Individualism vs. Egoism: They Are Not the Same
Circe Turns Greedy Men to Swine
What we are seeing in the streets and hearing on the airwaves of our country at this moment has roots that run far deeper than categories such as “liberal” and “conservative,” or movements such as the Tea Party or the Libertarian Party or the far right of the Republican Party.
This root is a fundamental tension between what the Spanish philosopher called concord and liberty; and further, on the side of liberty, there is a secondary problem: the antipathy between atomistic egoism or selfishness and genuine individuality.
The latter problem is the more pronounced at this point in the history of the United States and makes the issue of how to live together with common purpose (concord) while protecting the rights of select minorities (liberty) impossible to address. So, let’s face the issue of egoism and individuality and see if we can’t sketch it in a way so as to make it less abstract.
Hobbes and Psychological Egoism
Atomistic egoism is a theory which has it that human beings are fundamentally disconnected from one another, complete and whole unto themselves, in need of nothing or no one apart from themselves except by free choice to further their own selfish aims and desires. Ethically, this theory takes a couple of forms in the history of modern philosophy.
The first is Thomas Hobbes’ notion that humans are “by nature” selfish – we are beings who cannot help but act in our own self-interest and only in our own self-interest. No matter how disinterested we think our actions are, the reality is that we are, at best, lying to ourselves. Mother Theresa, in devoting herself to lepers and AIDS victims, the poorest of the poor and the outcast, with no hope of recompense, for example, was secretly, in her heart of hearts, motivated by some self-interested motive: winning the Nobel Prize, gaining a platform to spread her message and gain attention, or to attain the blessings of God and ascend to Heaven after death.
Everyone is like this, according to Hobbes. No one does anything without some expectation of repayment for it, and this is simply the inescapable reality of human life. Now, paradoxically, Hobbes’ version of egoism has it that the best, most realistic, way of getting what you want and getting your repayments involves cooperation. We choose to give up some of our liberty to, say, steal from one another in order to create a working market within which we can trade and bargain without fear others will steal from us in return. His version of the Golden Rule was something akin to this: Do good unto others so they will be contractually obligated not to do ill to you.
We, then, do not do good or virtuous things because they are good and virtuous things in themselves – no, we do them because they tend to maximize our opportunities for repayment and getting ahead. We do not do good things for others because we care for them or see humanity as deserving of special respect, nor do we do it to become good people or good at being people – no, we do it to make ourselves marketable and assure we will tend to get our way.
Several things follow. There isn’t necessarily any incentive to do anything for anyone who cannot further your private aims. Children, for example, especially infants, are incapable of repaying one for anything – they take but do not give in return. Animals, as well, usually lie outside this circle of selfish repayment – my dog may give me pleasure by his company, but yours may give me absolutely none. And when you are not looking, if I decide to poison him to get him out of my misery, it cannot be said I did anything wrong – I did not owe the dog anything nor did it further my aims.
The poor may do nothing for me, as well. I and my society may benefit in the immediate more by allowing them to starve to death or shorten their lives by withholding access to healthcare than by assisting them and extending the full benefits of civil society to them. If they rise up and complain, it may be easier for me and my society to put down their complaints by force than give them a full voice in decisions about how resources are to be distributed. Or I may propagandize them to have that segment of society believe they have as much as they deserve or that they can earn better treatment only by working harder. I may never see that it is in my best interest to share power and wealth, much less that there is such a thing as a fundamental human right to anything except to be selfish, and that those with power can override the desires of the weak.
Moreover, this selfishness is sanctified by psychological egoism’s appeal to human nature. I cannot help but be selfish; nor can anyone else. This means that selfishness is ordained either by God (if one is so inclined to believe in God) or by nature – there is no court of higher appeal to claim humans should base their morality on something better than their inherent selfishness.
In fact, anyone who claims we have motives other than self-interest is simply deluded. If I show that a certain soldier dives on a grenade to save five of his buddies, and say that he lost everything in the performance of that action, did not gain anything, and received not even pleasure from it, the psychological egoist will begin to look for the “payoff” – it MUST be there somewhere. Maybe he believed that he’d go to Heaven if he sacrificed his life. If I say the soldier was an atheist, the psychological egoist will search for some other selfish explanation, and so on, ad infinitum.
No matter what evidence you bring to a psychological egoist, she will always interpret it as evidence to support her theory and cannot conceive of a different explanation. And this, oddly, is the fatal flaw in the theory – it has the hallmarks of a bad theory. A good theory is always able to posit what its opposite would look like – what it would take to prove the theory itself is wrong. If I have a theory: All swans are white, it’s easy to imagine what it would take to show a theory is wrong – I can imagine green or purple or blue swans. This doesn’t mean I actually see any multihued swans, but if I ever find one, such as the black swans of Australia I was unaware of when I made my theory, I would know my theory is incorrect.
Hobbes and his school cannot conceive of any moral motive other than selfishness. Present all the evidence of probable non-selfish acts and motives, and they will reinterpret then to fit their theory. Ask them what a theoretically non-selfish motive would look like, and they have no answer other than they are unimaginable. And this makes the theory fundamentally and fatally flawed as far as logic goes. It may have an emotional resonance for certain people, but good ethical theories are hardly constructed mainly of feelings and wishes.
Combine this with the unacceptable, or at least questionable, moral and social consequences of the theory – that we are not obliged in some way to pay attention to the needs of the weak or to pay attention to correcting or avoiding injustices when we receive no immediate benefits – and this form of egoism has little to recommend it for rational people.
Ayn Rand and Ethical Egoism
The second form of egoism, however, is more difficult. It is also probably the more virulent strain in our contemporary society thanks to the novelist and popular philosopher Ayn Rand and her influence on the Libertarian Party, strains of the Tea Party movement, and in all likelihood many other far right groups ranging from militias to some Christian fundamentalist organizations where one often hears echoes, strong and faint, of her teachings.
Rand’s egoism is what we call “ethical egoism.” It does not say humans are, by nature, selfish; rather, it claims that humans ought to choose to be selfish – to be moral, one must be selfish in one’s choices and actions. Anything else, and one has, in effect, sold one’s soul to “the collective” and has allowed oneself to be used – or worse, one uses others in order to live. Laissez-faire, utterly free market capitalism is equated with ethics: All of one’s interactions with other humans are nothing more or less than business deals.
We should bargain with one another with the motive of getting the most for ourselves (and ourselves alone) out of each interaction without regard for the needs of others. The needs of others are the other’s problem, not ours – unless we need the other person to meet our needs; in which case we may assist them, but only with a view of an ultimate payoff.
One, of course, may choose to help others with no possible repayment, but Rand saw this – charity – as not particularly virtuous; and even bordering on foolishness.
Rand’s primary book on ethics, in fact, was entitled “The Virtue of Selfishness.” For literally thousands of years, ethical theories based on the virtues, such as Aristotle’s or the Stoics’ or some forms of Jewish and Christian ethics, saw various virtue as a means to self-mastery and the development of habits designed to liberate one from mere self-centeredness and subjective passions and desires.
Rand, in a move probably borrowed, if clumsily, from Nietzsche, turned the concept of virtue on its head. Being a dogmatic atheist, she believed “virtue” had been poisoned from within by Christian and Jewish concepts of concern for the weak – which she believed consisted in chaining the strong and creative and forcing them to become the servants of leeches and the incapable. The ultimate expression of this tendency in history was and is “collectivism”: socialism, communism, Marxism.
Therefore, her conception of “virtue” was to redefine it in terms of what she believed was the other end of the spectrum from collectivism: egoism. The unfettered “free trader” who defined her own needs, obtained what she needed by any and all means short of outright lying and force. The only virtue was to be “selfishness,” self-centeredness, the only value was to be freedom, as close to absolute freedom as possible. For Rand and her sort, the individual is an ego – a self-contained, socially disconnected self, who is either out for himself (moral) or out to steal from others (immoral), with no middle ground possible.
Politically, as a larger social expression of this ethical principle, is the theory of laissez-faire capitalism. For the Randians (and this is easily seen in the Libertarian movement), the government exists to do two things: protect the sovereign individual against the threats of force and fraud. This sounds reasonable enough, but “force and fraud,” here, are defined in a very narrow way. Protection from force can include protection from foreign encroachments – so the government must attempt to maintain a military. But it also means the government itself cannot do much else: It cannot require anyone to involuntary pay the taxes required to maintain this military, or pay for police to keep the streets safe. The belief is that self-interested people will voluntarily chip in to pay for these and the like. And it certainly may never enact laws to regulate the free market.
Laws against insider trading, laws against profiteering, laws to regulate health, product safety, and workplace safety and the like are all “collectivistic” because they limit freedom. The belief is that the free market, left to itself, will take care of any problems that need to be taken care of through a sort of evolutionary process – fit ways of doing business will survive while unfit ways of doing business will fall by the wayside. Alan Greenspan (yes, THE Alan Greenspan), a student of Rand’s in the 60s, wrote an essay in one of her books in which he optimistically states that companies in a completely unregulated free market system would never do anything to endanger their consumers because, among other things, their profits would suffer, no one would trust them again, and other companies would move in to take their consumers with more trustworthy products.
Let’s begin to examine how realistic some of these political and economic claims are before looking for the flaws in ethical egoism itself.
For a moment, let’s look to China. Recently, there have been problems with tainted baby formula that killed or injured untold numbers of children – because the regulation of that industry was lax. There were children’s toys, some of which made it to the markets of America, doused in lead paint which is known to cause retardation and other maladies – due to lax regulation of that industry. The only reason these things were caught here was because of the allegedly “collectivistic” regulations on goods we enjoy here in the States, contrary to what Mr. Greenspan would have had us believe in the Randian essay he never disavowed.
Yes, eventually the market may have corrected itself even without legal regulations – but how many people would have to die or be injured first? Which is more important: an unregulated free-for-all business atmosphere, or public safety, especially when individual consumers cannot possibly protect themselves against corporations hell-bent on quick profits at any costs? Or are we to believe that some must die or suffer injury and lose their freedom for a greater good – absolute freedom for the economy? Are those who die just random losers in the Social Darwinian lottery?
Moreover, after the time the economy was in the hands of people such as the Reagan Republicans and Mr. Greenspan, after the age of deregulation began, it is common knowledge what began to occur – the Savings and Loan debacle of the late 80s/early 90s; the housing bubble and burst that very nearly pulled the entire economy beneath the waves of a depression; Enron and its cooked books that destroyed the savings of untold investors, and on and on.
Again, contrary to Greenspan’s utterly optimistic forecast as to what human beings with control of great deals of money and power will do if outside the reach of law and oversight, something else occurred: Some people showed that, out of sheer greed and selfishness, they will cash everything in, regardless of who is ruined in the process. Most people, perhaps, won’t, but some people will. And it doesn’t take more than a relative handful of these to destroy an economy and a nation in relatively short order in the 21st century – especially if their ethical belief is that they don’t owe anyone except themselves anything.
It is ironic that an ethical and political position that proclaims its opposition to force and fraud seems to unerringly create a situation in which corporate force and corporate fraud run rampant, with no way to reign them in or correct them other than praying the almighty free market fixes itself at some unspecified, even mythical, future date.
I leave speculation as to how many people would voluntarily pay income tax even to support the police and a modern military to a minimum: If the nation were run by individuals with no allegiance to anything except themselves, would they have any sense of responsibility to something such as a nation or law to begin with? And if so, why, beyond purely subjective whim?
And here we arrive at flaws in the ethical egoist’s theory of morality.
First, the Randian egoist, an alleged free trader and complete “individualist” would seem to be playing a double game. She counts on the fact that, in a libertarian society, not everyone would be a pure libertarian – many would never accept that form of ethics due to the fact that their more traditional philosophies or their religious beliefs run contrary to it; it is far from the dominant position in Western belief. Many people, as now, would see the need to be responsible for others, for the common good, for the weak and unfortunate – the egoist would count on these people to take care of the ills and problems of civil society while the egoist could go free to spend her time and wealth simply looking to her own affairs. Oddly, the egoist counts on living on the credit amassed by four thousand years of basic Western morality which do not enshrine greed and selfishness as virtuous.
If everyone decided to become an egoist at the same time, to use the standard Kantian method for testing whether an ethical theory is universal: Could the egoist live in the resulting world? No one would have to cooperate with anyone else. No one would have to tolerate anyone else. No one would have a right to any good, service, or value she couldn’t individually grab on her own, with no assistance – including children and infants. No one would have to hire anyone. No one would have to do anything as simple as help a child face down in a puddle from drowning. And on and on.
Could we consistently and completely be egoists? Is such a world something we could live in as humans, with a thriving culture and a growing civilization? Or is it a recipe for anarchy and then real tyranny?
I will add here that Ayn Rand despised Kant, and perhaps we can see why: He insisted that some moral rules are things which must be done or avoided whether we individually like it or not. He also insisted that ethical principles must apply equally to everyone, by definition, if they are just (i.e. universal).
One is not certain Rand or her followers grasp that her version of morality is fundamentally unjust – it could allow some to be “more equal than others”. Her theory fails to take things such as fortune – luck – which grants advantages to some and withholds them from others through no merit of their own and pretends that what each person has or gains is simply a pure matter of merit. It fails to address how an actual world in which everyone was an egoist would ever function without some segment of people voluntarily not being purely selfish. And this is probably no accident since the egoist is mainly interested in getting her own way and little else.
Another major flaw, then, is that ethical egoism can end in being a mask for ethical subjectivism – the theory that our personal feelings create right and wrong. Rand often asked, “Whose morality? Whose values?” when confronted with questions about the rightness of her theory – and thereby seems to fall into the subjectivist trap (though she insisted till breathless her system was “objective”). The fact is, moral values, if they have any reality worth noting at all, are not “personal” – i.e. they don’t originate in some person creating them. If a moral value has any value at all, ethically, it isn’t just a value “for me”; it is a value “for everyone” and can be discovered by rational argument.
Randians and Libertarians seem comfortable with the notion that it is completely moral to value anything at all, to devote one’s life to anything at all, so long as one doesn’t force it on anyone else. (Except, of course, if the Randians come to power, they intend to enforce their morality by reforming all law and government and society in their own image.) Which means that what one values should be chosen entirely in accord with one’s subjective, private desires, one’s feelings. No guidance can be offered by the ethical theory on this other than that everyone should have the complete liberty to do nearly anything one wishes, if one can.
It is easy to hear this subjectivist whine in the voices of our Tea Partiers: They incessantly demand to be freed from the responsibility to pay taxes for anything they happen not to like. Healthcare, of course, they do not like; so they feel they ought not be required to pay for it. And, of course, the more extreme don’t feel they should be “forced” to pay taxes at all.
Yet we know, by the simplest use of moral reasoning, that some moral values exist that are, indeed, universal, and to which everyone should give assent. We know, for example, there has never been a culture in the world that has ever allowed murder: All cultures define some segment of their populations as “innocent,” people off limits to being killed without very good reason. Differing cultures draw the lines differently, but all cultures contain a group of people who are off limits to being killed. All cultures value truthfulness – there are always times and places where one is expected to speak the truth. This value is the very foundation of such things as communication and law and even commerce. All cultures value the care of children – in every culture there is some segment of children defined as important enough to care for and raise to adulthood.
And there are many more such values.
Further, it is relatively easy to see these values were not created by anyone. It is not as if all human cultures just accidentally made up the same moral rules – that is suspicious on the surface. Instead, certain moral principles are the precondition of humans living together as humans in society. Just as humans require air for biological life, we also require certain moral values to be present to fully flourish as human beings and live together. (There are also moral values we require individually, not socially, but I’ll stick to the social values as they are more easily seen.) We no more created air and then sprang into existence than we created moral principles and then created societies.
If, then, there are objective, universal moral values such as I have argued for here (following the example of many ethicists), their existence certainly does not depend on our feelings and subjective desires. To be more precise: Our desires and feelings only take on morally praiseworthy dimensions when they accord with these objective values.
Even more: We must abide by these principles even if we don’t feel like it at times or if it would be easier to avoid them. And if an egoist wishes to claim an exemption for herself from abiding by these values in order to pursue her own private list of desires, she will have to do one important thing. That is, she will have to make a good rational argument why she is special, why she deserves to be treated differently than every other human.
And if she can’t do that one thing, she will either have to give up her subjective list or she will have to admit she isn’t rational or reasonable in her demands and she does not care. At which point, the rest of us will be able to see what manner of barbarian has wandered into our midst.
A true individual is not an egoist.
A true individual is involved in both a private sphere and a social one, not one to the exclusion of the other. She recognizes she has both a private life, a creative area of freedom and intelligence with its obligations, and an external life, with its obligations to recognize the inherent value of other human beings.
What Rand and her followers have never grasped is that it is possible to do things for others, “altruistic” acts, without losing oneself, without failing to take care of one’s own needs as well. Morality is not a matter of acts either being completely selfish or completely self-sacrificing: There is a middle ground where one can and should care for one’s self while also caring for others and one’s society.
Returning to the idea of the virtues, as the Stoics saw them, there isn’t even always a clear dichotomy between doing something for others and doing something for oneself in some sense. Being generous benefits both the giver and the receiver – the giver becomes a generous person and the receiver has her needs met. This is because the real moral value – generosity – is valuable in and of itself. Aligning oneself with the value perfects one and assists one to do a good job at being a human.
The same goes with being just, courageous, temperate, prudent, with seeking wisdom, with being merciful, slow to judgment, and so on. Each of these is simply good, and to do these things consistently makes one good and also increases the likelihood one’s community will be a good one to live in.
The true individual grasps the moral ramifications of Ortega y Gasset’s metaphysical formula: “I am I plus my circumstances.” The individual is not a disconnected atom, merely an ego, an abstract “I.” Instead, she is always an “I” in a circumstance, a world, and her life is one of interaction between her interior life and the world around her.
There is much more to say on this, but, perhaps, this essay has gone some distance in defining some of the basic issues facing us at this time in the political realm. I maintain, however, that unless we strongly address the ethical issues underlying the political ones, the political and social world will continue to unravel.
31 March 2010
Richard Van Ingram
(Many uncited sources were used to write this informal essay.)