The Authority of Yourself

What I’ve said so far presents a dilemma for how anarchists should approach morality.

If my first post is correct, we can’t ignore Stirner’s challenge. A morality that refuses to answer the amoralist requires systemic self-sacrifice with nothing in exchange. Such moral cannibalism would differ from other forms of domination only in its pervasiveness.

Yet if my second post is also correct, we can’t follow Stirner and ditch morality. Spelling out the anarchist vision requires irreducibly moral concepts, and a commitment to that vision will only be stable with moral motivation.

To find a way around those pitfalls, it’s instructive to consider something Stirner says on the first page of The Unique One & Its Property. After rejecting the call to make the cause of truth or love his own, Stirner considers the reply that God makes these causes His own. Stirner retorts that God pursuing these causes as His own is quite different from any of us pursuing those same causes as our own. This is because God is said to be love and to be truth. Thus, when He pursues the cause of truth or love, God is not pursuing an alien cause but His own.

I’d like to consider a question Stirner was not bold enough to ask. Might we be like God?

Your Authority

One way that the analogy can’t work is literal identification of any given person with moral values. Obviously, you are not identical with justice, courage, benevolence, or any other virtue. Nonetheless, your cause might include the cause of these virtues in a subtler way.

To get at that subtler connection, let’s step back and observe something about pursuing your own interests. 

Suppose you’re visiting a friend who lives in Decatur, GA. You mistakenly believe that Decatur is just west of Atlanta, but it’s actually to the east. After flying in, you board public transit to reach your friend. You go westbound, but you should have gone eastbound.

But by what authority “should” you have gone eastbound? 

Well, yours. Your cause involved getting to Decatur, and going westbound frustrated that cause rather than promoting it. If someone corrects you, they do so based on what you were already trying to do.

What I want to highlight about this is that by choosing, your will imposes commands upon itself. Even if you want to go westbound, you should not, because that westbound trip would be mistakenly made in service of a more fundamental activity that requires you go eastbound.

In this case, your will requires going eastbound as an instrumental means – if you want to get to Decatur, then you should go eastbound because that’s the quickest way to get there. However, since it’s merely an instrumental means, the command to go eastbound can be overridden when there’s a better way that involves going westbound. (Perhaps someone with a car is waiting for you there.)

But sometimes your will is not so flexible. Say that you set out to play “Never Meant” by American Football on guitar, but instead play something that sounds like “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Here there is no possible circumstance where playing those notes instead is a better way to play “Never Meant.”

That is because playing the right notes in the right order for the right amount of time is a constitutive means to playing the song, not an instrumental means. Playing the right notes and such is part of what it means to play the song, and so if you are to play it at all, you must play it that way.

Thus, having any cause at all necessarily makes demands of you. Sometimes these demands are quite strict.

There is no authority but yourself, but this does not mean there is no authority. It does not even mean that there is no authority to which you must bow. It means exactly what it says: your own authority is the one to which you must bow.

Your Cause

Perhaps the Stirnerite can concede that your cause imposes limits on itself in the way I’ve spelled out. But so far, those limits have been minimal: if you want to get to Decatur from Atlanta, you need to go east. To play a song, that’s the song you have to play. This doesn’t really have the sound of morality.

However, those examples were just to establish the general point that we take actions in the service of prior projects, and the aims of those prior projects have authority over those lesser actions. If there were some grand project in service of which you took all your other actions, that project could regulate what you do in a way that would be recognizably moral.

In other words, the task here is to figure out just what your cause really is.

On a first pass, the thing that would best qualify for a maximally grand project is “trying to live a good life.” Everything you do is done within your life, and when assessing whether other large projects are worth it, they are assessed by the mark they might leave on your life as a whole.

Much of what matters for “living a good life” is driven by a pursuit of excellence that might not sound paradigmatically “moral.” “Should I go to college?,” you ask yourself. “Yes: I want to be a surgeon, and that requires going to medical school, which requires going to college.” Or perhaps “No: I want to start a business. That doesn’t require a degree, and the time, money, and energy that a degree requires might hold me back.”

But stepping back further, the reason you want to be a surgeon might be that you want to make your money healing others, and this might come from the aim of being a benevolent person. The reason you want to start your own business might be the aim of being an industrious person.

There might be other reasons, of course, but they will often lead to the same place: pursuing a life that can be described in a particular way. 

When you think of the lives you revere, these will frequently be persons you can describe with words like honest, kind, industrious, benevolent, wise, courageous, friendly, and just. In other words, you think of lives that are virtuous.

We seek lives we can take pride in, and thus lives with the virtues we revere in others. And we don’t just want these terms applied to us, we want them to be true about us. 

Once we have the project of living a good life in view, with its ancillary projects of pursuing the various virtues, our authority places significant demands upon us. If you are to be a just person, you must be a person who acts based on what justice requires. Thus, when justice demands you not to injure another person, you demand of yourself not to injure that person.

Morality is not an external force binding your will from the outside. It is the bounds of your will itself.

A Moralist Egoism

This is why I’ve taken pains to refer to the Stirnerite position as one of “amoralist egoism,” rather than just “egoism” simpliciter. The alternative I am offering here is a kind of egoism, too: a moralist egoism.

A moralist egoism solves both problems in my previous posts. It requires no self-sacrifice, just a proper understanding of self-interest, so it is not a system a moral cannibalism. Since the pursuit of our cause makes real moral demands of us, we have moral order, and with it a stable commitment to anarchism.

But as soon as this moralist egoism is on the table, there are serious objections both to its status as a moralism and as an egoism.

Among the objections from unconvinced moralists is that it reduces to a perverse sort of “moral narcissism.” If your reason for helping another person is to stock up on virtue points, it doesn’t seem like you’re really all that benevolent. The truly benevolent person would act on the fact that another person is in need, not their own self-image.

This is true as far as it goes – but once we go that far, we can also see the answer to this objection.

The person who does as virtue requires out of moral narcissism, this objection tells us, is not really virtuous. So, the person who seeks to be virtuous will also seek to cultivate the right motivations, acting first on the pursuit of virtue until by habituation they respond directly to the situation itself.

The properly habituated person is still acting on behalf of their own cause, though: they have shifted their psychology to better pursue their cause. The fact that they are not, in the moment, consciously thinking about the fact that their own cause is the ultimate justification of their action does not mean that it is not the ultimate justification. They just refuse to let this thought become fixed in a way that blocks them from achieving their cause.

Unconvinced egoists will feel that there’s been a slight of hand here. Yes, if your cause is structured by this grand project of “living a good life,” construed in this virtue-ethical way, then sure, you get an egoism that looks very much like moralism. But individuals are unique, and it seems a bit of a leap to say that this holds in any objective way.

One way of answering this challenge might be to follow Aristotelians and say that something about human nature structures our interests in a way that requires virtue. Another might be to follow Kantians and say that there is something about the structure of agency itself that means only certain sorts of ends can be coherently willed.

I suspect something is right about both those answers. However, I’m not going to make either case here.

That’s because the basic challenge here can be answered with much tamer claims.

First, note that objectivity is not the same as universality. If a cup is sitting next to you whether you’re aware of it or not, it’s objectively true that a cup is nearby. It’s not universally the case, though: it’s only true with respect to you that a cup is nearby, not necessarily for anyone else.

Accordingly, all that needs to be true for morality to make objective demands of you is that your cause is properly situated in this way. This might be for Aristotelian reasons, it might be for Kantian reasons, or it might be for some other reason. In any event, if you do pursue living a good life in a way that includes being like persons you revere in recognizably moral ways, morality makes objective demands of you. If you find yourself unshakably seeing your life this way – feeling guilt when you’ve done wrong, resenting others’ wrongdoing in any way beyond personal annoyance, thinking highly of others for their virtue – then those objective demands are unshakable.

Rather than abstract philosophical argument, then, I point again to a method of self-honesty. If you respond to your own actions and those of others in this recognizably moral way, ask yourself whether it seems right to respond in that way. 

If you feel more clear-eyed when engaged in would-be wrongdoing, and more clueless in your later regret, then perhaps there is a case for saying that your cause is not structured in a way that creates moral demands. Perhaps, then, what moral feeling you have is merely a fixed idea holding you back from pursuing your true interests.

Perhaps there is an ideally-coherent Caligula who can take this self-reflection as a confirmation of his amoralism. But I suggest that reflection because it is not true for me, and I suspect it is not true for you.

And just as I suspect it is not true for you, I suspect you suspect it is not true of others you know. 

People are different, often radically so, and this does create variation in morality’s demands. What courage requires of a champion fighter who sees a mugging in progress is likely not what courage requires of me. But it’s unlikely that we are so radically different that “courage” itself is an inapplicable standard for either of us.

Thus, you are safest pursuing your cause by pursuing virtue, and you are unlikely to be engaged in moral cannibalism when applying those standards to others. You know the objectivity of morality by self-examination, and its universality by reasonable inference. 

An Eternal Union of Egoists

A moralist egoism has another advantage for anarchists. This is that our causes converge into an eternal union of egoists, not just those temporary alliances of convenience that a Stirnerite might embrace. 

It’s not just a happy coincidence that we benefit from one another. Rather, it is in my own interest that I refuse to deploy aggression or domination against you, and it is in your own interest that you refuse to deploy aggression or domination against me.

When I am weaker than you, I ask you for freedom because that is in your interest. When I am stronger than you, I fight for your freedom because that is in my interest.

With morality built into the nature of self-interest, our causes are aligned. Human interaction is fundamentally positive-sum, and your freedom is my freedom.

There is no authority but yourself, and that authority extends no further. Anarchy is moral order, and moral order is anarchy.

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The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory