Originally written in July 2012
One often hears that one should always follow one’s true nature. Many people hold that in difficult situations where an important decision has to be made following one’s true nature is the right and the only moral way to go. However, the question is: What is true nature?
Humans are driven by emotions/instincts as well as by intellect/rationality. The drive of instincts pertains to animal nature and the drive of rationality pertains to human nature. We have both the natures within us. And more often than not both natures want us to do different – often opposing – things. For example, a smoker has an instinct to smoke but his rational mind would say that it is bad for health. What for him is the right thing to do then? Which one of the two is his true nature? If the proponents of follow-your-heart philosophy are to be believed then he must smoke. But it’s clear that if we all lived like that the society would soon perish. That can’t be right.
Another camp believes that rationality is a higher faculty (which I too agree with) and the decisions arrived at rationally are always the right ones. For if you keep doing things driven by your instincts while at the same time rationally you also know that they are harmful to you, or even have the knowledge that you could live better by doing better things, that knowledge will gnaw at you and won’t allow you to be happy. Thus, the decisions approved by rational thought seem to be superior than those driven merely by instincts. If so, following the true nature would mean acting rationally.
Is the matter of true nature settled thus? Far from it. A little more reflection on rationality would reveal that rationality itself is not constant. Rationality is just a tool, a method of arriving at a conclusion by structured thought. The outcome depends on the goals determined by values and knowledge level of the person employing rationality. The goals themselves are corruptible by instincts and also the knowledge level isn’t constant. Therefore, all “rational” people won’t necessarily have the same conclusion over something. And even one person may not hold the same rational position all the time. As the knowledge level changes, so does the outcome of rational thought.
I also said that the goals are corruptible by instincts/emotions. In fact, they have to be so! A rational human being without emotions would be akin to a robot. One has to have emotions and one has to respect instincts to an extent. The goals are essentially set by, or are rooted in, emotions. And rationality is a means to the ends which are those goals. Rationality on its own can’t provide us any goals because, rationally speaking, universe has no meaning for us whatsoever. Unless one is emotionally rooted there would be no motivation to live.
The question of true self, thus, doesn’t have a clear answer. Instincts and rationality will often conflict. Follow-your-true-nature people want to get rid of the conflict by choosing one side. They err. The conflict is actually the healthy state.
The truth is that there’s no such thing as true nature. We are fundamentally made with conflicting motivations. The universe grows by conflicts. Without conflicts there would be no evolution, no life. If one chooses to go with instincts alone, one will be doomed. If one follows rationality alone, one would meet the same fate. One should accept the conflict and base every decision on one’s best judgement at that moment and not bother about true nature.
Follow-your-true-nature is a narcissist’s way of saying do whatever the hell you like. For it justifies the action by saying one just followed one’s true nature.