The Only Argument Against Egoism
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I dated a young woman who looked like a pocket-sized version of Paris Hilton. But what initially attracted me to her was not her looks but her enormous self-confidence—or what I took to be self-confidence. On our first date, she did not hesitate to explain how much she loved herself.
But I soon found myself baffled by certain aspects of her behavior. She would react with venom at the smallest perceived slight—and it seemed everything I did was perceived as a slight.
And then there were the astonishing demands. One weekend, while we were vacationing on the beach, we walked the half mile from where we were staying to the ocean, only for her to realize she had left her favorite sunglasses in our room. But she needed those sunglasses—and she demanded that I walk the mile roundtrip alone to bring them back.
The climax came a few weeks later when, for no reason I could decipher, she broke down on my couch complaining about how much she hated herself.
Maybe you’re smiling, thinking to yourself that I should have seen this coming. And I should have. If you meet a character in a movie who announces about how honest and trustworthy he is, you can be sure he’s going to betray someone by the end of the film. If you meet a person in real life who can’t shut up about how much they love themselves, you can be sure they are hiding a deep self-hatred.
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Selfishness Without a Self
Unsurprisingly, these empty narcissists are the people our culture calls “selfish.” Ayn Rand calls this phenomenon “selfishness without a self.” “The clearest symptom by which one can recognize this type of person,” she writes, “is his total inability to judge himself, his actions, or his work by any sort of standard.” The narcissist does not say, “I am good because I’m rational,” or “I am good because I’m honest.” The narcissist, Rand observes, is an amoralist who says, “I am good because it’s me.” But that’s only a pretense. It’s “his protection against his deepest, never-to-be-identified conviction: ‘I am no good through and through.’”
Real self-value and self-esteem has to be earned by living up to a pro-self moral ideal. Genuine selfishness consists, not of “loving yourself” unconditionally, but of doing the hard work of building a self and a life that you love. The truly selfish person is not touchy and defensive—his self-worth isn’t dependent on others’ opinion of him. He is not thoughtless and self-absorbed—he seeks allies in the quest for happiness, not servants. He doesn’t try to pass the buck or put one over on people—he is a man of conviction and principle who is far more likely to commit the error of assuming too much responsibility, confident in his ability to meet any challenge.
To equate the genuine egoist with the narcissist is to commit a fallacy best described by William Buckley. Buckley once observed that it is an error to say that the man who pushes an old lady into the path of an oncoming bus is essentially similar to the man who pushes her out of the way of an oncoming bus because both men “push old ladies around.”
Rand called this the fallacy of the package deal. It consists of equating two essentially different things based on a superficial similarity. It is the key to understanding the attacks on selfishness and all of the values associated with Effective Egoism: rationality, the profit motive, pride. They all work by package deals.
To attack an Effective Egoist, the only thing you can do is equate self-interest with narcissism or some equivalent, attack the toxic part of the package, and then label the whole thing as corrupt.
Augustine’s Attack on Pride
The most famous and successful version of this ploy comes in Augustine’s City of God, where he decisively replaces the pagan virtue of pride with the Christian virtue of humility.
In “Augustine’s War Against Earthly Pride,” philosopher Ben Bayer describes how the pagans held pride in high esteem. Pride means greatness of soul: in Aristotle’s formulation, “The man is thought to be proud who thinks himself worthy of great things, being worthy of them.” To be worthy of great things is to be virtuous—to be proud is to be virtuous and know it. Since the proud man is “worthy of the greatest things,” concludes Aristotle, “he is the best person.”
Augustine will have none of it. The proud man, in his description, is the fool who wrecks his life through delusions of grandeur and who wreaks havoc by abdicating responsibility. Think of someone like Bernie Madoff, who started out with a fantasy that he was some investing wizard, and who, when the fantasy was threatened, was “too proud” to admit he had lost his investors’ money so lied his way to the biggest Ponzi scheme in history.
There certainly are such men, and they certainly are blameworthy. But Augustine goes on to package these traits with Aristotelian pride: the proud man, says Augustine, is also guilty of the lust for worldly knowledge, of confidence in his ability to achieve worldly knowledge, and of the desire for worldly happiness. “With their wondrous vanity, these philosophers have wished to be happy here and now, and to achieve blessedness in their own efforts,” Augustine complains (City of God, XIX.4, 919).
The virtuous man, for Augustine, is “humble, with the sorrow of penitence” (City of God, X.5, 397). Christians today are fond of quoting C.S. Lewis, who tells us that “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” This was not Augustine’s view. The humble man is one who submits himself to the will of God, recognizing that he is utterly incapable of knowledge, of achievement, of virtue, of happiness without God’s grace. He is not like Adam and Eve, whose pride led them to disobey God’s orders in the quest for knowledge. He is like Abraham, who blindly followed God’s orders to slaughter his own son.
This is the ultimate philosophical con. Augustine starts by attacking something that deserves to be attacked: unearned self-regard, a self-regard not grounded in the facts of reality. Aristotle, too, condemned as vain the person who thinks himself worthy of great things, but isn’t. But Augustine casts his net more widely—the error, he says, is simply to think yourself worthy of great things. He can then describe genuine pride in terms that make it sound as irrational as false pride.
And that, then, whitewashes Augustine’s own view. Taken on its own, humility is humiliating. Who in God’s name would be attracted to “the sorrow of penitence”? But if the only alternative is a chimerical, vain, self-defeating pride? Then maybe Christianity has it right.
Giving Away the Trick
Here’s another example of the same package deal gimmick at play, which is worth examining mainly because it is so blatant. In “The Pop Psychology Notion of ‘Self-love’ Is Actually A Recipe for Self Hate,” Sadhika Pant tells us:
Many of the codes to a well-lived life, a life of meaning and purpose, are actually quite simple. Religious and cultural values taught us ways to achieve good ‘mental health’ before science had even taken its first steps. It has more to do with what we offer others, and less to do with embracing oneself unconditionally.
That’s step 1: present the false alternative. Your choice is whether to act out of love for others or to have unconditional love for oneself.
Step 2 consists of showing that unconditional love for oneself is empty and self-defeating. According to Pant, self love leads people to pull away from close relationships with family, and indulge in meaningless hookups and one-night stands instead of forging close romantic bonds. “This incompetence to handle anything with commitment, responsibility or obligation also looks better disguised as ‘self love.’”
“Love yourself. Make sure you forgive yourself for everything. You are valid. You are valuable.”
How can it be so absolute? You are valuable, period. No conditions whatsoever. Who decides this value? ‘Self love’ would say you do. But isn’t value also decided by the role we play in the lives of others, or how well we play it? How valuable are you if you bring nothing to the table? How about if you have a drug problem? Or if you drink and drive and kill someone in the process? Or if you never bothered to fix your strained relationship with your parents?
Step 3 consists of presenting selfless love for others as the only sensible alternative.
“Love yourself. Focus on your own needs first. Whatever you do: work, dress, write, earn, travel, it should be for yourself and not for others.”
But what’s wrong with putting someone else first? What’s wrong with working a job that may not be your dream, if it helps you to provide for your aged parents? What’s wrong with doing what your boyfriend wants once in a while? Or your parents? Or your brother? What’s wrong with choosing to leave your job to take care of your kids? What’s wrong with making sacrifices for those you love?
But Pant is not self-aware enough to understand the con-game she’s playing and can’t help but expose the trick in the next sentence: “Are they even sacrifices if they further your own people’s interests?” She goes on:
Does ‘self love’ mean mindless indulgence of every whim and fantasy? Does it entail prioritising one’s dreams or hobbies or grooming no matter the cost? Does it involve chasing hedonistic pleasures?
Self love should be redefined to include love for our loved ones. It includes teaching your son to fix a faulty shower head, helping your wife do the dishes or your nephew with his math homework. Sometimes, these tasks call for sacrifices like missing a career-altering work conference, failing to meet your monthly salon appointment, or losing your place in a beloved novel because you didn’t get weeks to pick it up. What’s wrong with that?
Well, nothing’s wrong with that if they aren’t sacrifices. If self love includes, as it absolutely should, love for the people you value, then of course it’s in your interests to help them. A major way we pursue our own happiness is by helping the people and causes we care about.
But now what becomes of Pant’s argument? The argument depends on people accepting a package deal that equates the unconditional “self love” of someone without standards, without principles, without deep and fulfilling non-sacrificial relationships with a genuine egoist. But if self love doesn’t mean “mindless indulgence of every whim and fantasy,” if it doesn’t mean “chasing hedonistic pleasures,” then the whole argument falls apart.
Offered a choice between empty narcissism and serving others, good people will choose (if not always practice) serving others. But if they are offered a third alternative, where each individual pursues a rich and fulfilling conception of happiness, neither sacrificing himself to others nor others to himself? Who the hell would choose servitude and unhappiness?
The Enemies of Joy
I’ve said that any good person who is offered a choice between Effective Egoism’s vision of non-sacrificial happiness and sacrifice will choose Effective Egoism. But now let me stress the word “good.” It is not true that everyone who rejects egoism does so because they are taken in by package deals. The con-men who push the package deal aren’t confused—they don’t hate vanity or narcissism or predatory exploitation of others. They hate human happiness.
I could hammer this point home with quotes from Augustine, who seethes with hatred for human happiness. (The only happiness he allows is the “happiness” that comes from uniting with God after death.) But we can see this open hatred of happiness much closer to home.
Last month, the New York Times published a New Year’s column by author Roger Rosenblatt, which warns us not to commit ourselves to self-improvement, but to selflessly serving some cause bigger than ourselves.
What does the great wide world care if you lose weight, or work out, or work harder, or quit drinking or smoking?
Quit smoking or smoke three packs a day. Work out daily or let yourself go. It’s your choice, your life. Your little life. Meanwhile, the world—the whole tortured, self-destructive, polarized, endangered, extraordinary world—spins on.
Well, so much the worse for the world. But it sure as hell makes a difference to your life and your happiness if you quit smoking, get in shape, and achieve success and prosperity. But, no, none of that matters to Rosenblatt. Your life and happiness aren’t sacred. You are merely a tool whose duty is to fight “wars, bigotry, brutality, the despoiling of the earth.”
To be sure, Rosenblatt offers us a carrot. Like the Soviet commissar who assures the slaves he’s starving that the next five year plan will lead to a future of plenty, Rosenblatt promises that “Selflessness is self-improvement—the most meaningful and lasting kind. . . . You may find that, all at once, you look and feel better than you would have after any amount of dieting or exercise. Unburdened of ego.”
“Unburdened of ego” really means “unburdened” of self-esteem. The self-improvement Rosenblatt promises consists of the reassurance that you are living up to a moral code designed to undermine your self-esteem and the happiness it makes possible.
But that that reassurance is only temporary. When you “give alms to everyone who asks,” as Rosenblatt urges you to do, you will feel a moment of elation, of cleanness, of moral righteousness. And then you’ll soon feel empty. You’ll know that there’s more you could be giving up, more you could be sacrificing. Sure, you gave a bum a dollar, but what about the thousands you haven’t given away? What about the time you’ve spent on your own pleasure? What about the organs you’ve refused to tear out of your own body?
Accepting the morality of selflessness is to write a blank check on your own life, and hand it to any passerby who cares to cash it. It is not a morality of self-improvement—it’s a morality of self-obliteration. Augustine knew it. Rosenblatt knows it. But now you know it too.
What path will you choose?
Effective Egoism 101
The conception of earthly idealism I champion was defined by Ayn Rand. Here are three key works that summarize her perspective:
Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World by Ayn Rand
Causality vs. Duty by Ayn Rand
The Objectivist Ethics by Ayn Rand
And if want the full case for egoism, you can buy my book Effective Egoism: An Individualist’s Guide to Pride, Purpose, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
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