Egoism, the belief that people can or should only act on their own individual self-interest, is the great unchallenged premise of our age.
It’s hard to imagine that many people fully subscribe to this idea, and yet there is no well-known critique of egoism. Various religions or social/political activist movements point away from egoism, but religious or political writers rarely confront the egoist premise directly. Many people object instinctively to the egoist idea, but there is no popular common understanding of why the egoist premise is a weak and unconvincing one.
Those who advocate the egoist view of life have been more vocal and more direct than those who don't. Several philosophers are associated with the egoist position, though they each cover distinct facets of the egoist doctrine, with vastly different attitudes:
Why do the models we use to understand the human mind often seem so shallow, so unsatisfying? Could it be because the great discoveries in this field have not been made yet?
Plato wrote of the mind in a cave, groping towards the light. Sigmund Freud broke the mind down into three components, Id and Ego and Superego. Ayn Rand depicted the mind as heroic raw intellect, needing only to throw off its chains. All of these models have their purposes, but they creak and sputter under real-world use.
We can't blame the great philosophers and psychologists of the past for not trying hard enough, but we should look to future thinkers to help us understand our conscious selves better, and I suspect there's some low-hanging fruit on this tree. The question of the self -- what it is, how it evolves over time, how it relates to other selves -- is the great philosophical puzzle of our current age.
Two and a half years after the shocking suicide of celebrated novelist David Foster Wallace, a conversation is emerging -- in fits and starts -- about how Wallace's readers can possibly comprehend his life story, and how the book industry may be processing it. David Freedlander wrote an article for the New York Observer titled "Dead Author Breeds Big Business". Closer to the heart, Wallace's good friend Jonathan Franzen set off a Twitter firestorm by musing during an interview with Tim Walker of the Independent:
The author struggled for years to get to grips with [The Pale King, a newly published posthumous novel] and, says Franzen, who was a close friend, “If he’d finished it, I think he’d be alive today. Boredom is a tough subject to tackle in a novel and, arguably, Dave died of boredom.”
At least one blogger was infuriated by "Dave died of boredom":
It’s enormously disingenuous and insulting, not only to people who are still alive and dealing with severe depression, but also to Wallace - who is ill-served by such poorly-executed mythologizing nonsense - and, well, *Wallace’s goddamn wife*.
I would give Franzen a pass here, since I think he was waxing ironic, pointing us piquantly towards the incomprehensible koan that the suicide of every talented artist or public figure leaves behind. Boredom is as noble a form of anguish as any other (as Lee Rourke or Lars Svendsen would confirm). I'm not completely sure what Franzen is alluding to with this remark -- boredom with literary possibilities? boredom with success? boredom with the inside of his own brain? -- but it's an interesting point, and Franzen could not have meant it to be understood in a trivial or demeaning sense.
I began this five-part series (informally titled "Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong" -- the previous four sections are here, here, here and here) by quoting Rand's own succinct summary of her ethical philosophy, and I'll repeat it today:
Man — every man — is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
--Ayn Rand, 1962
I believe this is terrible advice, yet I know Ayn Rand's ideas have become increasingly popular. What you've seen here in the past four weekends is me struggling to articulate why I think Ayn Rand is wrong. I have a particular argument in mind, but I feel a bit flummoxed by the fact that I can't find another major thinker who has expressed the argument I wish to express, which leaves me in the ironically Randian position of having to stand here alone, supported by nobody else, screaming my argument to the skies.
I catch episodes of "Jersey Shore" on MTV whenever I can -- because it's hilarious, that's why -- and during a recent episode a powerful realization came over me.
I'd heard a friend complain that this show signaled the fall of Western culture due to its brainless, shameless exhibits of hedonism. Wondering about the validity of this critique, I started thinking back over various episodes and trying to catalog the instances of shameless hedonistic behavior I could remember. Here's what I started thinking of:
- Snooki and the Situation mugging for the camera.
- Pauly D. playing his music in a nightclub.
- Pauly and Vinny trying sincerely to fall in love.
- Sammi and JWoww fighting the best boxing match since Tyson/Douglas in 1990.
- Everybody dressing up, fixing their hair, checking themselves out in mirrors.
- Big communal meals, everybody cooking and cleaning (or not cleaning) for each other.
- Not much sex, lots of "smushing".
- Angelina having a full-scale freakout after the group ostracizes her, and leaving.
- Sammi having a full-scale freakout after Ronnie cheats on her, creating a drama that goes on to consume about ten hour-long episodes.
- Ronnie having a full-scale freakout after Sammi pretends to get revenge, and tearing all Sammi's possessions to pieces in an insane roid-rage, followed by Sammi leaving.
"Psychological egoism" is the name given to a theory widely held by ordinary men, and at one time almost universally accepted by political economists, philosophers and psychologists, according to which all human actions when properly understood can be seen to be motivated by selfish desires. More precisely, psychological egoism is the doctrine that the only thing anyone is capable of desiring or pursuing ultimately (as an end in itself) is his own self-interest. No psychological egoist denies that men sometimes do desire things other than their own welfare -- the happiness of other people, for example; but all psychological egoists insist that men are capable of desiring the happiness of others only when they take it to be a means to their own happiness. In short, purely altruistic and benevolent actions and desires do not exist; but people sometimes appear to be acting unselfishly and disinterestedly when they take the interests of others to be means to the promotion of their own self-interest.
--Joel Feinberg, "Reason and Responsibility", 1958
I'm going to go out on a limb, so to speak, with today's blog post.
Action movies and hyperarticulate idea movies don’t usually go hand in hand. So when Inception blasted onto screens last summer, its unholy marriage of genres at least partly explains why it was accompanied by a white hot publicity streak. Would Chris Nolan forge a bridge between Charlie Kaufman, king of idea-filled films such as Being John Malkovich, and Michael Bay, master of summer popcorn action fare? And could that bastard child possibly be any good as a script? After several reads of Nolan’s screenplay, my unequivocal answer is yes. And the more I dig into this complex script, the more enthusiastic I get. What makes Inception such a daring and well-executed juggling act? And how does Nolan make it all work?
Is Ayn Rand correct when she declares that the pursuit of self-interest is the primary motivating force of our lives, and that a fulfilling sense of human ethics can be built around the honest recognition of the pursuit of self-interest?
This is a gigantic question. It tends to stir up passionate responses, as we discovered last weekend after I brought up the question. The "Ayn Rand principle" has become a philosophy of life to many people, because it provides a refreshingly straightforward, direct and affirmative sense of morality. The Ayn Rand principle provides a chin-up ethic that people can actually live with.
The problem is, ethical considerations aside, the Ayn Rand principle is nonsense words. It's pure applesauce. Ayn Rand had an Oprah Winfrey-like ability to communicate strong messages to her readers, and her ethical philosophy seemed to say a lot. But it doesn't stand up to close examination at all. Let's start with the concept of self-interest and apply a little introspection.
1. Here's a newly-found old video of Beat Generation/Summer of Love poet Michael McClure reading poetry to caged lions. The last section of the poem consists of McClure yelling "roar" repeatedly. The video might strike some as precious -- Steve Silberman called it "beat kitsch" in a recent tweet -- but it gets cool around the time the lions start roaring back in harmony with McClure. If you can get a bunch of lions to respond to your poetry, you must be doing something right.
2. Suzuki Beane! I heard long ago that YA-novelist Louise Fitzhugh (Harriet the Spy is her most famous book, though I liked The Long Secret even better) began her writing career with an illustrated book, Suzuki Beane, a parody of Hilary Knight's Eloise starring a punky kid with beatnik parents. But I'd never been able to find a copy of the book until I saw a link to this digital version in a Boing-Boing article that also links to a surprising TV show pilot version of the book (the show never got made, which is too bad, because it looks pretty cute). Serious fans of Harriet M. Welsch, Sport and Beth-Ellen will find many echoes of their favorite Fitzhugh books in Suzuki Beane, particularly in the affectionate depictions of the tortuous relationships that sometimes exist between eccentric, artistic parents and their stubborn kids.
(Dedi Felman, who has written previously here about the art of film adaptation, was particularly impressed with the way a screenwriter handled the challenges of a recently released historical film. Here's Dedi on The King's Speech, a new hit that's been generating a lot of Oscar nominations, and some controversy as well. -- Levi)
“Two men sitting in a room talking.” That’s how director Tom Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler described, in a recent post-screening talk, their marvel of a film, The King’s Speech. Hooper and Seidler even said that they cut back on some of the original script’s history and pageantry scenes (e.g. King George V's funeral) because they wanted to nudge us ever closer to the film’s heart: a stammerer and his speech therapist sitting around talking about how a would-be king can find his voice.
But how does one make a film about two men sitting around talking gripping? Especially if one of those men has a stammer and makes us “wait a long time” for the punchline to his jokes? And how does one create even a modicum of suspense in a story of a family about whom the basic facts are part of the history books? The wartime broadcasts that lie at the core of this story made a huge impression on their listeners and so, spoilers or no, many audience members are aware that George VI does make it through the speech. Similarly, Edward’s deliciously scandalous abdication on account of an American divorcee is common lore. So we know a great deal going in. Yet we're still completely drawn into Bertie's plight. Will he find his voice?