Chapter 6. Evaluating values.
The name philosophers give to any ethical doctrine promoting self-love or self-interest is egoism. I use that term myself to describe the system of ethics I am elaborating here, but I’m not crazy about it.
First, most creeds that call themselves egoism actually refer to invalid ideas of the self whose interests are to be served. Either “self” is used to mean the reflexive idea of the bodily self or to self-identity – the object of sentences like “I clothe myself” or “I promote myself on the internet.” Or “self” is deployed as a matter of bodily or pecuniary utility: “It was to my self-interest to take a loss on this one deal in order to hang onto a valuable client.” There is nothing wrong with any of these behaviors, they just don’t have anything to do with the actual human self, the self as we documented it in the last chapter.
The second type of ethical creeds called egoism is actually other-centric. Whether the philosopher claims that his egoism permits him to dominate other people, or that his egoism forbids other people from dominating him, the focus of the doctrine is not the self at all – not the self as I describe it nor even the reflexive or utilitarian self – but is instead those other people.
I’m inclined to think that most philosophical or theological arguments – of all sorts – are essentially Cargo Cults: The doctrine in all its interminable, incomprehensible verbiage exists to justify some desired end-state goal the proponent had already upheld in advance of writing his supposed defense of that “inevitable” outcome. The theorist works backwards, from the conclusion to the allegedly-validating premises and evidence, tying everything up with a tidy rhetorical bow. This is completely invalid as a matter of method, of course, since the map is not the territory. It is simply absurd, when you cut through all the fog, for the champion of some doctrine to insist that human nature is what his theory commands that it “must” be. If you tell me these folks are deliberately fooling themselves, I will happily agree with you. My concern is that they do not fool you.
And invalid arguments of egoism are really the least of my concerns. Virtually all ethical arguments are anti-egoistic – anti-self. They are focused, despite their outward differences and despite their outsized meta- or extra-ethical claims, on inducing you to renounce your own values and interests – to the benefit of the theorist and his gang. We owe Fathertongue to one incomparable genius who not only abstracted the first of the ideas that ultimately became rationally-conceptual volitionality but managed to propagate the idea of abstracting ideas widely enough that it has survived to the modern day. But Fathertongue is the language of elaborate lies as well as elaborate truths, and it cannot have been very long thereafter that some pre-historic Eric Cartman figured out how to flatter and wheedle and threaten his brothermen into surrendering their values to him unearned.
We like to think of human history as a clash of great men, their hair flowing in the breeze, their muscles rippling, their eyes fixed firmly on the horizon. In reality, virtually all of the so-called great leaders of history were just like our fearless leaders in the present day: Chiseling, conniving, endlessly grasping grafters, each one striving with all his crafty cunning to go one-up in the sleaziest possible way on all the others. We celebrate and revere the most successful career criminals of each human epoch, and we forget entirely the brilliant minds who actually produced all the riches we take for granted.
Still worse, we fail to note that each one of those renowned thugs was backed up by a scheming little shaman, a full-time professional rationalizer of evil, whose job it was to tell the same transparent lies to the boss thug and his henchmen over and over again, to assure them, again and again, that their actions were righteous because they so obviously were not, to keep them from drowning in the liquor they had to swill to quiet the cognitive dissonance within their own minds. That shaman – first a high-priest, later a theologian, still later a philosopher – was also tasked with the vitally important job of gulling fools into believing that a brute like Alexander the “Great” was a greater benefactor to humanity than a genius like Socrates. Just about everything you know of human history is a testament to the success of that shaman and his intellectual heirs.
Your values are inverted, and I can demonstrate this with an example very close to home. For your whole life you have been told – and you have probably believed – that the United States Constitution is a grand and noble document that exists to safeguard your liberty. In reality, it is a sort of peace-treaty drafted by three corrupt political factions in early America. The owners of the newly-erected factories in the New England and Mid-Atlantic states wanted to impose high tariffs on goods manufactured in England, thus to make their much-shoddier products more appealing to American buyers. Planters in the Southern states wanted legal protection for and official sanction of the despicable practice of human slavery. And poor ordinary people wanted “free” land, to be expropriated by the U.S. Army from the Native Americans who had occupied it thereto. The liberty-loving revolution of 1776 was contorted into a rent-seeking coup d’état by 1789, and the whole wretched abomination was rationalized in The Federalist Papers – which you very probably pretended to read in high school or college.
I cite that example not to criticize you but simply to draw your attention to the fact that you are being lied to most of the time by philosophers and other so-called “thought leaders” – and for the most part you don’t know it. What you learned best, in your very-costly education, was a contempt for the mind and for the works of the mind – and this is precisely what the philosophers who taught your teachers wanted for you to learn. You were taught to cherish anything and everything that does not matter in the uniquely-human life and to despise the one thing that does matter – the human mind. A dog will defend its food and a lion its lair, but not only will you not defend your self, you join with all your fellow men – “We’re all in this together!” – in heaping scorn on your sole means of survival. You are the only type of entity in all of existence capable of conceptually identifying the values your life – your self – requires. And you are the only creature capable of failing to do what your life requires.
This is not an observation to be proud of, but it is yet another demonstration of how much you are unlike other living things. The philosophers, theologians, academics and other would-be “thought leaders” who make it their business to convince you to despise your identity as a human being will insist that humanity’s greatest stain is to be found in the hydrogen bomb. What better proof, they demand, could there be of the incomparable evil that is rationally-conceptual volitionality – free will – than an artifact of the mind that can destroy all life on Earth? The human mind is pitiful, pathetic and corrupt, they insist, an ape’s brain with delusions of grandeur, And yet, somehow, it can contrive the means to exterminate all life in a flash. That much is funny, as all contradictions are funny once you unpack them, but they don’t know the half of it. If we were to collect enough random junk in space and throw it all at the same target, we could create a new star – a self-sustaining nuclear critical mass. How much more like a god must we become before we will deign to worship the awesome power of the human mind?
Evil ideas lead to evil ends – ultimately to Squalor – but good ideas lead to Splendor. The problem for the mind – for your mind – is to distinguish the one from the other.
As a matter of ontology, of being, your life is your self – your own iteratively self-abstracted idea of your life – and your self is your life’s highest value. Because we have been indoctrinated to despise and denigrate the self, people will be quick to disagree with that claim, saying things like, “No, my family is my highest value!” But the word that matters most in that sentence is the one that shows up twice: “My.” If we think about it all the way through, the statement unpacks to this proposition: “My own on-going self-regard would be diminished if I were not to provide appropriately – intellectually, financially, emotionally and as a moral exemplar – for my spouse and children.” What could possibly be more egoistic than that? Even suicide – self-slaughter – can be an expression of the self as the cardinal value in a fully-human life: “I cannot continue to live with my self after committing or enduring this atrocity.”
The putatively egoist moral philosophers I picked on at the start of this chapter will insist that “everyone is selfish.” That claim is false at both ends of it. My objective is to change this sad state of affairs, but very few people alive as I write this are fully, consciously committed to pursuing the values most vitally important to the self. While most of us manage to produce enough human values to stay alive as human beings, we do that job pretty badly – mostly because we have voluntarily diverted our minds away from our own values and toward those of our despoilers. Not only do we forge the chains that bind us, we celebrate our self-inflicted slavery as the highest of virtues, and we do everything we can to preserve our sacred chain-gang: “We’re all in this together, damnit!” Moreover, the unexamined pursuit of bodily or pecuniary utility can very easily lead us to a condition of self-loathing. How does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?
The cardinal value of your life is your self. This is a statement of ontology – of being – not of teleology – shoulding. You did not choose to become a self, but if you had not, you would not be a human being. You would be alive, and your life would be precious to the people who love you, but you would simply be a genetic Homo sapiens within whom the flower of Fathertongue either was not or could not be cultivated – or was, but was later cut off by a non-lethal brain injury. The ontologically-unavoidable existence of the human self is the metaphysical link from is to ought – from ontology to teleology and back – that thoughtless philosophers have insisted for centuries does not – and cannot – exist. Whether the ends they sought were good or evil, they failed to think about human nature as it really is, and, in consequence, they were unable to see how a being of free will – of rationally-conceptual volitionality – could be as much constrained by the laws of nature as a rock or a tree or a reptile.
You cannot avoid being a self. You cannot both be a human being and not be a self. That is the law of identity as applied to human beings – genetic Homo sapiens within whom has been cultivated the gift of mind. That cultivation by your parents and their friends and family members induced you to abstract the idea of your self within your blossoming mind, and, once you have mastered that idea, you cannot eradicate it from your mind without eradicating your mind entirely. And while you might have surmised that I believe that modern philosophers, theologians and other so-called “thought leaders” want to eradicate your mind, I know this is not so. They don’t want for you to be a dancing bear – a mindless animal unwittingly soiling its own identity in pursuit of ephemeral “treats” – they just want for you to volunteer to sacrifice every value the uniquely-human life requires in exchange for their empty praise.
And with that observation I dismiss from further consideration every theory of moral philosophy ever propounded – putatively egoistic or openly anti-egoistic. Any one of them may or may not contain useful seeds of truth, but all of them as a group proceed from an incorrect understanding of human nature – of rationally-conceptual volitionality – of free will. None of those doctrines acknowledge the self for what it is, and so they cannot illuminate the idea of value as it is appropriate to a fully-human life. Most philosophical and theological ethical creeds are aligned against the true interests of the self, of course. But even those that purport to uphold the idea of self-love do so only with respect to deformed and defective representations of the self. Until you have walked the intellectual path that you and I are following here – until you have taken this journey with me or without me – you don’t even know what the self is, so any pronouncements you make about it – for it or against it – are necessarily factually incorrect.
So what might be the cardinal virtue in an ontologically-consonant moral philosophy? Self-love, of course. If you haven’t figured it out yet, this whole book is about self-adoration as the highest possible virtue in the uniquely-human life. Philosophy is about shoulding – “What should I do?” – and my entire philosophy of the fully-human life can be summarized in three words: Love your self. The pursuit of bodily utility is completely teleologically appropriate to the life of any other organism – and they don’t need us to tell them that! But mere bodily utility is not sufficient for the life of a human being: Man does not live by bread alone.
The term “ontologically-consonant” is immensely useful, so long as you retain in your mind the fact that what you are most fundamentally is a self. Any object or action or idea that advances or enhances the true interests of your self is a value – it is of value to your self, in the context of the full hierarchy of your values. Anything that retards or diminishes the interests of your self is a disvalue. In the next chapter we will talk about a more granular evaluation of values. The point to be made here is that virtue and vice writ large can only be meaningfully judged by reference to a cardinal standard of value, and that standard, for all human beings – whether they like it or not – is the self.