The Personalist Project

I had a playlist going in the background this morning, and a song by one of my favorite groups came on. The song has a catchy beat, a fantastic hook, and a…well, a very human theme. 

“I wanna be 
consequence free
I wanna be
where nothing needs to matter…”

It’s easy enough to see the appeal of this plea. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to do the things that feel good in the short-term, but maybe not so much in the long term?  To be able to eat whatever you like and not gain weight or get heartburn. To be able to stay up late without being tired. To be able to drink without risk of a hangover. 

By William Hogarth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

And there are entire markets and products and social changes based on this wish. Consequences are the enemy, and stimulants, hangover remedies, weight loss pills and “diet” junk foods, contraceptives, abortion…these things are all promises that we can avoid consequences, that we can break the chain between cause and effect, separate the pleasurable present from the burdensome result. 

“I could really use 
to lose my Catholic conscience
'cause I’m getting sick
of feeling guilty all the time.
I won’t abuse it
Yeah, I’ve got the best intentions
for a little bit of anarchy, 
but not the hurting kind…”

In this world, conscience is the enemy, the nagging busybody that won’t let us just enjoy ourselves but insists that there are always consequences—even when we stick to “not the hurting kind” of anarchy. Ultimately, all the promises are hollow. The morning comes with the dreaded hangover, the successful diet requires self-denial and exercise, the casual lover breaks your heart, and the unwanted child haunts your dreams and changes you whether you wanted the change or not. The singer admits,

“I’d like to leave it all behind
but you know it’s not that easy…”

I’ve listened to this song dozens of times, but this time, the chorus struck me in a different way than usual. It’s easy to see why the “consequence-free” life the singer dreams of isn’t actually “that easy.” A bit of observation of the world around us shows that every attempt to escape the consequences of our choices only creates new effects, new consequences, and new dilemmas. 

But if it was possible to escape consequences, would that be good for us? Would that really make for happiness? 

“I want to be 
consequence free.
I want to be 
where nothing needs to matter.”

And there’s the word that caught me. Consequences are what make our choices matter. They give our lives substance, weight. A consequence free life could be pleasurable, but it couldn’t be meaningful. 

Emmeline Pankhurst arrested. Photo in public domain.

Personalists can spend a fair bit of time talking about volition or will, about free action. This isn’t because we think that only conscious action makes for a person—we are persons when we are infants, when we are sleeping, when we are comatose. There’s more to personhood than decision-making. Yet…when we act from the core of ourselves, moving ourselves towards a freely chosen end, we show ourselves clearly as subjects, as selves. There’s a weight and a meaning in the movement that opens us to choose, not only our next step, but the direction in which it moves us and the choices and consequences we might face beyond. 

It might be human to wish to be consequence free. But perhaps it is better for our humanity that this is one wish that won’t ever be granted.

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