How would it feel to have been a physicist just before Albert Einstein, or a biologist just before Darwin? I can sympathize with all the dedicated, highly trained scientists who must have toiled in frustration for decades, grasping for insight, groping at patterns, making little discoveries here and there, yet always sensing that they were missing the big idea.
Amateur or professional philosophers today can probably relate, because our field appears to be currently in a state of darkness comparable to physics before Einstein or biology before Darwin. Why do I say this? Well, the big tipoff is the low standing of philosophy as a whole. It’s widely considered a quaint and vain hobby, a useless college major that merits half a shelf in every bookstore. We have no famous philosophers, and virtually nobody considers philosophy or ethics important for everyday life.
We are so accustomed to this sad state of affairs that we often forget that societies do not always ignore philosophy; they only do so when the field is moribund. In the half-century before the French revolution, when ethical philosophers like Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire were making powerful discoveries, philosophers were treated as superstars. Similarly, physicists and biologists probably started getting a whole lot more respect after Einstein and Darwin finally broke the ground that needed to be broken, and may not have gotten much respect before. The standing of any intellectual discipline directly correlates to its level of success … and it’s a sad fact that ethical philosophy has been a flop since the dawn of the modern age.
This is no idle or abstract problem; it amounts to the human disaster of a world that fails to comprehend itself. The spiritual, psychological, social and political problems that ethical philosophy are meant to help fix are going unfixed, and modern society has also come to think of this confusion as normal. Here are a few examples of what I mean:
- The institution of war and weapon-bound defense is widely accepted around the world.
- Marriages, families and friendships constantly fall apart, often in paroxysms of accusation, anger and repression.
- Many people suffer from addictions or compulsions, causing them to regularly behave in ways that they themselves cannot predict, understand or explain.
- Our workplaces tend to be dysfunctional, or to operate on the brink of dysfunction.
- Our larger collective identities — churches, political parties, ethnic groups, nations — tend to find cohesion mainly through virulently hating and misunderstanding other collective identities — churches, political parties, ethnic groups, nations — to the point of inexplicable hyperbole.
It’s because we so badly need enlightenment in the field of ethics that I began this Philosophy Weekend series a year and a half ago. I certainly don’t know what the answers are, but I do have an idea what the basic barriers to progress in ethical philosophy have been, and which creaky, archaic ideas must be swept away before we can do better.
Ethical philosophy involves many complex and intense sub-topics, and the discussions we’ve had in the comments section of this blog have helped me see what the common stumbling blocks towards greater mutual understanding tend to be. With this in mind, I’ve taken a few weeks to gather my thoughts about the topics we’ve been discussing here, and I’d like to now begin a new, more consistent and more well-developed presentation of some ideas I’ve put forth in the past year and a half.
I’d like to reboot my argument, in other words, and today’s blog post will be the first of several in which I intend to do so. As always, your comments and feedback are appreciated. We’ll begin today with a simple and brief statement of my argument against Egoism, the popular but intellectually limiting model of human psychology that holds such a dominant position in ethical and political debate. I’ll present material to back it up in the following weeks.
The Fallacy of Egoism
Egoism, the idea that the general purpose of human life is to pursue and gain individual happiness, can easily be exposed as a knot of naive generalizations leading to a flawed and mechanistic model of the human mind. The Egoist model has never been dominant among ethical philosophers (only a few such as Thomas Hobbes, John Stuart Mill and Ayn Rand support it directly) but has a stronger hold on wide public opinion, mainly because its basic simplicity makes it so easy to understand and express. Because Egoism has greater standing as a popular position than as an academic one, many professional ethical philosophers don’t even bother to refute it directly, creating an impression that it cannot be refuted. The goal of this series is to tackle the Egoist error directly, helping us to counter the many ways that this error muddies our thinking.
What is Egoism? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines Psychological Egoism as the claim that “each person has but one ultimate aim: his or her own welfare”, and Wikipedia defines it as “the view that humans are always motivated by self-interest”. The simplest expression is the truism that “everybody is selfish”, a primitive belief that many of us are in the habit of allowing to pass as true even though we don’t personally believe that we are selfish. The Egoist premise gains acceptance as the lowest common demoninator of interpersonal behavior, leading some to declare the premise itself to be rock-solid and irrefutable.
In fact, psychological clarity cannot be achieved until one begins thinking beyond the simple mechanism of selfish motivation, and Egoism provides only a very poor model for human existence. Egoism’s central flaw is that it overemphasizes the whole and solitary individual, and thus fails to capture the complex chemistry of social interaction, which changes us to the core wherever it occurs, creating currents of emotion or need that often overwhelm the emotions or needs of individuals within social groups. Egoism’s over-emphasis on individual solitary existence also leaves it unable to model the contradictory or psychotic reactions that occur within a single solitary individual (this critique of Egoism is the primary message of anti-Egoist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, and one of the primary messages of his Crime and Punishment as well.)
Dostoevsky had a lot of company on the anti-Egoist side. Many great writers and artists have been fervent anti-Egoists, as have many political leaders and philosophers. Perhaps the greatest force against Egoism throughout history has been religion, since every religion is based on a sense of community. No religion, Eastern, Western or otherwise, has ever been compatible with Egoism. (Of course, this will not be a selling point to many modern thinkers who dislike religion, so it’s important to realize that, while you can’t be a religious Egoist, you don’t have to be religious to be a non-Egoist.)
This is clearly a favorite topic of mine (can you tell?) and I’ll now try to state my philosophical position against Egoism in as brief and clear a way as possible.
PREMISE #1: Psychological Egoism is not a self-apparent truth. Even those philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes or Ayn Rand who advocate the Egoist position have never managed (and rarely attempted) to justify the Egoist premise itself. When pressed, a Hobbesian or Randian may argue that the premise is so obvious as to not need justification, or may offer a weak formulation such as this one: “since we cannot exist without our individual solitary selves, it must be the sole purpose of our lives to tend to our individual solitary selves.” These formulations can be easily refuted by pointing out that, for instance, we also cannot exist without the planet Earth, so the same logic could lead us to declare that the purpose of our lives is to tend to the planet Earth. We know for sure that we exist as individual and independent biological entities, but this doesn’t mean that our consciousness must be limited to consciousness of our individual and independent selves, or that the scope of a person’s desire and concern and action and motivation must be limited to the scope of the person’s individual and independent self.
PREMISE #2: Since Egoism has never been proven to be self-apparent (indeed, no serious proof has ever been attempted), we are left to evaluate the Egoist premise on its natural merits as a model for human existence. In order to be accepted as a valid theory, any psychological model must be capable of capturing the full complexity of human life as we all experience it. That is, a psychological theory cannot be assumed to be valid if it fails to correspond with the majority of observed experiences of normal life.
PREMISE #3: Psychological Egoism, the theory that we as solitary whole individuals live only for our individual self-interest, clearly fails to capture the full complexity of human life as we experience it, and does not produce a model for behavior that corresponds to the majority of observed experiences of normal life.
CONCLUSION: Psychological Egoism cannot be assumed to be valid.
These are the bare bones of the argument I’ve been presenting (in various shapes and sizes, and with a few missteps of my own) on this blog for the past year and a half. My goal today is to “erase the whiteboard” and start over, stating each premise and conclusion as simply as possible, so as to allow us to examine and critique the argument as thoroughly as we wish.
Of course, any philosopher who disagrees with my conclusion may wish to challenge one or more of these three premises, and may also demand that I do a better job of justifying each of the three. I intend to do this, but I would like to obtain general agreement at this point that premises #1, #2 and #3, if each taken as true, do correctly imply the conclusion. Given that agreement, we can focus the debate on the three premises, and that’s a challenge I’m happy to face in future blog posts. In fact, I’m pretty sure I can knock premises #1, #2 and #3 out of the park.
So here we are, with a rebooted argument, and the clearest statement of its component parts that I can come up with. I’d love to know what you think.