Egoism

22nd February 2013

The first philosophical blog I posted here was entitled "Envy" ("Afgunst"). I asked myself the question: is it unethical to be envious of someone? I concluded that it was not, or at least, not necessarily. I regarded envy as a morally neutral state of mind, which only got a moral content when acted (or thought) upon in a specific way. If my envy encourages me to improve myself, so as to match the achievements of the one I'm envious of, then we might well say the envy was an ethically positive state of mind. If, however, I act so as to destroy, or think with contempt of, the achievements of the other, then my envy was a moral misstep. I still underpin this line of thought.

Two other 'vices' I mentioned in that blog (June 2010) were egoism and ambition. Now this is where it gets interesting, especially considering two recent events. The first 'event' is my blog of November 2012, named "I don’t like capitalism" ("Geen zin in kapitalisme"). The other is that I read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand last month, and found it highly exhilarating. (Because of this book, I will now focus on egoism, and leave ambition aside, because egoism will turn out to be a clearer example.)

Ayn Rand is considered a radical, controversial writer. She lived for most of the 20th century and published during half of it. She is a fierce proponent of egoism, greed and – capitalism. Now how is it possible that I, good leftist girl as I am, would find all these things appealing at the same time?

The answer: it’s all in the words. Although I am not done thinking about it – that would be too boring; what would I then be supposed to do for the rest of my life? – I think things are not so contradictory as they may seem at first. No, in fact, I don't think they're contradictory at all. How could they be? After all, A is A. (Unless, of course, my reasoning is defective, in which case I certainly hope someone will make me aware of it.)

Let me start with capitalism. Capitalism certainly looks well compatible with claiming that egoism and ambition are virtues, not vices. Some may think it’s merely opportunistic to start calling egoism a virtue (very practical for the 'graaiers'), but let's get back to that later. What do I find so disagreeable about capitalism? For sure, it is the grabbing, looting, exploiting, lying and deceiving that I would rather eliminate from the world at this very instant.

But 'Aha!' any follower of Ayn Rand would now say. 'You are not talking about capitalism at all. You are talking about some scary, dangerous, hybrid form of society somewhere between capitalism and communism.' As Ayn Rand would say: “There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil” (Rand, p. 965).

Ok, so I believe they’re right. What I call 'evil', I should not call 'capitalism'. I should call it 'grabbing, looting, exploiting, lying and deceiving'. (I'm not so sure what to think about the scary, dangerous, hybrid form of society, but I'll leave that for now.)

But now, if I find disagreeable what I find disagreeable, what am I to think of egoism? Surely egoism involves all those immoral things I have now already mentioned twice (let me therefore call them 'The Evils' from now on)? Here the Randian in me stands up. I would very much like to dismiss the equals sign between 'egoism' and 'The Evils' and replace it by the not-equal-to sign: egoism ≠ The Evils.

Whyever would I want to do that? Well, for much the same reasons that I am not willing to say that envy is a moral sin. Let us say, with Aristoteles and Rand, that happiness is the ultimate end of a human life. And let me now do something that promotes my happiness, for example, studying philosophy. This is an egoistic thing to do: I do it because I want to. Moreover, chances are that I will end up in the gutter; after all, who needs a philosopher? Does this make studying philosophy a bad thing? Nah, I don’t think so. (Somewhere, deep down, I even think studying ethics is actually quite a good thing to do.)

But, might not people steal and lie for selfish reasons? Sure, they might, but why would we discard 'egoism', just because some people misuse it? (What's more, I also believe, with Rand, that 'The Evils' are in the end not in one's self-interest at all, but that's also a different story (there truly are many stories…)).

So, go ahead, be an egoist. Just be sure to do it well. Not quite convinced yet? Please tell me why!

Next topic: the scary, dangerous, hybrid form of society (or any other form)

References

  • Rand, A., Atlas Shrugged, New York: Signet, 1992 [1957]

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