debattsidan.com
By Filip Björner
Read my earlier articles
 
This is the latest debate article
Published Thursday September 3rd 2015
 
     


Main site       #       Topic: Ethics       #       Topic: Ethics       #       Main site



 
    Egoism, altruism and parasitism
 
 
Confusion dominates in ethical discussions...
...concerning selfishness versus altruism.
 
This is not only because it is controversial to advocate selfishness or because altruism for a long time has been the prevailing moral doctrine. It is also because the Nietzschean version of altruism so seldom is named in a simple way. Therefore many people find it difficult to conceptualize and retain the knowledge of the ism which advocates sacrificing others for oneself. The Nietzschean version of altruism I call parasitism. Normal altruism is sacrificing oneself for others. Parasitism is sacrificing others for oneself. Both versions of sacrificing are in conflict with the morality that rejects sacrificing. Egoism is living the best life one can have on ones own expense. But few people understand that independence is selfish. Instead they confuse egoism with parasitism.
 
A Swedish cliché
In Sweden egoism is often described with this cliché: "Take care of yourself and don't give a damn about others." ("Sköt dig själv och skit i andra.") What few people understand is that the Swedish cliché conceals more than it reveals, because it is based on a life hostile view of Man and at the same time implicates that no life affirming view of Man is possible. The cliché is based on the notion that we humans must either sacrifice ourselves for others or sacrifice others for ourselves, which is completely wrong. A third option exists, that we live our lives without sacrificing ourselves for others and without accepting sacrifices from others. This option can be visualized with a travesty, and a significant improvement, of the Swedish cliché: "Take care of yourself and do care about others in accordance with their virtues and flaws." That option is what egoism really means, if only we presuppose that it is allowed to be a rational and life affirming person in ethics. What the Swedish cliché in fact describes with the final words "don't give a damn about others" is not egoism, but parasitism, since parasitism is sacrificing others for oneself.
 
Independence and production
An egoist may enjoy consorting with other people, interact with them and trade value for value. Egoists appreciate living in freedom because they can produce and argue. No parasite can manage that. A parasite can only deceive or oppress others in order to survive.
An egoist can live alone on a desert island and survive. No parasite can manage that. Without any victim to loot from a parasite dies.
Since egoists are independent, they may live alone, but normally they prefer company. In a rational society all good people gain advantages from everything we can provide each other. We do not expect to acquire anything in life for free. We are ready to pay the prices established on the free market. For neither costs nor investments are sacrifices. They are, when handled correctly, good input factors in all production aimed at personal gain.
 
Life, value, reason
Ayn Rand introduced her ethics profoundly. In the first chapter of her book The Virtue of Selfishness she asks the comprehensive question:
"What is morality, or ethics? It is a code of values to guide man's choices and actions—the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life. Ethics, as a science, deals with discovering and defining such a code.
The first question that has to be answered, as a precondition of any attempt to define, to judge or to accept any specific system of ethics, is: Why does man need a code of values?" [1]
In short, a man must develop a personal code of values in accordance with identified facts in order to survive and to fill one's life with purpose and meaning. These three key words are a quick guide to the essence of Ayn Rand's ethics: life - value - reason. Life is a self-generated process, as long as it lasts, maintaining an organism's species-determinated nature. A value is "that which one acts to gain and/or keep". Reason — (which "is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses") — is man's primary means of survival, and is not automatic but will-controlled.
"Man, the highest living species on this earth—the being whose consciousness has a limitless capacity for gaining knowledge—man is the only living entity born without any guarantee of remaining conscious at all. Man's particular distinction from all other living species is the fact that his consciousness is volitional. [...] Man's actions and survival require the guidance of conceptual values derived from conceptual knowledge. But conceptual knowledge cannot be acquired automatically."
 
Epistemology and Ethics,
and The nature of Man

Man's ability to think conceptually is unique and all our thinking is autonomously self-controlled. Other mammals have instincts. We lack instincts and instead we must — that is, if we want to survive we must — voluntarily investigate reality. We have to deal with all the facts we experience and contemplate them in conceptual form.
The first philosopher in history who managed to discover the identity of the process by which objective concepts are formed, and in 1966 published the only competent theory that exists about the objective nature of concepts, was Ayn Rand. Her achievements in the field of epistemology is as profoundly groundbreaking as Newton's achievements in physics. [2]
But what does this have to do with ethics? Well, ethics is the third branch of philosophy, of a total of five branches. The first two are metaphysics and epistemology. Along with ethics, they give rise to politics and aesthetics. No version of ethics, politics or aesthetics can ever exist without being based on a foundation of metaphysical and epistemological premises.
The premises an individual acquires from metaphysics (the study of the nature of reality) and epistemology (the study of the nature of consciousness and human knowledge) will always by a corollar-logical necessity result in a certain view of Man, a philosopchical such, even if it may be only subcounsciously held. These premises are strong in every mans thinking and in his conception of himself and the world.
I agree with Aristotle and Ayn Rand, that man is the rational animal. Man is unique with his faculty of reason, which he can choose — and also must choose — to use or reject. He is also the animal who (guided by reason) can convert natural resources into newly created products, and through trade and exchanges of ideas can create wealth. Therefore, we have everything to gain from consorting in social relationships and form societies with rational rules. Ethics gives us answers about how we should live, and politics gives us answers about what legal rules we should respect together, such as respect for human rights. The objective concept rights provides a solid bridge between objective ethics and objective politics.
 
Life as the ethical standard
An altruist gives (or rather urges) away values to others in exchange for zero values. A parasite receives (or rather grabbes) values from others in exchange for zero values. An egoist (creates and) trades value for value.
An altruist erases values through self-sacrifice. A parasite devours values from victims. An egoist creates values through production. Since production requires reality orientation an egoist deals with reality first hand while looters do so second hand. An egoist can therefore achieve his personal happiness, whether he lives alone on a desert island or in a society.
"The basic social principle of the Objectivist ethics is that just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others—and therefore, that man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. To live for his own sake means that the achievement of his own happiness is man's highest moral purpose."
Ayn Rand's philosophy, Objectivism, has in ethics something in common with Utilitarianism, but should not be confused with that philosophy. For no Utilitarian ever keeps human life as an end in itself. Utilitarian's highest goal is always something other than human life per se, and it is always an altruistic based premise, such as for example "The greatest possible happiness for the greatest number" (a motto ascribed to Bentham) or general utility maximization (Mill).
Although Ayn Rand's politics has the potential power to benefit most people, that is not its goal. Ayn Rand's politics aims to respect human rights, because rights logically emanate from an ethic that holds the individual's life as its objective standard.
Yes, achieving happiness is the purpose for a rational individual, but it cannot be the standard of rational ethics. Human life is the only objective standard.
 
Parasitism can never respect human life and are therefore always in conflict with human rights. A political system based on ethical parasitism can therefore only result in slavery and oppression. Normal altruism is not much better, because human suffering and general misery is its goal, and death (after life) is its standard of value. Sacrificial ethics is pro death. Egoism is pro life.
 
Rationality is a cardinal virtue
A quick summary of Ayn Rand's ethics is; be rational; respect and use reason; think! But a sterling ethical tutorial must be more detailed than that. Rationality is the most comprehensive virtue. It embraces four other cardinal virtues, independence, integrity, honesty and justice. The latter Ayn Rand specifies as "that one must never seek or grant the unearned and undeserved, neither in matter nor in spirit" which of course is a virtue which always stands in a head-on collision against everything parasites ever wants to accomplish. These five cardinal virtues is in Ayn Rand's ethics supplemented with the virtues of productivity and pride, which both once again collide with parasitism. So altogether Objectivism has seven cardinal virtues. In practical life they are so intertwisted that they are best understood as inseparable aspects on each other. In other words, nobody can be truly honest without being at least intellectually independent. Nobody can ever seek true justice without holding on to intellectual integrity. Etc.
 
Parasites can not be honest or productive. They must exercise lies and cunning in order to subjugate other people, so that their oppressed victims produce for them. And no parasite can ever achieve genuine pride. No parasite can ever look at himself in a mirror and honestly be proud solely based on his own productive merits. Parasites can only experience a kind of false pride which can be achieved only by evasion; by deliberately blanking out facts in their evil minds, which of course also is a process of cognitive destruction; a process of self-inflicted and self-chosen inward mental disintegration.
 
Positive or negative
view on humanity

I believe that the word parasitism is needed in order to distinctly conceptualize the altruistic coin's tail side. Without this conceptualizing it is too difficult for many people to understand what egoism is. So many people believes that "acting in ones own interest" (which is the neutral definition of selfishness/egoism) necessarily means that one must push others around. They do not realize that it is their own negative view of Man that leads them to confuse selfishness with parasitism.
In real life nobody must neccesarily act on the premise "don't give a damn about others" just because they like the premise "take care of yourself"; that simply doesn't logically follow; that notion is a non sequitur. On the contrary it is actually possible, and also reasonable and pleasurable, to "take care of yourself and do care about others in accordance with their virtues and flaws." And as a derivation of such a positive view of Man, it is incidentally also rational to regard strangers foremost as potential values — because they are all unique individuals with reason and free will — instead of being xenophobic.
 
We need the concept parasitism
Since the late 80's I have in my own thinking always thought of parasitism as denoted by the word parasitism, and clearly been aware of the fact that selfishness is something completely different than both normal altruism and parasitism. Now, I think it is time sharing this simple insight with this article. The idea of writing about it has occured to me several times before, but the writing task grew on me after listening to two lectures by prominent US Objectivists in Sweden in 2014 and 2015. In the question sessions some people showed their confusion in a way that revealed they had not (fully) grasped the difference between egoism and parasitism, and that they also confused altruism with charity and believed that egoists can't care about charity. [3]
Anyone can engage in charity, but charity is unimportant compared with production and need only be a minimal element in a free society. And only egoists can be generous. Neither normal altruists or parasites can. Normal altruists can give away values to others for the sake of duty, while parasites can do so by shrewd calculation. They can never do it out of sheer joy for living a successful life. Only egoists can celebrate life's triumphs with acts of generosity. This is because genuin generosity is a cheerful way of celebrating life and productive success.
Of course, few people agree with this today. But fortunately, most people have (usually subconsciously held) mixed premises, so there is a spark of egoism and empathetic humanity in most human beings, despite the fact that altruism still is the prevailing morality in our culture.
I have witnessed similar confusions many times before. No matter how well someone describes objective ethics, many persons has a hard time grasping the fact that selfishness is an option which is totally and completely incompatible with parasitism. We should realize that it isn't easy snapping the point, and holding it, as long as parasitism is not conceptualized as parasitism.
I believe that the concept parasitism is needed for the same reasons that we need the concept "chair". For how could we ever be able to teach a child table manners if we could not teach it the difference between tables and chairs? It would have been as difficult as it is to teach people sensible ethics today.
 
Egoism favors
life and happiness. Altruism and parasitism do not.
 

[1] All quotes is from the first chapter in Ayn Rands book The Virtue of Selfishness.
 
[2] Ayn Rand discovered (among other things) that the core element of objective concept formation is measurement omission.
 
[3] Timbro speech by Tara Smith 2014 with focus on the cardinal virtues of Objectivism.
Timbro speech by Yaron Brook 2015 about how egoism favor Capitalism while altruism favor Socialism.
I wrote a report article about Brooks speech in the Swedish magazine Contra nr. 2-2015.


 

$ $ $

 
 
 


Top       Main site       The articles



  debattsidan.com är
yttrandefrihetsfundamentalistisk.
 
Yttrandefriheten förbättrar
samhällets hälsa därför
att den skyddar individens
alla andra rättigheter.