Self deception is sometimes expedient only because of what first appears to consciousness.
First, an unwitting screen for the output of a knowing and furiously active unconscious.
Second, it seems untenable to deny consciousness any active role whatever in self deception.
“Intentionalists” believe that the self-deceiver acts intentionally to bring it about that she acquire a certain belief, without being motivated by a conviction of the truth of that belief. To conceive all self-deception like this might be – as we will see – simplistic, but the flavour of intentionalism shows recognition of the integral role robust awareness can play. This requires that the policy to self-deceive is sometimes made at the conscious level, and embroils us once again in the difficulties outlined above.
Third, on what grounds could the unconscious adjudicate? How does it know what consciousness would want to have blocked? If consciousness is never aware of the relevant truths, then the unconscious has to assume the role of “psychopaternalist”, censoring in the interests of consciousness the transmission of images from backstage. But its workings, in the imagined scenario, would seem unclear. It wouldn’t do to say that the unconscious witholds truths which it thinks would not appeal to consciousness. This is because lots of unappealing truths reach consciousness, and truths which can, moreover, be easily known before the event to be unpleasant for consciousness. Why doesn’t the unconscious withold the lot of them? Why are some of these truths “forwarded”, accepted, and acknowledged, with no hint of self-deception, and others the object of self-deception (indeed, some of the former might be more traumatising than many of the latter)?
It is likely that the paradigm framing much discussion of self-deception is crude and should be jettisoned. It might seem natural to imagine self-deception as one, homogeneous affair, that is essentially a matter of belief and knowledge (as above), abherrant, solitary, morally retrograde, and undergone by a thing-like ‘self’. Each of these characterisations is, however, dubious.
The self has featured in a previous issue of The Philosopher’s Magazine. For many modern contributors, most famously Dennett, the unity of self, and the accompanying baggage of an omniscient boss who thinks and acts from a psychical Oval Office, is a stubborn hangover from a Cartesian heritage most now claim to have rejected. Maybe the self is a much more complex, fluid, and ersatz affair than this maddeningly seductive picture allows. Perhaps it is an emergent artifice of multifarious, haphazardly connected subsystems, with no boss and no Cartesian Theatre “where it all happens”. If this, spaghetti-like notion of the self is correct, then it is too simple, also, to dichotomise the self into conscious and unconscious, far less to give executive primacy to either part (perhaps the inclination to do so is a stubborn hangover from our Freudian heritage). Perhaps the executors and beneficiaries of self-deception are sometimes subsystems of the self, whose activities are motivated, organically, by preservation of the system as a whole. If a subsystem is vital to a person’s identity, then it is liable to attempt deception of the other subsystems when threatened.
Whether these deceptive workings ever come near the brightest lights of conscious awareness will depend, again, upon the functional value of such exposure to the system as a whole.
An overlapping suggestion is that self-deception is not one singular psychobehavioural phenomenon, reducing to issues of belief and knowledge. Self-deception is perhaps quite eclectic, and is not always easily distinguishable from germane phenomena such as compartmentalisation, repressed conflicts, submerged aggressions, false consciousness, and wishful thinking. It is arguable that its basic elements are sometimes performance and stratagem (mimetic and tactical), and not knowledge and belief (cognitive and epistemic). For instance, we purposefully deflect our gaze from features that would normally matter to us. As Oksenberg Rorty has noted, this can be the self-deception itself, as well as a means to achieving it. (Neglect of this point is perhaps one way in which intentionalists go wrong.) Such selectivity of attention can reveal the functional role of a belief or disposition: its (aforementioned) importance to the system as a whole. Similarly, we adopt behaviour designed to indicate attitudes – such as confidence, commitment, seriousness, or gaiety – that we do not possess. It might seem that whilst we know unambiguously that we don’t have such attitudes, then we are not self-deceived; and if we eventually succeed in achieving them, then we cannot be self-deceived either. However, what usually turns the latter into self-deception is that traces of the old, disowned attitude tend to remain, betrayed in, say, the sarcastic remark, the over-dramatic commitment, or the slip when angry, tired, or drunk.
Our self-deceptions regularly require social confirmation also. Our suspiciously strident declarations of intention and character are made more convincing to us in the presence of a trusty listener, who might tactfully collude in what she knows to be a fragile self-manipulative agenda. In fact, the agent of self-deception might itself be a social grouping, such as a happy-clappy religious cult.
Indeed, it might well be fair to conclude that socially induced self-deception is vital to individual sanity and social cohesion. It is natural and reasonable to be ambivalent about all that matters in most human lives, for example, work, family, and friendships (Adam sings, for instance, in As You Like It, “Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly”). The disguise and submergence of this ambivalence is required for us to play our social roles (employee, friend, parent, etc.), and to allow individual projects and interpersonal engagements to flourish. Far from being a solitary, abherrant, and morally retrograde enterprise, self-deception might sometimes be a psychologically, socially, and morally required extension of the natural operations of the imagination.