man without government, but there can be no government (or society) without man.  If there is anything to the concept “human rights” it is that unifying term “human” that presupposes a unity.  All humans have rights and they are natural and they precede government.

We all participate in this unity. Our human-ness serves as the linch-pin to make “rights” possible. If there are several types of “humans” then there cannot be a single set of fundamental rights.  If there are simply gay rights, women’s rights, and so on, that seems to suggest that rights are contingent on our differences instead of our sameness.  I personally believe this to be a misnomer or a advertising gimmick for a good cause.  But it also perpetuate a misunderstanding of the term “right”.  If everyone gets special rights then what are those pre-government rights that make us all the same?

In other words, if “rights” are to have any meaning, then there must be a part of being “human” that is unmodified and stands outside of government or society.

This is the American Founder’s view of the government/human dichotomy.

So, where do you stand? Write down a percentage. How much of who you are was “created” by your decisions and how much of you was predetermined or “natural”?  Do you really have the power to create yourself or are we all slaves to the “societal buffet table”.  Do we simply pick and choose possibilities of existence that government and society allows?  Who are “you”?

Now, go home and ask your parents these same questions.  How will they answer?

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About Thrasymachus

2013 Northwest ISD teacher of the year, Humanities Texas 2012 Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award, and 2011 Outstanding Educator of North Texas Award (North Central Texas College). I'm currently a Regional Digital Learning Consultant with the Education Service Center Region 11 in Ft. Worth, Texas and a college government educator who incorporates philosophy, technology & humor. A student through and through, I walk with my students in their learning. Most importantly, I'm blessed with the 3 most perfect kids eva! I love on them ery day!!!
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