Wednesday, December 29, 2010


While looking for articles for my PhD applications, I came upon this book chapter by Roberto Mangabeira Unger, a professor at Harvard Law School. The essay is about passions, i.e. emotions. Unger first lays out the competing theories of emotion as a destructive vs. constructive force, one that blinds reason vs. one that empowers and directs reason and one that strengthens compliance with social order vs. one that spurs rebellion to it. Then he explains his own theory that views emotions as arising out of social alliance. Relationships that involve passion (as opposed to instrumental relationships, where the sides view each other as means to achieve their goals) help people to feel accepted in one hand, and transcend their "characters" on the other. Face-to-face relationships invariably blend passion with instrumentality.

Transcending one's character through relationships may appear as cheesy as the line "you make me want to become a better person," but overcoming the determinism of one's character is surely an appealing possibility. This is perhaps the discovery of the possibilities of one's character by putting oneself in various situations and various relationships. Or perhaps it is indeed a genuine transformation of character. In any case, the space in which we operate expands, but this is far from a certainty. Any social alliance, be it a romantic partnership, the family, the workplace or the community, carries the risk of rejection of, or disregard for the individual's character and its shrinking. Others can be our heaven or hell.

So entering into any alliance requires trust in others' good faith. Trust basically amounts to not expecting reciprocity immediately for every contribution one makes to the alliance. One views the alliance as positive overall, disregarding (for a while, at least) the short-term calculation of gains and losses. Trust can be viewed as courageous suspension of self-interest or stupid naivete. On the other hand, distrust may be called selfishness at times, and enlightenment at others.

Unger admits that accepting, loving, transforming relationships are not the only source of happiness. People can derive real happiness without making themselves vulnerable in social alliances from the personal enjoyment of luxury, art and (paradoxically) sex. But that's mainly the subject of the next chapter, which I haven't read yet.

A few thoughts to close 2010. Happy new year!

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