September 20, 2007

I'm Out of My Mind

The conversation over at McGinn's struggles onward. Last night, McGinn took to purging all of my comments because he regards anything I say as "junk."

Nevertheless, he had a commenter, Nicholas, who put a basic egoist argument together in some fairly plain language. And I couldn't help but respond to him. It was a herculean task for me to restrain myself from snarking on McGinn's woeful conduct in the discussion.

Nicholas, there's a certain irony to your comments, but I'm not certain from which perspective it's intended or intended at all. :o)

If you read higher up, people mention something called "psychological egoism" which basically posits that anything a person does choose to do does benefit them. I'm not sure if you're familiar with this, but part of what you've said seems to echo that idea. The problem is that it is descriptive and can't really be disproven. How are we to know that person A is doing X to his benefit or not? It also doesn't provide us with any sense of criteria for what is good or bad since each person might pick any standard they please for their benefit.

The original intent of McGinn's post was to examine the proposition the following proposition: "An action is right if and only if it's in your own self interest. That means that helping others, with no benefit to self, is immoral." The contrasting version of egoism is a normative one. It's called "ethical egoism" and attempts to tell us how we ought to behave. And that quotation is how he has defined it for this discussion -- that is not to say that his definition is accepted, but such is a constraint he established.

We set the bar rather high because we all agree with McGinn's criticism of the argument that it's silly to claim that if one finds altruism pleasurable then one is actually an egoist.

By contrast to the egoist, McGinn also states that "altruism requires only that one gives some weight to the interests of others" and that the reason for doing so is for the sake of other's interests in themselves. Again, this is the definition McGinn has provided for us, but it is not necessarily the definition others here accept for the term.

Proceeding from there, various examples have been posited in which some individual does something and it is asserted that there is absolutely no benefit to that individual at all, meaning whatever that individual's interests are, they are not served by the action in question.

If we accept all these definitions as provided, then as I've stated in previous comments, we have no choice but to accept the conclusion that whatever the action is that is given, if it provides no benefit to the individual, then it is to be condemned.

The objection to ethical egoism that follows is that it would allow people to do things that most people would describe mildly as objectionable. These are things like raping, murdering, allowing babies to drown, defaulting on loans, etc.

But the egoists in this discussion reject the conclusion on several grounds, some of which you've highlighted. In short-form, here are a few of the objections posed:

- That there is/was a confusion between psychological and ethical egoism.
- That the standard of good used to discredit egoism assumes the premise of the counter-argument, namely altruism.
- That the range of benefit is unfairly constrained to restrict egoists from their rational faculty or a long-view of what constitutes a benefit reducing them to shabby hedonists.
- That the scenarios given all assume conditions that do not and cannot exist in reality.

Without going on about it at too much length, when Rand formulated her argument for ethical egoism, she started in a similar way that you did by asking what the purpose of ethics and morality is. "If we are to discover the proper way to behave on Earth..." She asserted that such a discovery is predicated by rational thought and assumed it in her discussions of the topic. In fact, she took pains to describe and reiterate the requirement of rationality in her discussions and based her arguments on the nature of human beings as "rational animals." (I believe McGinn has dedicated some of his energy to this very topic, but I doubt he'd like to turn this discussion in that direction at the moment.)

The impasse in this discussion is a bit of a mystery to me. The charge that the objections raised by the egoists are patently offensive, ill-reasoned, or whatever is a bit strange. But best wishes to you in sorting through all of this. I hope these comments assist you or at least give you some food for thought -- if these comments survive McGinn's delete button.

I really need to let this thing go. McGinn has demonstrated that he is irredeemably committed to irrationality and poor manners.

I think I may write a lengthy post addressing some of the typical arguments I saw over there and restating the Objectivist position on the matter. Maybe that will get it out of my blood.

Update 1: So far I haven't been deleted and others are commenting on the post. Another commenter remarked on Rand, so I felt the need to respond to that as well:

Rand rejected the notion of psychological egoism whereby we might ascribe egoist motives to any action an individual might undertake. Alcoholics, adulterers, and the rest may believe they're pursuing happiness, but if they are they're most likely doing so irrationally. In most situations such activities would be regarded as immoral.

Interestingly and to explain why I had to heavily qualify the above statement, Rand did present a case of an innocent alcoholic in her book We the Living in the character of Leo who turned to alcoholism to escape the torment of living in Soviet Russia. The story is a tragedy and all the heroic figures are eventually destroyed in order to highlight the theme of the necessity of freedom for human beings to live and thrive.

This goes to your statement above about "a civilized society," I think. Rand rejected the practice of ascribing intrinsic moral value on any particular action, but instead described abstract values, like rationality, productivity, and pride, that one must hold in order to pursue one's happiness, which is to say more simply: context matters.

Update 2: One of the more obnoxious commentors returned and objected to my comments saying:

One more time.

On the description of ethical egoism given by the self-ascribed egoists in this thread, ethical egoism requires -- call it whatever else you want -- paradigmatically altruistic behavior. (Cf. egoist responses to the case of Al the hermit.)

But to reconceive paradigmatically altruistic acts as "selfish" in this way is a patently vacuous move: A theory of selfishness that characterizes saving babies as "selfish" truly provides no guideline as to what could count as selfish and what could not.

To wit, if a baby-hating hermit's saving a baby is "selfish," then nothing isn't.

And I responded simply:

Per the terms outlined, saving the baby would be a contradiction and would be immoral for Al the hermit.

The egoists on this thread do not agree with the terms given, though. I listed numerous reasons why above.

Update 3: A commenter called into question the idea of standards -- a question I had challenged the group with repeatedly.

Which is precisely why the standard of good/bad is relevant to this discussion. The Objectivist egoists in this discussion have pointed to the standard they accept repeatedly and it is only within that standard that this discussion can fruitfully proceed toward a mutually agreed upon conclusion.

Otherwise, we're but playing word games with drowning babies and dancing hermits.

Update 4: The guy with the silly hermit sighed at my reply about not agreeing with his terms. I asked:

If you don't address the strongest argument for the proposition, how can you claim to have dispelled it?

Update 5: They're now stooping to open mockery.

Update 6: Uh oh. Ergo has joined the discussion. They're in trouble now because Ergo's responses are far more exhaustive than mine, but he's at least as tenacious -- although he probably won't commit himself to excoriating McGinn's character the way that I would.

Posted by Flibbertigibbet at September 20, 2007 11:23 AM | TrackBack

A GREAT response. Let us know whether it does, indeed, survive the delete button.

Posted by: Monica at September 20, 2007 12:11 PM
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