Leitmotif

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Posts Tagged ‘Egoism’

Selfishness

Posted by Jerry on November 4, 2007

There are times when I read or hear something and I am reminded again of just how radical the Objectivist philosophy is and how difficult it must be for someone new to the philosophy to get their head around it–it is a complete reversal of practically every fundamental premise that was considered moral for millenia–from judeo-christian ethics to Kantian duty ethics.

Just take one example. Objectivism identifies the fact that all ethics proper to man is essentially egoistic; that is, whatever is proper to man’s life qua man is in his interest and is therefore moral. However, the concepts of egoism and selfishness are so corrupted in our language and philosophy that it is seemingly impossible to understand how moral acts can be selfish.

Mainstream morality offers only one alternative: you either sacrifice your own interests for others or sacrifice the interests of others for yourself. Selfishness is defined as concern for the self at the expense of others, a vice; and selflessness is defined as concern for the other at the expense of the self, a virtue. And for some odd reason, people who are selfish are considered evil.

However, as Ayn Rand noted, this moral vocabulary permits no concept for a benevolent interaction among men which requires no sacrifice! One is either selfish or selfless, and both are defined in sacrificial terms. What is the moral concept identifying a relationship among individuals where no one is asked to be the sacrificial animal for the other? For this reason, Ayn Rand saw the imperative need to rescue the concept of selfishness from philosophical adulteration.

Properly, selfishness is concern with one’s own interest. It is the job of philosophy and ethics to define what those interests are, whether the interests of men clash, and whether the pursuit of those interests are a vice. In other words, it is the job of ethics to define the moral status of human goals and goal-directed actions, and identify a set of values and interests that are proper to man’s survival. Objectivism is a value-oriented philosophy: it points out that values presume beneficiaries and that the pursuit of a rational value is selfish, because it is a concern with one’s own interests.

After reading Roger Scruton’s article Altruism and Selfishness, I realized that the Objectivist virtue of selfishness is not an easy concept to grasp. Scruton gets it all wrong despite coming close to understanding the concept. He says:

Learning to love your neighbor as yourself is learning to take pleasure in the things that please him, as a mother takes pleasure in the pleasures of her child. To call this “selfishness” is to abuse the language. A selfish act is one directed at the self; an unselfish act is one directed at others. And the truly unselfish person is the one who wants to perform unselfish acts, who takes pleasure in giving, and who enjoys the prospect of another’s success. This is not, as Rand would have us believe, just another form of selfishness. It is an altogether higher motive, one in which the other has replaced the self as the object of concern.

Notice how Scruton succumbs to mainstream altruist vocabulary by divorcing a mother’s love for her child from her own interest or the love one has for a neighbor from one’s own pleasure; he wants to insist that any love a mother has for a child is purely selfless. In effect, the argument is that the child is not a value to his mother. To pursue values eagerly is to be selfish, and were the child a value to his mother, then the mother would be selfish. 

Scruton divorces the concept of life from objectivity, the concept of objectivity from values, and the concept of value from self.

Scruton ignores the fact that life offers the concept of objectivity, that values are objective, and that rational selfishness involves the pursuit of rational values. For Scruton, selfish actions are only those that are directed toward the self. This sort of definition completely ignores the issue of whether those actions which are directed toward the self are indeed objectively proper and rational actions or not; that is, are those actions truly in one’s objective self-interest or are they self-destructive even though you might derive pleasure from those actions.

Scruton also argues that wanting to love someone or taking pleasure in giving is not selfish. Here again he does not address whether the object of our love or generosity is someone whom we value or it does not matter who this person is. The value-oriented or goal-directed nature of human action and human life is ignored completely.

For Scruton, the goal of our pursuit does not matter so long as the action is directed at someone else: if we love someone else, then we are selfless.

By this line of argument, he not only divorces values from actions but also equivocates any random, hedonistic, promiscuous, irrational acts of self-indulgence with selfishness even if it might actually be a self-distructive behavior.

If selfishness is properly the concern for oneself, then self-destructive hedonism and self-indulgence should be the epitome of selfless acts, i.e., acts done with no concern or regard for one’s self and well-being. In other words, it should be clear that pleasure is the not the standard of moral evaluation: merely wanting to love someone or wanting to be generous is not the standard by which we decide whether our actions are selfish or selfess, moral or immoral.

[Related post: Morality in the Jungle]

Posted in Ayn Rand, Objectivism, Philosophy, Rights and Morality, The Best of Leitmotif, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Morality in the Jungle

Posted by Jerry on September 23, 2007

A moral code is a set of integrated, non-contradictory body of principles that guide man’s actions. This implies the existence of a volitional consciousness to which a moral existence is an objective value (regardless of whether this is recognized or not).

Because there is no such conscious entity as a “group” or “society”, moral codes cannot be premised upon a society or group. In other words, a system of morality is applicable primarily and directly only to individual human beings.

Only individuals have consciousness, and only humans have a volitional and conceptual consciousness; therefore, only individual human beings can act as moral agents. This is why a proper moral system should be concerned with how an individual must act in a given situation–regardless of how many other people he is surrounded with.

However, moral systems like altruism and utlitarianism are flawed at their very foundations because they ignore this simple fact: they are “other-centric” and collectivist at the fundamental level; they disregard the fact that societies or groups are not moral agents; only a single individual human being can be a moral agent. They construct their theories on the premises of “society” or a group of at least two individuals while ignoring the fact that morality is not concerned with how many people exist in any given situation to practice it.

Other-centric moral theories focus upon an individual’s actions in relation to another as the basic framework of a moral situation. A lone individual presumably has no need for a moral system to guide his actions.

It is illogical to confuse the fact that men live and function in society with the false assumption that moral codes have to focus on this social nature of man and be derived from it. A moral code offers a guide to a man’s actions—one man’s actions; each man’s actions.

More fundamental than man’s nature as a social being is his nature as a rational being. A fundamental quality is that which accounts for or explains the greatest number of that entity’s characteristics. Therefore, a moral code should be derived from and be harmonious with this rational nature of man because that is his fundamental nature; the morality of social interactions are secondary and derivative to this.

First, we must answer what is proper and right for a man to do in order to survive on this earth given the nature and identity of his being. The answers to this question also contain the answer to how each man should interact with each other.

Notice that the moral codes of altruism and utilitarianism provide absolutely no moral prescriptions to an individual in the privacy of his own mind, except with regard to his existence among others.

To illustrate, think of a man alone on a deserted island; altruism, utilitarianism, Kantian duty ethics, and so on are useless moral systems to an individual who chooses to live alone or finds himself marooned on an island, because they are divorced from the reality he is faced with. All such moral systems ignore the fact that an individual human being is the most fundamental unit of a moral framework and the only agent of any moral action.

On a deserted island, one must either choose to act to survive for one’s self or choose to do nothing and die. If one chooses to live, he has chosen (implicitly) to be an egoist; this is the first and most basic meta-ethical act of choice, a choice that makes all other ethical acts possible. If you choose to live, you now have to discover the best and most efficient way for you to ensure your survival.

Egoism is the only moral theory that focuses properly on the individual–and how each individual should live his own life. Egoism points out that you should primarily hold yourself as the beneficiary of your actions, because it is in harmony with your meta-ethical choice to live; your own happiness is your highest moral purpose in life; the pursuit of values is predicated upon the standard of what is life-sustaining; and reason is your only most competent tool for evaluating the prudence of your actions.

Alone in the jungle, you must use your reason to ensure your survival and protection from animals and the elements. In fact, it doesn’t–shouldn’t–matter where you live; insofar as you choose to live and act according to the objective requirements of a life qua man, you are acting morally–egoistically–whether alone in a jungle or in the middle of a bustling metropolis.

In other words, egoism is not only a moral system that can be practiced consistently anywhere and without mutual conflict; it is also the only moral system that is useful, sensible, and practicable both in a society full of people as well as on a deserted island by yourself.

The moral is also the practical.

[Of course, living in a society of productive individuals is an immense source of value for an egoist because of all the products, discoveries, inventions, and services that are introduced into his life from the division of labor, i.e., a capitalist society; therefore, an egoist properly finds it in his self-interest to support, encourage, and foster a society of civilized and rational individuals, a society of laissez-faire capitalism.]

Related posts: Moral Evolution; Altruism and Egoism; The Right to Life

Posted in General Work/Life, My Theories and Ideas, On Collectivism, Philosophy, Rights and Morality, The Best of Leitmotif, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 58 Comments »

Moral Evolution

Posted by Jerry on September 20, 2007

My previous post discussed how altruism has come to broadly represent even the most general sense of benevolence toward others. Also, given this understanding of a badly defined and broad conception of altruism, biologists have been recently finding evidence for some kind of biological root to an “altruistic instinct.”

First, altruism is a conceptual principle, and as such, it is impossible for any concepts to have physical-genetic roots in the human body. The most sensible way of me to comprehend any possible genetic roots to the “altruistic instinct” is to consider it as a genetic tendency or rudimentary impulse–certainly not as a genetic predisposition like having the genes for black hair is.

Second, whatever genetic basis of “altruism-type” impulses that may have been discovered (I’m not conceding that they have been, yet), may be the evolutionary vestiges of the survival instinct in pre-modern man. Hunter-gatherers and nomadic men quite possibly evolved with instinctual motivations to live, hunt, and congregate in groups or tribes; early savages (uncivilized men) were faced with innumerable threats from other savage nomads, tribesmen, animals, and the natural elements. It makes sense that grouping (or roaming and living in herds) was a survival strategy for the early man, and over time, this grouping tendency became internalized as an evolutionary impulse for survival.

However, civilization is the process of setting men free from men; it is a progression from a nomadic life lived in the open spaces of a jungle to settlement in private and discrete spaces for individuals. The climb to privacy and the realization of individualism is the progression toward civilization.

Notice that the less civilized a section of society, the more public are their activities and general existence; economic wealth plays a peripheral role perhaps in how civilized a culture is–a rich man can also be highly uncivilized and mutatis mutandis for the poor man.

In this light, the impulse to be in groups or herds is an obsolete concern today. To borrow Ayn Rand’s insight, today we don’t protect ourselves from savages or tribes by ganging up into groups; we draft the Bill of Rights. Man’s nature today has evolved into being a conceptual and rational one. Reason is our most competent tool for survival–not groups, herds, claws, sticks, or clubs. The supremacy of reason and its efficacy in human life has been firmly established by the advancements following the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution.

Therefore, recourse to rudimentary, biological impulses of groupism or other-centrism should be properly evaluated by our faculty of reason to assess its validity and relevance in our present nature and conditions of living. Moreover, remember that what some biologists and altruists are eager to subsume under altruism need not necessarily be altruistic in the proper sense. Therefore, if biologists find that we have genetic impulses to gang up into groups or mobs, we must use our reason to evaluate the relevance and the moral status of these impulses before we choose to act on them.

Since we know that altruism cannot be practiced consistently, we must note that if the principles of reason are consistently applied to the problem of survival, egoism will be the only logical, rational, and moral outcome.

[Related post: Morality in the Jungle; Altruism and Egoism]

Posted in Culture, General Work/Life, My Theories and Ideas, On Collectivism, Philosophy, Rights and Morality, The Best of Leitmotif, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 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 »

Moral Dilemmas

Posted by Jerry on August 21, 2007

Philosophers love to conjure up thought experiments that create exceptionally improbable–even impossible–situations of moral dilemmas and then test out their moral theories. I suppose, since they believe that this method comes closest to emulating the method of controlled experimentation in scientific inquiry, philosophers derive some sense of psychological confidence and satisfaction.

However, the most crucial element in a moral dilemma is the moral agent, i.e., the human being. Therefore, if the purported goal is to test or validate some profound moral theory, it should necessarily be tested in scenarios and contexts relevant and probable to human beings, i.e., that in which humans regularly find themselves, because only humans are moral agents to whom the problem of morality is even applicable.

The goal should not be to have a moral theory that works wonders in an exceptional situation but is inapplicable to the mundane and the routine; rather, it should be the opposite. Exceptional situations may inform us of certain pertinent issues by starkly highlighting them in a certain context; but otherwise, they should not be used as a standard of assessing the validity of moral theories or the moral status of actions.

By its very nature, exceptional situations are rare and fleeting. Ayn Rand made this point in her essay “The Ethics of Emergencies.” Her argument properly asserts that moral principles are guides to behavior in the normal and predominant human situations.

However, in addition to testing out moral theories in relevant and probable scenarios, it is important to realize that no one scenario, action, or situation can be examined in isolation from the context that gave rise to it in the first place. Since reality is a totality of facts and relationships, our epistemological principles must mimic this existential totality in connecting and integrating all our knowledge about reality. In other words, all knowledge should be connected; thus, it is fallacious to test a moral theory or judge the morality of an action within some hypothetically isolated scenario that does not account for its causal conditions–be they human or situational.

For example, the following moral dilemma, which resembles the kind of thought experiment often devised by philosophers to test moral solutions, commits this mistake of isolating agents from their contexts and effects from their antecedents:

You are an inmate in a concentration camp. A sadistic guard is about to hang your son who tried to escape and wants you to pull the chair from underneath him. He says that if you don’t he will not only kill your son but some other innocent inmate as well. You don’t have any doubt that he means what he says. What should you do?

The crucial point that must be identified in the above moral dilemma is that whatsoever is the end resulting action you choose to do, the moral culpability does not reside within you because you would not be the moral causal agent of your actions–even though you would be the acting agent. In other words, your act is not a moral act but a forced act; it is an effect of the nature of your context (prison, sadistic guard, etc.): the fact that you are a prisoner in a concentration camp already limits the actions for which you can be held morally responsible; the fact that a sadistic guard issues an arbitrary threat and demands a certain arbitrary act leaves you morally impotent in the face of it.

However, if the above situation involved a free man asked to freely make the choice to pull the chair from under his son (in the absence of threat and coercion), then the free man becomes the causal agent of a moral action; i.e., he originates a moral act and should therefore be morally culpable.

Thus, these exceptional situations can become superfluous exercises in mental gymnastics if they are constructed to be so removed from human realities and appropriate contexts.

__________ 

[September 19, 2007: I’m including my comment up here in the post because it further clarifies the article and explicitly indicates the Objectivist approach to moral dilemmas]

In my article, I point out that the primary purpose of constructing ethical theories is to help men live their normal, daily lives in an ethical and fruitful manner. Exceptional situations–or ethical emergencies–are by definition rare, transient, and fleeting. Therefore, such situations require that men suspend their normal course of activities to engage in and resolve such ethical emergencies. However, to extract a moral theory of behavior out of these exceptional situations and apply them as the standard or rule in regular life is a logical fallacy and a moral travesty.

Therefore, what does Objectivism advise the person to do in this situation? The response is: Do whatever comes to mind as the most appropriate and swift course of action to immediately end, resolve, or minimize the urgency of the situation and return to normalcy. As I said, Objectivism offers a moral theory for *normal* and regular human life, not for exceptional situations.

However, note this very important point: the moral code you embrace as a guide for normal events will to some extent (perhaps implicitly) guide your actions in exceptional situations. For example, if you are normally a rational man, i.e., you are in the habit of thinking and acting rationally to the extent of your knowledge, then in a situation of crisis, you will most likely respond quickly and immediately in a rational and focused manner, because rationality has become a habit that you are most comfortable with. In contrast, a habitually irrational man will be an emotional wreck when faced with a crisis situation because his mind is utterly hopeless and impotent in confronting the situation; in the face of crucial or split-second decision-making, the irrational man may respond in the only manner he knows best–irrationally, to the detriment of his own cause.

Thus, note the importance of a proper moral code in normal life and its influence on how you tackle ethical emergencies.

Regarding the specific situation indicated in my post, I noted in the article that the man can choose whatever course of action that is available to him. Since the man is under the threat of force and death, he cannot make any reasoned or rational decision; whatever he chooses to do is a consequence of the unfortunate context he is trapped in. Objectivism does not (and indeed, cannot) offer any moral guide to this man because the situation does not permit any moral course of action. Indeed, no ethical theory can legitimately offer a moral course of action for the man. Where there is force, there can be no reason or rationality and therefore no moral course of action–at best, the action would have to be amoral. Thus, the man can do whatever he thinks is most appropriate or expedient at that given time based on his own best judgment–-whatever the tragic consequences may be.

Posted in Ayn Rand, My Theories and Ideas, Objectivism, Philosophy, Rights and Morality, The Best of Leitmotif, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments »

 
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