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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

Why I am not an Egoist

Updated: Dec 26, 2020

This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of rereleased essays. This is a more reflective philosophical piece, and one I'm not a hundred percent sure of (not least because I make a point using Friends as an illustration!), but it does express something. First published May 31 2019.

While a self-reflective ego might be a necessary point of departure for any human being, it is not a fitting destination for a developed worldview. As a philosophy, egoism is a peculiarly stunted form of hubris.The egoist is like the chauvinist boasting of having never left her small village, the petty nationalist whose love of a 19th century institution has him spout militarist absurdities, the tribal obsessive who polices admittance to their cultural niche. It’s less a philosophy than an abstracted form of malnourishment, a wonkish anorexia.

The egoist is also the arch-dystopian. They are not soft dystopians, like Aldous Huxley or Suzy McKee Charnas or Marge Piercy (all of whom coupled dystopian and utopian visions), but hard dystopians like Thomas Malthus. For the egoist, there is no meaningful betterment for society, as all imaginable societies make unreasonable, or at least unpleasant, demands on the egoist. And if the egoist believes society is better than no society per se, it is only for the Lockeian-Hobbesian reason that the alternative to a society is a type of prisoner’s dilemma writ large, a war of all against all, bellum omnium contra omnes. The egoist is the type who believes such a primal war is the natural state of human beings.

Utopian dreams—even the nightmarish sort—are necessarily large. They are much too large for the self-inflicted prison of egoism. Much too large for society’s afflicted with a collective egoism, too; that is to say that this is the abstracted philosophy of social atomisation. And that is broadly why I am not attracted to egoism. And if I wanted only to explain my reasons, it would suffice. But none of that is an argument, for which we will have to turn to the case made for egoism.

But first, it must be admitted that there is a common and unpersuasive critique; for instance, take a criticism given against the egoist philosopher Ayn Rand by the journalist Johann Hari, who merely shrugged and wrote, ‘a woman who wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness and meant every word.’ Yes, the language of egoism is counter to conventional morality; critics too often point to this as if the case for the philosophy were therefore successfully brushed aside. As a counterthesis it recalls an anecdote about the publication of Max Stirner’s The Ego and its Own:

Its frank espousal of anarchistic egoism led to the not unexpected announcement in the newspapers of Saxony that the book had been immediately confiscated in Leipzig. Anxious not to be outdone, where usually they were so far ahead, Prussia banned the book. Then, Berlin received more accurate news: the book had not been banned in Saxony at all. In fact, the book’s farfetched overstatement was regarded at Dresden as its own best antidote. The small states of Germany fell into line, on one side or the other, often with considerable difficulty owing to the scarcity of copies to examine first.

Far from being an antidote to himself, Max Stirner is now published by Cambridge University, historians of philosophy debate his influence on the much venerated Friedrich Nietzsche, popular philosophers like Jacques Derrida wrote about him and he is cited him as a precursor to everything from existentialism to post-structuralism. Neither censorship nor indifference were the right response: Stirner deserved critique. Interestingly, one of the few contemporaries who thought so then was Marx, but that is a digression.

Never dismiss a philosopher because their ideas jar with the status quo; it is not only a reactionary gesture, but you rob yourself of the chance to deliver a real evaluation. In a different age, ‘selfishness is obviously bad and anybody who says otherwise is a fool’ could just as easily be ‘the fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”’ (Psalm 14:1–3) Rhetoric without argument is sophistry. And here, unnecessary sophistry; the case for egoism is genuinely not that strong, although it can make some blunt appeals that often escape a serious analysis.

Take the most folkish articulation of egoism, from an especially folksy source. In the mid-90s to early-00s television show Friends the primary comic relief character Joey is often made a vehicle for a kind of childish wisdom, and one example of this is when he becomes an advocate of a straightforward version of psychological egoism:

This egoist is not really advancing a prescriptive case, but a descriptive one. In his The Last Messiah Peter Wessel Zapffe’s philosophical pessimism constructs a similar claim, which is illustrative; the starting assumption is that all human life is inherently tragic because consciousness is overdeveloped in its capacity for abstraction, producing a species that suffers without purpose. Therefore, anybody who is not a pessimist is necessarily some breed of delusional. Some adopt isolationism, ignoring their tragic condition; others anchoring, finding a higher ideal like God or Country to displace the horror of existence; others still use distraction, which is self-explanatory; and for a forth group, sublimation as the redirection of unpleasant thinking into pleasant thinking. Such catch-22 descriptions of the different attitudes one can take when faced with the despair of existence distract from the foundational claim being made: that human existence itself is indisputably bad. This is the claim that needs justifying.

So it is with the psychological egoist. Stirner’s notion of involuntary egoism is functionally identical to Zapffe’s idea of isolating, anchoring, distracting or sublimating pessimists. For Stirner, like Joey, the ego is the prime mover of all human action, it is therefore a referent point for all human existence. The creative nothing, in his poetic speech. Any attempt to deny the primacy of the ego is therefore delusional, and this delusion is sustained in much the same way as Zapffe’s delusional optimist: they subsume their ego to a higher cause, that is nothing but a construct of the selfsame ego; or distract or sublimate their egoism.

The essential claim, here, however, is just the provocative argument made by Joey on Friends. Stirner in no sense goes beyond the simple observation: I motivate what I do, I (my ego) is the locus of all my actions, therefore all my actions are selfish (egoism). This is egoism at its most trite and true; a sitcom like Friends is a perfect vehicle for its articulation. And there are, indeed, at least two ways it can be tackled directly. Firstly, let us examine the potential critique provided by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s linguistics. Fortunately for me, there exists a video that neatly covers this argument and how it relates to the claims of egoists.

A completely different—and probably not compatible—line of argument can be found in the phenomenological tradition. Jean-Paul Sartre addressed psychological egoism in his The Transcendence of the Ego, and did so by noticing that it simply misunderstands how we experience the world. It believes that all conscious acts include this hidden step of self-reflection. That when I do something, my consciousness pauses to reference something called the ego, out of which my action is then generated:

According to them, the love of the self — and consequently the me — lies concealed in all emotions in a thousand different forms. In a very general way, the me, as a function of this love that it bears for itself, would desire for itself all the objects it desires. The essential structure of each of my acts would be a reference to myself. The “return to me” would be constitutive of all consciousnesses.

The problem, Sartre contends, is that this thinking confuses

the essential structure of reflective acts with the essential structure of unreflected acts.

He illustrates this point:

I pity Peter, and I go to his assistance. For my consciousness only one thing exists at that moment: Peter-having-to-be-helped. This quality of “having-to-be-helped” lies in Peter. It acts on me like a force. Aristotle said it: the desirable is that which moves the desiring.

There is a reason egoism, as a philosophy, deploys obfuscation. There is a reason it rests on dubious claims about involuntary egoism. The reason is that its folksy, foundational assumption is just that, an assumption. And not one that holds up to much scrutiny.

So I am not attracted to egoism as a moral position for all of the arguments with which I begun. But I am furthermore not in any way persuaded by it as an argument. There are better ways of relating to the world than through the venerated self, more enriching ways that lend themselves to a greater scope of moral imagination. Marx understood this well, far better than Stirner.


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