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We are All Egoists – and Why That’s a Good Thing

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Many of those who end up exploring the political fringe – particularly on the Right – end up obsessed with various forms of what might loosely be called egocentricity. In those of a libertarian bent, this usually expresses itself as an obsession with contrasting honorable “individualism” against slavish “collectivism.” In the more anarchic and nihilistic types, it often expresses itself as an obsession with contrasting proud “egoism” against naïve “altruism.”

As an example of a typical statement from the former type, we can cite Ayn Rand in the January 1944 edition of Reader’s Digest: “Collectivism means the subjugation of the individual to a group – whether to a race, class or state does not matter. Collectivism holds that man must be chained to collective action and collective thought for the sake of what is called ‘the common good.'”

The problem with a characterization like this is that Ayn Rand wants to “subjugate the individual to the group” as well – the sole difference being that she wants to subjugate different individuals to a different group, for different reasons.

In The Virtue of Selfishness she writes, “Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law.” “Society?” Doesn’t it border on becoming a fallacy of the stolen concept for Rand to use that word? According to her, “Society is [merely] a large number of men . . .” And the very problem with “collectivism” is that it “see[s] society as a super-organism, as some supernatural entity apart from and superior to the sum of its individual members.” What we’re really talking about here is still nothing other than imposing restrictions – violations of which will be met with violence – in how one individual is allowed to relate to another. If she had been asked about why it is that I cannot kill a random person if I would really enjoy doing it, and if I were certain that I would never suffer any adverse consequences from doing so in the future (say, because no one would ever find out), and could even walk away with spoils from the deed, Rand’s answer can’t ultimately be any more coherent than the so-called “collectivist’s” rationale concerning why I cannot stop paying taxes. The differences wouldn’t lie in the reasoning they use so much as in what it is they decide to apply that reasoning to.

And the reason for that is simple: when it comes down to it, Rand likewise wants to live in a “collective” which – to some degree “altruistically” – acts to defend a certain kind of social order. She simply wants that social order to be centered upon a Right-wing conception of human rights rather than a Left-wing conception of human well-being. And she understands perfectly well that the individuals who comprise this social order would have to sacrifice some of their desires if they were to fulfill their greater desire to live within this type of society – namely, they would have to avoid actions that would “violate individual rights,” even if they would tangibly benefit both in the present and long-term from doing so.

She tries to get around this by engaging in some very unimpressive rationalization of the claim that there are “no conflicts of interests among rational men.” But this premise is self-evidently absurd, and it can be demonstrated in less than ten short sentences: I come across a homeless man under a bridge. I am a sadist, and I would enjoy torturing him for an hour and killing him. No one would ever find out. He has “an interest” in staying alive. I have “an interest” in killing him. We therefore have a conflict of interests. Trying to deny that situations like this occur in the real world is as preposterous as claiming to have used a philosophical argument to disprove the existence of gravity.

To briefly address the “reasoning” she uses to try to defend this claim: “A man’s ‘interests’ depend on the kind of goals he chooses to pursue, his choice of goals depends on his desires, his desires depend on his values – and, for a rational man, his values depend on the judgment of his mind . . . A rational man never holds a desire or pursues a goal which cannot be achieved directly or indirectly [i.e., by trading] by his own effort . . . He never seeks or desires the unearned . . . The mere fact that two men desire the same job does not constitute proof that either of them is entitled to it or deserves it, and that his interests are damaged if he does not obtain it.” (The Virtue of Selfishness, pp. 50-56)

The first major problem with this bit of sophistry is that it conflates deserving with having interests. Whether my interests are damaged by failing to acquire a job has nothing to do with whether I “deserved” it, much less whether I deserved it equally as much as my competitor. I literally have “an interest” in taking the job if taking it would benefit me, and whether the job would benefit me (and is therefore in my interests) has nothing to do with how much I “deserve” it. The second major problem is that the definition of “rational” applied here is completely unclear, and is thus really nothing more than a crooked stick rigged to try to prop up the incoherency of the whole philosophical system. “A rational man . . . never seeks or desires the unearned”? Would a “rational man” not only refuse to pick up a million dollars he found lying on the side of the road, but in fact never even desire to, according to Rand’s definition? Then damn near everyone has a completely different understanding than the one Rand proposes in terms of what it means to be “rational,” namely one that comprehends the first point: that what a person’s interests are and what a person deserves are at best only tangentially related.

With that specious excuse out of the way, we’re back to the fact that Ayn Rand, too, wants to be part of a collective. And she does indeed want people to practice “altruism” by sacrificing some of their interests in order to acquire their greater interest in maintaining a collective social order which is cemented upon the principles she puts forward. What she proposes is a type of social contract just as much as are the views of Hobbes or Rousseau. She simply proposes different terms for the contract, demanding different requirements from its parties, and different benefits in exchange for meeting those requirements.

The more nihilistic and anarchic brand of egoists – who are often iconoclastic admirers of the nineteenth-century philosopher Max Stirner, whose The Ego and Its Own helped inspire Nietzsche – will have already concluded that Ayn Rand’s “individual rights” are nothing more than a “spook” to which people irrationally sacrifice themselves, which is right on par with all of the other “spooks” Ayn Rand already condemns: religion, the state, “society.” As Ulrike Heider explains in her survey, of Anarchism: Left, Right, and Green, Stirner wants to abolish “not only the state but also society as an institution responsible for its members.” Thus, he would abandon not just the idea of society as an institution responsible for its members’ well-being, along with Rand, he would also abandon the Randian or libertarian idea of society as an institution responsible for protecting its members’ rights.

What Stirner’s admirers miss, however, is that when the masses of people reject this brand of egoism, they are already in fact behaving “egoistically.” In my time within libertarian and anarchist circles, I’ve seen countless pasty white men in their early 20s acting dumbfounded that people are attacking them for endorsing this brand of pure egoism: “Why would people be offended by the suggestion that they should look out for their own interests?!” What they’ve failed to wrap their minds around is that the vast majority of psychologically healthy people want to be part of a community, and are therefore already acting precisely as “egoists” in their pursuit of that goal when they condemn the self-proclaimed “egoist.”

From romantic relationships, to families, to community clubs, and even political movements, we spend the better part of our lives not just in but seeking prolonged relationships that require the sacrifice of whatever momentary value we might gain from indulging some of our desires in order to preserve our greater desire for the continuing value derived from a communal relationship. Relationships and communities, both public and private, are thus a type of commons – and single-minded pursuit of transient self-interest thus leads to a tragedy of the commons just as much as it does when cows graze on unregulated common land. I may have a transient interest in stealing a few groceries, for example, but I have an even greater interest in being able to live in a society where groceries are sold in open aisles instead of under lock-and-key beneath the watchful eye of CCTV cameras. Stirner’s is the philosophy of the run-down inner city; when actually lived by, it leads to a world in which none but the most nihilistic thugs and anarchic ruffians actually want to live.

Thus, the contempt directed by some towards the Stirnerites seems to me to be perfectly justified by the fact that what the Stirnerite is really signaling – if he is indeed signaling anything at all – is an unwillingness to compromise in order to maintain values that others would like to preserve within the shared social commons. What differentiates the Stirnerite from others is not that the Stirnerite is a woke egoist, whereas everyone else is acting mindlessly. What the Stirnerite is saying is that he “egoistically” desires and intends to take actions that would put him at odds with the sort of social commons those around him would like to maintain. Meanwhile, those around him are responding that if that is indeed the case, then they intend to just as “egoistically” run him out of that commons in order to preserve the things they value in it. Wouldn’t it be a detestable form of altruism for them to sacrifice the commons they desire just for him? And would it not be pathetic for a declared egoist to beg for altruistic sacrifice from those around him?

The obsessions that occasionally spring up, especially within the political Right, in relation to “egoism” versus “altruism,” or “individualism” versus “collectivism,” are complete red herrings. The truth is that these obsessions emerge not because there is any real, fundamental dichotomy between the two, but simply because we find ourselves at odds with the particular kinds of commons those around us prefer. All of us, even the most self-sacrificing Christian socialist, are “egoistic individualists,” attempting to form the sorts of communities we wish to live in because life in such communities is what we desire. Likewise, all of us, even Ayn Rand, are “altruistic collectivists” because what all of us desire is a community in which both we and others sacrifice some things  – whether it is the right to keep our entire paycheck, or the right to kill random people we find alone in dark alleyways – in order to maintain and secure others. This is the case regardless of whether we are discussing a society that aims to secure certain levels of well-being or a society that aims to protect certain kinds of rights.

The divide is not between “egoistic individualists” and “altruistic collectivists.” It is rather between immature, anti-social, or sociopathic “egoistic individualists” who obsess with those terms and labels in order to signal immaturity, anti-sociality, and sociopathy, and “egoistic individualists” who understand that their enlightened self-interest lies in maintaining a certain kind of social order which requires placing limits on their behavior so that others might do the same in order to secure greater shared, lasting benefits for all within a flourishing social commons. The differences lie in what kinds of “altruism” we request from those around us, and are willing to submit to ourselves, in order to obtain what type of social collective to live within. The differences lie not in whether we propose a social contract, but rather to what terms we’re willing to submit in order to reap which societal gains.

One benefit of framing this issue in a better way is that it makes it clearer that there is no objectively, universally correct answer to these questions: different people are going to be willing (or unwilling) to sacrifice different kinds of things in order to create different kinds of communities, not to mention the fact that different people are going to have what it takes to build particular kinds of communities more so than others. Ironically, Austrian-style libertarian proponents of the “subjective theory of value” should be the most inclined to understand this: different people put different values on having different kinds of “rights” protected, thus achieving different kinds of outcomes – including when it comes to economics.

Allowing for the creation of communities possessing a relatively large degree of “authoritarianism” within, and a relatively large degree of freedom from interference without, is the only way to even begin to move in the direction of allowing a meaningful form of “diversity” to flourish once again in the world. When it comes down to it, we are all “authoritarians” by someone else’s lights; if given the option, we would all impose by force the sort of society we would prefer to live in over others, namely those who hold preferences different from ours and would likewise impose theirs by force over us. As Jack Donovan puts it, “violence is golden.” And this is no less true for someone like Ayn Rand than they are for the Social Justice Warrior. Of course, in the end, the consistent Stirnerian “egoist” would likely have trouble finding any community which desires his presence unless he effectively converts to some practical philosophy other than “egoism” as such. This, in the end, is why politics is more susceptible to the bias of tribal emotions than science, philosophy, or other fields: the first task of any real “political philosophy” is to define a community – and then, to negotiate terms. Those who deliberately eschew the very notion of community, or else are removed from or simply lack the capacity to demonstrate their value to one, therefore have no place in any “political” realm. And it’s very likely that this explains why Stirner’s so-called “union of egoists” has never manifested and why anarchists have so rarely built any meaningful organizations in the real world (though there have been a few), and why even organizations such as the Libertarian Party have only been marginally more successful.

Our first task then, if we want to become a serious movement, is literally to create communities. Forming authentic, spontaneous networks of personal relationships is to creating a political movement as tilling soil is to creating a garden: it is the prerequisite for building the foundation out of which everything else will ultimately be grown. Then, we must draw clear boundaries regarding what it is we are asking from those who want to join our ranks, and what we have to offer them if they’re willing to meet our requirements. The stronger our communities become, and the greater the standards of loyalty and cooperation we can maintain between ourselves, the more compelling our offers will become. These are the standards to keep in mind when outsiders dox, harass, or otherwise attempt to pit us against one another. We’ve grown substantially stronger recently by demonstrating to outsiders how ready the Left is to “eat its own,” as we see when the various special interest groups attempt to form coalitions, only to turn against each other when one trespasses on the perceived territory of another; for example, when “anti-racists” condemn “feminists” as harshly as they condemn any other perceived racist for their emphasis on combating the abuse and rape of women among blacks.

If we want to be able to make better offers as a community to ordinary people than the Left, and to continue to grow through the authentic and spontaneous evolution of our sphere of influence, then we need to do everything in our power to make sure that this critique doesn’t become applicable to us.

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  1. dolph
    Posted January 23, 2017 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    These things are common as societies collapse.

    One of the sure signs of collapse: everybody has an opinion on everything, and expresses it all the time. All of these divisions become stronger and the center that normally acts as the glue of society falls apart.

    How tragic it is for elite whites and jews. They destroy themselves because they don’t want to maintain the white society that forms the basis of their wealth.

  2. Right_On
    Posted January 23, 2017 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating article – thanks.
    Stirner’s “union of egoists” – those who unite to achieve a shared goal – is perhaps worth more considered reflection. Isn’t the difference between Stirner’s idea and more common notions of a collective that, for Stirner, the motivation should arise from within the individual rather than men bending the knee and submitting to “spooks” externally acknowledged?
    Another aspect that might be worth examining is that Stirner seems to have had no concept of a Transcendental Ego, as some of those on the Traditionalist Right (or esotericists generally) might want to claim. An “egoist” following his True Will (in Crowley’s terminology) might argue that collision between wills would indicate that one or the other person was not doing their True Will. What kind of society could accommodate individuals like that?

    • Aedon Cassiel
      Posted January 24, 2017 at 5:29 am | Permalink

      Well, I’m a huge fan of Satoshi Kanazawa’s book, The Intelligence Paradox: Why the Intelligent Choice Isn’t Always the Smart One. To really oversimplify it, he argues that in the normal IQ range, we’re primarily driven by hardwired instincts that have been built into place by evolution. While these can’t necessarily be “defended” intellectually on the same level that more “rationally” thought out decisions can, they’ve served our existence in their own way for a damn long time.

      On the other hand, as you approach a certain IQ range, it’s sort of like processing the things that hardwired instinct used to handle gets passed over entirely to the intellect—and it turns out the intellect isn’t always equipped to really handle them properly either. Thus, you get an increase in all kinds of “novel” behaviors in higher–IQ individuals, and this increase is totally neutral with respect to whether those “novel” behaviors are GOOD. It sort of hearkens back to rejoinders like: “Only an intellectual could believe that.” It probably explains a lot about the culture of academia that academics are not only generally removed from the everyday life most ordinary people experience, but also in IQ ranges where the intellect attempts to take over the role of natural instinct (to mixed results).

      So, for instance, smart people are actually more likely to do drugs, even though taking drugs isn’t a “smart” decision, simply because they’re evolutionarily novel and it takes a higher IQ—a proclivity to attempt to swim in the evolutionary novel—to be attracted to that. They’re also more likely to be night owls, again, simply because night owl behavior is evolutionarily novel. Plenty of evidence is now starting to emerge that exposure to artificial lighting at night leading to a dis-regulated circadian rhythm is fairly significantly harmful to health, so again there is nothing “smarter” about staying up late. This interview gives an excellent overview in Kanazawa’s own words of what the thesis is and how he defends it.

      One of the single most fundamental things you could say about human beings is that they are evolved to operate in tribal groups—thus, cohesive functioning in tribal groups is the one thing you would absolutely expect hardwired evolutionary instinct to do a better job of than over–rationalized intellect.

      We talk about Aspegers’ in the alternative right, and it’s usually in a joking way, but there’s a serious layer of truth to it. Aspergers’ is something that exemplifies the dynamic at the core of Satoshi Kanazawa’s thesis to the extreme: extreme “intelligence”, in the Aspergers’ individual, comes along with a complete disconnection from the basic evolutionary instincts that normally guide the application of “intelligence” in more neurotypical individuals. Thus, however intellectually “intelligent” an Aspergers/autistic individual is, that intelligence is being applied in a maladaptive way because it is missing the context that more base–level instincts would normally provide to guide and shape what an ordinary person’s intellect would end up used for.

      So what the Stirnerites are missing here when they sperg over this question is that those “spooks” are actually doing a goddamn excellent job of performing the function they’re evolutionary designed to perform, which is securing cohesive group allegiances. Intellectual hyper–rationalization just simply can’t replace it. When people operate on case–by–case intellectual rationalization, they’re going to end up pursuing their short–term interests at the expense of their ultimate long–term interest in maintaining certain standards and norms of behavior within the group. “Irrational” beliefs help establish shortcuts that result in making the decision not to do this. And if they make that decision because they shortcut to an “irrational” belief that only takes a few seconds to refer to and keep moving forward—even if that belief is as irrational as fear of burning in Hell—instead of because you gave them thirty–seven paragraphs explaining in detail the chain of cause and effect and convincing them rationally to subordinate their apparent short–term interests to their long–term interests, so what?

      Attempting to throw out those supposedly irrational “spooks” just because they appear irrational on the surface, without intuitively comprehending the function and purpose they actually serve in the messy reality where everything is always a question of highly imperfect trade–offs, is the very definition of “Aspergers” in the derogatory sense in which it is often used within the alt–right and also a perfect demonstration of Satoshi Kanazawa’s thesis on the relationship between instinct and intelligence. The belief that we should casually throw out eons of evolved human instinct because we think the human intellect can and should completely take over its job, expending constant effort to rationalize and calculate the processes which instincts evolved over millennia precisely to make more concise and efficient, is ultimately a very extremely dangerous kind of hubris.

  3. R_Moreland
    Posted January 24, 2017 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    …Ayn Rand in the January 1944 edition of Reader’s Digest: “Collectivism means the subjugation of the individual to a group – whether to a race, class or state does not matter. …”

    There is a distinction which is being missed here (whether intentional on Rand’s part or not). Class and state are products of certain forms of economic and political organization. Race is an organic factor. One can abolish the state or revolutionize the classes. But race will still be there as long as the genes exist. Even if only one White person lived on the planet, that individual would still be White.

    In any event, if Objectivism opposes collectivism, then there ought to be an Objectivist critique of the various race-based leftist identity groups, especially given their rent-seeking behaviors. When was the last time that Objectivists went after, say, the NAACP on anything more than a perfunctory note? It’s easy enough to attack White identity politics as “barnyard collectivism” because that is the Establishment position, and because White people in America are not organized as a racial group. But to attack, say, “diversity” programs or affirmative action would lead to a firestorm of resistance from the non-White collectives as well as, perhaps, egregious violations of the non-aggression principle on the latter’s part.

    The practical result of the cited statement is to serve as a check on Whites organizing for their own self-interests. This is not to say there is no value in Rand’s advocacy of the individual. We might posit the heroic White man/woman of the mind, building a fantastic new civilization. But that brings back the racial-group factor, doesn’t it?

  4. Warner
    Posted January 24, 2017 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    The most complete antithesis to Randian individualism is Oriental pantheism, that Ayn herself intuited, and which is why she had such detestation for “mysticism.”

    And indeed, rationalism and individualism go naturally hand in hand with each other, and so do mysticism and collectivism. But Buddhism is like the ultimate anti-Objectivist worldview, declaring that the very concept of selfhood is an illusion:

    “Six centuries before Jesus Christ, the Buddha already knew that if all that exists is matter then the human self cannot exist either:

    “Therefore, he deconstructed the Hindu idea of the soul. When one starts peeling the onion skin of one’s psyche, he discovers that there is no solid core at the center of one’s being. Your sense of self is an illusion. Reality is nonself (anatman). You don’t exist. Liberation, the Buddha taught, is realizing the unreality of your existence.” (The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization, Vishal Mangalwadi, p. 6)”

    “Mahayana Buddhism said that the Buddhist sage should strive to enlighten all beings. They said it was selfish to be striving for one’s own individual enlightenment, especially when Buddhism taught there was not such entity as the self. By accenting the central Buddhist notion that there was no self, the later Mahayana Buddhists transformed the notion of the Buddhist sage into a totally altruistic being.

    The bodhisattva, like the good utilitarian, is concerned for all persons equally. The bodhisattva “must educate his mind that he may feel in each case the same affection for all creatures that naturally centres in his son, or in himself.”[clvi] There is no privileging of the bodhisattva’s personal sorrows or personal concerns over the concerns of other people. “Another’s sorrow is to be destroyed by me because it is sorrow like my own sorrow…Since a neighbor and I are equal in desiring happiness, what is the unique quality of the ‘self’ which requires an effort for happiness?”[clvii] This is what the bodhisattva continually says to herself: “All sorrows, without distinction are ownerless; and because of misery they are to be prevented…Not just in myself. Everywhere!”[clviii]

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