The Ethics of Self-Improvement

by Serena Putterman

In an endlessly, violently unjust world, can a person ethically justify time spent on self-improvement?

To folks who concern themselves with social justice, I think questions of ethics and balance like this one are key.

Take self-improvement to mean focusing one’s attention on one’s self rather than the broader world. Even people who care a lot about the broader world spend energy on themselves. Going to yoga class to calm the nerves, studying historical capitalism, and being a member of a small intentional community can all be considered forms of self-improvement by this definition—no matter the motivation, study is by itself just a way to broaden one’s own mind. Even focusing one’s effort on bettering one’s immediate community, given the fixed, small scale of the work is effectively a form of self-improvement.

While the boundaries of what is considered self improvement are certainly up for debate, the initial question requires our attention as dedicated organizers, activists, progressive intellectuals, or just people trying to live ethically: Does self-improvement have a place within an ethical framework of infinite demand?

This framework of infinite demand is one posed by English philosopher Simon Critchley. Critchley believes that infinite injustice requires a corresponsing infinite commitment to political resistance.

I believe that self improvement as seen from within an ethical framework of infinite demand can be further broken down into two main categories: self improvement as a means, and self improvement as an end.

Self-improvement as a means includes the activities which, while focused on the self, are done with the explicit purpose of moving towards broader action. Any of the examples I gave above can be considered self improvement as means—I can be a dedicated yogi because it gives me the peace of mind to better approach my work and be a more effective revolutionary (or whatever). The link between study and action is often posed as essential, as poorly-informed action is often worse than no action at all.

Self-improvement as an end includes the pursuits which are considered to be ethically valuable in and of themselves. Like with self improvement as means, any of the examples given above can also be considered self-improvement as an end. Many people read the paper simply to ‘be more informed’, whether or not they choose to do anything with their knowledge; people go to yoga class because it makes them calmer, more effective people in their normal lives. The idea is that there is some inherent ‘good’ in living in a way that you consider ‘good’, even if that lifestyle does not incorporate an impetus of change. I personally plan to spend my life living in intentional communities, if for no other reason, because I believe there is some value in creating a corner of the world in which values are applied at least internally.

The distinction between these categories of self improvement is of course not entirely clear, nor should it be. However, the distinction will allow me to better fit the concept of self improvement within the frameworks laid out by two scholars I wish to look at now: Simon Critchley, author of the book Infinitely Demanding, and Slovenian philosopher and critical theorist Slavoj Zizek.

Through examining both Critchley and Zizek’s relationship to self-improvement, I will make the following claims:

1. Both Critchley and Zizek support forms of self-improvement as a means.
2. Although Critchley associates self-improvement with passive nihilism, his conception of political resistance allows for self-improvement as a component of that resistance.
3. Zizek advocates self-improvement as a way to opt out of the bad action/no action dichotomy.
4. Self-improvement, when pursued from within a framework of ethical subjectivity, can be a useful and necessary component of effective political resistance.
5. Interrogating the place of self-improvement in an ethical framework of infinite demand is necessary and requires further work.

In his book Infinitely Demanding, Simon Critchley calls for the development of a “theory of ethical experience and subjectivity”. Critchley’s ideal ethical subjectivity will motivate people away from the destructive energy or passive withdrawal that might result from political disappointment – disappointment that is practically guaranteed in such a violently and perpetually unjust world. This motivation will bring about first an acknowledgement of the “infinite demand” made upon us by our unjust world, and second, a corresponding infinite commitment to resistance and change.

Critchley categorizes the negative responses to disappointment—destruction or withdrawal—as nihilism. It is Critchley’s conception of passive nihilism—withdrawal from a deeply unjust and politically-disappointing world—that I would like to examine further in the context of thinking about self improvement. According to Critchley,

“Rather than acting in the world and trying to transform it, the passive nihilist simply focuses on himself and his particular pleasures and projects for perfecting himself…In the face of the increasing brutality of reality, the passive nihilist tries to achieve a mystical stillness, calm contemplation: ‘European Buddhism’. In a world that is all too rapidly blowing itself to pieces, the passive nihilist closes his eyes and makes himself into an island (Critchley, 4-5).”

I highlight the phrase “for perfecting himself”, of course, as the instance in which Critchley relates self-improvement to passive nihilism.

This connection is certainly extremely real, and I have no doubts about claiming that an ethically unacceptable number of people are willing to dedicate unacceptable amounts of their time, resources, and energy to self-improvement or “particular pleasures”. However, I believe that in this perhaps careless (it is not a point of focus for him) equation of self-improvement and nihilism, Critchley is not paying adequate attention to the complexity of the issue.

In looking more closely at Critchley’s conception of ethical subjectivity, I think that self-improvement as I have defined it can play a real role in this framework. He writes: “So, on my view, the ethical subject is defined by commitment or fidelity to an unfulfillable demand, a demand that is internalized subjectively (11).” For Critchley, ethics seems to be largely about intention, and a sort of ‘internal activity’—if we engage in self-focused pursuits within a framework of ethical subjectivity, the activity is no longer coming from a place of nihilism.

Furthermore, I think it is clear that there is overlap between those pursuits which Critchley supports explicitly, such as academic or intellectual work, and those which may be considered self-improvement, like study. Becuase for all the time Critchley spends trying to motivate people toward a commitment to resistance, his ‘prescription’ for action has a lot of focus on intellectual work. In the conclusion of his book, he writes:

“…we need to construct political subjectivities that are not arbitrary or relativistic, but which are articulations of an ethical demand whose scope is universal and whose evidence is faced in a concrete situation. This is dirty, detailed, local, practical and largely unthrilling work. It is time we made a start (132).”

It is clear that Critchley’s conception of action/resistance includes (requires, even) intellectual work. So where is the line between revolutionary ‘study’ and the kind of political intellectual work Critchley is talking about? Perhaps study is for the self, or defined by a lack of contribution of ‘new substance’ to political discourse–an elementary stage of what Critchley means. But not only is the line not a clear one, but the direct connection between study and work in this case (which is to say, between the theoretically divided categories of self-improvement and action/resistance) is most clear. If it is conceivable that we would need to study history in order to be effective activists, it is obvious that we need to study history in order to say, rewrite it.

If Critchley’s ethical prescription is to act—that is, to engage in political resistance—from the perspective of an ethical subjectivity of infinite demand, the prescription of Zizek is, at least on the surface, quite different. Zizek’s prescription is, in my understanding and in that of Critchley, to simply do nothing.

Zizek espouses the controversial opinion that ‘bad action’ is as bad as, if not worse than, doing nothing at all. His conception of bad action includes at its forefront the character of the liberal communist, represented at his most extreme by the hybrid philanthropist-capitalist. The liberal communist contributes fully to systemic violence –the invisible violence that is implicit in the very systems that support global capitalism and other mechanisms that alternately allow/cause various injustices and inequalities—while also attempting to fight symbolic violence— violence highlighted by the media that may be more easily adressed, and on more shallow a level.

Zizek doesn’t think we should be philanthropist-capitalists, earning big money and then giving half of it to various humanitarian causes, and he surely doesn’t think we should be straight capitalists. His prescription to do nothing is a way to avoid either bad option. “Sometimes”, he writes, “doing nothing is the most violent thing to do.”
From one perspective, Zizek’s ‘do nothing’ is a clear case of passive nihilism, and it is clear why there is so much intellectual antagonism between he and Critchley. Zizek’s ‘do nothing’ is withdrawal to the max, and it is precisely a response to political disappointment—in this case, disappointment with the dominant solutions proposed by powerful capitalists who supposedly care about justice.

Additionally, Zizek’s take on the ethical solution can be understood as precisely that which Critchley warns against in Infinitely Demanding when states: “The problem with contemporary ethics….is the risk of a moralization for politics and hence the risk of depoliticization (Critchley, 130).” Is it really worse to be a philanthropist/capitalist than to be someone who doesn’t care at all? It seems to me that the hypocrisy factor of the former leaves Zizek more pissed-off than the ignorance or straight-forward immorality of the latter. But is this simply a moralizing, purist rejection of the utilitarian approach to ethical action?

In the end I think that while the philosophy of Zizek’s ‘do nothing’ appears categorical of passive nihilism, the result may be more in line with self-improvement within a framework of ethical subjectivity. Zizek appears as a passive nihilist in the sense that the moralizing/purist nature of his prescription is self-focused, and perhaps even self-indulgent. He decides to do nothing in the face of immense political disappointment. Yet, what is he actually asking of us? “…this is what we should do today when we find ourselves bombarded with mediatic images of violence. We need to ‘learn, learn, and learn’ what causes this violence (Zizek, 8).” Zizek wants us to study; he advocates being ready for action. This, I think, can be categorized as self-improvement as means.

And in the end, is this so different from Critchley?

Perhaps the conflict between the two philosophers in terms of their idea of ethical or ‘good’ action can be attributed to the seeming dichotomy between action and nonaction. Critchley clearly calls for action, Zizek for nonaction. But the dichotomy is at least partially false, as there is overlap between their prescribed approach to ethical existence. Both support study as a political tool, for instance (unsurprising for two academics).


I believe that both Zizek and Critchley support some forms of self-improvement.

I believe that self-improvement, when pursued from within a framework of infinite demand, can be a useful and necessary component of effective political resistance. The ‘burn-out’ factor is a frequent feature in conversations I have observed among young activists, etc – the sentiment that we need to take care of ourselves to take care of the world is, I think, a valid one. Relatedly, I also strongly believe that we need to understand our contexts in order to act effectively.

Additionally I would go further to argue, though not in the body of this essay, that self improvement as an end in itself has a place within ethical experience. It certainly has a place within my ethical subjectivity. (For more on my personal ethical subjectivity, see appendix A.)

I also believe that there is a significant danger in accepting self improvement as an element of ethical existence, and that is the ‘cop-out’ factor. When is self improvement an honest ethical means or end, and when is it self-indulgence? (For more on the ethical risks of self improvement as action, and a brief case study on yoga as self improvement, see appendix B.)

Now to conclude, I would like to restate my central questions:

Does self improvement have a place within an ethical subjectivity of infinite demand? As a means? As an end in itself? When does self improvement become indulgent, and become purely nihilism or political withdrawal?

Secondarily, what does Zizek’s ideas about avoiding bad action by doing nothing have to say about passive nihilism, about moralizing and depoliticizing, and finally, about self improvement? (These are questions I feel have unexplored implications for the first set of questions. My thinking on this is far from complete, yet, I felt had a place in this essay.)

I think that all these questions are very relevant to the lives of those trying to do some good in the world, and need further exploration.

To the extent that this essay has reduced the views of Critchely and Zizek, and their differences, to a matter of semantics, I want to clarify: I think there is more than semantics at play here. Thus, my challenge to my reader: think and write better and more than I have here, on these questions.

Oh, and act. Yes, that too.

Appendix A: A Personal Ethical Subjectivity

In a world of infinite injustice and a (perhaps sub-) culture where both popular rhetoric and leading-by-example prioritize ‘giving back’, ‘working for positive change’, and ‘building a new world’, the ever-present task is to find a way to live that simultaneously satisfies some kind of ethical obligation and a personal standard of happiness. This has been my experience at least, and I would guess the experience of many of my peers—that is, those whose “ethical experience and subjectivity” has been shaped by similar forces.

As a young teenager, I developed a distinct idea of what I wanted from life. This idea was to live simply, not hurt anybody, and be a positive force in my small community. I would consider roughly this ideal to be my conception of ‘the good life’ – a life that both provides personal satisfaction, and meets at least a minimum of ethical standards. It is a vision has stayed with me to this day, withstanding many internal conflicts, and of course developing all the while as I pieced together a somewhat more nuanced view of the world.

My idea of how to live was not in any way amoral; in fact, perhaps the defining feature of this plan was the ethical framework it implied. In a chaotic and endlessly and violently unjust world, the idea that it is “enough” to be good to my immediate community is hugely appealing. I don’t have to make a career working with ‘underserved populations’, I can work in a local bakery, making bread for my neighbors. I don’t have to spend my evenings organizing around labor injustices, I can spend them making music in a loving and supportive group of friends. Living what I think of as the “get out of the way and create a pocket of good” approach to life makes ethical existence personal and directly fulfilling. This is one example of my conception of self improvement as an end in itself.

How does this conception of the good life relate to the idea of self-improvement as the project of the passive nihilist? The passive nihilist “focuses on himself and his particular pleasures and projects for perfecting himself (4).” If this definition of self-improvement is taken literally, an approach to ethical existence such as mine which focuses not only on individual improvement but the improvement of the subject’s immediate community cannot be considered withdrawal or a form of nihilism.

Yet, to me, the approach stems partly from the understanding of the world as so infinitely troubled that even to attempt the “stay out of the way” and minimize harm done is an enormous ethical commitment. If it is suggests that it is too difficult to even attempt to actively create positive change, does this philosophy not inherently contain an element of surrender or withdrawal? Is collective-improvement on a decidedly small scale (i.e. among a family or group of friends with no intention towards the greater world) not functionally a form of self-improvement, and a passive nihilist form at that?

Is this conception of the good life—a life which avoids attempting any active creation of positive social change, and instead focuses on minimizing contribution to pro blems while creating local pleasure—necessarily a form of passive withdrawal? Or can this narrative of small-scale collective improvement be written instead as a radical and deeply personal approach to positive social change and thus ethical existence? I believe it can.

Appendix B: Yoga as Self Improvement

Critchley writes, “In the face of the increasing brutality of reality, the passive nihilist tries to achieve a mystical stillness, calm contemplation: ‘European Buddhism’. In a world that is all too rapidly blowing itself to pieces, the passive nihilist closes his eyes and makes himself into an island (4-5).” It is no wonder that Buddhism, yoga, meditation, and other types of contemplative practices favored by socially-minded Westerners are a common mode of choice when it comes to self-improvement for modern passive nihilists.

What makes this Buddhism ‘European’ is, in my understanding, most basically the use of these practices for self-improvement. Does this mean that contemplative practices in the West are decidedly non-political, or non-ethical? I don’t think so. The link between activism or social justice and contemplative practices is, if not obvious, readily explained by eager practitioners. A quick Google search reveals a multitude of websites about the rich landscape of ‘yoga + Zen + social justice’ writings, teachings, and practicing communities.

My question is, what are the implications of the cultural connection between contemplative practices and social justice? To simplify, I’ll look now specifically at yoga. Are people who practice yoga in order to better the world engaging in passive nihilism?

The potential for activism and social justice work made more productive by contemplative practices seems legitimate. Browsing through various yoga/justice blogs illustrates several main patterns of thought on this topic. One is the idea that yoga helps us better ourselves to better our work in the world. One article from the blog “Yoga Sanctuary” states:
Our practice on the mat nourishes us and prepares us for our life off of the mat. We turn inward, care for ourselves, connect to our core, and then keeping that connection, we can go out into the world and offer our hearts, and our energy to bring healing, expansion, and freedom to others.

Additionally, there is the idea that through yoga and meditation, we deepen our consciousness, and thus awareness of global injustice. The same author writes, “For me, this consciousness makes me see the injustices and suffering in the world all the more clearly.”

Yet despite these potentials, I think this idea of self-care and self-improvement can be dangerous in general, and in particular when applied to yoga or ‘western Buddhism’. As soon as self-care is seen as a valid way, or necessary step in world-care, it can be used as a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card. And yoga as self-care is an especially problematic case because there is this cultural link in western activist culture between yoga and activism—because of this association, there is an added danger of the image of ethical existence replacing the reality of ethical existence. When these practices lose their supposedly ethical purpose, I believe they can become a form of the passive nihilist’s self-improvement—self-indulgent and politically irrelevant.

Works Cited

Critchley, Simon. Infinitely Demanding. London: Verso, 2007.

Hodgson, Kendra. “Yoga, Social Justice, & Activism.” Yoga Sanctuary. 20/09/2010. Web. 22 Oct 2010. .

Zizek, Slavoj. Violence. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press: 2008.

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