Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

Self-Knowledge: Problems and Potential Solutions

Some types of self-knowledge are difficult to acquire.

In a previous post, I discussed the significance of self-knowledge. Now I would like to focus on some of the forms of self-knowledge that may be especially difficult to acquire, and a few practical tips for gaining the sometimes elusive truth about ourselves.

Psychology professor Timothy Wilson notes that one area we are prone to be mistaken about has to do with our future. For example, middle-aged people predict that when they retire they will prefer novelty to familiarity regarding where they choose to live. Yet retired adults in familiar locations were happier than those who chose to retire and live in novel locations. They stated that living in a familiar place was more important to them than novelty. This shows that we may have trouble anticipating how our preferences will change in the future. People also tend to think that future losses will be more devastating than they in fact are when they occur.

I think these difficulties are to be expected. It is hard to know how certain dimensions of our personalities and preferences will change over time. It can also be challenging to predict how we will cope with the inevitable losses that will come to our lives.

Another area in which I believe we can find self-knowledge difficult to acquire has to do with our character. That is, many of us tend to overestimate or underestimate the goodness of our characters. We have a lot invested in this, if we care about morality and being a good person. It can be difficult to accept our weaknesses, and tempting to rationalize them away. Others rationalize away their strengths. In the next post in this series on self-knowledge, I will discuss some helpful insights from Aristotle about this, and his prescriptions for moral development.

Here, I will conclude with three tips from Timothy Wilson on how it is that we may come to know ourselves better.

  • First, he suggests that we try to be objective observers of our own behavior. For example, I may believe that I'm a financially generous person, but if my charitable giving at the end of the year is small, perhaps I need a reality check in this area.
  • Second, and similarly, Wilson counsels us to attempt to see ourselves through the eyes of other people. They may have a better perspective on who we are than we ourselves do, especially in cases where we are motivated to rationalize our behavior or dispositions.
  • Third, we can make use of the relevant findings of psychological science in our quest for self-knowledge. Perhaps there are biases of which we are unaware, or prejudices that we don't realize we have. Wilson suggests taking some of the implicit measures of such attitudes that can be found on the internet. We take into account the data from medical science and its counsels about diet, exercise, and the like. Similarly, a bit of familiarity with psychological research can be beneficial as well.

In my next post, I will discuss the wisdom of Aristotle as it relates to all of this, with a special focus on the role of friendship and character as they relate to self-knowledge.

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Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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