Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Max Stirner and the Problem of Compassion

I remember an anecdote from, I think, a book called The Rothschilds. Lord Rothschild, on the British side of the family, noted that a gentleman in his position could not be seen to be callous toward the poor, or refrain from giving something to a street beggar. So he recommended giving a beggar a fiver. It’s very amusing, he said. The unfortunate fellow is not accustomed to receiving anything above a tuppence. When he sees the size of the alms, he assumes it must be a mistake. His eyes first go wide, then narrow, in hopes that he can benefit from the mistake. He immediately hides the bill, gives quick thanks, then disappears as fast as the can. Overall, said Lord Rothschild, I greatly recommend the giving of a fiver to a beggar.

One of the more amusing crosses that atheists must bear is the odd backhanded compliment. “If you don’t believe in God,” asks the local bible thumper, “What is to stop you from just doing whatever you want, murdering, stealing, raping, and heaven knows what else?”

Good point. If your belief in God is all that stops you from doing such things, I’m entirely in favor of your continuing your belief. I personally have other reasons for not murdering, raping, or stealing. For example, I’m pretty sure that somewhere in either the actions or the consequences lies something that I wouldn’t enjoy. But, hey, that’s just me. De gustibus non disputandem.

Speaking from pure self-interest, a heavenly afterlife is mighty appealing. I’m not entirely sure about the whole “eternal life” thing, (a billion years of reruns might well get pretty tedious), but life is too damn short as it stands. I’d sign on in a minute if the price was right and the deal guaranteed. Oh, but wait, you’re supposed to buy the whole thing on faith, and besides, the check is in the mail. Also, I would be doing it for the wrong reasons, since you’re not supposed to be doing it for selfish purposes. I haven’t found a Jehovah’s Witness yet who could explain how angling for eternal life was altruistic, but I haven’t met them all yet.

Still, the contradictions that can be found in the followers of religion is a fair match to the contradictions in those who purport to be philosophical egoists. The nature of those contradictions is likewise revealing.

Who purports to speak for “The Individual?” The phrase itself is a betrayal, a collective label as subversive to its target as a religious tract. Those who claim the throne of individualism are often labeled “Right Wing.” Libertarians, Nietzscheans, Randites, Social Darwinists, denizens of think tanks like the Cato Institute, authors of papers in Mankind Quarterly. They are tough-minded, almost to a man (including the women). Reading what is written by these individualists, what do we find? Endless arguments over what is the best way to set up an individualist society. In other words, endless prescriptions for how one’s fellows are to behave. Precious little about one’s own behavior, as nearly as I can tell.

But there are telling little slips. Once at a lecture given by Ayn Rand, someone asked during the Q&A: What would be done for the poor in an Objectivist society? Rand’s reply: If you wish to do something for them, you will not be stopped. Then came applause. Of course. That put the bleeding heart in his/her place.

Consider Stirner’s response to a similar question:

But is my work then really, as the Communists suppose, my sole competence? Or does not this consist rather in everything that I am competent for? And does not the workers' society itself have to concede this, in supporting also the sick, children, old men in short, those who are incapable of work? These are still competent for a good deal, for instance, to preserve their life instead of taking it. If they are competent to cause you to desire their continued existence, they have a power over you. To him who exercised utterly no power over you, you would vouchsafe nothing; he might perish. – Max Stirner, The Ego and His Own

And there is the essence of the struggle, is it not? Children, the sick, the elderly, those who are incapable of work, those people may still have a power over you, to whatever extent you have compassion for them. And there are those who hate that power, the power to move through compassion. So they deny it. They attempt to rip it from themselves and to deny its rightful existence.

How is this not a diminution? Someone without compassion is a sociopath. Is a sociopath better than a compassionate man?

We applaud the painter, the musician, the playwright (if their work suits us, of course). The playwright and director move people about in such a fashion that we find the result pleasing. Why does not the philanthropist get at least the same praise? Why is putting a fiver in the hands of a beggar not considered a work of art? And lest anyone impugn the motives of the philanthropist, remember, Lord Rothschild’s beggar nevertheless got his fiver.


TStockmann said...


You may find the June 18 discussion on the distribution of philathropy interesting or you may not. Sorry, if you can link to individual entries on that blog, I don't know how to do it.

When are you going back to copyrights and patents? The implication that somehow artistic copyright reflected inherent rights and corporate drug patents were just graft was cute, if a little nakedly self-interested. Perhaps a litle suggestive of arguments regarding capital gains from another class.

I hope you can write a more convincing defense of schadenfreude than of compassion.
Gore Vidal said, "It is not enough that I succeed; others must fail." You're a writer - have you ever written a line as fine as that? I, sadly, haven't.

James Killus said...

Gore Vidal said, "It is not enough that I succeed; others must fail." You're a writer - have you ever written a line as fine as that? I, sadly, haven't.

Of course you have. You just did. True, it was not original to you, but it wasn't original to Vidal, either, as I have seen it attributed also to Oscar Wilde, David Merrick, and that paragon of fine prose, Anonymous.

My favorite variation is, "It is not enough that I succeed; my best friend must fail." That gets a single google hit, as "an old showbiz saying.

Which rather seques into your query about copyrights and patents. Wherever did you get the notion that I believe that "somehow artistic copyright reflected inherent rights?" When I stated "Copyrights are not 'natural.'" (First, topic sentence in para 11 of the May 22 entry, Playing the Rent VI –Qualms About Copyrights), didn't you think that maybe I was hinting that I didn't consider copyrights "inherent?"

Also, I said that patents (like copyrights) are "a form of patronage." Patronage is not graft; you could look it up, to quote Casey Stengel.

As for writing a "convincing defense" of compassion" that was not my intention. You either have it or you don't, and you can choose to either accept it or deny it. My point is that people who possess it yet still deny it are performing self-mutilation. I do not consider that opinion to be a defense of compassion, but rather an example of it.

BTW, to put html links into comments and such, you use the html coding. The easy way to do that is to get the "source text" from your browser (usually from the View menu), and copy the "a" tag (it begins with an "a" inside of two html brackets) reference line.

TStockmann said...

Now, now - the attributions to Wilde are inferior and even if they weren't, I didn't correct your Latin so you shouldn't go all pedantic on me.

Reread your posts on patents and copyright back to back. Can detect a little, umm, tonal difference? Anyway, I don't see that there's any difference in material and intellectual property, although I'd characterize it as license in all cases rather than patronage. There's nothing more intrinsic in a deed than a patent or a copyright. Hope you go back to the discussion, especially f you intend to be more severe with your chest-beating listserv friends' views.

The point about schadenfreude - since you're making me get all obvious about it - it that your emotivism (which I assume is what you oppose to those nasty rationalists) is that compassion is only one part of the spectrum of socially-cohesive emotions, and neither the most common nor perhaps the most useful in that sense.

I don't encounter as many doctrinaire individualists as you do - I understand they're more common in the sf world, because there is something vaguely perpetual-adolescent about both (thinking about Disch's observation about sf as a variety of children's lit). But I'm dying of curiosity - have you actually met someone you would characterize as a genuine Nietzschean, not a cartoon version? I simply can't imagine.

And still would like to hear the line you wrote that youd line up against Vidal/Wilde/Anon's.

James Killus said...

Well, first, if you don't want pedantry, you've picked the wrong guy's blog.

Second, by all means correct my Latin. Then, at least, I'd know what you are referring to.

Third, it is utterly unsurprising that you detect a "tonal difference" between my essays on patents and copyrights. No one is trying to make patents perpetual; no one uses patents for the purposes of private censorship, and I have not recently seen anyone refer to patent infringement as equivalent to rape. However, as I noted in the essay on copyrights, most of what I might say is very well said elsewhere, and I'd advise you to follow the links. I am too lazy to redo others' very fine work, especially when some of those others are lawyers. And frankly, I doubt that I can be "more severe" on those in the Making Light discussion than they were on each other, so again, why bother? I try avoid repetition (he repeated).

But you really see no difference between intellectual and material property? I mean, the law does. Theft of material property is a crime, whereas violation of copyright or patent infringement is a tort. Put another way, if I steal your car, you don't have it any more. If you violate one of my copyrights (say by running off 10,000 copies of SunSmoke and selling them or giving them away--an act that I would strongly encourage, by the way), I still have the copyright to my novel.

Moving on, I would not characterize my position as "emotivism" but rather as "relativism," the recognition that viewpoint is critical in moral and ethical judgements and even in the formulation of the self. The recognition that there are multiple valid viewpoints leads perhaps to "perspectivism" and compassion, sympathy, and empathy are all critical to that. The phrase "spectrum of socially-cohesive emotions" strikes me as even more pedantic than you accuse me of being, but de gustibus, and, again, feel free to correct the Latin.

But I'm dying of curiosity - have you actually met someone you would characterize as a genuine Nietzschean, not a cartoon version? I simply can't imagine.

That is because a "genuine Nietzschean" would be a cartoon character.

And still would like to hear the line you wrote that youd line up against Vidal/Wilde/Anon's.

Groucho Marx and George Burns were once sitting at the Friar's Club in Los Angeles, having a discussion about Charlie Chaplin. Marx was being dismissive. He said. "Chaplin wasn't that funny. Hell, I'm funnier than Chaplin."

Burns scowled. "Go right ahead," he said, then raised his voice. "Hey everybody, Groucho is about to say something funny!"

I am, however, quite fond/proud of The Emperor of Dreams

Anonymous said...

It is not enough that I succeed; others must fail.

I used a somewhat reversed version of this leading up to Y2K. I had responsibility for some of the significant systems in my organization.

I was fine if our stuff worked & everyone else's worked. I was also OK if our stuff failed and everyone else's failed - even if it meant burning our furniture and slowly starving to death. What was not tolerable was our stuff not working and everyone else's working - that would be intolerable ... and you would be alive to have to deal with it.

James Killus said...

Back when I was on a bowling team I told people that the odds were in my favor. If the team won, I felt good even if I bowled badly. If I bowled well, I felt good even if we lost. To bowl well and also win was great, and if I bowled badly and we lost, well, at least I had company.

TStockmann said...

You left out the "est" in "...non est disputandum."

Of course I see a difference in the current treatment of real and physical property, but part of that is that physical property has been around long enough that it looks like a given, a basic right - once heard the original version of "life, liberty, and the pursuit or happiness" was "life, liberty, and property." It's no longer obvious that government creates property through what I call a license rather than codifying some natural law of just possession. Look at the arguments writers who'd like to make copyright eternal - if there were enough of them and it went on long enough, intellectual property would be able to assume the more robust protections or real property - not that the current record company jihad on college students isn't a good distance down that direction.

I think if my occasional nastiness doesn't get me tossed off your blog. you'll come to see me as even more relativistic than you are.

You're wrong about Nietzsche, but that's not surprising and pretty much illustrative of why I phrased the question that way. He might be a saint of the wrong religion. as Yvor Winters characterized Hart Crane, but he was not Leopold or Loeb, let alone Rand.

And, yes, the prose of your Emperor more than passes and the psychology of the unamed writer's rejection of that ending is acute. Since I'm a little obsessed about truth claims and meta-moststuff- while the frame is clearly not to be meant as a literal roman a clef, does the possibility (to me, ay least)) that you might have a genuine deceased writer in mind with a metaphorical connection to the theme of the story do anything to the rhetoric? And if you did, what do you think actually using his name would do to the story?

TStockmann said...

Hmm, it also occurred to me that the FBI warning at the beginning of The Little Mermaid threatens me with criminal as well as civil penalties for copyright violation, so prety sure it's more than a tort now.

James Killus said...

ts, I believe that the FBI warning at the beginning of DVDs and videotapes refers to laws against the interstate commerce in counterfeit goods (trademark violations), which are considered criminal fraud, not copyright violations, though I haven't been able to find exactly what legal sanction the FBI actually possesses here, other than vague allusions to "cybercrime." It may be noted that the FBI has not shown itself to be the most law-abiding agency itself, so I don't consider their warning to be a legal judgement.

There are also some things that date from the so-called Bono Act in 1998, which attaches criminal penalties to attempts at breaking copy protection schemes, among other things.

I will note that I am not wrong about Nietzsche, but I misunderstood your question. In science fiction, there is a thing called a "Heinlein character," a paragon of self-sufficiency and multiple talents that cannot actually exist, but that does not stop people from trying. So it is with Nietzsche, whose √úbermensch has been taken as an aspiration by many, usually to ill effect, in large part, as you imply, because people do not understand Nietzsche.

However, you were asking about whether or not I had ever known anyone who attempted to follow Nietzschean philosophy. My answer to that question can be found here: Nietzsche and Me

The writer in "Dreams" was Lin Carter, except he wasn't and many of the things that happened in the framing story happened to people other than myself. The line between truth and fiction gets blurred a little too much these days, so I did not want to push that line too far.

Ah, and one last thing: I learned it as de gustibus non disputandum est, except that Miss Whitley was careful to note that the verb "to be" in Latin is rarely required and is thus often optional. Indeed, the entire phrase is often simply truncated to "de gustibus," so I'm going to have to do worse than that to fail my memories of Miss Whitley.

TStockmann said...

Great answers all, but I hope you take my point that most of the essential differences between the two classes of property have more to do with the age of the tenure, habituation giving the appearance of a priori, and why further evolution in the direction of this is likely for the younger class. The SB Copyright Protection Act you mention is one such move; there are similar tendencies in patent and trademark law. The key difference between this and the folks who use this simularity to promote enhanced copyright protection is the first eliminates the apparent transparency of hard property and the latter attempts to use the accreted morality of the older class to lend legitimacy to expanded rights for the younger.

Kind of pruning back Natural Law, which a perspectivist should appreciate.

James Killus said...

It's my understanding that the legal theory of real property (i.e. land) has come to the belief that such property rights are a "bundle of rights" and as such, many of those rights have become quite abstract.

To that extent, and assuming that I understand you correctly, many, if not all property rights are coming to be viewed by legal theorists as abstract, statutory constructions. The difficulty, as you imply, is that most people still hold naive views of "natural" rights, which views are then exploited by those wishing to tie the expansion of their statutory rights and privileges to those emotional hooks.

That said, I will note that there are practical (at least) differences between those forms of property that can be maintained by private action, without recourse to large organizations (e.g. the legal system and its various enforcement arms), and those that require such recourse, even to the extent of violating what would otherwise be private rights, as, for example, when there is a police raid on a building where a suspected software counterfeiting operation is housed.

TStockmann said...

Case in point, so to speak.

I think what I'd say is that what can be defended irrespective of the state is possession rather than property.

James Killus said...

I think what I'd say is that what can be defended irrespective of the state is possession rather than property.

Ah. Very good point. That has all sorts of implications, and I'll have to ruminate on them for a while.