in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #535: The Problem of Self-Help in a Liquid Age

Self-help gurus, life coaches, and business consultants love to tell us that we must strive for constant self-improvement to realize our full potential and become truly happy. But it doesn’t seem to work — for many of us, life still seems hollow and meaningless. So focused are we on personal development and material possessions that we’ve overlooked the things that make life truly fulfilling and worthwhile. 

But what are those things?

My guest today explores the answer to that question in his book Standpoints: 10 Old Ideas in a New World. His name is Svend Brinkmann, and he’s a Danish philosopher and psychologist. We begin our conversation discussing why modern life can feel like liquid, and how the typical approach to personal development and self-help doesn’t rescue us from drowning in it. Svend then contrasts the common approach to treating choices and people like instruments and means to an end with the idea of doing what’s good simply because it is good. Svend argues that we can do that by standing firm on certain philosophic principles, and we spend the rest of our conversation discussing a few of what these are, including the importance of endowing others with dignity, making and keeping promises, and embracing responsibility. 

Show Highlights

  • What is “liquid modernity”?
  • What the self-help genre gets wrong 
  • The wrong roadmap to meaning and fulfillment
  • Why looking “inside yourself” is problematic 
  • The instrumentalization of our lives 
  • How instrumentalization harms our relationships 
  • Knowledge as an end of itself 
  • So if meaning can’t be created from within, where do we find it?
  • What Aristotle can teach us about life and morality
  • What is dignity? What has instrumentalization replaced it with?
  • Why the capacity to feel guilt and shame is fundamental to morality 
  • What we can learn about promises from Nietzsche 
  • Self-constancy vs. self-development 
  • How gaining responsibility actually gives us more freedom

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Standpoints by svend brinkmann book cover.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Self-help gurus, life coaches, and business consultants love to tell us that we must strive for constant self-improvement to realize our full potential and become truly happy, but it doesn’t seem to work. For many of us, life still seems hollow and meaningless, despite our best efforts. So focused are we on personal development and material possessions that we overlook the things that make life truly fulfilling and worthwhile, but what are those things? My guest today explores the answer to that question in his book Standpoints: 10 Old Ideas in a New World. His name is Svend Brinkmann. He’s a Danish philosopher and psychologist. We begin our conversation discussing why modern life can feel like liquid and how the typically approach to personal development and self-help doesn’t rescue us from drowning in it. Svend then contrasts the common approach to treating choices and people like instruments and means to an end, and the idea of doing what’s good simply because it’s good. Svend argues that we can do that by standing firm on certain philosophical principles, and we spend the rest of our conversation a few of what those are, including the importance of endowing others with dignity, making and keeping promises, and embracing responsibility.

Plenty of food for thought in this show. After it’s over, check out our show notes at Svend joins me now via

All right, Svend Brinkmann. Welcome to the show.

Svend Brinkmann: Thank you.

Brett McKay: So you are the author of two books that I’ve really enjoyed that are thought-provoking, has got me thinking about big ideas in a different way, which I always appreciate. The first one is Stand Firm, and the second one is Standpoints. We’re going to focus on Standpoints, but before that, let’s talk a bit about Stand Firm. In Stand Firm, you describe our current age as “liquid modernity.” What do you mean by that? What does that mean?

Svend Brinkmann: Yeah, it’s a phrase I take from a sociologist, who died not that many years ago. He was a fantastic author. He lived to be in his nineties. He was in World War II, and he was a Jew, so he fled to the UK and worked as a sociologist there. He developed this account of our times based on the idea that things have become fluid. They have become liquid, and he called it “liquid modernity” in order to distinguish it from a more solid modernity with industrial society, with stable social norms, people knew what to do. They were, perhaps, also quite often caught in a certain social position that it was different to escape from, so on, but then in the latter half of the 20th century after the war, and especially after the countercultures of the ’60s and the ’70s, the youth revolt, they developed a consumerist society, a liquid modernity. Even Karl Marx predicted this in the 19th century when he said that with the advancement of capitalism, “All that is solid melts into air.” That’s the famous phrase. “All that is solid melts into air.”

Bauman saw this, that everything had melted into air, and nothing was stable. Nothing was permanent. Everything was suddenly up to the individual, and the individual had to engage in constant self-optimization, self-improvement, self-development work, and learning organizations, be ready for lifelong learning, and so on and so forth, all of which, I should add, are processes that have a positive side, but when these things are constantly demanded of the individual, it’s not really that positive. It’s actually very difficult to live up to, and it creates stress and anxiety and depression in individuals, and it makes it very difficult to navigate, as an ethical being, to navigate morally when everything solid is suddenly melted into air.

Brett McKay: I think all of us have felt that, that stress and then anxiety of, “I’ve got to lose weight,” “I’ve got to do this to get my job,” and, “I got to be more positive because some self-help book said that if I’m positive, it’ll help me advance my career.” I think we’ve all felt that.

Svend Brinkmann: Yeah. I’ve been reviewing self-help books for a Danish newspaper for quite some time. So I began to look at liquid modernity in self-help literature, how this is articulated in popular culture, in self-help books, and so on. Of course there are good self-help books; as with any genre, there are good books and bad books, but I think as a whole, the genre is a symptom of liquid modernity. We tend to think, and these books tend to tell us, that we can solve our problems, that we can achieve whatever is worth achieving by following seven or ten simple steps. Actually, Stand Firm, my own book was written as a parody of a self-help book. I see the book myself as a cultural critique, but I articulate this critique through the genre of the self-help book. What I find particularly problematic about this supposed “solution” that we find in self-help books and so in to the problems of liquid modernity is that we can actually never succeed. There’s this trap built into the whole system that no matter how well we do, how much we perform, how much we engage in self-optimization, it’s always temporary. Next week or next month or next year, we have to do something else. We have to be a little bit better. We have to run a little bit faster. We have to lose weight again, or become happier, fitter, more productive. I’m quoting a song by Radiohead I believe.

When we discover this, it really creates a deep kind of despair that I think is behind all these epidemics of stress, depression, and anxiety that we see all across the western world. Even in a rich county like my own, in Denmark, we find epidemics of these mental problems. Of course this is a very complex problem, but I think much of it has to do with what Bauman originally called “liquid modernity.”

Brett McKay: I also think the problem with self-help too, and you articulate this in the book, is that I think what people fundamentally want, they want a sense of significance and meaning. Self-help says, “Well, if you do these things, you will find significance and meeting,” but it’s all inward-turning. You have to find that meaning within yourself, but you make the case, like that’s impossible to do. You might find something, but it’s going to be fleeting, and then you’ll have to look for it again inside yourself.

Svend Brinkmann: Yeah. I think we’re all, or at least many of us, are looking for something more stable under these conditions of liquid modernity, but I think it’s misguided to look for the stable ground of our lives within ourselves, because we’re constantly exposed to all sorts of trends and fads and commercials, and whatever. These things constantly change, and we want new things. We’re never really satisfied with what we have. That is sort of the motor of consumer society. When self-help tells us to look inside, to feel within ourselves what is right and wrong, it tells us to look in a place that is really not that stable. I think this just adds to the tragedy, and I think we need to understand that we should look, in a way, away from ourselves. We should look at the society we’re in, the culture we’re in, the traditions that we’re part of, the relationships that we engage in, the people that we have obligations to, and so on and so forth. All these things that are, in a sense, outside of ourselves, I think that is where we can find more stable values and demands that actually can serve as coordinates in our lives, as an antidote, if you will, to the constant liquidity of our times.

Brett McKay: Well that idea, that mantra that you hear nowadays: “Look within,” “Find your values inside yourself.” I think you quoted a psychologist or a philosopher where he said, “Well what if you introspect and you find nothing’s there?”

Svend Brinkmann: Yeah.

Brett McKay: “And you didn’t find anything there to base your life on?”

Svend Brinkmann: Yeah. There’s a very intelligent US psychologist called Philip Cushman, and he has a famous article from the early ’90s actually when these problems really began to emerge. His piece is called Why the Self is Empty. It’s sort of a critique of this tendency in the western world to look for value, meaning, and purpose within ourselves. He says, “When we constantly look within ourselves, we eventually discover that the self is empty. There is not that much in there, and if there is, well, then it’s constantly changing, “and then we become desperate and we begin to fill up this emptiness, constantly going to see the therapist, constantly going to see the life coach, constantly buying new stuff that should fill this emptiness. In a way, the only solution is to understand that, well, maybe we shouldn’t look inside ourselves all the time.

I mean of course, it’s not something that should be forbidden; it’s something we can do from time to time, but I think as something that should lay the ground for our existence, I think it’s inadequate, and we would be wiser to look at all the things that we’re part of. Perhaps it’s not that important to be able to answer the question, “Who am I?”, “What is inside me?” Perhaps it’s more important to be able to answer the question, “What am I part of?”, “What am I obliged to do? What are my commitments as a human being within these relationships that I’m part of?”

Brett McKay: So your second book, Standpoints, talked about some of these outside commitments, or standpoints that we can stand firm on. We’ll talk about these here in a bit, but another interesting thing you do in standpoints that you describe modern life not only as “liquid modernity,” but that also, it’s become “completely instrumental.” What do you mean by that?

Svend Brinkmann: Yeah. I mean the term “instrumentalism” is connected in a way to what we just talked about with liquid modernity, and it means simply that much of what we do that, perhaps, used to have intrinsic value, and that means that it used to be something that we should do and would like to do for its own sake, but that has now become a tool or an instrument. That’s what the term “instrumentalization” covers. So we no longer do X because X is intrinsically valuable. We do X in order to achieve Y, and then we do Y in order to achieve Z, and so on and so forth. Everything has become, of course I’m exaggerating a little bit, but we be more concrete later, everything almost has become a stepping stone to something else. We never really experience intrinsic meaning, or if we do, we are constantly in doubt whether it’s okay, whether we’re wasting our time, because shouldn’t we be doing something useful? Something that will take us to the next stage or the next step or whatever in our development plans?

So that’s the problem of instrumentalism: it exercises meaning from our lives because meaning is connected to that which is intrinsically meaningful and intrinsically valuable, and then of course, the big question is, “What is intrinsically meaningful and valuable?” The book is actually about that question.

Brett McKay: Well before we get to that question, what are some insidious examples of instrumentality in modern life where people don’t realize they’re being instrumental, but they are?

Svend Brinkmann: Yeah, yeah. I try to provide a lot of examples from different areas of life, and sadly, they’re very easy to think of. For example, to begin with my own local life in the institutions that I’m part of, we have public universities in Denmark, and I’m part of that. We used to have independent universities that saw knowledge as an end in itself. I mean, we should develop knowledge in order to be wiser, in order to find out more about the world that we live in. Now, universities are increasingly controlled by political goals that say, “Well, we should develop knowledge that will help us increase our gross national product, that will help us become more effective, be able to beat the Chinese in the global competition for market shares,” and so on. That leaves so many forms of knowledge without a chance, knowledge of ancient Greek, knowledge of French culture, philosophy, whatever, because it isn’t really something that can boost the gross national product of the country. Knowledge is no longer an end in itself, but more seriously, or at least in an ethical sense, more problematic is that when we begin to approach human relationships instrumentally, when we begin to think of friendship as something that is a tool for the individual’s success, I mean we call them friends, the connections we have on Facebook. Instead of a circle of friends, we now have LinkedIn connection and so on.

What are these relations? Well, they are basically empty relations that I can mobilize; for example, on LinkedIn, if I want to advance in my career, and that is not proper friendship. If you have a friend, you will be there for the other, regardless of what you can take away from that or get out of it. A friend is not an instrumental person in your life; a friend is someone you will help, regardless of any ulterior gains you may get from that. Love relationships, I mean romantic relationships has also increasingly become instrumentalized. We navigate in our love life according to the question, “So who is right for me? Who will realize me and myself to the greatest possible extent? How can I really commit to another person if I always have this question in the back of my mind: “Could there be someone else who’s a better tool in the project of making me happy?” These are just some examples of instrumentalism, which is, I think, so prevalent in our culture that it’s, in a way, actually quite difficult to talk about because it’s os basic now. It’s more or less our basic outlook on life and other people.

Brett McKay: When I read that idea about instrumental, I started thinking about other ways I’ve seen it pop up, particularly in the self-help genre, because I’m guilty of this myself, like when I’ve written articles on our website, like, “You need to do this thing because of this.” One was gratitude. It’s “you should be grateful just to be grateful, it’s the right thing to do.” Well no. “It makes you feel better, increases your health, reduces stress.” The other one was like play, like, “Kids should play because it helps them increase their math scores.” Well we used to be like, “Kids should just play because you should play. It’s fun. You just do it because it’s fun.

Svend Brinkmann: It’s a fundamental human value to play, and now in schools, they have play curriculum that, exactly as you say, as opposed to boost the pupil’s math scores, linguistic competencies, or whatever. Even these very particular human phenomena that we don’t see in other living creates, at least that we’re aware of; for example, forgiveness. There’s a chapter about forgiveness in the book, and I find this a most fascinating topic, but when you look at how forgiveness is treated in the self-help literature, and even by serious psychologists, it’s almost always instrumentalized. I mean by that that people are encouraged to forgive others because it will make them feel better. It will set them free, and they can live their lives in a different and more productive way, and so on and so forth. Of course there’s nothing wrong with that; that’s very good, but it’s not really forgiveness, then. I mean, if we forgive the other in order to benefit from that ourselves, then it’s not really forgiveness. Then it’s like a trade on a market. “I forgive you in order to achieve this myself,’ but really if you think about it, forgiveness, if it even exists, and that’s an open question, but if it exists as a human phenomenon, then it’s a gift. It’s something you give unconditionally.

That is characteristic of all these phenomena that I call “standpoints,” all these phenomena that have intrinsic values. They are unconditional. If we put them into a calculus and ask, “So what’s in it for me to forgive? What’s in it for me to love? What’s in it for me to live in a way that protects the intrinsic dignity of the other person?”, and so on, then we really reduce these human values to instruments for our own purposes. I don’t want to be too dramatic, but in a way, it’s a form of ethical violence, I believe.

Brett McKay: You also make the case that this instrumentality can lead to nihilism.

Svend Brinkmann: Yeah. There’s a very interesting philosopher, Simon Critchley. He’s at the New School of Social Research in New York City, originally from the UK, but he writes about these things. I found in his work this distinction between two kinds of nihilism. Well nihilism is the theory, if you will, or the belief that nothing ultimately has value. If there is value in the world, it’s something we subjectively project onto the world. The world itself is just matter in motion, or like Woody Allen would talk about, existential philosophers would talk about. The world is absurd, there’s no value in the world, it’s all meaningless, right? We kind of live like that, and then the philosophical tradition of nihilism and existentialism will say that we have to create value, and we do that subjectively exactly by looking into ourselves and then projecting this value onto the world. Then Simon Critchley makes this distinction between two kinds of nihilism: one is active, and it says that, “Well, values have been destroyed by modern society, capitalism, modernity,” whatever, and then we have to actively create value together. In the most extreme case, this is done through revolutions, like in communism, or terrorism as in Islamic terror, and so on, but they try to create a certain order in the world that has meaning.

Of course for most of us, fortunately, this is not an option. We are neither Islamic terrorists or communists or anything like that. So for us, the option is what Critchley calls “passive nihilism,” and that is about creating meaning exactly through what you talked about before, this inward-looking movement. “I create meaning by finding out what is important for me, what feels right for me. If it feels right for me, then it is right, and then I am allowed and I should be encouraged to project that onto the world as such. I find out about what is right for me through mindfulness, life coaching, or meditation, or psychotherapy, or any other kinds of techniques of self-discovery, self-improvement, and happiness that we have available in the modern world.” The point is that this, at first glance, it looks like something liberating. It looks as if it’s emancipatory because it gives the individual so much power to create meaning and purpose, but Critchley would say, and I would agree with him, and a host of philosophers and also psychologists are now sort of discovering that it’s not really emancipatory, it’s not liberating. It’s actually the opposite because it makes us solely responsibly for everything in our lives, which is unbearable. It’s a form of despair, as my compatriot would say, and we become little gods in our own lives. That is not really a good way of living for human beings.

Again, we’re back to the necessary search for alternatives. If we are not the sole creators of meaning, purpose, and value, if we cannot passively discover it within ourselves and create it, then how can we find it? Where can we look for it? Again, the answer must be that we should look for it in our relationships to something beyond ourselves: other people, nature, culture, history, tradition, all the important institutions in our democracies and so on.

Brett McKay: So let’s talk about some of these standpoints. You start off with Aristotle, and I think you start off with him because he kind of lays the foundation for the rest of these. He was like the father of anti-insturmentality.

Svend Brinkmann: Yeah, exactly.

Brett McKay: What was his idea that you took from him on how to stand firm on something firm?

Svend Brinkmann: Well to say it in a rather simple way, Aristotle was a fantastic thinker and scientist. In all the different disciplines: we have biology and physics, chemistry, psychology, and so on. Aristotle inaugurated, in a way, all these different scientific disciplines. I would say that his greatest discovery, and in a way, it’s a discovery that is up there with Darwin’s discovery of evolutionary processes and Einstein’s relativity theory, even though it sounds much more trivial. Aristotle discovered that there are certain things, certain values in the human world that are intrinsically valuable. He discovered that there are certain things we ought to do just in order to do them. If we instrumentalize them, we really, well, shoot ourselves in our feet, as we say. Let me give you an example: if we walk by a river and we witness a small child who’s about to drown in the river, and we stand there considering, “Should I really try to save this child? The water looks so cold. It looks very unpleasant for the child, but it would also be unpleasant for me to jump in. I don’t know if I can do it. Am I brave enough? What will I gain from doing it? Will it make me happier?”

There’s serious research done in health psychology that supposedly allegedly demonstrates that if you do such moral acts, you live longer. It lowers your blood pressure. If all these things becomes the reason why we should try and save the drowning child, then we instrumentalize the action. Aristotle, sorry about the long digression. Now I’m getting back to your question. Aristotle discovered that there is only one legitimate answer to the question, “Why should I try to save the drowning child?”, and the answer is, “Well, if you don’t do it, then the child will drown.” That’s the answer. By that, he meant that the action, in a way, legitimizes itself. If we find a reason for doing it somewhere else outside the action, then we instrumentalize it, and we shouldn’t do that.

That’s the beginning with Aristotle. He would say in all human activities, there are so many things we do in order to achieve something else. We don’t go to the doctor because it’s fun to go to the doctor. We go to the doctor because we want to be healthy, but health is a basic human value. We cannot really ask, “But why be healthy?” No, because health is just intrinsically good. So his project became to develop an account of all the phenomena that exists in a human life that are intrinsically valuable. He was very successful in doing that; he identified a whole lot. We have already talked about some of them: friendship, for example. I would add democracy or trust, or of course for Aristotle also, ethical action, and so on and so forth, but that project has sadly been, well “forgotten” is too strong because of course we have had philosophers working in this line of thought all the time, but I think in liquid modernity with the rise of instrumentalism, it has really become difficult to pose this fundamental question, “What is just valuable in itself?” We tend to think that nothing is valuable in itself; “it’s just valuable because I choose that it’s valuable,” but that’s nihilism, and that’s not going to help us.

Brett McKay: Yeah, Aristotle has had a huge influence, not only on the world of philosophy but also theology. He had a big influence on Aquinas, where Aquinas basically took Aristotle’s idea of “the good,” like you do something because it’s good in and of itself, and said, “Well you do something because God says to do it, because God is good and you’re going to follow him.” So you see that play out as well in the world of religion, too.

Svend Brinkmann: Yeah, Aquinas is quite an interesting character. He tried to synthesize the Greek legacy, particularly from Aristotle, whom he simply referred to as “the philosopher.” I mean Aristotle was just “the philosopher.” Even though he knew about Plato and many other philosophers, Aristotle was the guy, but to synthesize Aristotle and Christianity was the great project for Aquinas. I mean, I know that I’m a psychologist, but I also have a background in philosophy and I follow philosophy, academic philosophy, and if you look at all the philosophers working around the world, I mean so few of them are now interested in the questions that we now talk about and the questions that Aristotle and Aquinas were interested in. Most of them work on little technicalities in modal logic, or something about bioethics and whatnot. All these things are important too, but my point is that most of us become interested in these questions in philosophy because we want to know how to live our lives. I think philosophers really should return to those ancient questions because that is really the reason why we have philosophy, in order to help us address those questions.

Brett McKay: So Aristotle, “you do good because it’s good.” The second philosopher and an idea you took from him was Kant and this is the idea of dignity. So what is dignity, and what does the instrumental view replace dignity with in the modern world?

Svend Brinkmann: Yeah. For me, it’s important that Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher of the Enlightenment, follows the chapter on Aristotle. Aristotle and other Greek philosophers were very clear that because humans have a unique kind of rationality, we’re able to fathom that certain things are intrinsically valuable. We should do the good in order to do the good, and not in order to achieve anything else. We may achieve something else, but that’s not the reason why we should do it. But, the Greeks did not know that human beings are intrinsically valuable, and the term we traditionally use to address that is “dignity,” “human dignity.” I mean, Aristotle had slaves. Women were not considered as rational beings that one could really count on in the Greek. In the history of ideas, it’s a revolution in our view of human beings, and probably Jesus was the first to talk about this and it entered philosophy in different ways, but it’s very clear in the Enlightenment with Immanuel Kant when he says that human beings have dignity, which means that we cannot trade humans on a marketplace. We cannot think of human beings as creatures with a prize that we can buy and sell. That is just totally wrong.

Well, it’s not totally wrong; I mean, for Kant, and I would agree with him, its inevitable that we have an instrumental relationship to other people. That’s okay. The problem is if we only have instrumental relationships to other people. As you would say, we should never treat other people exclusively as means, but also always as an end in themselves. So if I go and buy some milk in the shop, in a way, the person in the shop is an instrument that I use in order to buy my milk, and conversely, I am an instrument for the shopkeeper because I give him or her some money. So we have this market relationship to each other. That’s perfectly fine. We engage instrumentally with each other, but let’s say that the shopkeeper has a heart attack while I’m buying my milk, so I cannot get my milk. Then it’s very disturbing because I wanted my milk. If I begin to shout in the shop and say, “Well please give me a new shopkeeper because this one broke down. I need a new one so I can get my milk,” then I’m guilty of, well, insanity probably.

Then the problem is, also according do Bauman, with whom I began to talk about liquid modernity, that we have these instrumental relationships to other people in our times, which makes the other just a tool for my desires and preferences. The other becomes someone I should make use of in order to realize whatever wish I have to buy my milk, to become successful, or happiness in life, to make a career of whatever. Again, it’s okay to have an instrumental relationship to others as long as it is grounded in a much more fundamental understanding of the other as an end in itself, as we all are. We have human rights, we have civil rights. We have this fundamental understanding in our institutions. We should have, at least. Perhaps we’re gradually losing it, unfortunately, but we should have this fundamental understanding that everyone has equal value just in virtue of being human. Regardless of what we produce, of what we achieve, of how beautiful we are, how rich we are, how successful we are, regardless, we have equal value. That’s a radical idea when you think ut through. The Greeks did not have that idea; they thought that people had value relative to how well they did, right?

Then Jesus, and I’m not talking about religion here, I’m not talking about metaphysics or a belied in a god or something like that. I’m simply talking about the history of ideas when Jesus of Nazareth came and said, “It doesn’t matter if you’re a beggar or a prostitute, or a king. I will eat with you, because you’re a human being and you all have equal value.” That is a way of addressing human dignity that sort of cuts across all the differences that certainly exist between people, and Kant made this the fundamental principle of his ethics. I think this is the jewel of what we consider western philosophy. It might exist in other philosophical systems too; I don’t know much about those, but in my opinion, it’s certainly the jewel in the line of thought that runs, well at least from the birth of Jesus through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and up to our times, and we should do whatever we can to protect that jewel.

Brett McKay: Something that you touch on in the book, and I’ve noticed too after I read this chapter, was not only do we sometimes often treat others merely as a means and instrumentalize others, but we also do it to ourselves. There’s not a sense of self-dignity. You see this where people, I don’t know, do things on social media to get attention that’s undignified. You look at it and you’re like, “Oh, man. Why are you doing that? Don’t do that,” but they’re doing it because it’ll bring them value, it’ll get them attention, which will hopefully and fame, whatever it is they think they want.

Svend Brinkmann: Yeah, exactly. You alk about the fact that it will bring them attention, and I think that is very precise because attention has become how we really think of value today. If you can get attention, regardless of why you get attention, then you have done something value, which when you think of it is a rather insane idea because you can get attention by doing all sorts of silly things or evil things by killing others, or whatever. So we have this attention economy that is really, I would say dangerous, and part of this whole system. I think you’re absolutely right: I haven’t thought so much about that aspect, and I haven’t written about it, but this principle of dignity should certainly also be applied to ourselves. I have actually been interested in the emotion of shame. Shame is not a very popular emotion; it’s certainly painful. It’s one of the key emotions that function to regulate social life, and I talked about religion before. It figures already in Genesis when Adam and Eve begin to feel shame the moment they achieve self-consciousness because they have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, from the forbidden fruit, so it’s intimately connected to self-understanding, shame, and the danger we have now, well one of the dangers; there are many, but one related to this point is the danger of shamelessness.

If we are not capable of feeling shame, but we will do anything to attract attention, then we no longer have dignity and ultimately, we can no longer be moral being because the capacity to feel shame when you do something shameful is fundamental to morality. It’s not a coincidence that an incapacity to feel guilt and shame is a key criterion for antisocial personality disorder or sociopathy, or psychopathy. If psychopaths exist, I’m not an expert in that field, but if they exist, the key defect is probably this lack of shame.

Again, to return to the self-help world and the idea of self-development, much of what goes on there is about learning to avoid shame, to not feel shame, and I think this is very wrong. Well of course the point is not that we should go around and feel ashamed all the time. Certainly not, but we should have the capacity to feel shame and guilt, and all the other moral emotions, without which we couldn’t be moral creatures.

Brett McKay: All right, so dignity is a standpoint. The next one you talk about that stuck out to me was an idea you took from Nietzsche, which is interesting because Nietzsche, I think incorrectly, is believed to be the father of nihilism and et cetera, but he wasn’t. He actually had some really interesting ideas about what to do in this liquid modern world of ours, and one standpoint from him was the idea of promises. What can we learn about promises from Nietzsche?

Svend Brinkmann: Yeah. I should say that I don’t pretend to provide a complete interpretation, well neither Aristotle or Kant, and certainly not Nietzsche. I admire much in Nietzsche. There’s also much in his works that I disagree with. I think he’s often misunderstood, as you said. People read him as a nihilist. In reality, he saw the problem of nihilism in western culture. He saw actually mane of the problems because he was a genius more than a hundred years ago many of the problems that we now talk about, but I think he did not really come up with good solution, if you will, but there is this passage in one of his book when he talks about the human being as a creature with the right to make promises. So I’m interested in the role of promises in human life and in the conditions that must exist in order for such a wonderful thing as a promise to make sense in the first place. Other animals don’t make promises. It’s a uniquely human phenomenon. What is the precondition for promising something? Well, a promise only makes sense if you have, what another philosopher, a Frenchman called Paul Ricoeur, called “self-constancy,” right?

Because if you’re not the same person tomorrow when you’re going to fulfill the promise as you were yesterday when you made the promise, then the practice of making promises is meaningless, but it isn’t meaningless. It’s a fundamental phenomenon in human life. It’s the basis of marriage, of contracts between people, buying and selling stuff. We make promises to each other. I made the promise to you some time ago to be available today, and let’s say that I had a different idea: I didn’t really feel like talking to anyone today; I would rather, I don’t know, go into the woods and look at the birds, then you would rightly approach me and say, “But hey, you promised to be available. You promised to talk with me.” It would be absurd if I replied to that, “No, that wasn’t me. That was Sven Brinkmann two months ago, and now I’m a new and better version of myself. I’m no longer obliged to do what the old Sven Brinkmann promised. Now, because I’ve paid so much money to my life coach, whoever taught me that, I should do whatever I feel like doing and not think of what other people think of me.”

I mean, that would be absurd, and it illustrates the idea of promising from Nietzsche and the idea of self-constancy from Ricoeur, that without this continuity in our commitments in ourselves, in our personhood, nothing in the human world can really stick together. Then I’m worried when I read the self-help books or I look at how we’re encouraged to act in our lives by all sorts of psychologists and therapists and what have you who say that, “Well life is about constant development. Life is about changing all the time. Life is about realizing your potentials. It’s not about being the same. It’s not about self-constancy. It’s about self-development.” In reality, of course, life is about both aspects: self-constancy and self-development, but if you only emphasize one of them, if you only emphasize self-development and forget about self-constancy, then ethical life is no longer possible. Promising is no longer possible. Only a certain kind of animal-like state is possible, and we wouldn’t want to reduce ourselves to that, I think.

Brett McKay: So promises: make a promise, keep a promise, even if it’s inconvenient, even if it doesn’t further your goal as a self. Just make the promise and keep it.

Svend Brinkmann: If you begin to ask the question, “So, keep my promise? Well, what’s in it for me?” Then you can no longer think of yourself as an ethical being. That’s very undignified. If you made a promise, well, then all things being equal, of course you should do your best to keep it. Period. I mean, that’s just the basic fact of human life, and it’s scary that some people even discuss this.

Brett McKay: So another philosopher you took a standpoint from was Hannah, and I don’t know how to pronounce her last name. I always mess up last name. “Arendt?” “Arnt?” “Hanna Arnt?”

Svend Brinkmann: Yeah. I mean she was of German descent, so probably “Arendt.”

Brett McKay: Yeah, okay. Well, her standpoint was, “Even if there is no truth, man can be truthful.” What does she mean by “even if there is no truth?” Because people would say, “Well that, she’s just being subjective. She’s doing that nihilism.” What does she mean by that?

Svend Brinkmann: Yeah, I’m not sure that she actually believes that there is no truth, but she says, “Well even if there is no truth. There might be and there might not be, but even if there isn’t one, then we can still be truthful.” We can still live our lives in a way that commits us to certain things, that gives us this kind of self-constancy that I just talked about with reference to Ricoeur. That’s a way of arguing in favor of these standpoints without committing myself to a very strong form of objectivism, the idea that these fundamental values just exist outside space and time, outside human life, and so on. I don’t think they do. I think there is a certain truth to be found there, but Arendt says, “Well even if there isn’t such a truth to be found, then this doesn’t leave us without standpoints.” It doesn’t leave us without value, non-subjective value, because we can still be truthful, even if everything happens by chance or by coincidence. Well, that doesn’t mean that you should act by coincidence, right?

This thought also goes back to the ancient Stoics, actually. Marcus Aurelius, the wonderful philosopher emperor known mainly today through the movie Gladiator, he said that even if everything happens by coincidence, then still, you don’t have to act yourself by coincidence. I think that is something worth considering.

Brett McKay: So, one last standpoint I’d like to talk about from a philosopher is, which I thought was interesting because earlier, we were talking about this nihilism of “life is absurd.” This is kind of brought up by the existentialists, and Camus is one of these guys. “There’s no meaning in life; you make meaning,” but you were able to find a standpoint from him. What was that standpoint you took from Camus?

Svend Brinkmann: Yeah, I have quite an ambivalent relationship to the existential philosophers. I think there are sparks of genius, obviously, in Sartre’s works and in the works of Camus, but especially with Sartre, I think it slides too easily into subjectivism and nihilism. I mean, the idea that we just create value subjectively, it’s not there before we live or before we decide that something is valuable. I think Camus is much more sophisticated than that simply form of existentialism, and I also think that he would dislike being referred to as an existentialist. Of course we can talk about him as an existential thinker, and people, when we mention those today or address those today, they tend to think of them as people who saw human freedom as absolute. Human life is about being free without constraints, and then Camus says in one of his articles that “freedom is not constitutes primarily of privileges, but of responsibilities.” If you have responsibilities, in order to be free, then you don’t create yourself and your own life, and all the values that are important out of nothing. No. You discover, in a way, that something is already valuable and you already have responsibilities because you already have relationships to other people.

Camus would say that this is not a threat to freedom; on the other hand, it’s a precondition for freedom, and I think initially, it’s a difficult thought to grasp, but I think it’s very deep and I think it’s very true. If I can return to Immanuel Kant, we talked about him in the context of human dignity, he has such a wonderful image of what I mean and what Camus meant in one of his books. It’s a metaphor of the dove, the bird that flies through space, and it feels the pressure of the wind on its wings, and Kant images that the dove thinks to itself, “Well, it’s okay to fly. I kind of like it, but it would be better if I could fly in a vacuum, because then, there’s wouldn’t be this annoying air that blocks my free movement through space.” Then Kant says, “Well, little dove, you forget one thing, namely that if you were in a vacuum, you couldn’t fly. You would fall to the ground because it’s the air that the same time, in a way, is blocking your free flying, but it’s also making it possible,” right? “So in a vacuum there is no air; you just fall to the ground.”

But, it’s these factors outside yourself that actually resist your free movement through space, or through life, if you will, that also enables you to be free and enables you to move around. So if you didn’t have responsibilities, if you didn’t have commitments, if you were just an atom that looked inside yourself for whatever motive for, “What should I do? I don’t know. Let me feel about it inside myself,” instead of, “Let me think about it,” then you wouldn’t be free. You would always act coincidentally. Everything could be different, and that’s not freedom. That’s just a chance, and freedom is not the same as acting out of chance; freedom is acting in a conscious, willed, and responsible way, and I think Camus actually articulated that very well.

Brett McKay: All right, so that standpoint from Camus is like, “Freedom is a standpoint, but it’s not the freedom of liquid modernity where there’s no restraints, you do whatever you want. It’s a freedom that’s tied with responsibilities.”

Svend Brinkmann: Yeah. It’s what I say of Berlin, the great historian of ideas, called “positive freedom.” He worked with two concepts of freedom or liberty, a negative one and a positive one. The negative one is probably the one we have today, and it means that we are free when there are no constraints. I mean we are free when we are free from demands, constraints, outer structures that impinge on us, whatever. That’s why he called it “negative freedom,” because it’s a freedom from something, but positive freedom is a freedom to do something. It’s a freedom to try to live up to the responsibilities and commitments we have. I don’t think one of these concepts is totally correct and the other is totally wrong. I think our idea of freedom has different sides. It’s a complex one, and I think it has both positive and negative aspects, to use the terminology of Berlin, but I think we have forgotten about this idea of positive freedom, that we are not born free, if you will. Even though a baby has certain preferences, it has certain needs, it has certain desires, and even if all those needs and desires are fulfilled all the time, then we don’t think of it as “free.” That’s strange because it cannot act. It cannot be responsible. We don’t put the baby into jail if it breaks the law, at least we shouldn’t.

Why don’t we do that? Well, because the baby has not yet become an autonomous person that is able to be responsible for what he or she does. The baby has no commitments or no responsibilities yet, so we become free when we gain responsibilities in our lives, and again, the important point is to understand that all these outer demands, constraints, and responsibilities, they’re not a hindrance to human freedom. No, they are preconditioned for human freedom, and I think that is what we need to acknowledge.

Brett McKay: Well Sven, there’s so much more we can talk about. We could’ve talked about your fellow Dane Kierkegaard and his idea, but where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Svend Brinkmann: Well, I have written a whole lot of books, some of them in English, some have been translated into English. There’s actually a trilogy now; we talked about the first two in the series, Stand Firm and Standpoints, but there’s a third book called The Joy of Missing Out, which is more about how to create communities, institutions, well even societies actually, in which these standpoints become visible, in which we can institutionalize them and live in accordance with them so it’s not just an individual project. I think that’s important. So those three books, apart from that, I tweet @SvendBrinkmann, but mostly in Danish. I also have a podcast, a radio program, but also in Danish, so I’m afraid that people have to learn Danish if they want to listen to my voice, but if they do that, they can actually also read Kierkegaard in the original language, so they can follow in the footsteps Jean-Paul Sartre, the great existentialist who learned Danish in order to read Kierkegaard in Danish.

Brett McKay: That’s a good goal. I’ve actually had goals to learn languages, like I want to learn German so I can read Nietzsche in German, learn Greek so I can read Aristotle in Greek. All right, okay. We’ll tell people, “Take a year, learn Danish, and then listen to your podcast.”

Svend Brinkmann: Yeah, thank you. Please do.

Brett McKay: All right, well Sven Brinkmann, thanks so much for your time. This has been an absolute pleasure.

Svend Brinkmann: Thanks for all your good questions. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to appear here. Thank you.

Brett McKay: Well that wraps up another edition of the AoM podcast. Check out or website at where you can find our podcast archives as well as articles we’ve written over the years about philosophy, style, how to be a better husband/better father, and if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the Art of Manliness podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to Use code “manliness” at checkout to get a month-free trial of Stitcher Premium. After you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android on iOS and start enjoying ad-free episodes of the Art of Manliness podcast. If you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot, and if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think can get something out of it. Shoot them a text message with a link to the podcast.

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