The Ego and His Own

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I find that I often learn more from those with whom I have both strong agreements and disagreements than I do from those with whom I always agree. The former compel me to think about troublesome or unresolved matters; while the latter provide, at best, additional information or analysis regarding what I already believe or, at worst, reinforcement of my existing thinking or entertainment. Ayn Rand and Max Stirner are two persons who come to mind as the first examples of this phenomenon. Each was an important catalyst in the development of my thinking, even though I have ended up rejecting the greater portion of their ideas.

Without going into a detailed account of my differences with these thinkers, let me focus on one element they had in common: their embrace of egoism. Each was an unabashed defender of an ethic of self-centeredness running so deep as to question whether one’s motivation to benefit others was an act of "self-sacrifice." The title of this article — which is also the title of Stirner’s principal work — reflects this attitude.

For as long as I can recall I have been an exponent of both individualism and the view that people are incapable of acting from any motivation other than self-interest, ideas that I addressed in an earlier article. The question with which I struggled for many years — and which Rand and Stirner helped me to resolve — was this: is individual self-interest synonymous with egoism? In other words, can one act with the intention of benefiting others and remain a self-interest motivated person?

Most of the problems that we face stem from conflicts produced by the divisiveness of thought. The politically-organized slaughter of some 200 million of our fellow humans during the 20th century was occasioned by the kind of thinking through which we separated ourselves into mutually exclusive political, religious, cultural, and ideological camps, and then warred with those who were not of "our" group. This mindset continues to pile up broken bodies and spirits throughout the globe, with political leaders in Washington continuing to exploit such divisiveness. If the American people are to be persuaded to join in the current lynch-mob frenzy, they must be reminded of the incompatibility of their interests with those of others in the world; that life invariably comes down to a struggle of "us" against "them."

Egoism helps to create and reinforce this kind of divisive thinking. By definition, the ego separates itself from others, it being solely the product of its own thinking. The ego knows no boundaries except the range of its own consciousness. Because he has separated himself from others, the egoist believes that others exist to serve his purposes, and may be exploited in furtherance of such ends. The egoist transforms "utilitarianism" into the doctrine of "the greatest good for the greatest guy."

An individualist, on the other hand, acknowledges the self-serving nature of all life. But instead of taking this fact as evidence of some inherent conflict with others, sees it as the basis upon which he and his neighbors can cooperate to accomplish ends each would be incapable of doing on their own.

Because he sees his commonality with others, he is inclined to support social systems that harmonize, rather than negate, our self-serving pursuits. This is why he is less inclined to think of the "marketplace" as a geographical location than as a process by which people can peacefully negotiate for their self-seeking ends. Because the marketplace operates on principles of voluntariness, the individualist is aware that, in order to promote his self-interest, he must appeal to the self-interests of others. This not only results in unintended benefits to others, but intended ones as well. This is another way of saying that all volitional acts are motivated by the expectation of our being better off after acting than we would have been had we not acted.

The egoist — like the statist – operates from the divisive premise "if you’re not with me, you’re against me" and is prepared to use any means necessary, including force, to overcome the self-interest motivations of those who are unprepared to cooperate with his schemes. To such a person, society with others is a potential threat to be guarded against because, like himself, others are seen as having no purpose that would benefit him. This is why so many egoists have been attracted to the vision of a hermitage, a retreat from the rest of mankind, be it in the form of a "Galt’s Gulch," an isolated island or mountaintop, or a space station.

The individualist, on the other hand, recognizes the social nature of his existence. All that he is, and all that he is capable of becoming, has been shaped by his untold millions of ancestors, as well as by his constantly fluctuating relationships with contemporaries. His language and knowledge, as well as the quality of his material existence, have all been greatly influenced by others.

We discover who we are through relationships with one another. It is no coincidence that men who become serial killers are often described, by others, as "loners." When we have no one else with whom to converse but our own inner voices, we are apt to get the kind of skewed definitions of "reality" than can cause us to see anyone and everyone as "threats" to be overcome.

It is in the current debate over cloning that the distinction between egoism and individualism becomes most apparent. Cloning is the perfect expression of egoism, for it allows one to reproduce unilaterally, without having to involve another self. Like a Xerox machine, cloning faithfully replicates the DNA of the original, providing a seemingly endless collection of duplicates. Select the number of copies you want, hit the "start" key, and you can have a one-person population explosion!

Individualism, on the other hand, emerges from the diversity that is implicit in sexual reproduction. Because of sexual reproduction, each person becomes biologically unique, his or her specific DNA structure deriving from a shared gene pool. Thus the paradoxical nature of our existence: it is our individual uniqueness that we have in common with one another. We are all alike in being unalike, and we share this attribute because we are cousins to one another.

The singular and unique nature of our individual personhood derives, in other words, from the fact that we are biologically connected to all of humanity, not from our being carbon copies of either of our parents or duplications of some idealized being. The state has, in order to control us, introduced division into our thinking, so that we come to distrust others and look to the state for protection! But the roots of our individualism remind us that what we are is inseparable from the source from which all others derive; that coercive practices that threaten our neighbor also threaten us. This is why liberty cannot exist for some but not others; and why slavery diminishes the lives of both master and slave!

The one element in Ayn Rand’s writings that has stuck with me and continues to represent her principal contribution to individual liberty, was her frontal assault on the doctrine of collectivism. She was the most visible critic of this pernicious ideology long before "libertarianism" had even surfaced. Collectivism is a dehumanizing philosophy because it is founded on division, i.e., the forced repression of our individual interests in favor of a sham "common" interest which, on close examination, is only a state interest. Collectivism forces us into a conflict between the pursuit of our interests and obedience to state authority. But Rand’s criticism of this doctrine was grounded in the equally divisive notion of egoism.

While Ms. Rand gave frequent lip-service to individualism, her philosophy was one of self-centered egoism. She brooked no "individuality" in her followers that deviated from her insistence upon ideological conformity. Her appeals to "reason" and "freedom" did not extend to tolerating anyone marching to the steps of a different drummer. Artistic, musical, and literary tastes were defined for her devotees, as were her opinions about history, philosophy and philosophers, and the nature of government. Those who turned out as faithful, Xeroxed copies of her views were "rational," while those who did not were chastised as "whim worshippers." She insisted upon — and helped generate – intellectual clones, men and women who allowed themselves to be intimidated into believing that this woman’s subjective opinions about the world were an expression of objective reality!

Ms. Rand — with her preoccupation for "rationality" – had contempt for those who spoke of such intangible qualities as feelings, emotions, and anything that smacked of a "spiritual" side to being human. Men and women who exhibited such dispositions were dismissed as "mystics." For those whose lives are ego-centered, anything beyond the ego becomes little more than a barrier to or resource for the fulfillment of ego-will. The inner life of others is too unpredictable, too intangible, too uncontrollable, to be trusted for any expression that does not serve more immediate, superficial needs.

What would be anyone’s purpose in having a biological clone? Would it be anything other than to provide "spare parts" in the event the master needed an organ transplant? Or would the master delight in such a creature only for the Narcissistic purpose of admiring his physical reflection in another?

The clone is a biological replica of oneself. Unlike identical twins who share the same DNA through the fortuitous circumstances of birth, cloning oneself amounts to a projection of one’s ego onto another. Such an act denies the individuality of the other, to the end that he or she becomes little more than a material resource for the fulfillment of the master’s purposes.

But what about those intangible human attributes that do not transfer via DNA, such as emotions, values, tastes, learning and other personal experiences? Such expressions of the inner life that we think of as the "human spirit" — particularly as manifested in others — would have little relevance to either the material world of clones or the inner world of egos who have separated themselves from the spiritual lives of others.

Thus do we find the advocacy of cloning reflecting the same dehumanizing, spiritless, and mechanistic premises that represent our highly structured world. Whether the clone is to be considered a person whose will over his or her own life will be regarded as inviolate will likely receive as little attention as it does for the rest of us when our political masters use us as "spare parts" in their machinations!

There are other adverse consequences for the unilateral replication of oneself, be it through egoistic or cloning behavior. Life must, if it is to sustain itself, be resilient to the inconstant nature of the world. In words whose origins I do not recall, "the only real security is to be a changing person in a changing world." This is as true for societies as for individuals. The collapse of prior civilizations was often brought on by institutionalizing practices that emphasized the preservation of existing arrangements over the processes of adaptation and inventiveness.

As with the biological origins of the individual, creativity comes about from a synthesis of diverse influences, not from an obsessive repetition of the familiar. Life is a constant interplay of the forces of change and stability, but with the needs for variation constantly nudging the inclinations for durability so as to avoid deadly rigidity. This is why liberty and spontaneity are so essential to all life processes.

If our lives are to remain creative, we must reject the redundancy implicit in cloning. Cloning returns us to the reproduction methods found in single-cell division, a process that has kept the amoeba at the same changeless level it was millions of years ago. To live as creative, spirit-filled humans we must avoid the trap of trying to repeat our past successes. We must discover that the health of any society is to be found in the mutual celebration of our individuality.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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