Many problems rear their heads when attempting to establish moral systems. Determining proper criteria, defining rights and wrongs, or establishing a certain degree of objectivity are just some of the rocky surfs on which these different attempts have run aground. As such, it’s unsurprising that we see these very problems in the so-called moralist “egoism” described by Jason Lee Byas in a series of essays written against the idea of Stirner’s applicability to anarchism; essays about Stirner where Stirner’s actual thoughts seem typically misunderstood. Byas’ work — Against Moral Cannibalism, Anarchy is Moral Order, and The Authority of Yourself — represent the latest in a long history of surprisingly similar critiques perhaps all wondering that maybe if they say the exact same thing as their predecessor, this time they’ll get the grab on the Stirnerian Cheshire cat. This is meant to be a grinning response.
The Unconscious Moralist
I am all in all, consequently even abstraction or nothing; I am not a mere thought, but at the same time I am full of thoughts … but I, as I, again devour what is mine, am its master; it is only my view, which at any moment I could change.
The crux of Byas’ argument is simple: Anarchism is moralism and the moralist needs sound moral reasoning to beat the immoral into submission. While ultimately they’ll “have to be able to say that the problem is in the doubter, and their defective reasoning will not lift them above morality,” the moralist still needs to do so by demonstrating that the immoral “have a reason to accept morality’s claims.” Morality must be objectively reasonable, “because if morality has no rational hold over us, it has only whatever social, psychological and physical hold that people give it,” and thus we have “no objective reason to follow it.” Without this objectivity, the enforcement of morality would be what Byas calls moral cannibalism: the moralist enforcer wouldn’t “reject domination per se, just domination practiced by those outside of their chosen gang.” They would be merely “one perspective,” one gang, “among many.”
His focus on objectivity is important because an opponent like the amoralist, i.e. the Stirnerite, someone who “just [wants] to do something, and then [does] it,” poses a unique challenge to a would-be anarchist moral order like the one Byas is proposing. This is what he labels as the amoralist challenge: “Why be moral in those instances where morality has clear costs and ignoring it has clear benefits?”
Byas’ problem is one of hypocrisy: the moral gang operates “in terms of reasons” — set criteria of right and wrong — but if they were to simply uphold their order over and against the amoral, someone who doesn’t accept their reason, well then the moral gang “does not defend itself in terms of reasons.” The brutalized amoral are not objectively wrong, per se, just objectively overpowered. The gang’s existence is a contradiction: acting without an objective reason, it is nothing but an “amoralist in disguise.” The moral can’t feast on their equals — that would be cannibalism! — no, they need them to first be sinners.
But, if Byas can demonstrate that his moral order makes objective demands of the amoralist — how self-interest and morality align — then he also demonstrates “a defect in the amoralist’s reasoning:” he shows how the amoral are objectively immoral (leaving them free game for the moral gang). His aim is thus to demonstrate that his moral order, his anarchism, emerges from our own aims and, in so doing, “makes real moral demands of us.” For Byas, we cannot escape morality; it will come speaking “to [us] in our own voice, even if [we] refuse the call.”
And speak in our own voice it does! In fact, according to Byas, the call was right in front of us the entire time, coming straight out of Stirner’s own mouth, no less — right among the pages of the The Unique and its Property he notes how Stirner, “after rejecting the call to make the cause of truth or love his own … considers the reply that God makes these causes His own.” He then poses “a question Stirner was not bold enough to ask. Might we be like God?”
What’s impressive here is that Byas has seemingly managed to take Stirner’s own argument, water it down, and claim it as his own! He has, quite spectacularly, missed Stirner’s explanation of why love is God’s own (because God is all in all and so love is his property); missed the part where Stirner mocks his Christian caricature for claiming God is all in all (but that he, Stirner, is not); and so missed Stirner’s response (proclaiming boastfully that “I am all in all”)! Stirner wasn’t bold enough to ask if we might be like God? He proclaims it on the same page Byas is quoting! After calling God an egoist, he sounds loudly that he would prefer to be the egoist himself, because if God has enough content to be for himself all in all, Stirner doubts he would lack it any less.
But we’re not done yet, because Byas wants to show how not only can his moral order be our self-interest, it necessarily is, not just for you or me, but nearly everyone! To tackle this gordian knot he points to a simple “method of self-honesty.” If, Byas argues, we are all honest with ourselves, we’ll realize that “feeling guilt when you’ve done wrong, resenting others’ wrongdoing in any way beyond personal annoyance, thinking highly of others for their virtue” all provide the parameters for our moral order. Now, “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.”
Byas’ argument essentially boils down to him assuming that others think like him, view the world as he does, and thus come to similar moral conclusions so long as they’re honest with themselves. If we engage in self-honesty, moral order erupts from our own egoist cause, and thus we “know the objectivity of morality by self-examination, and its universality by reasonable inference.” Thus, Byas’ gang get to be cops, not cannibals, when they enforce their rule.
To say this doesn’t present anything remotely close to a defect in the Stirnerian challenge is an understatement. Byas’ argument is that we are all essentially the same, that while we may differ in some respects, our common essence remains. We are all, consciously or unconsciously, moralist egoists: beings who produce a moralist egoism.
It seems that Byas has taken a page out of Feuerbach’s notebooks. So how about I ask a simple question: should I be that which I am not?
Now, this might seem ridiculous, but let’s draw the argument out. If I am capable of both one thing and another, I am not reducible to the former. If I am capable of both walking and running, I am not reducible to walking; walking is not my essence. I am only what I am in my entirety and to present walking as my essence is to put up only an idea of what I am. As I am also capable of running, to present walking as my essence is not to reveal the true me, but to reduce me, to lose me. I am no more a walking “I” than I am a running “I.” I am only what I am in my all. I am irreducible.
In another sense, if I am sometimes irrational, then I am incapable of pure rationality because I am not purely rational; it is not my reality, and rationality itself cannot be my essence. I am no more reducible to it than I am irrationality. I am myself only in the combination of my unique rationality and irrationality. Absolute rationality — absolute reason — is only an idea second to my rationality, my reason, my own (real) rationale. In the face of absolute reason, I am incapable of absolute reason and it cannot be expected of me. I have no reason to make it my cause. It seems to me that no matter what reason the moral gang puts forward, they will always be cannibals. It will always be their reason, a reason outside of me, rather than one of my own.
See, I may very well produce a perfectly reasonable moral egoism, but the moment I lapse in my commitment, haven’t I ceased producing this particular reason? Even in such a case, my capability to not do so, my capability to sin, is just as much a part of my all as my capability to do right by Byas’ morals; even as a conscious moralist I am still only half-moral. By the simple virtue of my capability to be anything else, feel anything else, my so-called essence evaporates.
Let’s return to Byas’ original question — “Can we be like God?” — and examine what it actually means if the answer is “yes.” Love is God’s own because God is all in all, and so God is love. But when we say “God is love,” does that mean that everything God does is done in respect to love, that God makes love his cause? Byas might have us believe the answer is yes; after all, if love originates in God, it must produce with it a moral order which binds him. So I’ll ask a question of my own: When God drowned Noah’s world, was that love?
I don’t have an answer because I don’t need one. If the Flood was an act of God’s love, it means that God has the power to define for himself what shape his love comes in. If the Flood was not loving, or not wholly loving, it means that God is more than just love and can be unloving or not wholly loving without betraying his cause. In either instance, love is God’s own; it is defined by him, consumed by him, never leaving his grasp. God has based his affair on nothing, his nothing, nothing but himself, and so love, as God’s own, takes on whatever form God may like and is only expressed should God wish to express it. It is God’s unique love and is never more than Him. For God, there is nothing higher than God.
If I, like God, am myself all in all, then anarchism is my property, but it is my unique anarchism, as I am unique, and I am always more than an anarchist. I am not, contrary to Byas’ hopes, essentially an anarchist, a being from whom his anarchist moral order eternally blooms or who, by self-reflection, reveals the anarcho-moralist within them. It of course can, but perhaps only something like it, as any anarchism that does sprout from me is always my own. It is a unique anarchism — a shareable, contestable, personal anarchism and perhaps one very different to the dogma Byas envisions. It, like all ideas within me, is my idea, an idea which I can change. For me, there is nothing higher than me!
Stirner’s self-interest is not limited to notions of frugal benefit, self-gratification, or any one concept in particular. It can be just about anything. It remains fundamentally undefined, unconceptualizable, just like I am undefined, unconceptualizable. I have based my affair on nothing, my nothing, nothing but myself, and so my self-interest is whatever I am interested in, whatever captures my attention. That is, in order for Byas to have answered the amoralist challenge within his own parameters, he must demonstrate how his anarchist morality is within my self-interest — by which I mean that it is interesting to me — at all times. Perhaps this is why he has refused to seriously consider someone with an authentically alien morality to his own: his thesis demands that he deal not with people but concepts.
Je suis anarchiste
I can love, love with all my heart, and let the most consuming glow of passion burn in my heart, without taking the beloved for anything other than nourishment for my passion … how indifferent he would be to me without this.
There is another point around which Byas’ argument orbits that we would do well not to ignore: a question of commitment. More than just demonstrating that egoism can fall in line with his anarchism, Byas wants to demonstrate that it must remain there. As he puts it, “morality [is] a practical necessity for anyone’s anarchism to be a stable commitment.” The problem for Byas is that egoists, in his eyes, are fickle, flippant and unpassionate, and should they not be, “this is because they are moralists. Instinctively, they revolt at the idea that anarchism is yet another phantasm preventing them from achieving their full potential.” The fact of the matter is that for these unconscious moralists, “there is something real that makes it different from their passing attachment to a sports team.”
The assumption, to put it bluntly, is that the removal of the sacred leaves the egoist undependable and insecure; that passionate interest presupposes fixed interest. There can be no real investment in one’s interest, not without making that investment a ruling investment. Anarchy is a usurer paid only in duty or death.
Similar to the inevitable barrage of accusations mistaking anarchy for the lack of any social relations at all, Byas has mistaken the lack of fixity for volatility. But from Stiner’s perspective, there is no talk of “full potential” just as there is no talk of absolute (philosophical) self-interest. Nothing prevents me from adopting full, impassioned interest in any topic; there is nothing here against undivided attention, staunch belief, or self-sacrifice. It is the potential sanctity around these ideas which is not denounced — declared immoral or illicit — but deemed illusory. Byas is simply wrong in his belief that my own ideas are made shallow unless they are imbued with a certain degree of reverence. He has confused my interest in a topic and my reification of it, the authenticity of my interest and that interest’s religiosity.
Neither, by the way, has he actually demonstrated the amoralist’s volatility! He has only rhetorically linked the two, such as by comparing an amoralist’s anarchism to their “passing attachment to a sport’s team.” All he has done is assume — blindly declare — that authenticity entails a kind of virtue ethics. But the fact that Byas has trouble thinking outside of the box doesn’t actually prove his argument. My emotional, intellectual, and personal investment in my interest is not the same as my alienating that interest into a virtue, a fixed-point around which I seek to orbit and validate myself. The validity of my interest comes from my enjoyment of it, my use or engagement with it; I am not validated through it, but rather it through me! My genuine investment in this interest presupposes its alienation, as without this investment, I would have nothing to alienate into a virtue to begin with. Every action I take is authentic to me as no action of mine is alien from me! It is the moralist who needs to demonstrate their authenticity, not the other way around.
I can be convinced utterly of the ‘rightness’ of my beliefs, but that doesn’t stop what I find right from being my right. What’s more, my fanatic anarchism does not leave that anarchism permanent; nor would it be permanent if I proclaimed it sacred.
Byas chooses, for example, to interpret James Walker’s teeth-gritting endorsement of white, working-class violence against Chinese immigrants as a failing in Walker’s commitment to anarchism. The anarchist option, so to speak, was simply less personally beneficial to the immediate benefit for “white workers who feared a threat to their income … ‘just overthrow the existing political and economic order!’ wasn’t an immediate option. Murder was.” So, while Byas agrees that “most Stirnerites will probably stay anarchists, and [that] most of them won’t even have lapses like Walker’s … morality is still a practical necessity for anyone’s anarchism to be a stable commitment.”
But are there really only two solutions to this immediate problem? Pious asceticism awaiting revolution or white, racialized terror? Was there no link an anarchist could have made between real material benefit and the question of greater social change?
Walker’s stance on the matter, in Byas’ view, was simply a lack of commitment to the anarchist virtue. As if, from Walker’s perspective, his anarchism was anything other than as committed as ever? As if, in Walker’s Killing Chinese, he doesn’t crudely justify his stance through the lense of his understanding of anarchism? For Byas, it’s simple: truly committed anarchists either don’t have sinful ideas or they recognize certain ideas as sinful and avoid them. Their thoughts never leave the safe confines of the fully developed Spirit of Anarchy (as understood by the moral gang, of course!). The question now, though, is where this leaves every other anarchist throughout history?
When we read through the lives of others within the anarchist tradition, be it Proudhon, Kropotkin, Bakunin, or Malatesta, change and evolution are the only truly consistent aspects of their thought; even those anarchists who continued to identify as anarchists can hardly be considered to profess the same interpretation throughout their lives. Nor were these interpreters thoroughly without sin! Bakunin and Proudhon are remembered both for their contributions to anarchism as well as their vicious misogyny and anti-semitism, while Kropotkin kept the label for the entirety of his adult life and is notable for supporting Russia in the First World War. Was it that these great figures simply lacked the proper commitment? Was it only belief in the sanctity of anarchism that was necessary to prevent these ideas? This isn’t to say that upholding something as sacred has no effect on one’s investment in an idea, but it is to acknowledge that few more publicly denounced the threat of “Stirnerism” than Bookchin — someone who abandoned the title “anarchist” altogether in favor of his own brand of good government. Even among anarchists, moralists included, their permanence as anarchists is hardly guaranteed. It seems to me that not only is morality not required for a consistent anarchist, it doesn’t do all that fantastic a job of ensuring one in the first place.
Byas’ view of Walker also creates a very problematic understanding of racism. His labeling it as a simple, even rational immorality occurring only in the absence of morality positions racism as if it were a cold, economic calculus made in lieu of virtuosity rather than a deeply permeating material and discursive structure; a worldview, a structure of virtue, heavily ingrained into our society and selves. I point tangentially to the incessant ebb of questions from anarchists new and old wondering why we would ever need a feminist anarchism, isn’t anarchism inherently feminist? But misogyny and racism, unless overtly and loudly eviscerated, are not inherently destroyed by adopting anarchist beliefs; they can quite easily corrupt them instead. Ideas are not only banished by other ideas, they catalyze one another. Let’s not ignore that racism, too, is a spirit, a virtue for the racist. As a great deal of historic anarchists have shown, alienating anarchism as a virtue does not entail freedom from sin and neither is sin as simple as a question of commitment, of piety.
Are we seriously expected to believe that a proclamation of faith, or even present internal consistency, is meant to overpower the general tendency of people’s ideas and living situations to change? Are we to believe that our lived understandings are independent of our living, social experience? That our ideas are not constructed and mediated through one another? Or is it rather that people’s ideas drifting gives Byas’ moral gang the justification they need to deal out the necessary punishment?
Simply put, Byas has put forward a non-issue: theory can no more guarantee people’s allegiance to the spirit of anarchy than we can prevent that shifty spirit’s evolution over time. Professions of faith cannot prevent lapses in faith, while faith is no synonym for real investment. I am no less of an egoist for remaining something my entire life than I am more of an egoist for changing my views with each sunrise. Anarchism can be — and in my case is — a self-interest of mine; it is something I am invested in. The fact that it never escapes the confines of my power — or rather, that it is created only through my power — is not synonymous with disinterest. You cannot assume to know the extent to which any one thought fills my thinking.
Byas’ question of permanence also breaks down his own argument. His unconscious moralism relies on a view where my self-interest produces the virtues that bind me. But the alienation of my interests into my virtues is a product of my power, my reification is a constant process. I am impermanent, my interests are not independent of my world, they are catalyzed by it. Without my world, without my own, I have no interests of any kind. My power, and so my impermanence, produces my faith, not the other way around. If virtue comes from me, and I am subject to change, my virtues cannot guarantee the permanence Byas wants them to.
While we’ll only begin to explore it here, this view has many consequences, not least because an anarchism which is thoroughly our own really begins to change the meaning of anarchism. For that reason, it’s not enough to stop at Byas’ account of Stirner; we need to gnash our teeth against his conception of anarchy.
 The Unique and its Property, Stirner. Pg. 215
 The Unique and its Property, Stirner. Pg. 189