Being Bad at Being Good: Zuko's Transformation and Residual Practical Identities

In Helen De Cruz & Johan De Smedt (eds.), Avatar: The Last Airbender and Philosophy. Wisdom from Aang to Zuko. Wiley-Blackwell (forthcoming)
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Abstract
Zuko’s plight illuminates the process of aspiration, including common challenges to the aspirant. As Agnes Callard understands it, aspiration typically involves a “deep change in how one sees and feels and thinks.” And this deep change is often intertwined with a change in what contemporary philosopher Christine Korsgaard calls practical identity, a “description under which you value yourself, . . . under which you find your life to be worth living and your actions to be worth undertaking.” But as Zuko shows, practical identities are complex, sometimes unwieldy, and changes in explicit self-conceptions can take work, time, and perhaps some luck to bring about the deep change one aspires to. Even after he explicitly disavows his past actions, Zuko finds himself reverting to past behaviors, doing things that (on some level) he wishes he would not. These actions frustrate him— “Why am I so bad at being good?”— but they are not mere lapses in judgment. They come naturally and express an identity that Zuko had long embraced and cultivated but is now trying to leave behind. The arc of Zuko’s transformation illustrates the interplay between two dimensions of practical identity. On the one hand, as Korsgaard’s account emphasizes, our explicit self-conceptions and values matter. They guide our actions and shape how we see the world. But Zuko’s struggles suggest that such self-conceptions and aspirations are only part of the story. According to Martin Heidegger’s notion of being-in-the-world, our practical identity depends more on our existential engagement with the world than on our explicit self-conceptions. And these different dimensions of practical identity do not always align. As William Blattner writes, “Some of the most challenging conflicts in our lives arise when who we are existentially engaged in being stands in tension with who we think of ourselves as being.” Zuko is frustrated because, despite consciously trying to change, his being-in-the-world conflicts with his Korsgaardian practical identity. His world is still shaped (residually) by an identity he wants to shed. The way Zuko’s world and actions continue to be shaped by an identity he is trying to leave behind highlights a key difficulty of transformation. Zuko’s desire to prove his worth to his father and his rage have so thoroughly permeated his being-in-the-world that they are second nature. They shape his orientation toward the world and fuel his firebending. For better and worse, his spontaneous actions do not always fall in step with his conscious commitments. The same skills and dispositions Zuko previously cultivated as central to his identity now lead to unwanted actions and keep him from aspired-to actions. To become good in the way he wants, Zuko must not only cultivate the dispositions that will allow his aspired-to identity to become part and parcel of his being-in-the-world, but he must clear out or modify the residual influence of his past identity and related dispositions and values.
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