Against Moral Cannibalism

As Stirner means the term, I am not an egoist. I see morality as crucial, both to anarchism and to life in general. However, I think Stirnerite, amoralist egoism gets something very right about morality that most people get very wrong.

In the next couple of posts, I’ll be saying more about why I reject the kind of egoism usually associated with Stirner, but here I’ll focus on the thing it gets right.

Stirner’s Challenge

There’s a general consensus that doing the right thing and doing what’s best for you just aren’t the same thing. 

It may be true that the person who tries to do the right thing will generally have a better life than the person who doesn’t. But that’s just a correlation.

It may be true that, on a social level, a community marked by moral behavior tends to produce better results for its members than one marked by immoral behavior. But that’s also just a correlation – and more about the benefits to you of other people being moral, not you being moral.

At some level, self-interest and morality are commonly understood to come apart.

This creates a problem. 

Suppose we’ve already established what the “right” moral theory is, at least on morality’s own terms. This might be a utilitarian one about creating the greatest good for the greatest number, a deontological set of rules for properly respecting persons, some set of virtues to seek and vices to avoid, or the code of your favored religion. 

In any event, it’s at least intelligible for someone to ask, “Alright, sure, that’s technically ‘the right thing to do,’ but why should I do that when it’s better for me not to do that?”

Suppose Peter Singer is right that it’s morally unconscionable to make a habit of getting coffee from high-end coffee shops, since that money adds up, and it could instead be going to the Against Malaria Foundation. Okay, fine, but why should I care more about morality than a nice cup of coffee?

This is the “amoralist challenge.” Why be moral in those instances where morality has clear costs and ignoring it has clear benefits?

On first pass, this question doesn’t even seem to make sense. I’ll ultimately argue a couple posts ahead that it also doesn’t quite make sense on full reflection. But there’s a medium level of reflection where it does make sense, and that’s what I want to focus on here.

Failing Stirner’s Challenge, or, How to Be an Amoralist Without Even Trying

To reach that medium level of reflection, let’s consider a couple of answers to the amoralist challenge.

The first is an appeal to divine punishment or divine reward. When it’s all said and done, it’s said, God will punish wrongdoers and reward rightdoers. So, even if you could get away with it now, you shouldn’t rob that store because you won’t really get away with it in the end.

The second is to reject the question altogether. It’s not the job of a moral theory to persuade everyone to do the right thing, someone taking this tack might say, it’s just to tell us what that right thing is. If someone really doesn’t feel bound by morality, theory ends and practice begins: we don’t argue with the person who says “why shouldn’t I murder people when I can get away with it?,” we just stop them from murdering people. The only “answer” we need to give the amoralist is to fight them

Both those answers fail.

Notice that the first answer doesn’t really say that the amoralist is wrong in thinking that when morality and amoral self-interest conflict, amoral self-interest is the higher calling. It just says that God will make sure that it’s in your amoral self-interest to do what’s right. It’s not so much that God is all-good and we should do as He would for that reason, it’s that God is all-powerful and so we should do what He says for that reason.

That’s why that first answer is unpopular, even among theists. But the reason I bring it up is that the much more popular second answer is actually just a secularized version of the first.

This is because the second answer pointedly refuses to speak to the amoralist in terms of reasons. “If you don’t do as we say, we’ll make your life Hell” is no better an answer than “If you don’t do as we say, you’ll go to Hell.” 

In the first answer, there is no right standard, just God’s will and yours, plus God’s power to subject the latter to the former. In the second answer, there is no right standard, just the Morality Club’s will and yours, plus the Morality Club’s power to subject the latter to the former.

If you’re an upstanding person by the standards of the Morality Club, you might now be thinking “Okay, fine, whatever! There’s no further justification to morality beyond itself. So what? I’m still committed to doing what’s right. If someone else isn’t, too bad, I’m still going to keep blaming them and holding them accountable to that standard. If nothing else, they don’t think there’s any higher standard than that either, so they don’t have any grounds to complain about it!”

Unfortunately, it’s a bit more complicated than that. If this is where the conversation ends, the amoralist does indeed have grounds to complain in a way that the moralist doesn’t.

The Morality Club claims to operate in terms of reasons. The amoralist egoist makes no such claim. They just want to do something, and then they do it.

The Morality Club claims to value honesty. The amoralist egoist makes no such claim. They just want you to do something, and then they do what is necessary to get you to do it.

And if the conversation ends on the “okay, fine, whatever” reply, then the Morality Club does not defend itself in terms of reasons, and it does not operate honestly. In other words, if you buy into the Morality Club’s ideals, then this would mean you should stop buying into the Morality Club’s ideals. Since the amoralist egoist does not hold to these ideals, they do not act inconsistently in ignoring them.

At best, then, the moralist who gives this sort of answer just is an amoralist egoist in disguise. The only difference between them and the explicit amoralist is that the crypto-amoralist would be more condemnable if morality really mattered.

If you don’t think morality matters, I suppose this needn’t bother you, and you can keep on acting like it matters. But if you think morality might actually matter (and I certainly do), you should be very concerned to find a better answer to the amoralist than “fight them.”

And if you are an anarchist, libertarian, or even simply a liberal (and I am all three), you should be very, very concerned to find a better answer. Because if morality has no rational hold over us, it has only whatever social, psychological and physical hold that people give it. And if it has no rational priority, it is just one perspective among many. When we put those two things together, we get the following result: morality is a system of control, by which those who have thrown their lot in with the Morality Club seek to dominate those who have not, privileging their own arbitrary interests with massive amounts of social, psychological, and physical coercion.

So, anyone who morally rejects domination must have an answer for the amoralist. Otherwise, they do not really reject domination per se, just domination practiced by those outside of their chosen gang. 

Moreover, without any such answer, the Morality Club’s domination would be much more perverse, and much more pathetic than the domination it rejects. 

At least other forms of domination will acknowledge that they are systems of control, and at least they expect what they expect of you in virtue of the coercion they can wield against you. By contrast, a Morality Club deprived of any rational ground just whines that you should do what they demand because they demand it. It is not enough for you to realign your actions to theirs, you must realign your motivations, such that you no longer need carrots and sticks to do their will.

In fact, no other system of domination has ever been so bold all on their own. Whenever they go that far, it can only be through some attempt to consolidate power with the Morality Club. When the State demands you obey it without compulsion, it is because they claim a moral obligation to obey the law.

Once the Morality Club is out of the picture, we can make a more honest assessment: If I don’t do what the State says, and the State catches me, then I can expect them to punish me. Alright, now I can make a judgement of the costs and benefits and act accordingly. But through its partnership with the Morality Club, the State tries to bypass that process and get my obedience on the cheap, even when the benefits of disobedience outweigh the costs of punishment.

So, that’s why the amoralist needs a real answer. Because otherwise, morality is itself at the heart of the deepest immorality, and justice itself is the gravest injustice. Any moral case for “anarchism” would then not be anarchist, but just another siren song guiding your obedience to an arbitrarily selected aristocracy, in this case one consisting of those people whose interests happen to line up with that of the Morality Club’s.

Answering Stirner’s Challenge

To be clear, there is also something right about the answer-refusing answer. If morality is going to get off the ground, it cannot be hostage to every psychologically possible doubt. At some point, we have to be able to say that the problem is in the doubter, and their defective reasoning will not lift them above morality.

Yet it is exactly that kind of answer that we need to have. It must be a defect in the amoralist’s reasoning, and they must have a reason to accept morality’s claims, even if it’s a reason they can’t see. Morality must speak to them in their own voice, even if they refuse the call.

Morality is a realm of reasons. To answer the amoralist is to show why that realm is inescapable, why there is no perspective from which we can stand back and declare the whole thing nothing more than a deranged power-game. 

Some ways of mapping out that realm will suggest it is all-pervasive, others will not. Thus, the amoralist challenge will also help us in figuring out what morality looks like. Because whatever it’s like, it cannot be a system of moral cannibalism, by which the interests of some are simply sacrificed to the interests of others without any further justification.

That is why, while I reject Stirner’s conclusions, I think the kind of challenge he offers is the most foundational question of ethics. It cannot be ignored.

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