Thursday, February 21, 2008

My Civilized Amorality

I am criticized occasionally for my selfish ethics. I try to avoid debating this — I have realized that ethics, like religions, are usually not chosen rationally (even celebrated philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, when tackling the subject, resort to complicated apologetics), but I wanted to at least clarify my views.

So let me explain, just once, why I am an egoist, why you should be one, and why this would be a good thing.

I have been an egoist for… close to a decade now, before I was an atheist even. I was a cool kid back then (still am), and thought about these kinds of issues constantly. When wondering why I should be a good person, I decided it was so that I would benefit in Heaven (I would benefit on Earth, too, but Heaven was more important then). The reason was not, as most people assumed, that morals were their own purpose — that morality was good “just because” (deontology). Morality was good because it benefited me.

In ninth grade, I read The Fountainhead. I had kept my moral theory to myself, sensing it would upset those around me who put so much stock in “altruism” and “selflessness”. In The Fountainhead, I found my theory refined, expanded, and brilliantly portrayed. I also found a name for this theory — egoism, and have advocated it openly ever since.

As I expected, this upset many knee-jerk “selfless altruists”, who then proceeded to “disprove” me.

Many non-egoists, when debating ethics, tend to assume that egoism would have disastrous long-term effects. But this is a misunderstanding. How would sacrificing the future to the present serve anyone? As my antagonists have pointed out, it wouldn’t. From this it follows that an egoist will take these effects into account and act accordingly. (Oddly, these people rejected egoism for purely selfish [egoistic] reasons.) There is an hedonistic element in egoism, yes, but in general it is closer to Aristotle’s eudemonia, depending on the values of the particular individual.

Another common objection is that egoism is immoral.
What can I say? If “immoral” means “selfish”, then, yes, it is (though I prefer “amoral”). This argument, however, assumes what it is trying to prove. Does morality matter if it doesn’t make sense? The reasonable answer is no, but these debaters want me to think in circles and answer yes. This seems to be a tough habit to break for many people. It might help them to keep in mind that the discussion is about meta-ethics — the basis for ethics — so an ethical rule cannot be used as an argument.

In his 1739 work A Treatise of Human Nature, the philosopher David Hume put forth what is now known as the is/ought problem. The problem is this: moral imperatives cannot be derived from objective facts. This means morality, in the usual transcendent/deontological sense, is irrational. This has historically given moralists trouble, and no vindication of the traditional morality has yet emerged. I am convinced that this problem cannot be solved and thus that morality, as commonly conceived, cannot be supported with reason. The only logically consistent choices are egoism — and nihilism. I like things which benefit me (by definition!), so egoism is my choice.

In more recent times, sociobiologists have lent scientific credibility to egoism by discovering an evolutionary explanation for our instinctive morality. I won’t go into detail here, except to say that evolution acts almost entirely through the selection of individuals, which means that our morality actually served the individual self-interest of our ancestors. (If you’d like more information on this subject, see The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod, or basically any current scientific work on ethics.)

So what does this mean?

The major effect this philosophy has on my life is the conscious suppression of my moral instincts when they interfere with my well-being. I do this in the same way I suppress my instinctual aggression, sexual instincts, etc., when they become a hindrance. In particular, I tend to ignore guilt trips.

In short, the major insight of my philosophy is that guilt trips are irrational. : )

I guess what irritates some people about my mindset is not really that I ignore guilt trips — it’s that I consciously decide not to feel guilty about ignoring them. For these people, moral feelings are taken as a justification for self-righteousness. This attitude annoys me. Moral feelings are emotions like any other, not supernatural messages from the human spirit granting moral omniscience.

(But here I’m getting bitter…)

You should adopt egoism because — obviously — it benefits you.

This is good because you are better off. Let others worry about themselves. Insofar as their welfare doesn’t affect you, it’s their business.

This is not to say you should be a robot (or a “Randroid”, heh). You have moral instincts, and many times it will be worth going along with them, if only to make yourself feel nice.

So don’t be ashamed to be selfish. Don’t let anything get in the way of your happiness. No one else has a right to your life.

What a mushy post.


Scott Hughes said...

Great post!

I like how Ayn Rand's book Atlas Shrugged shows how libertarianism and egoism lead to a society that is actually best for the most people. Anyway, I consider myself an amoralist. I do not believe in any moral values. I make my decisions based on my personal desires and values. For example, I am nice to other people because it makes me happy to make them happy. I help others because I have empathy and I sympathize with their trouble. I also wrote an article about amorality: The Philosophy of Amorality

Σκεπτικός said...

Thank you!