Reason as the Leading Motive

Posts Tagged ‘Colin McGinn’

Philosopher Watch 2

Posted by Jerry on December 30, 2007

Philosopher and academic bully Colin McGinn has gotten into yet another public feud with a philosopher (and ex-colleague) over the latter’s book on a theory of consciousness.

In an article published in the Philosophical Review, McGinn wrote a bitter and scathing review of Ted Honderich’s new book.

Apparently, Colin McGinn is no stranger to academic bullying, as he himself admits:

“People have complained about my tone in reviews for the past 30 years,” says McGinn proudly. “I’ve made definite enemies in the past 30 years in important departments.”

But on the blogosphere, professorial authority has little traction, and McGinn comes off looking like just a cheap weasel.

A while ago, I had posted on McGinn’s poor intellectual manners after he had made the preposterous claim of having “dispatched” with the “terrible theory” of ethical egoism and had prodigiously heaped scorn on all who challenged his argument on his blog. At that time, the substance of his responses were slurs, ad hominem attacks, and outlandish charges of ineptness.

Reading about his review of Honderich’s book, I see that very little has changed since.

[HT: Noodlefood]

Posted in Books, Culture, General Work/Life, Philosophy, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Philosopher Watch

Posted by Jerry on September 26, 2007

Philosophers in particular have long been happily secluded in the obscurity of their journals, books, and philosophy departments. Rarely have they had to engage with the popular culture and defend their ideas in public, and rarely do they even bother to do so. Even when philosophers publish books and papers, they are mostly just putting their views out there without being pressed into a dialog with their readers to respond to criticisms.

However, with the revolution that blogging is today, practically any person or opinion can be the target of intense scrutiny, analysis, and investigation, and on a medium that is open to a large number of people. Intellectuals, therefore, now have to be more careful of what they say and how they say it because not only can they suddenly be picked up by some obscure blogger out there, but their views can be traced, archived, summoned repeatedly, linked, and distributed.

With the ability to search for keywords and activate keyword alerts, practically every area of knowledge and content on the internet is at the disposal of anyone interested. So, for example, if you’re a philosopher like Colin McGinn, you have much to worry about what you publish on your blog and how/who you engage in a dialog with.

Recently, Colin McGinn presided over what may be the lengthiest comment thread on his blog, on a post about ethical egoism. He began the discussion by claiming to have swiftly “dispatched” with the egoistic moral theory; when several of his commentors highlighted the logical flaws of his arguments, he proceed to label them with ad hominem smears, insult their intelligence, dismiss their criticisms as irrelevant, delete their comments, and even send private e-mails to at least one commentor with immature insults.

Flibbert was that particular target of McGinn’s private cheapshots. In several and persistant e-mails to Flibbert, McGinn comes off looking like a teenage bully in a schoolyard. Now, remember that Colin McGinn is apparently a well-known philosopher in his academic circles. But on the blogosphere, the man is a cheap weasel. Here is a sample of the e-mail exchanges Flibbert had with Professor Colin McGinn, which Flibbert posted on his blog:

McGinn: “What a pompous fool you are.”

Flibbert: “More name-calling? Really? Seriously, professor, I’m not sure which is in worse shape: your manners, your logic, or your integrity.”

McGinn: “There are a lot of fools in the world. The internet has given them a voice they wouldn’t otherwise have. You are a particularly egregious example of the type. I am simply stating the facts.”

Flibbert: “The same could be said of intellectual cowards and their university posts particularly in the case of philosophy departments.

Has it occurred to you that you’re engaging a complete stranger — one you’ve deemed to be obnoxious junk and a pompous fool — with petty insults? You seem to do so without any sense of irony about it. Compounding the irony is the fact that you are again hiding your shameful behavior from others. If your conclusion is so factual, why didn’t you just post an additional comment to your blog calling me a pompous fool?

I’ve told you why I think you’re a shameful and dishonest, not to mention condescending and rude, but as usual you haven’t provided any citations or examples to support your conclusions. No, you’ve simply ejaculated your opinion into this medium and expected others to slaver over it. To use another’s phrase, it’s a bukkake of stupid with you.

You disgust me.”

Professor McGinn continued to delete comments and insult Flibbert in private e-mails. Flibbert, on his part, decided that McGinn’s behavior did not warrant any decent and restrained responses from him any longer (with which I agree); Flibbert responded to him likewise.

After more than 100 comments were written by various commentors, McGinn finally chooses to reveal that he had never even read anything about the kind of ethical egoism Ayn Rand had formulated and which his detractors were pointing out to him. He said that he had never intended to address the ethical egoism of Ayn Rand but was attacking the egoism of Thomas Hobbes and Glaucon in Plato’s Republic.

This admission gives a clear indication of McGinn’s intellectual dishonesty because any honest interlocutor would have explicitly defined the target of his criticism by stating early on who’s theories were under scrutiny. Notably, in contrast, he did indeed define his exact usage of “altruism”–which he was defending–very early on in the comments.

Early commentors politely suggested that he tackle the Objectivist theory of ethical egoism because it was the strongest case ever devised–because it was also true. Instead of coming in right at that moment and admitting that Objectivist egoism was not his proper target because he was not yet properly familiar with it, McGinn chose to insult his commentors as “cultists”, and presided over a comment thread that introduced a whole host of wildly bizarre hypotheticals and contorted theories to distort ethical egoism and paint Objectivists as intellectually inept cultists.

I think McGinn has learned a very stinging lesson from the blogosphere: if you choose to put your intellectual opinions on the internet–even on a blog, you better consider what you say and how you conduct yourself–intellectual dishonesty will particularly be called out and receive scathing attacks. There are potentially a large number of eyes reading every word on the blogs. This cautionary principle applies particularly to professional intellectuals and philosophers because they bear the greater responsibility of being careful with what they say: indeed, they are in the profession of shaping minds!

And with the Internet the way it is today, they can no more hide behind the dusty covers of philosophical tomes, closed academic circles of acolytes, and misty deparmental offices. On the blogosphere, professional authority has little traction.

Posted in General Work/Life, Philosophy, Rights and Morality, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , | 22 Comments »

Altruism and Egoism

Posted by Jerry on September 20, 2007

Colin McGinn, the philosopher who claimed to have refuted egoism in a few brief remarks, holds a very willy-nilly concept of altruism, but is adamant that egoism can only be defined as the “maximization of one’s own interest.” According to McGinn, an altruist can properly behave in self-interested actions occassionally; but an egoist–on principle–can never act against his own interests, which includes not dirtying your clothes to jump in to save a drowning baby.

Clearly, McGinn and altruists like him wish to claim sole proprietorship over concepts of kindness, benevolence, and charity.

Let’s be very clear about what we mean by altruism:

The word “altruism” (French, altruisme, from autrui: “other people”, derived from Latin alter: “other”) was coined by Auguste Comte, the French founder of positivism, in order to describe the ethical doctrine he supported. He believed that individuals had a moral obligation to renounce self-interest and live for others. Comte says, in his Catechisme Positiviste, that “[the] social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such notion rests on individualism. We are born under a load of obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. After our birth these obligations increase or accumulate, for it is some time before we can return any service…. This [“to live for others”], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely.” [1]

The Catholic Encyclopedia says that for Comte’s altruism, “The first principle of morality…is the regulative supremacy of social sympathy over the self-regarding instincts.” [2] Author Gabriel Moran, (professor in the department of Humanities and the Social Sciences, New York University) says “The law and duty of life in altruism [for Comte] was summed up in the phrase: Live for others.” [3]

More recent reformulations of the word altruism have served up a watered down principle of a general lovey-durvy, fluffy-feely sense of kindness and benevolence toward others to make the principle seem more palatable to most people’s sensibilities. Note how it is better to have a phantasmic notion of altruism than to even permit the possibility of egoism (self-interest) as a plausible moral principle for people to live by.

It stands to reason that no one can adhere to the principle of altruism strictly and consistently in their lives: it is a contradiction at the most fundamental level. To live is to act in self-preservation; to live is to engage in self-sustaining action. One cannot live by selfless action, unless one wishes to die. The proper and consistent act for an altruist would be to give up his life in an ultimate sacrifice for others (like Jesus did; now, the conundrum that the recipient of the sacrifice has to himself be sacrificed to someone else’s interests and so on with every individual on earth is another thorny matter of its own). 

At best, altruism can only be practised inconsistently, whimsically, and often out of guilt.

Since altruism–as a moral principle–cannot be practised consistently, philosophers like McGinn have injected doses of self-interested pursuits and common sense motivations into the principle of altruism. By doing this, altruists have appropriated the notions of kindness, charity, and benevolence, while vociferously denying that these notions are fully and logically compatible with the ethic of egoism.

Egoism is the principle of purusing one’s own rational self-interest with your life as your standard of value. Properly speaking, “life as a standard of value” is a redundant elaboration of the principle of rational self-interest. Only life can provide a context for the existence of a self and for the pursuit of interests; only human life can provide the standard of rational behavior and meaning to rationality. Nevertheless, the redundancy is necessary because altruists are committed to caricaturing egoism as everything that it is not: hedonism, subjectivism, self-destruction, malice, etc.

Egoism–that is, the principle of rational self-interest–is the only principle that can be practised consistently by every individual without leaving behind a trail of mutilated, self-sacrificed corpses. Only egoism makes it possible to have a society of individuals where acts of benevolence, kindness, and charity are performed without contradiction, without conflicts of interest, and without any sacrifice.

[Related posts: Morality in the Jungle; The Right to Life; Moral Evolution]

Posted in Ayn Rand, Culture, General Work/Life, My Theories and Ideas, Objectivism, Philosophy, Rights and Morality, The Best of Leitmotif, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

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